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…

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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.

morning glory album cover

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!

vitalogy album cover

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.

best of sade album cover

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.

MJ HIStory Album cover

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.

Springsteen’s Suits

            If I was a “suit” in the music business, then God knows, I wore some pretty good ones! Actually, I don’t remember buying a suit as a young adult. It was the era of sport coats with blue jeans… standard fare for young twenty-something music biz execs. But I did wear a couple of suits in those days… they just didn’t happen to be mine!

            When I arrived from Nashville to New York in the spring of 1975, to head publicity for Epic Records, there was an unequivocal frenzy at our parent company, CBS Records, and more specifically at Columbia Records. The people at Columbia had loyally and tenaciously pursued breakthrough success for Bruce Springsteen through his first three albums, and they were now in the process of achieving that historic success with the explosion of the August 1975 release, “Born to Run.”

            Columbia Records was the premiere label of the CBS Records machine and the entire 12th floor of Black Rock, the 52nd Street CBS corporate headquarters, was their home. Epic was the stepchild label of the company and was based on the 13th floor. However, because Columbia shared some of their publicity staff with Epic, Susan Blond and I, along with our assistants, Diane Tisko and Laura Curtin, were the only non-Columbia people on 12. We worked in the shadow of the phenomenal year of The Boss. The stunning 5-nights at New York’s Bottom Line, the simultaneous front covers of Time and Newsweek — all happened then, all in the wake of rock critic and future Springsteen manager Jon Landau’s proclamation “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” And Susan Blond and I and our small staff at Epic witnessed Columbia Records’ rock and roll epiphany with awe on a day-to-day basis. We were the proverbial flies on the wall.

            Steve Popovich had been an early, heart-on-his-sleeve crusader for Bruce, as the young head of promotion at Columbia. Steve was in the midst of creating his own legend in the music industry, and had just moved to Epic, and was now Head of A&R. Steve was a passionate advocate of the artists, the music and the music people he loved. He and Little Steven Van Zandt had become deeply connected friends, and when Van Zandt started producing Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, Popovich embraced them and signed them to Epic. So now the massive explosion of The Boss had spilled over to the Epic Records label, and we could not have been more overwhelmed with excitement. Epic now had a little bit of the Asbury Park magic.

            Working with the Jukes gave many of us young Epic people the essential excuse to gravitate down to Asbury Park, NJ on a regular basis. We now had a business reason to be there! With good friends of mine, I went in on a beach house rental in Belmar, NJ for the summer of ’76, as we were launching the Jukes debut album in the wake of the Springsteen success. …And I was on the Jersey Shore every weekend!

Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes debut album release party: Stone Pony, Asbury Park, 1976

Glen Brunman had joined Columbia in early 1975 as a publicist, and via his media strategies and work with Bruce, he quickly established himself as a member of The Boss’ inner circle. At 24, “Brahma” as Bruce had dubbed him, had become a media juggernaut with the stunning orchestration of the Time and Newsweek covers.

I was the fortunate beneficiary of Glen’s talents as he was assigned as a ‘special projects’ publicist to be shared by both Columbia and Epic. So part of my hanging in and around Asbury Park, and The Stone Pony and The Fast Lane, was with Glen.

One Saturday afternoon, Glen and I were walking around Asbury Park, and he suggested we stop by a store down the block to see some friends of his. We entered this little shop, and as I scanned the small front room, it was nearly bare of furnishings. There were a couple of simple clothing racks and a small 3’ x 3’ square platform, that was also about 3’ high, in the center of the bright, sun-lit room.  

There was only one person in this little barren shop. Her name was Obie. Glen knowingly explained to me that Obie was Bruce Springsteen’s trusted assistant and chief problem-solver. She modestly accepted Glen’s glowing introduction with a warm smile and told us how she was working on some new stage outfits for Bruce. She was engaged in getting those pants and jackets altered just right.      

Suddenly, Obie did a double-take on me, and looked me up and down. Then, she exclaimed in an “aha” moment, “You’re perfect!”

In the flurry of an instant, Obie Dzielzic thrust a pair of trousers in my hands and pointed me toward a backroom. The next thing I knew, I was standing on that 3’ x 3’ platform in a full suit, while Obie measured and tucked, and then stepped back to take a measured look at just how she wanted those trousers to fit. I hadn’t really gathered my thoughts yet, but I was now wearing Bruce Springsteen’s pants. I was more absorbed and taken by Obie’s care and joy in her work, and that she was envisioning how they would appear on another stage slightly larger than the one I was standing on.  

 Springsteen_Born_to_run_

It was a random experience, wedged somewhere between a Jersey diner Sunday breakfast and a beach traffic jam on the Garden State Parkway, in a rental car heading back to the city. For an hour or so, I wore those trousers and suit jackets that Bruce transformed into rock and roll chic, defying their formality and restriction.

I think I came back a time or two to help Obie confirm those suits fit just right. I met Bruce only once, standing in the witheringly hot, jam-packed kitchen at The Stone Pony the summer night of Southside Johnny’s big Epic debut party. It was a makeshift backstage area. We leaned against the stainless steel table, sandwiched together like sardines with a hundred other people, before he made his “surprise” guest appearance. I said “Hello,” but never mentioned the suits.

As I look back, there were only a few ‘suits’ in the music business, a few jerks who had little or no sensitivity for artists or somehow saw themselves as more important than the talent that makes it happen. The people I remember most are the ones who got the work done. The ones who enjoyed rubbing elbows with the stars, but knew and loved their own important role in the star-making process. People like Obie who got things done and never worried about a job title.

I’m not in the old-school music business any longer. Virtually no one is. And I certainly wasn’t a part of that amazing team that helped the Boss break big. I love the fact that many of my Columbia Records friends actually were a part of it.

Things change, but we have amazing, lasting memories of those days. Now today, I couldn’t get the gig of wearing the Boss’ suits anymore. I literally don’t fit the job!

Ironically, I’ve heard that one of the reasons Bruce still does have that rockstar physique is because of Obie Dzielzic. She is credited with fashioning his approach to healthy living with diet and menu planning. I guess I should have stayed in touch with her!

Now there’s word that Obie is writing a book on her experiences, and that Bruce has blessed it. I hope it happens, as I look forward to knowing more about her and her memories and observations as the ultimate person behind-the-scenes.  

It all kind of makes me feel like taking a little trip to Asbury Park…