"The reason Warner was successful was because of what it once was—everybody from the top down was on the side of the artist."
——Stan Cornyn
An exclusive hitsdailydouble.com dialogue with Stan Cornyn
For more than 30 years, Stan Cornyn was the "voice" of Warner Bros. and Reprise Records. The company’s image-setting print advertisements—offering free Topanga Canyon dirt in conjunction with a Neil Young album; lamenting that the company had "lost $35,509.60 on ‘The Album of the Year’" (by Van Dyke Parks)—were created either by him or under his supervision. Cornyn also penned breezy, literate liner notes—two of them Grammy winners—for albums by many of the labels’ highest-profiled artists, like Frank Sinatra, Petula Clark and Sammy Davis Jr. Joining the nascent WB label upon its founding after a brief tenure at Capitol, Cornyn became the label’s editorial director and head of creative services. He eventually rose to the office of Sr. VP of Warner Communications, with duties including the supervision of an ahead-of-its-time new media department. Along the way, he served under founding President Jim Conkling, who’d earlier guided Capitol and Columbia to great success; as well as Conkling’s successor, another Capitol alumnus, Mike Maitland.

Cornyn’s just-published Exploding: the Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group (HarperEntertainment) was written with the assistance of former Rolling Stone editor Paul Scanlon. Somewhere between a "how-to" of the record business and informal memoir, Exploding follows the history of all three major labels in the Warner Entertainment group, plus most of their subsidiaries. It starts with studio chief Harry Warner’s purchase of various music publishers (Remick, Harms-Witmark) in 1928, and then the corporation that owned Brunswick Records two years later. Brunswick soon failed under the Warner regime; the studio didn’t re-enter the record business until 1958 under Harry’s brother, Jack.

Cornyn has also established a website that—among other thingsgives fellow WEA alumni an opportunity to trade addresses and stories, as well as offer corrections to the author’s own memory and research.

HITS’ own industry vet, "Big Head" Todd Everett—Instamatic in one hand, tape recorder in the other (and apparently steering with his knees)—motored past the polo fields of Upper Carpinteria, where he caught Cornyn seated among a backdrop of computers in his home media center.

The book began as a project for WEA’s 25th anniversary.
[WEA PR guy] Jerry Sharell called me to write a history and I told him I was retired. My reaction to them was, "Look, I can’t do an accurate history of WEA distribution... I mean, ‘The romance of the changing price of cardboard...’ I said, "How about the whole thing, going back to Jack Warner starting a label, Ahmet Ertegun starting a label… the history of the Warner Music Group?" I was then paid to write a book, which was never published.

How come?
It went to galleys, but there was a real concern from management, who didn’t want bad publicity [in the light of recent management restructuring]. I’m told it was Bob Daly, who was the head of movies and music, who said, "You know, we don’t really need this right now." What [the research] did was allow a lot of interviews, and enabled me to sort the story out in my mind. This book benefited from a huge amount of research. Did I have documents? Sure, I had annual reports; I had all sorts of stuff. I also had a research project from earlier than that…back in the ’60s. I decided to compile our history at that point. Ellen Pelissero interviewed a lot of people, and we were able to go into the archives and get a lot of old memos, which was a real bonanza for me. By the time it came to do Exploding, all I had to do was write it. In fact, I only did one new interview. It was Jac Holzman, who I already had lots of stuff on, and I wanted to get more on Paul Rothchild. I decided to do a formal chronology, with flashbacks. I took it from a Burbank standpoint, which is my standpoint: going up until Atlantic was acquired by Seven Arts, then going back to the history of Atlantic; then bringing in Elektra when Kinney picked them up. The first 20 years of Elektra were noble, but not hit-filled. There was some serious editing. I estimate that 50 or 100 pages went away, even though it’s still a long book.

You were a misfit in the early years at Warner Bros.
I came from a white, protestant small-town. My mother was a Christian Scientist and my father thought Taft was too liberal. When I joined Warner, I entered into a more or less Brooklyn, Jewish, high-living, whatever-it-takes atmosphere, and absolutely adored it. I guess my favorites were the more outrageous ones—whether it’s Bob Krasnow or Artie Mogull or those other guys who just made it up as they went along—and there were a huge number of them. I found them perpetually astonishing, amusing and talented. They were also hit guys—they could hear a hit. I loved those characters. Sandie Shaw, the barefoot singer from England. Jimi Hendrix coming into the office wearing a boa, extending a hand that seemingly had no bones in it. And going to the Grateful Dead’s house, sitting there, meeting these people… Whew!

