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THE WILDEST YEARS
OF RADIO PROMOTION

 

 


Back in the 1980s, a colorful crew of individuals—many of whom went on to become important executives in the business—served as promotion heads at the major labels. All were big personalities, and some were well-liked. It was the height of independent promotion, and these label promo execs pulled out all the stops to get their priority records added and played. With Bolivian marching powder as the wind beneath their wings, some became notorious as they ran tens of millions of dollars through the promo system and into the hands of the Network, as the indie-promo cartel came to be known. That free-spirited, big-money romp abruptly ended in ’86, when the proverbial shit hit the fan with an exposé by NBC-TV reporter Brian Ross, which changed the game forever. Here’s a look at some of the one-of-a-kind characters who dominated the landscape during this period of conspicuous excess.

Donnie “fuhgeddaboudit” Ienner was one of the biggest players despite the fact that he worked at Arista, one of the smaller labels; no promo exec reached a loftier career peak than Ienner, who went on to rule Sony Music during a highly successful run. I’d met Donnie back in the 1970s when I worked as the head of promotion at ABC/Dunhill. His older brother Jimmy had replaced Richie Podolor as Three Dog Night’s producer, and Donnie was Jimmy’s runner. I could tell Donnie was going to be this super-aggressive, win-at-all-costs kind of guy. The first time I laid eyes on him was the day he delivered the master refs to the first single from Hard Labor, “The Show Must Go On.” He blew into my office, yanked open the door to my fridge and took what he wanted.

At Arista, Donnie ran a tight ship, spending Clive Davis’ money like it was his mother’s life savings; he was cheap and remained that way through his final chapter at Sony two decades later. One night in the early ’80s, during dinner at high-end Italian eatery Romeo Salta in Midtown, he told our waiter he wasn’t paying more than $13 for the veal piccata, which was on the menu for $18. I watched in amazement as he threw buttered bread at Arista promo head Rick Bisceglia all night. That was not an isolated incident—Donnie always had to get the best of everybody, and he “motivated” people by verbally and physically intimidating them.

When Sony Chairman Tommy Mottola hired Donnie away from Clive in 1989 to become president of Columbia—a job Clive had previously held—it was the beginning of a fiercely competitive era between Columbia and Arista whose main event was a competition between Clive’s diva Whitney Houston and Tommy’s diva Mariah Carey. And when Mottola and Ienner tried to hire Bisceglia, who was then EVP at Arista, to head Mariah’s Crave imprint in 1997, Clive made Rick sit on the bench for almost a year before he was able to go to work at Sony. That left the job open for the return of former Arista promo head Richard Palmese when he was fired as president of MCA in 1995 along with Chairman Al Teller, just after Doug Morris was hired to replace Teller by Edgar Bronfman

As for Bisceglia, not long after he finally arrived at Sony, he was named EVP promo at Epic in 1998, and EVP of the Epic Group (Epic, 550 and the WORK Group). In 2002, he founded HitPredictor with Guy Zapoleon and Doug Ford (now at Spotify), and after selling the company to iHeartMedia in 2012, he started his present job with the radio giant.

Legend has it that shortly before replacing Mottola as Sony chairman in 2003 after a 15-year reign, Donnie visited Tommy at his Florida home and presented him with an expensive shotgun; the two had hunted together in the country around Tommy’s estate in Upstate New York. But in retrospect, Donnie’s choice of gift took on a Godfather-like symbolism, and it probably wasn’t lost on Tommy, who had a feeling he was about to be offed. Ironically, Mottola had conspired to oust his predecessor Walter Yetnikoff in 1990, and many believed that Ienner was part of a conspiracy to depose Tommy. Once Ienner fell from power in 2006, fired by Sony BMG commandant Rolf Schmidt-Holtz, most of those who’d worked for him turned against him. His storied abuse of his promo staff is still part of industry lore.

