Los Angeles: Adele prevailed over Beyonce at the Grammy Awards Sunday in a battle of two of the industry’s most powerful women. Behind the scenes, the night’s other big winner was a 54-year-old record executive named Rob Stringer.
Stringer is the head of Columbia Records, a 130-year-old label that has been home to Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, and, in recent years, two female singer-songwriters at the top of their game. The label, owned by Sony Corp., has released all three of Adele’s albums in the US, and worked with Beyonce since she was in the R&B trio Destiny’s Child.
Stringer re-signed Adele and Beyonce last year in separate deals, and Sunday night those artists showed their value. Adele, a wry Brit singing rueful tales of past relationships and motherhood, beat Beyonce in all three major categories: song of the year and record of the year, for Hello, and album of the year, for 25. She won five awards in total. Adele is the first artist to sweep the top three prizes more than once, and the second woman to win album of the year twice.
Beyonce, a bold Texan whose album Lemonade chronicles a relationship facing serious tests, took home two prizes—best urban contemporary album and best music video. Beyonce earned the most nominations of any artist, with nine spanning four different genres, as well as audio and video. Even Adele seemed to want Beyonce to win, praising Lemonade in two acceptance speeches.
“Great night for Sony,” said David Bakula, music analyst at Nielsen.
The commercial and critical success of Adele and Beyonce is a big reason Stringer, whose brother was once chief executive officer of Tokyo-based Sony, is being promoted to succeed Doug Morris as the CEO of Columbia’s parent company Sony Music, the world’s second-largest record label. As music companies grapple with the migration of listeners from CDs and iTunes to Spotify and YouTube, Stringer will lean more than ever on the top stars on his roster to bolster a division responsible for $1.5 billion in sales in the most recent quarter.
Adele’s 25 broke the record for most sales in one week upon its debut in November 2015, and ranked as the best-selling album of the year in 2016, according to Billboard. Beyonce came in fourth with Lemonade.
A year after technical difficulties marred her Grammy performance, Adele gave a stunning rendition Sunday night of her hit song Hello—then interrupted her own tribute to George Michael because of sound problems, starting the song Fastlove over again because, as she said, “I can’t mess this up for” the late singer. Beyonce, visibly pregnant with twins, delivered an artsy medley that included Love Drought and Sandcastles.
Another Columbia artist tied Adele for the most award wins of the night: David Bowie, who died last year and had been with the label since 2002.
Bowie’s Blackstar won all five of the awards for which it was nominated, the most of any album. Released two days before Bowie’s death, Blackstar earned the artist his first wins for a specific album. Bowie did win best music video in 1985 and a lifetime achievement award in 2006.
Stringer will take over Sony Music in April, a time of transition for both the music industry and his company. Michael Lynton, who named Stringer to the position, just stepped down as CEO of Sony Entertainment. Sony Corp. is still looking for Lynton’s successor.
Meanwhile, the music industry is adapting to the rise of streaming services Spotify and Apple Music, which offer tens of millions of songs on demand. Royalties from streaming services contributed more revenue than sales of music in stores, physical or online, in the US last year. The growth of these services has boosted music industry revenue two years in a row, the first time that has happened since the peak of CD sales in the late 1990s.
Yet labels are still fighting with streaming services over how much of music should be limited to paying subscribers instead of being available for free, supported by advertising—which isn’t as lucrative for the industry. Services like Pandora, YouTube and Spotify blend free offerings with paid ones.
Most of the top nominees have weighed in, attempting to maximize sales of their latest albums by skipping streaming in some way. Adele and Beyonce initially declined to make their albums available on most services, and Lemonade is still unavailable on Spotify and Apple Music, the two most popular paid streaming services. It is available on Tidal, the service owned by Beyonce’s husband, Jay-Z.
Drake, Rihanna and Chance the Rapper all released their music exclusively on either Apple or Tidal, two services with no free offering, for a brief period.
Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music have begun to charm artists, managers and some record executives with free promotion and listener data. That further challenges record labels, which are wrestling with their place in a world where many top artists can produce their work on their own, promote it with social media and distribute their music via streaming services.
One of the night’s other winners showed just how quickly the music world is changing. In the first year the Recording Academy nominated streaming-only albums, Chance the Rapper took home three awards, including best rap album and best new artist. The Chicago rapper released the gospel-tinged Coloring Book exclusively on Apple Music for a couple weeks before making it available elsewhere—and no major label was involved.
“I know people think independence means you do it by yourself, but independence means freedom,’’ said the artist, whose real name is Chancelor Bennett. Bloomberg