What was the atmosphere like at the company when you first joined?
At one point, I was the hippest person at Warner Bros. Records. My hair was slightly longer than the others’, and my attitude was good. But we were all guys in suits, or even blazers up to a certain point in time. To my knowledge, Mo Ostin never took a drug. Joe Smith never took a drug. We had Andy Wickham to take the drugs. I would hang with the artists. I had my Nehru shirt, I had my ankh. Van Dyke Parks gave me my first hand-rolled cigarette, and then we went to a movie. At one point, I could see the frames go by, individually. So I was a little part of it, but I was also a responsible executive—I got things done. We became known for it, so it was great.

People tend to forget the early history of Warner Bros. Records. Whenever I see Jim Conkling’s name, which isn’t often, it’s usually misspelled "Conklin," and his successor, Mike Maitland, seems to dwell in obscurity.
Jim Conkling deserves great respect with the success he’d had at Capitol and then Columbia. He was very wise; he just thought that he could do the same thing at a company that didn’t have any artists, which was Warner Bros. Records when he joined the company. And you can’t build a Columbia Records based on Edd Byrnes. But then we lucked out with the Everly Brothers.

And Mike Maitland?
I think Mike did a terrific job. He found Mo and Joe, and a few others, but certainly those two. And he told them, "You guys sign the acts, run the label, and I’ll try to keep the ship afloat," which he did. Mike never pretended that he had ears. He was fiscally prudent and attended to things like international and distribution and whatever needed to be attended to—and did a good job of it.

So what happened?
Once Atlantic came into the fold, they had two giant guys, Ahmet Ertegun and Mike. Ahmet didn’t want to report to another king, which was sort of the structure of the monolith—Ahmet would be a prince, then, and not a king. Autonomy was absolutely crucial to all these people, and big corporations seem not to work by giving complete autonomy to all their division heads.

Under Maitland, Joe Smith ran the Warner Bros. label, and Mo ran Reprise.
Joe would sign more what I would call MOR to right-wing acts, whether it was Freddy Cannon, Mike Curb’s label or Johnny Sea for "Day of Decision." We would cringe because we were all fucking liberals at that point, until Joe said, "Wait a second, this is a record that is going to sell. And what about freedom of speech, folks?" That shut me up, certainly. He didn’t listen to the Grateful Dead and say, "This is a hit," but he would listen to Tom Donahue or whoever was in San Francisco say, "This is happening," and Joe liked what was happening. Mo and Joe didn’t necessarily hear it, but they had a wonderful intuition for people who could hear it—whether it be Albert Grossman or Andy Wickham or Lenny Waronker. Mo was smart enough to get Jimmy Bowen to do singles for Reprise; Bowen could think in terms of triplets when the others, like Sonny Burke, couldn’t think triplets. Mo knew to go after people and find people who were not proven yet—to find someone like Andy Wickham, who might come in at two in the afternoon with his eyes not quite focused, but who knew Joni Mitchell and that whole crowd. Mo had a business mind. He would say, "Whatever it takes, up to a point of nonprofitablity." If it got to the point where Reprise, under Mo, would lose money, he would say, "No." I think it’s a sensational trait. Up until then, he would say, "Do what you do when it comes to art." I knew the rules, and the rules had been established by Mo and Joe. And if Joni Mitchell showed concern at being called "90% virgin" (in one of the ads I wrote)—I don’t know if she objected to the 10 percent or the 90 percent—that was one of only two times I was censored during my time at Warner Bros. I got a call from Mo, and promised that I wouldn’t run the ad again. I used the same line again, years later, for Frank Sinatra. He didn’t object to being 90% virgin.

What was the other time you got in trouble?
The other time was when we were going to put out the original soundtrack for Deep Throat. We had an inner spread that was going to climax over any other inner spread ever done for any other album, until Steve Ross said, "You know we’ve got shareholders in the Midwest…" I got it.

