He Died with 67 “Likes”

The last couple of weeks have been particularly brutal for the Baby Boomers and more specifically to those of us with a history in the music industry.  David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Natalie Cole, and Lemmy from Motörhead.  Then there’s drummer Buffin Griffin, from Mott The Hoople, and behind-the-scenes people like Celine Dion’s gracious husband, Rene Anglil, and the BeeGee’s and Cream impresario  and film maven Robert Stigwood.  All gone.  And we’re staggered.

Then, we hear about the passing of Crosby, Stills, and Nash drummer Dallas Taylor, but, wait, he died a year ago!  Jeez, just as I’m overwhelmed with death, someone, who happened to have missed it, reports another death that happened last year or three years ago.  Christ, stop piling on!  Stay current with the obits people!  It’s the new red carpet.

Look, I can’t keep track of this shit.  We’re now living (or dying) in this unreal world called Facebook.  Who is dead?  Who is alive?  Frankly, I’m not feeling too good myself!  Am I still here?  Tip me if you’ve heard any rumors. About me.  Was that Rod Serling standing in the doorway?

I thought I’d write an occasion blog story, quirky stories about the music industry’s glory days.  And what happens?  I’m trumped!  Completely upstaged by reality.  Dismissed by the sadly consumed legacies of a world of people who collectively built music culture over the past 50 or 60 years.

Nice week to start 2016, right?  Well, baby, get ready, cause we’re going to have a lot of ’em just like this.
So I escaped the surreal reality of Facebook and sought refuge at Ancestory.com.  I explored my roots.  I traced back hundreds of years and immersed myself in the romance and fantasy of generations past.  It’s painless.  They were all dead, and that was a comforting certainty.

I discover that a great uncle eight times removed inspired a hit song of his generation.  Thank you, I guess I did belong in the music business!  Yep, his name was Thomas Fitch, and he was the leader of a rag-tag militia that was laughed at by the British.  They wrote a song about him called “Yankee Doodle.”  And suddenly, it all makes sense, and I flash back to the present.  My sage advice is that some young songwriter get busy about these guys in Oregon at the birdwatchers site.  Maybe you’ll write a standard!

Man, getting older is more hallucinogenic than mushrooms from the ’60s.  Yeah, now we’re learning what tripping really is!

So I go to my basement where the walls are lined with gold and platinum plaques.  I can only imagine what those big, round garish 12″ disks mean to a younger generation.  Suddenly it feels so old.

Famous people are dying.  They have been dying for years and years.  … but these are OUR famous people!  And suddenly, we are discovering they are human.  And in that discovery, we are finding our own humanness.  We are finding our own inevitable vulnerability.

We’re seeing friends becoming frail.  We’re seeing giants disappear.

Twilight.

Who is dead and who is alive is just a temporary evaluation.  The equation changes soon.

It’s okay though!  Because, as Facebook has taught us, we don’t know who is alive and who is dead.  Maybe there really is no difference.  I’d like to believe that our spirits live on…

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Black Friday

August 13 falls on a Saturday this year.  I remember once, over half a lifetime ago, when it was Friday the 13th.  It was 34 years ago… and I was 32.  And I was coordinating the marketing set-up for all these 33 RPM albums.  Those are the good numbers.

It was August of 1982, and Epic Records was treading water a bit.  The good news was that the Rocky 3 soundtrack had just been certified multi-platinum, driven by the indelible “Eye of the Tiger” single by Survivor.  “Good Trouble,” REO Speedwagon’s follow up album to the many-times platinum “Hi Infidelity” was flagging, with only one Top 10 single, “Keep The Fire Burnin’.”  The only other big hit I recall was Bertie Higgins’ “Key Largo,” a big radio record that just didn’t translate to album sales.

epic 2

I was three years into being a product manager at Epic.  I had a few successful projects under my belt with The Charlie Daniels Band, The Clash, The Isley Brothers, Luther Vandross, and Steve Forbert.  I had managed to achieve one of those titles straight out of the Rolling Stones’ song “The Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man.”  Mine was Associate Director, East Coast Product Management.

But the work had been hard, as I had inherited two intense and laborious projects that impacted Epic’s bottom line severely.  One was Meatloaf, whose follow up album to the astounding success to “Bat Out of Hell” had finally arrived in the fall of 1981.  It had been a torturous road of a lost voice and lost opportunity.  Meat was unable to record the original follow-up album, “Bad for Good,” due to severe vocal issues that loomed as a likely career-ending tragedy.  That album became Jim Steinman’s debut that simply could not live up to 40 million plus sales of “Bat Out of Hell.”

