"I try to read HITS, though I don’t get free copies any more—they cut me off about a year ago."
——Hale Milgrim


An exclusive HITS dialogue with Hale Milgrim by Todd Everett

Hale Milgrim was named President of Capitol Records in late 1989. In August, 1992, Milgrim was given the additional title of CEO in one of the most lucrative such deals in the history of EMI. Less than a year later, he’d cleaned out his office in the Capitol Tower and was living two hours north, in Santa Barbara, waiting out a four-year non-compete clause in his contract. His parachute was more platinum than golden—by all accounts in the millions of dollars, and perhaps another record-holder for the era.

His rapid rise and fall was preceded by an industry career beginning in 1964, in Palm Springs, when his father loaned him $2,000 to start a record department in the family toy store. Four years later, he worked for the Isla Vista outpost of the 150-store Discount Records chain, adjacent to the University of California, Santa Barbara. When his supervisor was relocated to the Berkeley branch, Milgrim came with him as assistant manager ("We sold a lot of Joy of Cooking, Seatrain and the Grateful Dead.").

Subsequently hired by WEA’s Bill Perasso as display manager for the Bay Area, within six months he was marketing coordinator for WEA Northern California. In 1977, he was hired by Warner Bros. Records as Director of Merchandising, working with Adam Somers, Pete Johnson and Stan Cornyn. Milgrim left eight years later as Director of Creative Services, moving to NYC at the behest of Bob Krasnow to join Elektra Records as VP Creative Services.

Milgrim joined Capitol, brought in by his former WB chief Joe Smith. He was—though he didn’t realize it at the time—one link of a chain of label presidents that would include his predecessor, David Berman, his successor, Gary Gersh, Gersh’s successor Roy Lott and, currently, Andrew Slater—all within the last decade or so.

Little has been heard from Milgrim in the last several years, though there were murmurings of offers to be President of Elektra, Columbia, Rhino, WEA catalogue and Hollywood ("One of the conditions under which I’d join was that they change the name, so we could all start fresh"). His name also came up to head the Grammys after the departure of Mike Greene. Instead of taking any of those positions, Milgrim and his wife Anne chose to remain in the Santa Barbara area, far from the Hollywood fray.

HITS’ official go-to guy for industry veterans, Todd Everett, drove up the coast to observe Milgrim in his natural surroundings, and see what a former label CEO does far from the center of the record industry. He may be away from the day-to-day business of the record industry, but he remains very close to music, though on a more confined scale. He’s carved a niche for himself in local not-for-profit organizations bringing music to Santa Barbara, and he and his wife are involved in other public service foundations, including, most notably, the environment-conscious Earth Communications Office. He is also managing to keep a hand in the record business, though on his own terms. For all of this, he thanks Charles Koppelman, then EMI Records Group North America’s chairman/CEO, who fired him from Capitol.

What was your reaction to being dismissed as CEO of Capitol?
At the time, I was like a deer in the headlights—I didn’t know what I was going to do. I wanted to continue working at Capitol; I loved the artists and the employees. I didn’t even see it coming. A few people were telling me, but I had no real idea. I’d just signed my [CEO] deal, eight or nine months earlier. And Jim Fifield and Joe Smith must have been happy with me at that point, to sign a five-year deal, and I’m sure that at some point Koppelman was clued in. But, to be honest, I don’t have any hard feelings for Charlie Koppelman. It turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to me, in that it gave me a different perspective, a different way to look at life.

In what way?
I had thought that the only way was to work for a company with a lot of artists, and see how you could help develop them. But I’ve learned that there are lots of other things to do that are oriented to the passion for music in my heart. If I hadn’t had that kind of deal, I probably would have had to go back to work at one of the labels. Which I like to think, I would have loved doing. Because I’ve been very fortunate, and loved everything I’ve done in my life. But the position I was in gave me the opportunity to come up here and look at different possibilities.

How do you look back on your years with Capitol?
When I first got there, David Berman had left months earlier, and the company was in disarray. But Hammer was just delivering his record and Bonnie Raitt was just about to win all those Grammys for Nick of Time. I really want to give credit to David Berman and Tom Whalley and the rest of their A&R staff—the people they signed, we were able to take to the next level. Also, Bruce Lundvall, who was head of Blue Note and headed Capitol’s East Coast office, brought Dave Koz and Rachelle Farrell in, and one amazing artist after another. From March, 1990, we had the strongest 19 months that Capitol had ever seen. Hammer sold 16 million copies worldwide; Bonnie’s 5 million was four and a half times her biggest album up to that time. Eric Johnson, the Beastie Boys, Bob Seger, Paul McCartney, Crowded House, Poison and Heart all went platinum. We went gold with Tom Cochrane for the first time in the United States with Life is a Highway. We signed Mazzy Star, Blind Melon, Radiohead…US3 had a huge club and pop hit. We signed Remy Zero, but they got lost in the shuffle after the next change of administration. We made the decision to not release "U Can’t Touch This" as a single, which bothered some people at the time, but I think it contributed strongly to the subsequent sales of Hammer’s album.