The two biggest players at CBS in the ’80s were Epic promo domo Frank DiLeo and his Columbia counterpart, Ray Anderson, aka Tookie and Raymo. These two swung for the fences every week, doubling and tripling bonuses to the indies on important records, hell-bent on controlling the marketplace—and they were extremely successful at it. They worked in tandem in some respects, as the list of stations each indie had was the same for Columbia and Epic. Each of them had the same agenda about what the indies could do for them, amid rampant rumors of money and drugs that hung over their heads. Anderson was indicted in 1989 in an FBI-IRS probe into payola and mob influence in the business. The charges against him were dismissed, and DiLeo became super-wealthy when he convinced Yetnikoff and Michael Jackson that he was the right guy to manage Michael. The ticket scalping for MJ’s tours was believed to be ginormous at the time, and the joke was that Tookie had wheelbarrows full of cash from each date on the tour. Both Raymo and DiLeo died young, the former at 65 and the latter at 63.

Polly Anthony worked her way up through the promo ranks at CBS from her first job as assistant to Larry Douglas, the West Coast promotion head of CBS-owned Monument, to SVP Head of Promotion at Epic to GM and then President of 550 Music before becoming president of Epic in 1997, replacing Richard Griffiths, and subsequently president of the merged Epic and 550, scoring mega-hits with Celine Dion and the Titanic soundtrack. During her time at Epic, she struck up a lifelong friendship with Michele Anthony. Whenever Polly was cold, she’d fire her head of promotion, insisting, “I’m fixing it again,” which everyone thought was hilarious—apart from the person she’d shit-canned. She was beloved by all except for Ienner, with whom she competed fiercely. He fired her when he took over the company and installed Steve Barnett as Epic head, after which Jimmy Iovine made her co-head of Geffen with Jordan Schur. Polly died way too young; pancreatic cancer claimed her in 2013. She was 59.

John Bettencourt at RCA was another big hitter, and one of the craziest guys I had ever seen, as he manically paced around offices across the country while slipping into bathrooms with alarming frequency. John was friends with Dr. J; I believe they’d played hoops together at UMass. He used Doc and the Sixers like the notorious Bruce Wendell, who ran Capitol promo, used Mike Schmidt and the Phillies to boost his cult of celebrity. He was even the batboy for the Phillies a few times. I was embarrassed for him for acting like an overgrown kid, but some geeks must have gotten off on it—why else would he keep doing it? Lots of bat and boy jokes inevitably went with the territory.

Atlantic promo was run by Vince Faraci, a nice guy but a real chore to deal with. He was super-nervous all the time, tapping his left leg nonstop with jackrabbit speed. Vince was capable, but it was painful to deal with his anxiety all the time. I think he knew he was in over his head, but he had such a steady stream of great records to work that he couldn’t fuck it up. The combination of Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Doug Morris, an incredible roster of great rock bands and black-music legends, and the classic indie mentality of making your payroll made for a dynamite record company.

MCA was only a factor during the time Irving Azoff ran the company from ’83 to ’89, while Richard Palmese and Steve Meyer oversaw promotion. Meyer, who was a Wendell protégé, could deliver the mail like Karl Malone. Richard had worked for Clive, who hated people smoking cigarettes near him, but for some reason he gave Richard a pass; he’d light up between courses at the Palm, blowing smoke across the table, and Clive never said a word. Richard had studied for the priesthood; maybe that’s why Clive treated him with such respect. Under Irving, they got super-hot—at one time they had the four top-selling albums in the country. These guys spent money like it was water, but apart from that stretch under Irving, MCA was generally referred to as the Music Cemetery of America. After Palmese smartly went back to work for Clive as promo chief in ’97, he lasted another 15 years until 2012, when—under Doug Morris at Sony—RCA’s Tom Corson and Peter Edge opted to go with Joe Riccitelli as the head of the department. Richard then reunited with Irving, where he remains, still a highly effective promotion executive. Richard is a survivor.

