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I.B. BAD GOES DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE, PART 2

As we approach the 30th anniversary of HITS, which will culminate this summer with a special issue commemorating the milestone, I.B. Bad will look back on key chapters in music-biz history. What follows is part two of the first episode of the series.

Part 1 of this saga, covering the birth and astonishing growth of the Warners machine, as well as Frank Sinatra's role at Reprise, thoughts on the development of Prince and much more, can be found here.

WHEN WE WERE YOUNG

We weren’t a magazine yet in 1979, when Russ Thyret called and said he wanted to play us a track that he thought was special. At the time, we were a national promotion and marketing company called MusicVision, and Russ and Warner Bros. were one of our clients. Thyret was an impressive individual: brilliant and enigmatic, he was far more than a promotion head, although he did that job as well as anyone ever has. A strategic mastermind and marketing innovator, he was a key member of the Warner think tank, as was VP Talent Acquisition Bob Krasnow, a man of impeccable taste, who signed numerous important acts to Warner and later Elektra. This impressive array of execs was brilliantly managed by Mo Ostin.

Russ Thyret with Bud Prager and Henry Droz

Russ was super-artist-friendly, and he’d made it clear to us that he was on a mission to break this act, Prince, whom he’d brought to the label two years earlier. The dedicated exec fervently believed this track, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” from his self-titled second album, was strong enough to put the then-20-year-old artist over the top. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” didn’t make Prince a star, but it became his first hit, peaking at #9 on the Radio & Records airplay chart. Prince subsequently took a radical left turn with 1980’s provocative Dirty Mind, but two years later, “Little Red Corvette,” from the next LP, 1999, began the breakthrough Thyret had long been envisioning, hitting #5 on the R&R chart, while the now-iconic title track got to #12. In 1984, Prince scored his first sales and airplay chart-topper with the wildly original “When Doves Cry,” opening the floodgates for the landmark album and film Purple Rain.

We’d long viewed WB as a special place, and during the years we worked for the label, we got a close-up look at what made it unique and why the Burbank ski lodge was the place to be, a major with the heart of an indie.

 Along with CBS and sister labels Elektra and Atlantic, Warners dominated the musical landscape of the ’70s and ’80s. We’d long viewed WB as a special place, and during the years we worked for the label—from 1978 to ’86—we got a close-up look at what made it unique and why the Burbank ski lodge was the place to be, a major with the heart of an indie. The in-house producers and the acts they produced for the A&R-driven label were at ground zero of this remarkably creative era.

THE WISE GUYS

MusicVision was not part of the infamous Network named by Frederick Dannen in Hit Men. Our company’s role in independent promotion gave some transparency to a system that was mostly legitimate but was tainted by some charges and minor convictions for payola/drugola. For the most part, the Network didn’t approve of us or want us competing with them, as the costs of independent promotion kept rising on the heels of the well-documented Pink Floyd “Another Brick in the Wall” fiasco in 1980. The Network’s push to continue jacking up the costs of indie promo came crashing down around their heads in February 1986 with the airing of a four-part NBC series wherein investigative reporter Brian Ross alleged that the music business had been infiltrated by organized crime, and that CBS’s Walter Yetnikoff was somehow at the center of it. Much of the filming for that broadcast took place on Jan. 23 at the first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, and surveillance footage showed top network heavies hanging out with various label bosses. Yetnikoff, who initially laughed off the report, was dogged by its allegations for years afterward. He was fired by Sony in 1990, two years after playing a role in the Japanese company’s acquisition of CBS Records.

 The wise guys had been sticking their noses in the music business since Prohibition, transitioning from bootlegging to nightclubs, jukeboxes and other cash businesses in the 1940s. In one infamous story, New Jersey gangster Willie Moretti allegedly used intimidation to get Sinatra out of his contract with band leader Tommy Dorsey in 1942. In the 1950s, the music biz itself took on a wise-guy, Runyonesque, primarily East Coast persona, which had its roots in the streets of New York. These were rough-and-tumble sons of immigrants who had lived through the Depression and served in World War Two, at a pivotal time when the big band era was coming to an end, as rock & roll and R&B began to infiltrate pop culture.

The Brill Building, Tin Pan Alley, the clubs of NYC and all of the city’s small indie labels made up the breeding ground for today’s music business. It was where the entrepreneurs, managers, publishers, agents and club owners started to figure out how to monetize the music. And in the ’50 and ’60s, a handful of wise guys were hanging around the business. The most notorious of them was Morris Levy, who had his hands in many of the deals of the ’60s and ’70s. Levy was supposedly connected to the mob, and when we heard his deep, gravelly voice, it gave us pause, having heard the whispers about his pedigree. While heading the Roulette, Buddah, Kama Sutra, Calla, TK and Sugar Hill labels, among others, as well as pubco Big Seven Music and nightclubs including Birdland and the Roulette Room, Levy also acted as a power broker and middle man for getting deals made when the two parties couldn’t agree.

A handful of wise guys were hanging around the business. The most notorious of them was Morris Levy, who was supposedly connected to the mob, and when we heard his deep, gravelly voice, it gave us pause.

But it was after Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather romanticized the wise guys that some in the music
business began to intimate that they had friends in the criminal underworld. Often heard was, “I know people”—giving the illusion that they were tight with a real wise guy—”so don’t fuck with me.” You even heard people say, “I know so-and-so, and he knows people.” Of course, 99% of this posturing was utter horseshit, but in the wake of the universally adored Godfather One, it became de rigueur.

SIGN O’ THE TIMES

The villains who ended Warner/Reprise’s magical quarter century were the corporate suits of parent company Time Warner, unleashed following Steve Ross’ death in 1992. Soon thereafter, Bob Morgado began to throw his weight around as Warner Music Group Chairman. In way over his head, Morgado foolishly butted heads with Ostin, setting off a domino effect that led to the forced departures of Ostin and Waronker as well as Elektra chief Bob Krasnow. Morgado was fired in 1995, but irreparable damage had been done. His replacement, HBO executive Michael Fuchs, was just as clueless as Morgado, so much so that he forced out highly capable WMG U.S. chief Doug Morris. From 1995 to early 2001, Thyret served as the last captain of the badly listing Burbank ship, doing everything in his power to preserve what remained of the Warner legacy on behalf of the artists and employees whose company it had been. During the subsequent decade, WMG’s marketshare plummeted from 35% to 15% under the historic mismanagement of Edgar Bronfman Jr. and his heavy-handed partner in crime, Lyor Cohen, who has become the laughingstock of the industry.

FULL CIRCLE

The bustling, colorful music-biz scene of the 1960s and ’70s produced many of the stars of the past who are profiled by Mike Sigman in our just-published History of the Music Biz special edition—including Tommy Mottola, Clive Davis, Wexler, Berry Gordy, Charles Koppelman, Joe Smith, Rosenblatt, Moss, Quincy, Dick Asher, Ron Alexenburg, Barney Ales and Marshall Chess. They all came up amid this morass of guys and dolls. Most are New York natives, first- and second-generation Americans of Jewish and Italian extraction, or the offspring of blue-collar African-Americans. Mo Ostin, on the other hand, was—and is—the epitome of West Coast cool. Mo, who rarely grants interviews, shares his vivid memories and unparalleled insights in a lively conversation on the following pages. During its course, the great executive puts an extraordinary artist in the context of the record company they helped elevate to legendary status. •

 

 

 

 

Photos courtesy Warner Records Archive. To obtain a copy of The History of the Music Biz: The Mike Sigman Interviews, contact Robin Gerber at (818) 506-8800.

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