"The record business has always been a business of executives worrying more about being embarrassed by the competition than doing the right thing or making revolutionary business decisions."


He May Have Transformed Himself Into a Vocal Proponent for Artists’ Rights, but Let’s Face It, He’s Still Irving

He was a super manager in the ’70s, the head of a major-label group in the ’80s and a self-proclaimed entrepreneur in the ’90s. Now Irving Azoff has gone back to his managerial roots—and this time around, he’s taken on the rather unlikely role of "artist-rights advocate." That said, anyone surprised by the latest incarnation of this always-controversial music-industry chameleon doesn’t know Irving Azoff. David Adelson spoke with the 2002 model.

Why is Irving Azoff putting in so much time on behalf of the Recording Artists Coalition?
Because I suck at golf.

So your golf game is responsible for what some perceive as an assault on the labels?
First of all, that perception is wrong. The seven-year statute just happens to be the first issue to come up—and it’s the one where the artists and record companies are at odds. On just about everything else, they’re going to be on the same side. So, hopefully, the record companies will come to their senses sooner rather than later, and we can move on to more important things.

Future harmony notwithstanding, you and the RAC seem to be taking on the traditional music industry.
One reason I got out of the record business is because the old, traditional record model is dead. The reality is that the business has changed drastically, but the multinationals insist on hanging on to outdated business models that can’t possibly survive. Change is unstoppable. The major labels are clinging to a past dictated by huge CD profits pre-Internet that primarily existed because they got away with grossly underpaying artists on a black-vinyl rate for CD. So there were all these CD profits, and the big boys swooped in and bought all the great, historic, artist-friendly, independent labels, i.e., A&M, Geffen, Interscope, Island, Chrysalis, etc., and then even PolyGram. The multinationals rationalized these purchases based on growing cash flows that don’t exist anymore. They are busy trying to defend failed business plans. If we wiped out the entire business and started over today, it wouldn’t look anything like it currently does.

At this stage of the RAC’s activity in Sacramento, people are saying you are the one pulling the strings—and that all RAC moves go through you. Are you the master manipulator behind the RAC?
That’s total bullshit. It’s called a "coalition" for a reason. Anyone stupid enough to suggest anything else is probably stupid enough to pay for a HITS subscription. Don Henley, Jim Guerinot, John Branca, Jay Cooper, Simon Renshaw and many, many others have been very active, key players in everything the RAC does. They just keep me around for my ability to create harmony and tranquility. Do you have any intelligent questions to ask?

So specifically, why are you in favor of repealing the amendment to the seven-year statute as it pertains to recording artists?
The law, as it currently stands, doesn’t work for artists, and it doesn’t work for record companies. In the old days, when people signed seven-, eight- or even 10-album deals, people were delivering one or two albums a year. The reality now is that by the time you experience life, write about it, record it, distribute it, market it and travel the world to promote it, it’s at least a two-year cycle.

So let’s say Henley is paid $10 million for a five-album deal at Warner Bros. And at the end of seven years, he’s only delivered three albums. Doesn’t the record company have the right to collect damages?
First of all, Don wouldn’t sign for anywhere near that low of a number. So don’t insult him…or me. In reality, Don signed for three albums and Warner Bros. realized when they signed Don that he was also an Eagle. They specifically built into his deal the understanding they weren’t going to get a flow of Don Henley albums if he was busy making Eagles albums as well.

What about the issue of tacking, where the labels can begin a seven-year term again when a deal is renegotiated?
I’ve been very vocal about this, and not everyone in our group—managers, lawyers, unions and artists—agrees with me. This law doesn’t work because it currently doesn’t allow tacking. I think the labels deserve tacking. Take an artist like Christina Aguilera, who was signed when she was 17 years old. She’s now 21 and about to deliver her second record. Without tacking, why would a label give her a new deal, if they’re only going to have her for one more record.

So you’ve encountered some resistance to your stance on tacking?
There are people on my side who don’t want to give tacking. I believe tacking is fair to the artist and to the record companies. The damages go away. We give them tacking. It’s a simple solution. It reflects what’s fair in the business right now with the number of albums an artist can put out in seven years.

In 1987, as MCA Music Group Chairman, you reportedly sent a letter endorsing the amendment to the seven-year statute. Was there such a letter?
Yes. Again, it was a different time in the business, so if I supported it then. I certainly wouldn’t now. Our position at MCA was not to do anything to try to get more of an upper hand against artists. That wasn’t the culture of Lew Wasserman’s company. In 1987, we were told by lawyers and the legal eagles at the RIAA that, without the amendment, if an artist left the label at the end of seven years without delivering records, an injunction could be obtained that prevented them from signing with another label. I was told that the 1987 amendment would prevent an artist from being enjoined. Yes, there could be a damage claim, but no, you could no longer enjoin an artist for leaving after seven years. I was also told—and this was Don Engel bullshit—that an artist would test it very quickly and abolish the damages issue. Frankly, no one believed that a label was entitled to damages, and there would be a legal precedent established in a very short period of time that would wipe out any damages.

Are you telling me that, in 1987, Irving Azoff was bullshitted into supporting the amendment?
I was told, "This is the best you’re going to get, and it’s better for artists than the pre-1987 law." I believed it to be true then. What I could not have predicted is that, since 1987, the labels would collude among themselves—probably illegally—to not sign artists at the end of seven years. You’ve got to remember, I had just taken Boston from Walter Yetnikoff. Would I have signed the letter now? Not without it eliminating damages.

Why are people at the labels not being vocal about opposing the repeal of the seven-year statute amendment?
I really believe that everyone, from the heads of the labels on down, realizes we are right. That said, they work for conglomerates whose heads have not spent a minute in the business, and don’t understand the business. I think the only support these people at the labels can give us is to not speak up too loudly. Many of my friends, who are senior executives at labels, agree with us 100%.