However, by the time we staggered out of the box with Meat’s return with “Dead Ringer,” the momentum was all but gone.  And despite the passion the Cleveland International’s Steve Popovich, Stan Snyder, and Sam Lederman brought to the release, the U.S. sales results were gut-wrenching.  We spent a ton trying to make it happen, and the CBS Records finance people were quick to remind us what geniuses we were.

In the meantime, the company was working desperately to get Tom Scholz and Boston to deliver their third album.  It had been four years since “Don’t Look Back,” the huge follow-up album to their astonishing self-titled debut.  In those days, such a gap in the timely release of succeeding albums was almost unheard of.   However, Tom Scholz, the group’s creative nucleus, had established a reputation as the ultimate perfectionist.  Epic senior management agonized over the delays in delivery.   And the bean-counters at CBS Records were demanding to know how we were going to replace those expected sales numbers.

Our A&R people, in desperation, had pulled together some of the members of the group, who were also frustrated with Scholz’ possession of the creative process, and in 1980 released a solo album by Boston guitarist, Barry Goudreau.  This ultimately infuriated Tom, and I became one of the last links attempting to mend the fences and fuel his desire to deliver that third album to Epic.  By August of 1982, that still had not happened, and ultimately it never did.  In fact, the situation devolved into a massive lawsuit that extended into the next nine years.  However, that’s another blog story for the future!

So on Thursday, August 12, 1982, I got a call from my boss’s boss to come to his office.  It was not an unusual occurrence in the socially relaxed environment of a record company at that time.  The heads of the company would check in on conversations that a product manager might be having with an artist or their manager.  It’s a people business.

However, on this day the door closed behind me, and I was quickly informed that on the next day, Friday the 13th, I was to sit down individually with about half of the east coast marketing staff to inform them that they had been laid off.  I was sworn to secrecy until the process would begin the following morning.  As the Associate Director, I had not really had any power to hire and essentially had only a little authority.  As a senior product manager, I helped guide my new counterparts about the job and how to get it done and I also was involved in assigning what product manager would handle new artist signings.  That usually came with some strong recommendations from senior management as well as from the people in A&R, who had their favorite product managers.   Suddenly, life became all too real.  In a moment, I had been drawn into informing people that their lives were changing.  I was told I would be given envelopes the following morning that would indicate who I was to let go and I was given instructions on how to handle each meeting.

In those days, working for a big major label like Columbia, Epic, Warner Brothers, Atlantic, MCA, or Polygram, meant that you had a gig for the foreseeable future.  I knew many, many people who had worked at the company for ten, twenty, and thirty years.  It was a paternal environment.  We were mentored to be there for a career.  And although it was still a daunting environment for women executives, our department was beginning to open up to those opportunities.   In 1982, after the explosion of album sales in the ‘70s, a mass lay-off was unheard of and virtually unfathomable.

Black Friday arrived with dread.  As I remember, I was given roughly five envelopes that morning.  By the time I finished the first meeting and opened the door to leave that product manager’s office, I was already numb.  The hallways were already in chaos.  People were darting in and out of offices, spreading the news of who the first victims were and speculation was wild about what was to come and how far this bloodbath would go.  Like a robot, I went on to repeat the process with department mates and colleagues… and above all, friends.

Somewhere along the line, I discovered that my boss had been let go, and no provision had been made to inform his secretary.  She was in tears, asking me for help and what was going on.  She had been missed in the process, and when I inquired with H/R, one more meeting was added to my day.

Times have changed, and being laid off today is a common experience, and one that most people understand they should not take as an indictment upon their performance or their integrity as an employee.  However, since lay-offs had been non-existent at that time, the people being laid off took it very, very hard.  All told, over 300 people left us that day.  These were all talented, hard-working people. CBS Records closed nearly half of our 21 branch offices across the U.S.  It was Black Friday, indeed.

In the wake of that August 13, 1982 shock, the dust slowly settled.  A semi-cold record label had paid the price for not delivering the massive sales to drive the corporate ship.  A certain remorse set in.  The closed doors of empty offices and the half-filled secretarial bays were daily reminders that these records had to sell.  Had we completely lost our mojo?  Did we really know how to do this?  Survivor’s guilt settled in hard.  We had been jolted into the realization that these were jobs we had to do and there were consequences if we weren’t successful.

And just at that point when we were trying to figure out if this whole concept of the crazy music business still worked, something happened to us.  Out of the ashes it came, like something no one had ever seen before.  Thriller!

Michael_Jackson_-_Thriller

Oh, I’m not going into the whole story of the most powerful album release in the history of the music business.  If you want that story, just listen to the album… it speaks volumes!

What remains remarkable to me is how that album and its success transformed a record company and the people who worked for it.  It was only weeks after that terrible August day that we listened to Michael Jackson’s album in the 13th floor conference room.  Oh, we knew that the duet with Paul McCartney, “The Girl Is Mine,” was a hit!  How smart did we have to be?

