The latest in a series of excerpts from Michael Sigman’s Field Notes From a Music Biz Life
In early 1973, shortly after I took over as editor of Record World, a mysterious package from our Latin American Headquarters in Miami—aka the apartment of our one employee in that city—appeared on my desk. I opened it to find a jumble of single-spaced typewritten pages, a small stack of checks, photos of Nelson Ned, Tito Puente, and other Latin luminaries, a wad of cash, a Fania Records logo, and a slew of crude ad layouts. The copy, which bore the introduction, "First in Spanish and then in English," was a collection of sentence fragments, typos and randomly placed exclamation points (something about "a concert! At Madison! Square Garden").

A jolt of anxiety seized my gut and zigzagged brainward; there was no way to make this publishable. I relaxed a little when Sid, our co-owner, arrived just before noon in good form—in other words, not drunk. I hoped he’d agree to send the mess back to Miami and demand a do-over, but his sober response made me wish I were drunk: He rummaged through the checks, stuffed the cash in his pocket, and said, "It’s a special. Run it."

At that time Record World was only marginally profitable, and Sid never looked a gift horse in the mouth, regardless of what tongue that mouth spoke.

Unlike Billboard, which had a large base of international subscribers and strong newsstand sales, the vast majority of our revenue came from advertising by just a handful of major labels—CBS, WEA (Warner/Elektra/Atlantic), MCA, RCA and Capitol—and a dozen or so indies, including A&M, Roulette, Brunswick, Buddha and Bell.

And there was more than money at stake.

Ads made us look good. A thick book (that’s what we call magazines in the business - a book) larded with lush four-color spreads—featuring album covers that were often themselves works of art --broadcast success, which bred more success. More important, we purported to tell the story of what was happening in the trade, and trade ads were unfiltered signifiers of who was hyping what and how aggressively.

With Lenny’s revolution in the charts making some labels see red, we had to broaden our ad base to stay out of the red. We doubled down on that time-honored trade magazine cash cow, the special issue.

Except for a higher print bill, a little extra in mailing, and increased sales commissions, it cost roughly the same to produce a 128-page special as a 64-page regular issue, with two or three times the revenue. The pressure from Sid to do more and more of them was fierce and relentless.

Our most reliable special, the summer "Annual," was an ode to tedium. It was nearly as thick as Vogue’s Fall Fashion issue, but there were no stunning supermodels in fabulous clothes. Instead, readers could feast on the names and addresses of thousands of rack jobbers, one-stops, distributors and other components of an industry infrastructure that few, including most of our own writers, understood or cared about.

What saved our Annuals from drowning in minutiae were the covers, such as this Norman-Rockwell-with-a-twist gem from art director David Skinner:

With no clear plan, we stumbled from special to special, choosing subjects because we thought we could pitch ads around them—Packaging! Women in Music! The Midnight Special TV show! The content tended to be puffery and the ads were tough sells. You might think it was groovy that lots of women were having hits, but why would you need to advertise about it?

The turning point, both editorially and financially, was our 10th Anniversary tribute to The Who in November, 1974.

That we were chosen to tell the story of my favorite band seemed too good to be true. What it took to tell that story nearly broke me.

My obsession with The Who began in 1964-65 when I was 15 and their singles "I Can’t Explain" and "My Generation" explained why it was impossible to explain my generation to myself, let alone my parents.

The perfectly interlocking musical personalities of the four members—the funny looking/rebellious/guitar-smashing leader/songwriter Pete Townshend, the great-looking/passionate/golden boy vocalist Roger Daltrey, the brilliant, enigmatic bassist John Entwistle and the gloriously chaotic drummer Keith Moon—were the very illustration of a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.

The Who’s subsequent string of ’60s hits—"Happy Jack," "The Kids Are Alright," "I Can See for Miles," "Pictures of Lily"—were as essential to my teenagery as my basketball jones, my guy friends and my lack of girlfriends. Their 1967 concept album The Who Sell Out, was a hilarious, prescient masterpiece of satire on consumer culture.

By the time I graduated from college and started at Record World in the summer of ’71, the ’60s were gone and Carole King’s Tapestry had become the founding document of the era of the softer singer/songwriter. Who’s Next, released that August, was a defiant cry that The Who hadn’t sold out and that biting, meaningful rock ’n’ roll was alive and kicking out the jams.

Who’s Next was an astonishing record, but The Who were at their core a live band, and their performance at Forest Hills Stadium that summer was the most thrilling show I’d ever seen.

A burst of rain threatened to cancel the concert, but the skies cleared and the group blasted through one masterpiece after another, building to an overwhelming "Magic Bus" that would have blown the roof off the place if the place weren’t outdoors. Townshend put an anti-ribbon on the proceedings by smashing not just one but two guitars, after which he decimated those instruments with a third piece of equipment.

Needless to say, no encore was necessary—or, given the destruction on display, even possible.

