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IT WAS 30 YEARS AGO TODAY (PART 2)

Editor's note: Part 1 of Steve's story can be found here. These pics of Steve from our archives are not reflective of the period under discussion, but we really like them.

Over lunch, Tracy Nicholas Bledsoe explained to me what WEA International actually did: Basically, the company was an umbrella for WEA’s foreign affiliates, who collectively marketed the U.S. WEA repertoire overseas. WEA International also marketed the repertoire of MCA and Geffen Records overseas, with neither of those companies having their own ex-U.S. system in place at the time. Plus, the affiliates all had their own local repertoire; the U.K’s Simply Red was a prominent example, and before that week was out I would find myself introducing them at a press conference.

Importantly, WEA International itself owned some repertoire directly, such as Donna Summer and Phil Collins. Snatching Summer from PolyGram had proved to be a disappointment for WEA, as her chart-topping days were largely behind her. Collins was another story: Fear of taking a risk on the balding drummer from Genesis had led his U.S. & U.K. labels—Atlantic and Virgin, respectively—to lean on WEA International to sign Collins directly for the rest of the world in order to spread out the costs.

This proved to be a major windfall for WEA International, as Phil Collins was about to become the biggest-selling recording artist in the world, with WEA’s share of his sales far outpacing those in the U.S. & U.K.


The truth is, the entire record industry was at the start of an unprecedented boom, due to the rise of the compact disc. Since its introduction in 1983, sales of CDs had risen dramatically each year. CDs were more expensive than LPs, and the improved sound quality led many to re-purchase their entire music collection in the new format, and so a previously unimaginable amount of money was beginning to pour into the industry.  

The initial adopters of CD players tended to be older and affluent, so the titles that seemed to be in everyone’s CD collection in 1987 were disproportionately things like Paul Simon’s Graceland and one or more of the first four Beatles albums, which had been released on CD earlier that year. Plus the token classical album.

It seemed like everybody who owned a CD player bought a classical album on their first CD purchasing trip to Tower Records

It seemed like everybody who owned a CD player bought a classical album on their first CD purchasing trip to Tower Records, because classical music supposedly sounded particularly amazing in the new format. This led to a temporary spike in the overall market share for classical music in the late '80s, prompting WEA’s entry into the classical business, from which they’d previously abstained.

But in the offices of WEA International, there was not a CD player to be found. They were too expensive. We all listened to music on vinyl, while the people without their own offices listened to cassettes. We received a lot of product from overseas on CD, though, and in those early days anything on CD was so coveted that my friends would eagerly make the trip over to our offices to pick up promo CDs by obscure German dance acts, or really by anyone at all.

After lunch, I had my first writing assignment, and it was nearly Pelé-like in its glamour: I had to do a phone interview with former ABBA member Agnetha Faltskog in order to write her artist biography. She was about to release a solo album, I Stand Alone, produced by Peter Cetera of Chicago. The interview was unmemorable: Agnetha didn’t like to fly, she enjoyed recording songs with her children, she was a massive solo star in Sweden years before the formation ABBA. Still, it was fun to speak to her—a great music-biz initiation.

I typed the notes from my conversation with Agnetha on the Wang word processing/email system at my desk. I’d used Ethernet systems in grad school, but someone from the office still felt it necessary to show me how to use the newfangled Wang. Everyone from all the WEA worldwide affiliates was on the system and you could send any of them email messages. But it was an internal system—there was no way to use it to communicate with anyone outside the company.

I used the Wang to send my work to Tracy for approval (I recall she’d often change “LP” to “album” and then change “album” to “LP” in the same paragraph). But we didn’t use email for casual office communication the way we do today. If we had a simple question or message for a co-worker, we’d walk down the hall and ask it, or call their phone extension. Though we had the Wang, the use of text-based systems for transmitting simple thoughts or queries was not yet a behavior we had adopted.

Furthermore, the Wang didn’t have the ability to send media of any kind—no photos, music, artwork and certainly not video—just plain text. We were constantly using an international courier to get the art/music/photos/videos to wherever they needed to get. There was also a weekly Warner pouch, which sent materials back and forth between 75 Rock and WEA’s London office on Baker Street.

The most exciting thing the pouch brought every week was a packet of all the singles to have debuted on the U.K. chart that week. This was a treasure trove heretofore only accessible to people with bank accounts large enough to finance frequent trips to Bleecker Bob’s Records in the Village. And yet here it was, every week, without fail—every new British single, ready to be recorded onto my own cassette that I could take home!

The other record companies in town all got similar packages, and I still remember the excitement a few years later when everyone got Primal Scream’s groundbreaking single “Loaded” at the same time and I frantically called friends at Island to rave about it—only to find out they had just heard it, too, and were equally awed.

I only sold my freebie tickets once: 10,000 Maniacs at The Pier. My friend and I decided to buy ourselves a nice dinner instead. 

To cap off my first day, Jeff from the publicity department came around that afternoon and explained one of the truly great perks of working for a record company in those flush times: It turned out I could get two tickets to any concert by any of our acts that came to town. And by “our acts,” I mean all of the acts on any WEA U.S. label, the MCA and Geffen acts we distributed overseas, plus anyone on Island and Virgin, two labels Atlantic distributed in the U.S.

Taken together, that was probably about half of all the major-label acts that existed in those days. So I saw a lot of shows. And I only sold my freebie tickets once: 10,000 Maniacs at The Pier. My friend and I decided to buy ourselves a nice dinner instead.

Free concert tickets and records, celebrity encounters wherever I turned. Working in glamorous midtown Manhattan, and going out most nights after work, in the giddy final months before the stock-market crash in October of that year. It promised to be a nice summer, and a pleasant way to pay off my debts while waiting to resume graduate studies.

Except here I am, still in the music business 30 years later. But that’s another story.

 

 

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