Here we were, once again, trying to follow a multi-platinum album with huge expectations – from our finance department – as well as radio, retail, and the public!  Meatloaf, Boston, even REO, lurked in our recent past.  The daunting challenge of matching Michael’s five million unit U. S. sales success with “Off The Wall” was hard to grasp.  We were simply relieved to have that first single to momentarily relieve the pressure.

Within 3 ½ months of Black Friday, we had an album hit the streets that changed our lives forever and the direction of Epic Records for at least a decade to come.

But “Thriller” arguably changed other artists’ lives in its wake.  Epic Records got hot.  Epic got its swagger back.  “Thriller” opened up doors as it sold and dominated airplay and video play for its many singles.  It created leverage for our promotion people and our sales and distribution people.  Subsequently, we broke Culture Club and Cyndi Lauper and Sade; each winning the Grammy for “Best New Artist in 1984, ’85, and ’86.  And they all sold multi-millions.

In those next 36 months, we broke Quiet Riot (“Come On Feel The Noize”), Til Tuesday, (“Voices Carry”), Gloria Estefan & The Miami Sound machine (“Dr. Beat”), and re-broke REO Speedwagon (“Can’t Fight This Feeling”).  We even broke Springsteen knock-off John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band, for God’s sake!  You remember “On The Dark Side” from the “Eddie and the Cruisers” soundtrack?  We sold millions and millions of albums!

Of course, all of these artists and their songs succeeded on their own merit.  However, it was the momentum of the Epic Records promotion, publicity, and marketing team, and the muscle of the CBS Records sales and distribution machine that opened the door and maximized these successes.

Among those successes, I believe a few of them would have never gotten the full shot if not for the success of “Thriller.”  We got our mojo back.  We used the leverage of one success to help us break others.  It was a magical time that I know many of my colleagues will remember as the revenge of Black Friday.  It is simply another way that great music transcends and changes the world.

Yesterday, almost 34 years removed since Black Friday, it was announced that Epic Records was moving their HQ to LA.  I’m sure it will change many lives and some will chose not to make the move.  I’m sure, whatever that move is meant to fix, would be better served if another “Thriller” dropped from the sky.  In  1982,… We were lucky!

I know there are more examples of hits and hit artists opening the path other artists.  I’d love to hear those stories!

*****

 

Harvey _ me Hawaii

Harvey Leeds and I discussing the music business in Hawaii.

 

Addendum:

One of the joys of writing an occasional blog story is that I hear from so many former colleagues and friends who have shared so many amazing experiences in the old school music industry.  Along with the warm notes expressing mutual appreciation for those times and those experiences, I always get some great feedback from those friends and colleagues who often remember specifics for better than I do.  They send me notes to correct or expand or give me an entirely different side of what they saw happening.  I haven’t written a blog story yet where I got it all right.

One of the reasons I write so infrequently is that there is so much texture and detail to most of these stories that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to capture it in a few blog pages.  I have written several pieces that I’ve never posted because they have devolved into a blur of conflicting details that blew up my origin al premise.  Writing sometimes just makes me discover that I just don’t have the full story.

I received a note from Harvey Leeds regarding my “Black Friday” blog.  He posted on Facebook, “Ahem—rewriting history like every great journalist!!  Thanks for the memories—some of them.”

I write this addendum, because I take Harvey’s comments very seriously.  He was a central player in the history of Epic Records.  Our time together at Epic overlapped for roughly 20 years, and his time there extended beyond mine.  We worked together on countless projects, argued how to do it, occasionally blaming each other when an act hit the wall, and we celebrated many successes together.

My intentions for the “Black Friday” blog was to remember a day that is indelible in many of our minds and to connect it to the corporate moves that continue to this day, upon Epic’s announcement that they are moving HQ to the West Coast.  It was also to illustrate how multi-platinum success, evolving out of the mid-‘70s, was becoming a requirement at major labels.  On some level the powers-that-be did not want to hear how we were developing acts.  They just wanted big numbers.

In that blip of a moment when Epic didn’t have that huge multi-platinum release, we paid for it, as did Columbia Records and the CBS Records Distribution staff.  In my artist examples, I certainly short-handed my examples. Between Epic/Portrait/CBS Associated Labels, we easily had 70-80 artists on the roster.  My rock artist references essentially included those that crossed over to multi-platinum pop success.  We had many other successes at rock and R&B that apparently didn’t move the numbers people at CBS at the time.  There were platinum successes with Aldo Nova and gold with Eddy Grant, who also won the Grammy for “Best R&B Song” with “Electric Avenue.”  I know I am missing others.