Did the EMI corporate atmosphere hurt you?
I wasn’t a corporate guy—I think I was closer to being a hippie. But I kept getting surrounded with wonderful people who made me look good, and I like to believe I helped a little bit along the way. Every company I worked for, I never thought of as a corporation. I think my introduction to a corporate situation was when I joined Elektra, in that I worked at 75 Rockefeller Plaza, where suits were very common. Bob Krasnow and Lou Maglia didn’t tell me that I’d have to wear a suit for work. Bob gave me an opportunity to move to New York and help him totally transform the Elektra/Asylum Records Group, which also included Nonesuch, under Bob Hurwitz. We changed the name to Elektra Entertainment, and I oversaw the sales, marketing, art, video, merchandising and advertising departments. We had all this great success with artists that Bob and his A&R staff had signed—10,000 Maniacs, Gipsy Kings…and he already had Metallica, Anita Baker, Simply Red, Howard Jones. It was a great time, and it didn’t all come out of the promotion department. A lot of it came from retail. Retail helped us get a lot of stuff into stores, and the employees seemed to love it. Lou Maglia was the man who, with Krasnow, brought me to New York. Then he was gone. Then Mike Bone was gone.

You got started in retail; how do you view that end of the business these days?
One of the most enjoyable things in the record industry is turning people on to music that we enjoy, and that they may never have heard. Or somebody they used to like and who’s made a terrific new record. I get as much charge going into a record store today as I did when I was 13-14 years old. When Luaka Bop put out that Shuggie Otis record, Inspiration Information, I was blown away. It was a brilliant record when it came out, and it’s still a strong record today. But these days, a person has many opportunities other than going to a record store or a concert. We’ve got to come up with music that people want to buy, and a pricing that will encourage people to go into record stores. There’s probably less knowledgeable people working in the stores than ever before, and most chain stores want to look like every other store. I hang in the stores, talk to people and see what they like. I invariably see people with question marks on their faces, and I walk up to them and say, "Can I help you?" I love that—it brings me back to my old retail days, which is in my blood. I probably get more current information from that than I would any other way, except perhaps the trades.

How could retail be improved?
A number of the stores around the country are doing a wonderful job. I have been to Amoeba, and I love it. It speaks to me. And they seem to have some very good employees. I really appreciate having knowledgeable people. It’s become more difficult, because nowadays the stores have centralized offices for doing all the advertising and marketing. I don’t know that I’d have the same success today that we had 20 years ago with retail, being able to get everybody excited about something and make the leap to break an artist. There’s a coalition of independent stores right now that work with the labels, with the one-stops, to help develop new artists. In Portland, there’s Music Millennium; in Austin, it’s Waterloo Records…stores that have been doing that for years and have done a great job. How successful are those in-stores that Amoeba has been doing? If they’re selling a couple hundred CDs of that artist, that’s having an effect. But does it make a huge blip? I have no idea. But there are stores in many cities that have some effect, if not the effect that retail had years earlier. So they’ve had to bring non-record merchandise into the stores to meet their financial goals.

You’ve become involved in a number of local organizations dealing with the presentation of live music.
It’s all for very selfish reasons—so I can stay here in Santa Barbara and see these wonderful artists. I think the first thing that I got involved with was the Santa Barbara Bowl. When Anne and I were living here in 1969, we’d go to the Bowl together, and so I knew when I came up here that I wanted to get involved. They were just starting a not-for-profit foundation to help restore and preserve the Santa Barbara Bowl. At that point, it was an over 60-year-old facility that was falling apart. So I went and met with the General Manager, Sam Scranton, and he got me enthused about what the Bowl was doing to open up the diversity of the music they presented, to have children be able to see other kids up there on stage, and hopefully, get them enthused enough that at some time in the future, they might wind up performing there themselves.

What’s involved in the renovation of the Bowl?
The county has sort of turned it over to the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation, as long as we continue to renovate and take care of it. For the last nine years, we have been putting a lot of money into the Bowl—improving the power, installing scaffolding. For years, we weren‘t able to attract many of the big acts here, because it didn’t make sense for them to come to Santa Barbara. It would cost them more than they would make, because we didn’t have adequate facilities. Previously, the groups would have to bring in their own towers to hang equipment from. Plus, we had to re-do the plumbing, which was installed in 1936. For all the decades since the Bowl had been built, there were only a few bathrooms, built under the caretaker’s home; the rest of the bathrooms were all porta-toilets. Kids had been using porta-toilets at the Bowl forever. Under the stage used to be 3,000 square feet and there’s now 10,000 square feet, and half of that is set aside for bathrooms for the patrons. The other half is set up for dressing rooms for the artists and a gathering room for their guests. We have a $23 million campaign that we’re trying to do right here in the community. We’ve raised $9 million from the state and county and great people in the community, and we’ve just finished our first phase. The next phase is to redo the caretaker’s cottage as offices for the Foundation, VIP space and so on. The following phase will be the $6 million Pavilion, in another two years.

