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HOLIDAY READING:
SEYMOUR’S MEMOIR

Siren Song: My Life in Music (St. Martin’s Press) is an entertaining firsthand account by Seymour Stein, who’s starting his first full year of retirement after heading Sire Records for 52 of his 76 years. A true record man, Seymour signed some of the top talent of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, including The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Pretenders, Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Smiths, Madonna and k.d lang.

As a chart-obsessed teenager, Seymour spent time at Billboard and was hired as a clerk in the trade’s chart department in 1957 by Tom Noonan, where the youngster, like Jerry Wexler before him, learned at the feet of Paul Ackerman—a real music man himself. Seymour spent the next two summers learning the ropes of the record biz at Cincinnati’s King Records, whose biggest artist was James Brown; King also put out records by Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Bill Doggett, Wayne Cochran and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. He credits King founder/chief Syd Nathan as another important mentor.

Much of the book recounts Seymour’s adventures in the wild world of indie labels and indie distribution. Seymour founded Sire with his partner Richard Gottehrer in 1966 and scored the first of many smashes in 1973 with “Hocus Pocus” by Dutch band Focus, powering the Making Waves album to platinum. The Ramones (inked in ’75) and Talking Heads (’76) became Sire’s first career acts.  

One of Siren Song’s most provocative revelations begins with Seymour complaining about how cheaply Mo Ostin and Warner Bros. Records were able to buy his company from him, acquiring half the label in 1978 for a paltry $1 million and exercising the option on the remaining 50% two years later for another $1m. As Sire became increasingly hot in the ’80s, it became obvious that Sire was far more valuable than that lowball $2m deal suggested—with a wildly eclectic roster headed by Madonna and Talking Heads, it was easily worth between $50m and $100m. The reader can sense Seymour’s resentment about having been bought out so cheaply by Ostin, whom he then takes to task over his running of Warner/Reprise—which must have the Burbank faithful up in arms over their revered leader taking repeated hits from a longtime associate.

The Warner/Sire relationship ended in 1995, following Ostin’s departure, at which point then-Warner Music Group ruler Doug Morris installed Seymour as President of Elektra, moving Sire there as well. That job put him together with Elektra Chairman/CEO Sylvia Rhone in one of the oddest ruling tandems in music-biz annals. Two years later, Sire became a freestanding label, as Seymour took over the WMG imprint Discovery. That arrangement lasted until the end of 1999, when Sire was merged with Roger AmesLondon Records. In 2003, Seymour and Sire returned to WBR, where he remained until his retirement last July. Through it all, his longtime lawyer Allen Grubman protected his flank and did what he could to curb his client’s extravagance with company money.

In the book, Seymour also makes a point of expressing his admiration for Atlantic’s triumvirate of Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun and Wexler, all of whom he views as mentors, as well as longtime Warner U.K. head Rob Dickins, who underwrote Madonna’s signing after Ostin refused to do so.

As a talent scout and indie entrepreneur, Seymour stands alongside such iconic figures—and onetime friendly rivals—as Island’s Chris Blackwell, ChrysalisChris Wright and Terry Ellis, and A&M’s Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert. As a colorful music-biz character, he’s one of a kind. 

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