My ultimate point was that the arrival of “Thriller” changed much for Epic Records.  Our promotion people, led by Frank Dileo, Larry Douglas, T.C. Tompkins, Paris Eley, Harvey Leeds, and Bill Bennett, leveraged that Michael Jackson success powerfully and artfully to enhance the opportunities and careers of other artists on our roster.

I appreciate Harvey’s note, because it reflects his pride and his view on our collective history.  In my humble opinion, I thought Harvey was one of the best at using that ‘success leverage’ to benefit of our artists and all of us who worked at the label.

I have no notion that my blog could have any material effect on “re-writing history.”  To me, one of the great opportunities in putting the effort into creating this blog is to get the rich feedback, perspective, reflections, and stories of the friends and colleagues who shared this amazing music life that we had.  Nothing would be better than for it to be interactive with the depth that can only come from our collective memories.

Last year, Harvey, Chris Poppe, John Doelp, and I had an uproarious lunch, mostly inspired by Harvey’s take on the people and events that dotted our past.  I should have taped it!  I’m sure you would all have appreciated the expletives and even some of the libel that made our two-hour plus lunch a hilarious episode.  As Chris said as we were leaving the restaurant, “That was like a vacation!”

So while I agonize putting my foot in my mouth again and writing down sometimes rusty memories, I hope you’ll all give me a little poetic license… because some of it is actually true!

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Vinyl Response

            Most of us have read or even been a part of the indignation from music business veterans concerning the portrayal of life in the industry in the Martin Scorsese/Mick Jagger/Terence Winter produced HBO series “Vinyl.” For the uninitiated, the drama is set in NYC in 1973, around the events at a struggling record label called American Century. I have been a part of the “that’s not the way I remember it” legion of mostly retired record people. I was so very fortunate to have spent the better part of my adult life as a record executive. However, rather than continuing the dialogue on what “Vinyl” is not, maybe it would be better to reflect on what it was… or at least what the business was in our eyes as young people pursuing our careers in the aftermath of the tumultuous 1960’s. Maybe this will allow us to let “Vinyl” free to be what it is, a fictional 2016 entertainment series that intertwines fact and fantasy.

rolling stones

Ron Wood, Mick Jagger, Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers, Kinky Friedman, members of the NY music media, and me.  Photo credit:  Mary Alfieri.

 

            I didn’t officially come aboard at CBS Records until April of 1974, so maybe things changed in those few months between my experience and the 1973 setting of the “Vinyl” fantasy about the music industry. In addition, I didn’t transfer to New York to head national publicity for Epic Records until the middle of 1975.

However, let me share my reflections on those amazing years of the mid ‘70s and into the early 1980’s. It is, of course, impossible to condense those memories, emotions, and awe in a succinct blog post, but let me give it a shot.

Think about the tech world of today and perhaps of the last ten years. It’s a world of smart, hyper, inventive, and energized young professionals. Getting a job at CBS Records or Warner Brothers or any of the other majors of that era was like getting a cool job with Apple or Google today. Like getting into today’s start-up/tech industry, getting into the music industry was the ultimate career achievement.

By the time I landed in NYC, I was 25 years-old and just three years out of college. The Epic staff were my contemporaries. Most were in their twenties, and

many of those in senior management and the ‘veterans’ in the business were barely into their thirties. Ron Alexenburg, the brash young head of Epic was about 33 at the time, as was Steve Popovich, Epic’s storied and passionate head of A& R. Both had come up through the ranks as local radio promo people in Chicago and Cleveland respectively. They were blue collar guys, but they had largely stocked their staff with young, college-educated people, many of whom had risen from a college rep program that sought out the best and brightest. To be a CBS Records or Warner Brothers college rep was a transforming position, both in status and in establishing a bright career path.

We weren’t a small label like “Vinyl’s” American Century Records. Epic’s roster included Donovan, Sly & The Family Stone, and Labelle. We marketed and distributed the phenomenally hot Philadelphia International label whose roster included Billy Paul (“Me and Mrs. Jones”), The O’Jays (“Love Train”), and Lou Rawls, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, and MFSB.

Our roster had many new and up and coming artists and recent signees, the likes of Boston, Dan Fogelberg, REO Speedwagon, Michael Murphy and Ted Nugent. We had country artists crossing over to pop, including Charlie Rich and Tammy Wynette. This was no small operation.

 

With that amazing roster (and there were many more!), Epic was still the step-child label at CBS Records. Our big sister label, Columbia Records, had Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Earth Wind & Fire, Chicago, Weather Report, Journey, and Johnny Cash.

As I recall, CBS Records was commanding, at times, as much as 30% of the music industry’s U.S. market share. Warner Brothers, with its array of label imprints – Warner, Elektra, Asylum – had, at times, an even larger market share. Then, there was MCA, RCA, Capitol, and Polygram, all taking their respective chunks of the industry.