The creative department at Warner-Reprise was groundbreaking.
For the creative part of marketing, which is everything except promotion and sales in my mind, we were in the right place at the right time. I was five-10 years older than anybody who worked for me in those days. I had started in 1958, and had a decade of doing the occasional Sinatra or Trini Lopez album, and learning that part of the business, before it got wiggy and youthful, and singers sang their own songs. Dean Martin didn’t sing Dean Martin compositions; Jimmy Bowen found them for him. I remember the thrill—and this is before all that stuff happened in the late ’60s—of Hullabaloo and Shindig. That was hip, and we felt a part of that. The Kinks were part of that. I think they were the first of Mo’s signings from picking up a stack of singles by English acts that didn’t have a home in the United States.

The label became known for its hip advertising.
The fact that I could do two Van Dyke Parks ads in a row on how much money we’d lost on the "Album of the Year" worked, I guess. It placed us as a label with an attitude, which made it the label to be with at the time. FM radio was happening, the underground was happening, Laurel Canyon was a place, Haight-Ashbury was a place. All of that was going on—and I take zero credit for that—but we were the label for singer-songwriters and acid-heads to be. Mo and Joe [heard] from artists’ managers, saying that they’d never received that kind of attention. And we got fans, too, from the underground press… We got respect that in some cases we didn’t deserve.

There was an unconventional, laissez-faire corporate attitude toward the artists, giving them the room to develop without interference.
After Peter, Paul and Mary’s first album was a hit, we’d look forward to the next one and slot it. Then we’d get a call from Albert Grossman telling us, "You’ll get it when we’re ready." We were accustomed to the kind of recording that had predated that, which was three sessions over three days, coming up with 12 songs for the album. But that all changed. Peter, Paul and Mary taught us that you let the artist do what that artist needs to do, and you put up with your own frustrations because of it. Trying to get Peter Paul and Mary to do 12 songs in nine hours? Forget it. Sinatra could do it, Dean Martin could do it. But Peter, Paul and Mary listened to the playback. The key thing was, we let it change. There’s a story I told in the book about Paul Rothchild cutting the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s first album three times—live, in the studio, and then live again with a different feel. And Jac would stand back. Mo and Joe would never go into the studio. Ahmet had been there. I can’t imagine that David [Geffen] would have even entered the recording studio in any way other than to encourage his artists. Find the right people, have them make the right music, you hope, and then sell it like crazy.

So, what went wrong with what seems to be an idyllic situation in the ’90s?
There was the perception that Warner was slowing down, but every label slows down from time to time. Was there a lag at Warner toward the end? Probably, but not enough to upset the apple cart. Atlantic had lags, and so did Elektra. Mo felt that up until the very end, the last six months or so, that Warner Bros. was the #1 label, making more money than Atlantic or Elektra. Atlantic was coming along pretty well, thanks to the energy of Val Azzoli. The bigger decline was from 1995-2000, when the book ends, the corporate decline of the Warner Music Group, going from the top to #2, #3, #4. The whole group took that decline. But what was really going on was that Bob Morgado wanted a different kind of corporation, a music-related organization. Which is why they bought Chappell and Rhino and so on. But he also felt that, within the labels, a fresh attitude and more business-intensive attitude were appropriate. Which usually means getting rid of the established people. Morgado felt that Mo was resisting him and he was right. Then they all tried to find their way back under the benign management of Daly and Semel, who wanted to return to that generous, Steve Ross attitude—let ’em be, let ’em do their own thing—rather than the constant attacks they were under by Morgado and Fuchs. Which they did, but it didn’t work any more.

Is there hope for the future of the record industry?
When I returned to Warner Bros. after I left, I’d get hugs and whispers: "Stan, it’s not like it once was." That was too bad, because the reason Warner was successful was because of what it once was—everybody from the top down was on the side of the artist. I remember when I was in mucky-muck land as Sr. VP of WCI, going to Washington and being enraged over home taping, which now seems harmless compared to the anger of the RIAA and the labels toward downloading and ripping. After Sony won its home-taping case over MCA, the next day we all went back to our business. Somehow the record industry has lost the spirit to take things in its stride and keep doing more for its audience than it ever did. I don’t know how big the file-sharing system is, but there’s still a record business, and it should be pursued with creativity, spirit and giving the audience more, rather than less, for their money. When I get asked during interviews what do I suggest to people who want to get into the record business, I tell them to get with a small company that seems to be doing the right thing, whether it’s successful or not. And if the public finds that company, which they may well do, and if artists find that company because they like dealing with that company, then you’ve found a good place to start. Because that’s what happened to those of us who were lucky enough to be with Warner-Reprise, Elektra or Atlantic in those days.

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