As I understand it, the RAC rails at the term "compromise" on the seven-year statute.
Not true at all. Ironically, when the labels didn’t volunteer a compromise quickly and easily, it forced artists to organize themselves for the first time. Now they are organized and have a war chest of money. Once this issue is behind us—and I believe it will be—we will be able to deal with other areas of the business that need to be addressed…and we will end up agreeing on many issues. There are a lot more important things to do. The good news is that artists are finally organized.

So do you support a compromise on the issue of the seven-year statute?
Look, nobody on our side said we opposed a compromise. We just said we weren’t going to become tools of the RIAA and lie to the legislators in Sacramento by saying there were ongoing discussions of a settlement—when in fact there aren’t. For representatives of the other side to say, "Oh, there are conversations going on," is bullshit. I’ve been told that two or three of the label groups would like to get this settled quickly and easily, but one or two have said, "No compromise." I’ve yet to see anyone from the label side offer to sit down and offer anything concrete.

So who from the RIAA will finally come up with something substantive?
The RIAA is not Hilary [Rosen] and her staff. It’s Hilary, her staff and the heads of the five conglomerates. I doubt whether Hilary with good intentions or David Altschul with good intentions, or for that matter, Roger Ames with good intentions, could get anything done. It won’t be until Roger’s, Doug Morris’ and Tommy Mottola’s bosses are aboard on all this.

Some people believe Zach Horowitz is steering the ship.
Well, Zach appears to be the guy at Vivendi they’ve assigned this to. And Vivendi happens to be the biggest record company in the world. So he’s certainly driving the biggest ship.

What do you think his position is?
I believe Zach’s views are less liberal on this issue than anyone else I’ve spoken to on the record-company side. That not withstanding, Zach gets a bad rap for being a really a hard, cold, tough guy. I know Zach for being this big, lovable kind of guy. It just so happens that his opinions on this are like he’s the most Republican member of the Supreme Court.

Did you hire Zach at MCA?
I hired Myron Roth. Myron brought Zach in. I tried to ruin Zach’s reputation for years, but somehow he survived.

On the issue of accounting—are the labels systematically and fraudulently ripping off their artists?
All I know is that I read in the L.A. Times some auditor said he did 3,000 audits and in 2,998 of them, the artist was underpaid. You draw your own conclusion.

So straight out, Irving, is your conscience clean about your time as the head of a label when it comes to accounting practices and the treatment of artists?
No. That’s one of the reasons I left. Look back at what I said when I left. I said, "I’m leaving with the #1, 2 and 3 records in the country, but I’ve become a traffic cop for lawyers and accountants." If you read between the lines, what does that mean? Did I come out and say, "I don’t like the way we do business"? No. Look, there are business traditions. There was no way that one guy, whether it was me at MCA then, or Zach Horowitz at Vivendi now—even if he wanted to—could change time-honored accounting traditions in the record business. The record business has always been a business of executives worrying more about being embarrassed by the competition than doing the right thing or making revolutionary business decisions.

Let’s play the name game.
You’re so fucking predictable.

Jeff Kwatinetz.
Reminds me of me in the early days—driven to conquer a bunch of different areas in the business. I applaud him for it. He has incredible energy and he’s been on a great roll. And when he opens his mouth, he says what he wants to say.

John Branca.
What I admire most about him is that he quietly sits and surveys the situation until he figures it out. John’s a man of few words, but the words are always right-on.

Allen Grubman.
The greatest dealmaker the record business has ever seen. And I’ve yet to see any evidence the man can read or write.

Bob Morgado.
The man who ruined the best record company in the music business. What I look forward to most during my Spring trips to Maui with Terry Semel is the chance of running into that asshole, so I can punch him.

Why did everyone make such a big stink about the recent New York Times article?
First of all, [the writer] Laura Holston is a hack. She got me on the phone by telling me she was doing an article on Tim Leweike. Then, halfway through the conversation, she said, "By the way, this article is not about Tim, it’s about you." I then hung up. She basically got out a copy of Hit Men, which we all know is a work of fiction, and took a 20-year-old picture and ran a bunch of quotes that I made about Joe Walsh breaking hotel rooms. That was the story. In reality, the story was inspired by the fact that she once did a kill piece on Ethan Penner, my buddy from Nomura Real Estate, and was desperately worried that Ethan and I were going to do some Wall Street deal that she wasn’t going to have the scoop on. Most of what was in there was bullshit.

Speaking of Hit Men, have you ever forgiven Fredric Dannen?
Forgiven Fredric Dannen? It’s not about forgiving him. I basically felt that Hit Men was a work of fiction and, if one could read it as a work of fiction, it was fine. But unfortunately, a lot of people thought that it was an accurate portrayal of what went on, which it wasn’t. Ironically, I don’t really have a bio, so when people ask me for one, I send them a copy of Hit Men, since I don’t really give a shit what they think, anyway.

OK, so what was the real Sal Pisello story?
Here it is: I walked into the Palm Restaurant one day and that hoodlum Gigi—who now probably owns the place—introduces me to Sal Pisello sitting on a stool at the end of the bar. I couldn’t get by him. The guy tells me he has some tapes or something. I tell him to send them to Myron Roth. The next thing I know, Zach Horowitz has pissed off Pisello, the government and every Communist in the world, and we were embroiled in God knows what. That’s the story and I’m sticking by it.

Why don’t you retire? You have more money than God.
No, David Geffen has more money than God, and he’s not married to Shelli. Look, I’m enjoying this stint as a music manager. These are tumultuous times, and I have a chance to define what a management company can be in a consolidated business. I think I’m really making a difference in the careers of a lot of artists, and that’s enough to keep me doing this for at least another five to 10 years.