The point is, that although there were still a number of indie labels that might fit the template that is portrayed in “Vinyl,” the music industry was a far bigger and mass market oriented business. It wasn’t one or two A&R guys with ears or one promo guy with a bag of money and drugs or one sales guy dumping returns into the ocean.

CBS Records had three pressing plants that operated 24/7. Santa Maria, California, Terre Haute, Indiana, and Pitman, NJ each had vibrant warehouses where loud stampers squeezed music into vinyl. Semi-tractor trailers rolled out to move millions of 30-count boxes of albums to tens of thousands of retail outlets.

The CBS Distribution operation had hundreds of sales reps in 21 offices throughout the U.S. Columbia and Epic each had dozens of local radio promo reps, field merchandisers went into retail stores to check inventories for our hits, and even re-stocked the shelves store-by-store to insure our music was positioned to beat the competition.

And why did the hits look so good? CBS Records had a Creative Service Department with some of the top graphic designers in the world. People like John Berg and Paula Scher and their people, won Grammies on a regular basis. The Production team made sure that the massively complicated schedule for clearing publishing credits, paying session musicians, and manufacturing was on time. We had advertising people, copywriters, and a photography department. We were on deadlines and we marketed products that had to be sold when they were fresh. These were the real areas of drama in the old record business, but not the ones a Scorsese or Jagger could fathom. Mick, a savvy music businessman, was just too far up the food chain to fully know how his albums all came together in the mass distribution phenomena that existed in those days.

However, there was more than just a massive distribution system and huge U.S. field staff. The major labels had grown internationally as well. We had offices in countries around the world. A New York based international department coordinated the flow of music, materials, and information to territories across the globe. Daily contact wasn’t just with the U.K. or Japan, but with offices in Israel, South Africa, New Zealand, and beyond.

And while this enormous machine worked, we had an aesthetic at CBS Records, Columbia, and Epic that was built upon taste, dignity, and honorable leadership. It began with founder William S. Paley. The legend was that he told the young minions at his record labels that he had “a license to print money.” And that license was real. He demanded that the record division not ever do anything to threaten the company’s most sacred asset, the FCC licenses for the CBS television and radio networks, and the affiliated stations across the country. We were the “Tiffany” company. We were to honor our assets.

After Mr. Paley, we had other giants to admire. Goddard Lieberson, as Chairman of CBS Records, was a revered Broadway angel who nurtured careers like Leonard Bernstein’s and brought life to “My Fair Lady” and “A Chorus Line.” His sophistication, dedication to the arts, and class permeated our several thousand company people around the globe with pride and purpose.

We worked for and with people who brought more of that integrity to our daily lives. Bruce Lundvall’s commitment and love for jazz artists and his vision for excellence, no matter the commercial outcome, spawned success anyway, with Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. He was another company leader who was easy to approach, had the ultimate sense of humor, and made you proud to be a part of his company.

I think back to the CBS Records Conventions, when the day started with product presentations at 8 AM and concluded just in time for us to do a quick change of clothes for a dinner show that might include Bill Withers, The Beach Boys, and The Charlie Daniels Band, all on the same stage in one evening. It might have ended at 1 AM, but no one went to sleep! We ended up in the hotel suites where you might come across a jam session that included Epic’s head of marketing, Jim Tyrell on bass, with senior sales exec, Stan Snider on keys, with Marlena Shaw singing! As a young person new to the company I was in awe to see these music business people engaging legends in late night music making.

My memories include early mornings in my office a couple of times each week, when a rumpled, older man with a big smile and a silvery flat-top would amble into my office. With a cup of coffee in hand, John Hammond would share his concerns about an artist getting their due, while thrilling me with slivers of stories about discovering and signing a stunning list of artists, including Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. An unassuming man, who was a civil rights leader, and just happened to be an heir to the Vanderbilt clan.

Oh, we drank and partied and ran around the country with our American Express cards. Drugs really didn’t find their way to record industry suites to a large degree, until at least the late ‘70s, as I recall, in any high profile way. We were out to see our acts perform virtually every night, as in those days if an act was performing in NYC, you went. It was pretty much mandatory. I was afraid to go to sleep. I might miss something big!

Our first job was always to get the company fired up about an act. The prevailing belief was that if we were all on-board with an artist, no one could stop us. That’s how a Bruce Springsteen happened. A group of hundreds of people who would not let his talent go unrewarded. I remember branch offices challenging other branch offices to who was going to do more to explode an up-and-coming artist. We loved our artists and we loved what we could collectively do to make them happen. The pride in that belief in our own power as a group was pervasive. This is what so many of us remember with such heartfelt emotion.