Record World’s West Coast Ad VP Spence Berland, a transplanted New Yorker and a natural salesman who could get you to buy an ad even if you didn’t want one and had no money, convinced The Who’s brain trust to give us exclusive rights to publish a special commemorating the group’s 10th anniversary.

Quite a coup, considering Billboard’s international reach. He also enlisted MCA Records, the Who’s label, to help us garner "Congrats" ads from the band’s friends and associates. The resulting ad bonanza meant we’d have lots of room for editorial coverage, a good thing because there was a big story to tell. It also guaranteed a boatload of extra work and anxiety for me and our skeleton staff.

Putting out the weekly magazine—and dealing with industry politics—was stressful enough to have given me anxiety attacks, bouts of insomnia and nasty lower back pain.

Knowing that my workload would spike for the next couple months added a simmering anger to the mix. I was angry at the gods for making me work so hard, angry at Sid for not paying me and the writers better, and angry at Spence, who, working on commission, earned more than the top three editors combined. I was mad at our writers for expecting me to be nice to them while I was doubling their workload without bumping up their salaries.

Anxiety and anger notwithstanding, we threw ourselves into producing an issue worthy of The Who. I was too consumed with planning and editing to interview my heroes, but between our New York, L.A. and London editors—and Who experts including John Swenson, Marty Cerf, Greg Shaw and Binky Phillips—we got the scoop from the band members and their key friends and associates.

The trick in avoiding hagiography in a special was finding the quirk. Here, that was easy—Keith Moon was the quirk that kept on quirking. We wrote about the time he got arrested for a gold bullion robbery because, well, because he was Keith Moon. (He didn’t do it.) One advertiser was thinking of Keith when he wrote, "without whom Holiday Inns and Remy Martin may never have survived...doesn’t time pass quickly when you’re having fun."

This year, of course, is The Who’s 50th anniversary. One wonders what Pete Townshend, who famously wrote in "My Generation," "Hope I die before I get old," would say about this quote from his RW interview: "The great thing about rock is that it makes you feel young." Or what Roger Daltrey would think of this remark: "There’s no chance of us ever breaking up."

The Who will embark on an epic "Who Hits 50" tour next spring. If they make another record, they ought to call it, Who’s Counting?

The issue had to go to press on Friday afternoon in order to make the Post Office in time for Monday delivery. The 72 hours before that deadline were pure hell.

Our associate editor Howie Levitt—a terrific person and a fine editor with whom I shared a Long Island upbringing, a love of sports and a post-hippie sensibility—and I spent nearly every one of those hours at Dispatch Press, our printer, whose desolate location in Hoboken, New Jersey—when Hoboken wasn’t cool—reflected my mood.

Our writers had killed themselves to get their copy in on time, but Sid insisted we keep the ad window open till the very last minute, which was good for the bottom line but torture for Howie and me.

With more ads pouring in—which taxed our art department to its limits—I couldn’t finalize the page count, and we ended up laying out—and re-laying out—hundreds of pages, using the primitive implements available to us at the time: cutting out reams of paper galleys with scissors, then Scotch Taping them to cardboardish "dummy" sheets.

The irresistible force of Sid was matched by the immovable object of Ray Stein, who ran Dispatch and, as Wednesday turned to Thursday, began to freak out. Ray was a solid guy, and when he warned me that if I didn’t start feeding him pages, he simply wouldn’t get the magazine out on time, I believed him.

Sid argued that Ray was crying wolf, but Sid had never once been to Dispatch and didn’t know what he was talking about. Shaking with rage, I told him that our production crew and proofreaders were on their way and I didn’t have pages to give them. I told him it was panic time.

Sid relented and though it wasn’t pretty we broke our backs to make deadline. Another hour and someone would have had to arrest me for verbal abuse. Another two hours and murder might have been a more appropriate charge.

The special hit the streets on Saturday and turned out fine. No, it turned out wonderfully. By Monday afternoon we’d learned that everyone connected was happy with it. My state of mind—and the tone around the office—had swung from angst to relief. More important, we were proud of what we’d accomplished.

Before leaving for the day, Howie gently pointed out that he and other staffers felt I had been uncharacteristically short with them while we were on deadline. I knew that was an understatement and felt awful about it, but instead of apologizing, I played the victim. The pressure had been on me, I said, and everyone should get off my case.

I recalled that that my anger had found another undeserving target when a publicist called to say she was coming over to deliver a press release. I screamed, "Who cares?" I thought about renaming the special, Who Cares?

The Who issue wasn’t just a turning point for Record World. It was a turning point for me. I learned lessons that would make future issues run more smoothly, including being more assertive with both Sid and Ray, but the deepest lesson was how wrong it was to take my frustrations out on others—especially the people who worked for me. I haven’t always heeded that lesson, but I’ve never stopped trying.

Next Time: More on specials—adventures with Elton John, The Bee Gees, Barry White, et al.
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