Warner Music Group (WMG) is a multinational entertainment and record label company with headquarters in New York City. Warner is one of the big three recording companies and the third-largest in the music industry worldwide, after Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment. It’s a former part of Time Warner, now known as WarnerMedia.
Warner Music Group was publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange when it announced its sale and privatization to Access Industries. It had a second IPO in 2020, making WMG a public company. Tencent also owns a minority stake to the company. WMG employs more than 3,500 people and has operations around the world in more than 50 countries.
WMG owns and operates some of the largest and most successful labels in the world, such as:
- Warner Records
- Atlantic Records
- Elektra Records
- Parlophone Label Group
- Rhino Entertainment
- Warner Music Nashville
Since 2011, Stephen Cooper is the CEO of Warner Music Group. He replaced Edgar Bronfman Jr., who became chairman of the company.
Warner music operates via two business segments:
Recorded music – includes marketing, sale, and licensing of recorded music in different digital and physical formats. This segment also provides various artists services like management, merchandising, and sponsorships.
Music publishing – comprises the acquisition and ownership of music rights, as well as the commercialization and exploitation of these rights.
Warner Music traces back its history to the establishment of Music Publishers Holding Company in 1929 by Jack Warner, the then-president of Warner Bros. Pictures. It was established to acquire music copyrights as a means of providing inexpensive music and score for films.
The company expanded its music industry interests in 1958 when Warner Bros. Records was founded. Back then, Warner Bros. film studio had no record label division at the time, and they scored a hit song in 1957 recorded by Dot Records, a division of its rival company Paramount Pictures. To prevent any repetition of actors recording for its rival companies and capitalize on their own music, the Warner Bros. recording company was created.
In 1963, Warner acquired Reprise records, which was founded by Frank Sinatra. Warner Bros. was sold to Seven Arts Productions in 1967, forming Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. After that, they purchased Atlantic Records and its subsidiary Atco Records. The ownership of Atlantic, Atco Records, and its affiliate Stax Records helped Warner rise to prominence in the music industry. The acquisition brought in a lucrative back-catalog to the company, which included classic recordings from reputable artists from the 50s to 60s, such as Ray Charles, the Coasters, the Drifters, and many more. In the late 60s to 70s, Atlantic moved into rock and pop, signing major American and British acts in the process.
In 1969, Kinney National Company bought the Warner Bros.-Seven Arts company. In the 1970s, the Kinney group bought Elektra Records and its sister label Nonesuch Records, bringing in leading rock acts of the generation. By this time, the “Seven Arts” moniker was dropped from the Warner Bros. company name.
With the Elektra acquisition, the next step was to establish an in-house distribution arm for the co-owned labels, because the company’s current distributors back then reached a breaking point. The in-house distribution arm was initially called Kinney Record Group International, changing the company’s name to Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, or WEA for Short.
The Kinney Music of Canada was renamed as WEA Music of Canada. It became the new Canadian branch of the WEA company, which is a division of Warner Communications. The name was retained until 1989 when it became Warner Music Canada Ltd., a subsidiary of Warner Music International. Warner Bros. also established a new subsidiary, Casablanca Records, but it became independent of Warner Bros. several years later.
In 1971, the Warner labels entered into a partnership with the British branch of CBS records to distribute Warner-Reprise products in the United Kingdom. This was undertaken as a cooperative venture and not a formal business partnership. However, the arrangement became a major blow to Warner’s previous British manufacturer Pye Records.
In 1972, WEA acquired another recording company, David Geffen’s Asylum Records. It brought in several acts that became crucial to the later success of Warner Group.
Warner became a leader in digital media when it acquired the Atari computer company and The Franklin Mint Company in 1976 and 1981, respectively. The company also became a trailblazer in visual music by creating and co-owning MTV with American Express. In the following years, Warner quickly divested many of their recent purchases. WEA formed Pacific Records for their composers in 1977 and had Atlantic Records as the label’s distributor.
WEA established WEA manufacturing in 1986. By 1990, Warner Communications has merged with Time Inc., forming Time Warner. After the merger, WEA continued to buy independent labels worldwide.