Somehow these memories don’t seem to equate to “Vinyl.” That story seems so small and dirty to me. Oh, we had our seamy side. There is no doubt that money changed hands. There’s no doubt there was sex and drugs. However, we know those things exist in every business. I believe for us veterans of the music industry, we are just so tired of hearing only that side about our business.

“Vinyl” is entertainment. It’s not necessarily true. It’s based on elements of truth. Most people don’t even care if it is true. Give us some good plot twists, a murder, some sex, and good music, and we are entertained.

And I was entertained for many years by working with larger than life personalities, endless pressures, and the countless popular successes that I shared with the many, many colleagues from the music business. Mick Jagger doesn’t necessarily know of most of those people or what they do or what they might have meant to his success. I do. They mean as much to me as the superstars we helped build. And I can only touch on a fraction of what our world was like.

So enjoy “Vinyl” for what it is. I’m going to enjoy my memories of a vibrant, hopeful, can-do business for what it truly was…

The Curious Case of an Old Songwriter

Curiosity! I think that’s what drives the creative process for young songwriters. That’s what drove me over 50 years ago. Like so many of my generation, I was thrown into the fantasy of being a rock and roller. It happened on that electrifying moment on a Sunday night, February 9, 1964, at 8 PM Eastern, when The Beatles glowed into living rooms across America on the Ed Sullivan Show.

I was overwhelmed! They were so very cool. In a world of Steve Lawrences and Dean Martins, it was a group, with guitars and amps and drums. What a concept! …And now it was scaring the hell out of our parents! Wow, kids could really do that?

I was galvanized! Isolated in a small Western Pennsylvania town, I didn’t know that there were thousands of my generation whose passions had been moved in that same way, at that same moment, in cities and town all across the country.  I guess I hadn’t signed up to Facebook yet!

I had dropped practicing scales, and what I apparently thought was the pointless weekly routine of piano lessons, when I left elementary school. Suddenly, I wanted to play again! Like so many of us, we got three or four buddies and we set up camp in the garage or the basement. We learned a 1-4-5 progression and E, D, A, and we could stagger through a full set of pop songs.

I pulled together a bag full of other influences, like everyone else. Mine were American artists like Bob Dylan, Donovan, The Rascals, Three Dog Night, Dion DiMucci, and of course, the plethora of bands from the British Invasion. The Stones, Dave Clark Five, and The Kinks, were among them. And then me and my buddies went out and played school dances and parking lots and eventually gravitated to playing the bars and clubs along the New York State border, where the drinking age was 18, versus 21 in Pennsylvania.

The turmoil and sea change in America was led by the civil rights movement, and soul music spoke to the issues. Earlier in the ‘60s, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Going To Come” was an exotic and mysterious thought to a kid from a small, almost entirely white rural community. However, it meshed with Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changing.” And then Stephen Stills seemingly pulled our consciousness together. “Something’s happening here…”

We were just a couple of years past the horrible assassination of John Kennedy. No matter what your politics, the lingering pain that hope and happiness had died, pushed our desire for change. It instilled a restlessness that seemed pervasive among the young.

Then, my second TV epiphany happened. I think it was in 1967. I recall it was a Saturday afternoon. Flipping around the few channels we had, I landed upon a random live concert, which I believe was from the Ohio State Fair. The Chambers Brothers were performing “Time Has Come Today.” It sunk in.

Then, a new band followed. Black and white. Soul and rock. Horns and guitars. Afros. Shirtless. Hippiness from San Francisco. It was “Dance To The Music” and then… “There is a blue one, who can’t accept a green one, for living with a fat one…” Sly and his outrageously musical band consumed me with passion. Music was in charge. Music was power and sexuality. Music was thinking. Music was social and political. Music was the new journalism.

The world was out of control. A war was raging. Friends were getting drafted. People I knew were coming home in boxes. Others came back alive, but were frightfully screwed up on drugs. It scared the shit out of me.

Martin Luther King was shot. Bobby Kennedy was shot.

The songs became even more pointed. It was like Barry McGuire’s 1965 hit “Eve of Destruction” was coming to fruition.   Marvin Gaye asked “What’s Goin’ On?” and Edwin Starr emphatically questioned, “War…What is it good for?” And Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong captured the chaos with The Temps’ “Ball of Confusion.”

…And others offered hope. Cat Stevens exhorted us with “Peace Train,” and John Lennon galvanized our inner hope with his emphatic pleas of “Give Peace A Chance” and “Imagine.”

Oh, it wasn’t all high-minded social commentary. There was the genius of Roger Miller’s novelty. “Dang Me,” “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died,” and Shirley Ellis’ addictive rhyme, “The Name Game.” Songs scripted every emotion of our lives.

Yeah, I wanted to be a songwriter. They were the movers and shakers of a generation. They cut through the BS with three minutes of clarity.