A&M’s Charlie Minor was the archetypal party animal; “Girls, Girls, Girls” was his theme song. He must have gotten every major program director in the country laid. He was a big star on the A&M lot, where he remained until 1990, when PolyGram chief Alain Levy named mediocre rock promo man Al Cafaro to run the label after Herb and Jerry cashed out, and Cafaro wasted no time pushing Charlie out as he systematically dismantled this great record company. Irving Azoff made Charlie president of his Giant Records startup, and after that he came to work at HITS. He was always a giant pain in the ass to do business with, but he was so much fun to hang with and I loved the times we spent together. Charlie came to a tragic end, murdered in 1995 by a stripper who was insane with jealousy; he was just 47. His memorial service on the A&M lot drew what must’ve been a thousand mourners—half of them Victoria’s Secret models.

Johnny Barbis succeeded Charlie—who’d succeeded me—at ABC/Dunhill. Barbis was then hired by Geffen and Eddie Rosenblatt to head promo when they started the Geffen label in 1980, and there he remained until ’85, when he was fired and replaced by Screaming Al Coury. While at Geffen, he helped bring Elton John to the label, and the two became extremely tight; Barbis managed him from 2009 to 2015. He spent three years (’91-94) working for Alain Levy at PolyGram, and soon after Edgar’s Universal Music Group bought PolyGram in ’98 and Doug Morris rearranged the merged companies, Barbis exited, along with Levy, David Munns, Roger Ames, Cafaro and Danny Goldberg. Morris had Iovine on the West Coast, with the Lipman brothers, Sylvia Rhone, Jim Caparro and the notoriously cutthroat Lyor Cohen on the East Coast.

Barbis was President/CEO of Island (’94-97, briefly returning in ’98), where he formed a strong bond with U2, a transformative relationship in his career; co-prexy, with Nick Gatfield, of A&M Associated Labels (’97-98); and in 2000 was hired by Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker to help them run DreamWorks. Historically speaking, Barbis was hired and fired by some of the greatest record men of the modern era. He was well-liked and had unusually close relationships with the artists he worked with over the years; more than anything, these relationships defined his career. If he were a racehorse, he’d have been a big-stakes handicap winner with great breeding before being put out to stud.

Phil Quartararo—better known as Phil Q—worked for Ienner at Arista and went to Chris Blackwell’s Island before starting Virgin in America with Jeff Ayeroff and Jordan Harris in 1986. Eleven years later, he became president of Warner Bros. under Chairman Russ Thyret and held a top post at EMI (2002-07). Phil Q was full of life, with an outsized personality in a compact package. He had a way of getting really close to people when he talked to them, and when he looked up with that big smile, it was hard to say no to him.

Warner Bros. was the mother lode—by far the best company pound for pound, with excellent executive talent and the smartest promo strategist of the era in Russ Thyret. In terms of style, Thyret was the diametric opposite of Ienner, his closest counterpart in terms of career apogee; he was a super-gentleman, statesmanlike and the most loyal exec I’ve ever met—he loved Mo and Lenny and would do anything to carry out their wishes. They had more hits than anyone else by a mile, and Thyret went on to become chairman (1995-2001) after Mo and Lenny left the company, succeeding Danny Goldberg, and he passionately perpetuated their legacy. Thyret dubbed his weekly marketing meetings “Korea” because they lasted so long, like that unwinnable war. He was rumored to have won the California lottery not once but twice, and although neither payday was mammoth, those two windfalls must have given him some financial independence. He loved the horses, fishing and his great Labrador Retriever.

For these future captains of industry and their fellow gunslingers who ran roughshod over the landscape of the Wild West four decades ago, the phrase “sex and drugs and rock & roll” defined both a lifestyle and a way of doing business. Some of the worst offenders cleaned up their acts and got back to work; others weren’t so lucky. In any case, we haven’t seen anything remotely like those crazy times—or the people who made them so—during subsequent eras in the music biz, and chances are we never will again. 

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