During the 1990s, Time Warner became the largest media company globally, with assets over $20 billion. By 1995, its music division dominated the music industry in the US, gaining a 22% share of the domestic market.
WEA was renamed Warner Music in 1991. Atlantic launched new subsidiary labels in the early ’90s: Interscope Records and East West Records.
The ’90s also saw a dramatic expansion for Warner. In 1994, Seagram bought a 14.5% stake in Time Warner, and its publishing division acquired CPP/Belwin, making them the world’s largest publisher of printed music and world’s largest owner of song copyrights. In 1996, Time Warner took over the Turner Broadcasting System, which by then included New Line Cinema, Turner cable TV network, CNN, and Castle Rock Entertainment. These acquisitions brought considerable profits to the Warner Group.
During that decade, the company also faced one of the most serious public relations crises in history and a “virtual civil war” between its senior staff and management, leading to a departure from trusted corporate executives. Power struggles and upheavals at Warner became beneficial to its rival companies, who picked up valuable executives who left the company. The most notable one was the departure of Doug Morris to join MCA Music Entertainment Group, leading him to oversee its reorganization into Universal Music Group, which is now the world’s largest record company.
In 2000, Time Warner merged with internet service provider AOL to form AOL Time Warner. However, the dot-com crash’s effects plummeted AOL’s stock value and profits, leading Time Warner to drop AOL from its business name by 2003.
In 2004, Time Warner sold Warner Music Group to a group of investors led by Edgar Bronfman Jr. to reduce its debt load. The transition to independent ownership caused Time Warner to have no ownership in the Warner Music Group.
In 2006, Warner Music Group signed a licensing deal with YouTube. Under the deal, WMG was able to handle advertising sales for its artists’ music videos on YouTube and partake in revenue sharing. Warner sold its digital music without digital rights management through AmazonMP3 in 2007. WMG also joined several major labels to make investments in the then-new music streaming service Spotify in 2008. By 2012, Warner was one of the last major labels to sign with Google’s music service, and also one of the last to reach an agreement with Spotify.
In 2010, WMG partnered with MTV Records to allow MTV to sell ads on WMG’s premium content. The next year, Stephen Cooper became CEO of Warner Music to replace Edgar Bronfman Jr.
WMG was sold to Access Industries, a conglomerate controlled by billionaire Len Blavatnik, for $3.3 billion in cash in 2011. The purchase was completed by July 2011, and the company became private. In 2013, Warner purchased Parlophone, along with EMI Classics and its regional labels from Universal Music Group.
In the later years, Warner Music Group focused on international expansion by acquiring record labels from Russia, China, India, Indonesia, Finland, Slovakia, and launching a division in the Middle East.
In 2020, WMG planned an IPO of the current investors’ stock but withdrew its IPO just before March 2 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, it completed its IPO on Nasdaq, making the company a publicly-traded company again. Tencent – a Chinese conglomerate that owns 10% of the shares in Universal Music Group – purchased 1.6% of the shares of the company. This makes Sony Music the only major music company not directly owned by a Chinese company.
Warner Music Group owns or has owned the rights to a wide range of music content from high profile artists including:
- Amy Grant
- Aretha Franklin
- Art Garfunkel
- The Beatles
- Bee Gees
- Bette Midler
- Blake Shelton
- Bill Haley and His Comets
- Bob Sinclar
- Bruno Mars
- The Corrs
- Charlie Puth
- The Chemical Brothers
- Chaka Khan
- Daft Punk
- David Bowie
- The Doobie Brothers
- Ed Sheeran
- Eric Clapton
- Fleetwood Mac
- The Four Seasons
- Frank Sinatra
- Green Day
- James Ingram
- James Taylor
- Jimi Hendrix
- Josh Groban
- Johnny Cash
- Kelly Clarkson
- The Kinks
- Kylie Minogue
- Led Zeppelin
- Linkin Park
- Matchbox Twenty
- Michael Buble
- Phil Collins
- Rod Stewart
- Van Halen
- Van Morrison
- Whiz Khalifa