I had a very interesting last couple of days. It was sort of a walk down memory lane. It is something that I don’t often do, but it was enlightening. What I gained from the last three days is what has fundamentally changed for the music industry.
On Friday, Dave Marsh, who is arguably the #1 rock critic and historian in the world invited me to sit in with him and my good friend and partner in crime, Paul Rappaport on Dave’s show on the E-Street Band channel on Sirius/XM. Dave has written books about Bruce and has been his friend for several decades. I’ve known Dave for close to 30 years and Rap for even more. Basically we all sat around and told stories about our experiences working with Bruce and promoting his music while I was at Columbia. Rap worked with Bruce at the very beginning. When I came along he was already a star, but about to become a superstar. It is stuff I never speak about…certainly not in public. The main reason I don’t is that people, especially people outside of the music industry wouldn’t believe it. You really can’t work “so Bruce came to my going away party, into conversations. So, it was fun to talk about some of our experiences.
After the show we had what amounted to a nearly four hour lunch. We spoke about music and politics. Dave, who is somewhere left of Hillary Clinton usually has a much more liberal slant on things than I do. I am not a conservative by any means. I guess I would describe myself as independent and moderate. What I discovered is that Dave and I were pretty much directly in step with our opinions of what is going on in the world right now. I voted for Obama and I am hugely disappointed. Dave voted for Barack also, and to say he is disappointed is an understatement. That is probably another blog on its own.
On Saturday, I was inducted into the Hall of Fame for my college radio station, WRHU. My college has had a cast of luminaries that worked there while in college. Mike Harrison, Dan Ingram, John DeBella, Lisa Glassberg, local long-time DJ, Ralph Tortora and many more. It was good to see some old friends again to to speak to the new members of the WRHU staff. It has changed a great deal from when I attended. I got a chance to listen to the station while they were announcing a Hofstra basketball game as well as an Islander game (which the station broadcasts). I realized how much better these guys were than I was when I was on the air.
On Sunday, myself and many of my Columbia comrades said goodbye to a great music man. This is a term that is too often used, but truly describes Don DeVito. Don passed a couple of weeks ago after a long bout with prostate cancer. His family rented out the Music Hall of Williamsburg and 250 friends and family members showed up to celebrate Don’s life. Billy Joel performed Miami 2017 (one of Don’s favorite Billy Joel songs), Rosanne Cash and her husband John Leventhal performed “Seventh Avenue”. Aerosmith was in Osaka a couple of nights ago and filmed a tribute to Don. Don’s son and some of his friends performed as well. They were great. Dozens of people spoke.
Don worked at Columbia Records for his entire career, which spread over 40 plus years. Impossible in today’s world. He was practically a member of the Byrds. He was closer to Dylan than anyone at the label. In fact he convinced Bob to return to Columbia after his momentary indiscretion with David Geffen’s label. The fist album he did upon his return was “Blood On the Tracks”. Don also was very close to Billy Joel, Aerosmith and many others. One of the speakers said Don was probably the only person he knew in the record business, that never had a bad word said about him. Very true.
Once again Paul Rappaport was there and broke up several times when he spoke. He got most emotional when he spoke of his “Family on the 12th Floor”. Columbia’s offices were on the 12th floor of Black Rock for many years before moving to the Sony building. It definitely felt like a family. Sure, we didn’t necessarily love each other all the time, but we felt we were in a fight together. To expose the world to something only we knew about. To take a family secret and let the world in on it. Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Alice In Chains and many other acts were these secrets. It felt good to know we were right. That was what was the most fun.
What struck me during the speeches was the difference between the music business today and the not so distant past. DeVito loved the music above anything else. We all did. None of the people that worked in the music business when I was in my 20’s 30’s and 40’s got into the business to make a lot of money. We got into it because we loved the music and the artists. We loved that the artists were eccentric. So were we. I have long noticed that the average person who lives in my town and other friends are very different than me. They had other pressing worries. They are grown-ups. My concerns were centered around the fact that I wanted to make sure that whatever project on which I was working on would be as successful as possible. Will I launch a career or bury it? Will a young kid have his dreams dashed. Will I be able to keep acts like Bruce, Pink Floyd, Billy Joel, Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp and Alice and Chains among others…on a roll. Will I do something to fuck it up? I don’t ever remember thinking about money. It was a commitment to the music and to the artists that drove me.
I don’t sense that is the case anymore in the music business. Sometime during the 90’s a new crop of executives came on the scene. Today they would be called Hipsters. They had to like the “right” music, dress in the “right clothes”, like the “right movies” and eat lots of sushi. It was all about the scene and their place in it. They claimed to love the artists. But what they really loved was jumping on the right bandwagon. They worked hard at politicking. They knew when to jump on the bandwagon and they knew even better when to jump off. Everything was about the preservation of their career and how much money they could earn.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved the money as much as anyone. But I saw it more as a perk than the reason why I worked at Columbia Records. I really cared about the music and the artists first. Most of the people I worked with felt this way. It is also probably why I never achieved my goal of being a record label president. I never liked playing politics. I was never really good at it. I was more concerned about doing my job than anything else. I figured if I did my job well, I would eventually achieve my goals. It doesn’t work like that. You have to kiss the right asses and make sure you get the people who threatened you out of the way. It was more important to get your rivals “voted off the island” than it was to be right.
The “men in charge” that have followed have a different goal than I. They first have to worry about surviving. The economics are such that they cannot be wrong. One major failure and they will be on the street. It must be more cutthroat now than it was back then. The stakes are much higher. If you lose a job now, you probably won’t find another.
The music has suffered as a result. The public is being deprived of real artists. You don’t see labels signing artists like Bruce, Dylan or Jeff Buckley anymore. By necessity they need to sign artists that will be successful quickly. There is just not enough money to go around. Bruce’s first records sold less than 100,000 each in their first year. Billy Joel almost got dropped after his second album on Columbia. Aerosmith almost got dropped before their first record was released. DeVito saved them. When Jeff Buckley was signed, his potential was realized, but we all knew it would take a minute. A minute we never were able to experience. But these acts were signed for the long term. There was a belief in the artists both as people and as a commodities. But there was an understanding that they would have to be nurtured. That understanding no longer exists. There is just no time.
Labels need quick results. So as a result we get Lady GaGa, Justin Bieber and the rest of the current crop of stars. We get POP STARS!!! “Not that there is anything wrong with that”. The problem is the soul has been taken out of the business. It is about money and ego and little else. It is no one’s fault. It is just the world we live in. There is nothing we will be able to do to change it. Unfortunately, most of our best talent will go unnoticed by the masses. They just will never get to hear them. It is truly our loss, because there are lots of talented young artists making very good music, that no one will hear.
I have gone the long way around in reaching the conclusion that the generation of music people that proceeded myself are leaving us every day. These were special people who came along at a unique time in history. Don DeVito was one of the most special of these people. Their timing and their talent allowed music in this country particularly to reach startling heights in artistry. Heights that I fear we will never again achieve.
So this weekend was a real look back for me. I don’t feel that I am just an elder statesman lamenting over his lost youth. There has been a cataclysmic shift in the core of the music business. I hope I am wrong. I hope in someway we can regain the innocence that allowed us to succeed. That allowed us to take chances without worrying about making mistakes. I am not sure it is possible. But I am holding out hope.