"Sings Like Hell" is an unusual concept, bringing lesser-known national acts to Santa Barbara.
Peggie Jones started the "Sings like Hell" series [www.singslikehell.com] at the Lobero, which holds about 650 people and is an even older facility than the Bowl. The Lobero Foundation is doing a wonderful job keeping that facility up; they’ve spent millions of dollars, which they got locally, on an earthquake retrofit. Peter Case was the first artist in the series, and his current album was Sings Like Hell. Peggie asked him if we could steal that name and use it for the series. I am one of the co-producers. I’m very involved. It’s all not-for-profit. Among the artists who’ve performed are Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Richard Thompson, Jesse Winchester, Rufus Wainwright with the Chris Stills Band, Nick Lowe, Geoff Muldaur. T Bone Burnett came up with his whole entourage—Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Sam Phillips and Van Dyke Parks—and did an unbelievable show for us about a year and a half ago. It’s a subscription series, you can go to six shows for $150, and you get to meet the artists backstage. We have 400 subscribers. The Rosenblatts, Jim and Penny Wagner, Stan Cornyn, Jackson Browne, Jeff and Susan Bridges, [former Record Bar owner] Barry and Arlene Bergman and [Licorice Pizza record chain founder] Jim Greenwood and his wife are all subscribers.

Your public service isn’t confined to music, is it?
I’m involved with an environmental group called Earth Communications Office that my wife has been the Vice-Chair of for five-six years now. It produces PSAs that are seen by over a billion people, worldwide, in several languages. The most successful have been our theater trailers. The message, essentially, is that everybody has an opportunity to do something about the environment, and you can really make a difference. People in the industry lend their voiceovers, give free music, and so on; we make calls to people to help fund-raise. Three people run the office, all in Los Angeles, so there isn’t a lot of overhead. Anne has gone to the office many times; I’ve hardly gone at all. But ECO has been very prominent in our daily lives.

Do you still consider yourself a record person?
I haven’t changed. I still read the 15 or so trades—I’m still looking for Record World and Cash Box here in Santa Barbara. I try to read HITS, though I don’t get free copies any more—they cut me off about a year ago. I try to go online, and I go to record stores every week. I’ve taken on a consultancy with Rhino, working with them on a number of projects starting with the Grateful Dead box. I was originally talking with Richard [Foos] and Harold [Bronson] about working there on a day-to-day basis, but then it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able stay in Santa Barbara as much as I like. But I’m working with Robin Hurley, James Austin and Jimmy Edwards, and I have a great relationship with [WEA Sr. VP Sales] Bob Carlton, who used to sell me records over the counter at Moby Disc. I’ve also become executive producer for a B.B. King duets project for MCA, working with Jay Boberg, Gary Ashley, Jayne Simon-Neches and Jeremy Hammond. It’s really reminded me how much I love that working relationship of sitting down with a number of record company and artist label friends. If there’s one thing I miss, it’s that collaborative effort of being able to sit down with people, argue with them, and wind up sometimes with a totally different viewpoint from the one I came in with.

Word on the street was that you were in line to be Mike Greene’s Grammy successor.
People from NARAS have called me, but nobody from the President’s office has called and made an offer. I’m living up here; I have a life that’s full-time; and I don’t have the wherewithal to move back to Los Angeles right now. But long ago, my mom told me never say "never." I would have never taken the Capitol, Warner Bros., Elektra or WEA jobs if the right people hadn’t spoken to my heart and soul.

Have you any regrets about the way things turned out for you?
No! I still try to keep in touch with so many friends who are working for the labels, and I am so happy that in a lot of cases people who work for these huge corporate conglomerates are just as passionate about the artists that they have, and are still as excited about developing the talent. But I’m not sure how happy, optimistic Hale would do in the business today on a day-to-day basis. I feel so fortunate that I haven’t become jaded; every day I want to hear new music, or turn someone on to something new or something they haven’t heard for years. I’ve even started my own website, which can be accessed from the "Sings Like Hell" site’s "sponsors" page. If I were to go back to a full-time position with one of the record companies today, I don’t think I’d have any trouble keeping current. But in the not-for-profit world, I can help turn people on without worrying about commercial validation. In closing, without my wife of 33 years to guide me, nurture me, there is no way I would be as confident and successful in my endeavors. Oh, yes—without Dennis, Lenny, Bud and Roy, I wouldn’t have this story, and we know how the industry wouldn’t have been able to live without this!