Amazingly enough, I got my chance. After establishing myself with a music business day job as a journalist and then a publicist, by the late ‘70s, I actually got to write with a couple of my idols. To write lyrics for Dion DiMucci and Felix Cavaliere is still a little bit surreal for me. They are true giants in the world of rock and pop since its very beginnings. And the experiences of collaborating with them still rings magically in my heart and mind.

However, by 1980, I had spent fifteen years establishing a career in the music business. And in my spare time (which was becoming almost non-existent), I was spending every waking hour writing. Boxes of unrequited lyrics – scraps of notepads, napkins, words and rhymes — stared at me quietly. I was speaking with no voice.

My passions were diverted to creating strategies for other artists and writers. How to get through the corporate world of the music business? How to get a massive marketing machine hitting on all 8 cylinders? How to cut through the maze for people whose talent often far exceeded mine? I became a surrogate, creating marketing plans, fixing problems, and helping artists navigate “the system.”

Yes, songwriting had been pushed to the back of my cranium. In many ways it seemed it was a place for younger people to explore. Curiosity! Trying things. Trying to figure out the world. Testing your thinking about young adult discoveries.

So 50 years pass. Songwriting? There’s no need to go there again. Hey, there’s no “demand” to go there again!

And then one day, an old friend, indie artist extraordinaire, Gary Lucas called. I had recently encouraged him to write with Jann Klose, a singer/songwriter with a wonderful voice. I thought their talents would complement each other, and Gary assured me that they had.

He also asked me a question. “Hey, you write lyrics. Why don’t you write with us?”

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Dan, Jann, Gary

At 65 years old, why do I need to go there again? I could only fail. It’s like I imagined an old man trying to date again. Clumsy, stupid, and no sense of style or timing. And that’s painful to watch!

So thanks to Gary and Jann for their willingness and graciousness to allow me to climb up on that horse again, we wrote. It’s all the fun of scrabble with friends! Fitting words together. Getting into the same rhythm and attitude and emotion. I didn’t try to do anything outside of myself. I love and admire much of the poetry of rap… but I don’t rap. All I could do was go back to my roots of songwriting and see if it still had any relevance.

And let’s look at relevance for a moment. At what age does it end? At what age do you stop dancing? At what age do you stop thinking with whatever ability to do so that you have left?   It all comes to an end, but can there be grace to the encore of our relevance?

Life’s too fast, and I’m too slow.

You dream too high, you come to know…

You’re born with nothing, you die with less.

I’m livin’ in the well of loneliness.

 I could have embarrassed myself trying to write popular songs at this stage of life. And maybe I did! But maybe I embarrassed myself at 15 too. I was young and I was curious. Now, I am getting old… and I’m curious.

Yes, I am curious, and maybe that makes me young again. And as I begin this New Year, my resolve is to be curious. My hope is that we all seek out our curiosity. That we continue to discover. Travel. Read. Re-discover friends. Understand our families in new ways. Explore something new!

And if you are curious about those songs, judge for yourself, as Gary Lucas & Jann Klose present their new album “Stereopticon.” The three of us co-produced the album. Gary and Jann co-wrote all of the songs and I collaborated on six of them. And if you do listen by chance, I thank you!

…And if I embarrassed myself, just remember that I’m a curious old guy!

STEREOPTICON can be found on all digital stores, including iTunes at https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/stereopticon/id1065240432 and on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B018ZPIXGE

 iTunes | Amazon | Spotify | Pandora

Watch the “Secret Wings” video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvNeh8ozt_I

Major Label Marketing – 20 Years Ago!

I recently ran across my notes for a presentation to the Sony Music National Distribution and Field Staff, when I was SVP of Marketing and Sales. It recaps the marketing tools we created in 1995 at Epic Records. We wanted our sales people, in branch offices across the country, to understand what materials were available and how comprehensive the effort was to support the Epic Records roster of artists. To do this we outlined all the different tools we created and in many cases, the quantities that were made. These were the days before the advent of digital distribution, streaming, YouTube, and Social Networking. I am not sure what we can learn from taking a look at what was. However, I found the notes intriguing.

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Oasis’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, released in 1995.

I recall 1995 as being a very intense year, as I was spearheading the release of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits release, HIStory, along with my primary role of heading our label’s marketing efforts.  The roster was primarily rock and pop, including Babyface, Pearl Jam, Korn, Oasis, Sade, Ozzy Osbourne, Silverchair, Cyndi Lauper, Rage Against The Machine, Gloria Estefan, the Spin Doctors, and Luther Vandross.

