“We’re back!” Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge said to a round of applause, opening the first UMG Grammy week artist showcase in three years due to the pandemic. “A lot has happened in these last three years, but today is about the music.”
UMG’s pre-Grammy artist showcase at Milk Studios has always been about the emerging artists that are coming through the ranks at Universal Music Group in a given year, and the performances are a highly-anticipated event each year. But the pandemic meant that this year’s was the first since 2020, and this edition also included highlights from a series of forthcoming docu-films that the company is set to release.
Grainge spent a few moments in his opening remarks shouting out the artists who were set to perform, as well as those in attendance, which included Elton John, Jon Batiste, Sabrina Carpenter, Yo Gotti, Niall Horan, Fletcher, Ice Spice, Queen Naija and Natalie Jane. “We all know the extraordinary power of music; it touches each of us,” he said. “Music’s power increases in a socially conscious way whenever artists use their talents to promote positive change in our community. When we at UMG employ the vast reach and resources of our company to support our artists in their efforts to promote change, the power of music blossoms even more.”
He then introduced a video that focused on Billie Eilish and her mother’s efforts to address climate change and promote sustainability with her tours and the way she lives her life, as well as UMG’s own efforts to promote sustainability and limit their carbon footprint and waste. Then Grainge introduced Eilish herself, who came out and accepted UMG’s Amplifier Award for her efforts.
“I do as much as I can — I feel like I can always do more — but I feel very impressed and excited that you guys are actually making this a priority and thinking about it and doing your part to support me,” Eilish said while accepting the award. “I would just say I’m really thankful — I feel really seen right now. I spend a lot of my time feeling really anxious because I don’t feel like a lot of people, and especially people in the business, care very much, and it’s really nice to see that this is happening and that you guys do. And I just wanted to say, everyone in this room, we can all do our part. I know a lot of you got some money in your f—in’ pocket, so you can use it for good things and not stupid things,” she added, laughing. She then thanked her mother, and continued, “I’m always trying to think of how to do things in the least wasteful ways possible, and it’s shocking how little I feel that gets reciprocated, and it makes me feel like nobody’s doing anything. So it’s nice to see that you are, and I’m really thankful.”
Then the performances got underway, beginning with Kim Petras, who sang her song “brrr” before bringing out Sam Smith for their chart-topping collaboration “Unholy.” Verve Records artist — and best new artist nominee at this year’s Grammys — Samara Joy then came out to perform a beautifully jazzy “Sweet Pumpkin,” with her vocals taking things to the next level with her trio on stage, and GloRilla hit the stage with highly energetic performances of her songs “Tomorrow” and “FNF.”
Elton John then emerged from the crowd to introduce Stephen Sanchez, a young singer and guitarist signed to Republic Records. John thanked the Universal staff — the label group that he’s been with his entire career — before noting how when he was a young artist he benefited from and valued the support he got from established artists who reached out to him and encouraged him. He then turned his attention to Sanchez, who he compared to Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson. “I am so thrilled to see this boy, at 20 years of age, taking the reins and writing this great song — he’s gonna be a big, big star,” John said. “I really think he’s the bee’s knees.”
Sanchez then played “Evangeline” and “Until I Found You,” two songs with his retro feel, adding that he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to talk on stage instead of just performing — “It feels like I broke into a party I’m not supposed to be at,” he joked — and thanking Elton before walking off to a big ovation. Singer-songwriter Lauren Spencer-Smith got a huge ovation as well, with the crowd audibly gasping at her vocal performances of brand-new, unreleased track “Best Friend Breakup” and her breakout hit “Fingers Crossed.” And Universal Music Latino signee Feid brought a Latin presence to the afternoon, with guitar-rocking performances of “Tengo Fe” — “the song that changed my life while we were in lockdown,” he noted — and “Porfa.”
Def Jam signee Muni Long showcased her powerful vocals and impressive range with the new, unreleased song “Made for Me,” a gorgeous ballad that will be included on her upcoming debut album, which she added she’s still working on, before shimmering on her own breakout hit from last year, the sultry “Hrs and Hrs.” And TDE/Capitol artist Doechii wowed those in attendance with a breathlessly insistence dance set of “Persuasive” and “Crazy” that packed raw energy into every second of her performance.
The show didn’t just contain performances, but was also an opportunity for Universal to preview three new documentaries that it will be releasing in the coming months, including Love to Love You, a Donna Summer doc directed by her daughter, Brooklyn Sudano, as well as Roger Ross Williams, that will arrive on HBO in May, and a Paul McCartney documentary directed by Morgan Neville focusing on his post-Beatles career in the 1970s, when he had to reinvent himself with his solo work and his band Wings, that is called Man on the Run and will be released in 2024.
Batiste was also on hand to speak about an upcoming documentary that follows his life for the past year, called American Symphony, that explores the emotional highs of his big Grammy wins last year, when he took home album of the year, and the devastating lows of his wife’s cancer battle, a film that he says became about a lot more than he originally envisioned while he worked on his next musical project.
“Making things is difficult. Being an artist is vulnerable process, it’s a vulnerable existence. It takes so much to express the truth of how you feel, where you’re from, to connect to the universal humanism, humanity, that everyone has from the beginning of time until now,” Batiste said, also praising director Matthew Heineman. “It’s like you’re connected to a source that exists on a plane that you can’t see but we can all feel. It’s just as real as this table, just as real as anything. And I really believe the process of that is a messy process. You gotta scrap with it a little bit. You gotta roll around. You gotta get a handle on it. I wanted to make a film that captured the process of it all — a lot of unprecedented moments in my life over this year, highs and lows, intense highs and very intense, near tragic, lows.”
The showcase ended with a surprise set from Shania Twain, whose new album Queen of Me came out this past week. The Canadian icon performed a stripped down “You’re Still the One” and an abbreviated honky tonk “That Don’t Impress Me Much” — complete with a tweak of a lyric to “OK, so you’re Lucian Grainge” — before grabbing an acoustic guitar for “Honey I’m Home.” Twain’s appearance capped an afternoon of star-studded performances, showcasing that UMG has another new crop of young stars with bright futures ahead.
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