In 1995, Epic packaged and released 302 singles in various configurations. Of these, 204 were promotional and 98 were commercial singles. These included CD singles, CD5’s, 7” vinyl, Cassingles, maxi Singles, and 12” vinyl releases. We released 74 frontline CD titles and 76 frontline cassette albums. Why we released two extra cassette albums I can’t remember. My how the world has changed!

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Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy, released in 1994.

Epic marketing made 63 music videos that ranged from under $4,000 to nearly $300,000 to produce. That does not include the Michael Jackson videos that we produced under a separate budget that soared into the millions. But that’s another story! Videos in those days averaged under $90,000 each. Five of these videos went to #1. Nine of them made the Top 10, and we charted 23 promo videos. The video charts were essentially made up from surveying MTV, BET, The Box, Fuse, local TV video play, and video play in clubs. There was no YouTube. Any detection of product placement in our videos back then would get them summarily booted from an MTV programming meeting. Their “Standards & Practices” department judged videos for too much violence and language content. I often referred to them as the “Double Standards & Practices” department, as star level artists seemed to be measured by a different standard.

We placed print ads in over 200 different college newspapers, and with alternative and national print, ads ran in over 500 different publications.

We posted over 100,000 street snipes and placed over 2,100 TV spots. These ran on the various music networks, but also on local cable and even major network affiliates for some superstar level artists’ campaigns.

We tour-supported 20 acts (advanced money to cover tour losses) that year, and we made about 2.5 million promo pieces for retail, including posters and flats, stickers, tent cards for clubs, fliers, window clings, mobiles, and life-sized stand-ups. The tour support had major impact particularly for rock bands. Korn is a particular example of a band that was subsidized for over a year until their debut album gained the momentum to explode on a sales level.

Our promotion department spent millions in independent promotion and our sales department spent similar numbers in co-op advertising for the many retail chains, indie stores, and mass merchandisers who existed then. At one point, I roughly estimated that we had physical product in over 23,000 retail outlets. Manufacturing, shipping, inventory control, and timing were strategic factors in breaking artists. Given that this physical product was essentially 100% returnable, there were big risks in over-shipping, just as there were big risks in damaging demand if there was not enough stock in the right markets at the right time.

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Sade’s greatest hits, The Best of Sade, released in 1994.

In hindsight, a lot of these expenditures look pretty inconsequential in today’s market. Most of it was totally inefficient by current standards. I was never a big fan of spending money on print advertising, but the online reach in 1995 was miniscule. Pressures came from various avenues, including managers and artists, senior management, and even the product managers who simply wanted to show the artist they could do something to support the release. Measurement of ROI was scarce, if meas

urable at all.

We often made second videos on second singles when no one was interested in the first one. Again, the pressures of an insecure business pushes buttons beyond logic. Panicked artists and demanding managers essentially exhorted us to do something!

Despite the dramatic loss of sales revenue over the past 20 years, the ability to make vastly more impressions is available to even the most indie artist. A couple of clicks today would likely have a greater reach than a regional cable TV buy back then. The entire print effort could be more efficiently targeted and generated online for a fraction of the money we spent chopping down trees. And of course, the point of sale material for music stores is virtually obsolete these days.

Interestingly, I have a list of the TV shows where we secured appearances for our artists, and it really hasn’t changed much. Letterman, MTV, E!, Oprah, Nickelodeon, and Good Morning America were on the radar then as many are today. Some have gotten more aggressive in how they program music, such as GMA. And of course, some have drastically reduced their commitment to music, like MTV. We would spend thousands to fly an act in to do a Letterman appearance, and we would feel a sales impact in most cases. Today, that support has waned as the impact of late night TV has become fragmented by the vast expanse of cable and online media.

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Michael Jackson’s greatest hits, HIStory, released in 1995.

The labels worked hard to get music in films back then, and although music is still a vital element in filmmaking, soundtracks have faded in their number and importance. Even sync licensing, as a market tool as much as a revenue generator, dramatically and forever changed with Moby’s “Play” album in 1999.

We had a controlled market back in the day. It seems so rudimentary today, but it did work for many artists. It reminds me of those big clunky mobile phones we hauled around back then. It reminds me of those manufacturing plants in Carrolton, Georgia and Pitman, NJ, operating 24/7. Semi-trucks filled with CDs, and cassettes before that, and 8-tracks, and vinyl.

Those phones got much, much smaller didn’t they?   …And today, all that music is on those phones. The pressing plants are mostly gone. Those 23,000 record stores are mostly gone. And your phone is now your newspaper, your record store, your radio station, and the milk crate that holds all your albums.

And the phone changed something else too. The demand for celebrity autographs has faded too. You can just snap a selfie to prove you rubbed elbows with the stars. I’ll let you decide how it all changed the music and the artists.

So there’s a little, old-school snapshot from 1995. I guess it’s my selfie… and a selfie for a few of my friends.