I am not a blogger that writes every day. I often don’t have anything meaningful to say. Some may contend that I NEVER have anything meaningful to say. I meant to comment on this a few weeks back, but never got the idea formalized in my head. I was inspired by Bob Lefsetz’s (a long time industry blogger) piece today about Clive Davis.
One of my Facebook friends, Larry Stessel, who was also a long-term Sony Employee commented that there have been two books released in the least couple of months. The contention was if you only read these books you think these two guys were the only reason why most of the acts in the music business were successful over the last thirty years.
Both Clive Davis and Tommy Mottola were essentially heads of record labels or record divisions. There probably have not been two more different people in the business than these two. Tommy was fun to be around and quite likeable. Clive was not that. Both men had to have egos, but I cannot remember ever meeting anyone with an ego like Clive.
My first job in the music industry was as an intern for Arista. My direct contact with Clive was limited, as I was merely a peon. I do remember however a presentation he made to the sales, promotion and marketing staffs of the label and distributors in 1978. Clive is notorious for being long-winded. That is an understatement. I sat and listened to him talk and play new music for fours hours in the morning session. We were told we were forbidden from leaving the room. Even to take a bathroom break. After lunch it started all over again. Pretty scary. Clive was passionate about the music, but my sense is he was most passionate about the notoriety it brought him. His book does nothing to dispel that impression.
Record company presidents routinely take credit for the work that their staffs do. They ride the backs of their department heads and hope that they do the jobs for which they were hired. If the record is a hit, it is because the label head signed it. If the record’s a staff the promotion people or marketing people blew it. That is, or at least was the life in a major label.
While the laymen reading this piece can only dream of what it was like to be a label executive. Trust me, it was not sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll for all of us (thank you Ian Dury). There were some that lived the high life, but most of us just worked our asses off.
Contrary to popular belief the promotion and marketing people did not get in at noon. We were expected to be there before 10 every day. We had to in order to get a lot of the PDs or MDs on the phone. Many went on the air at 10. Many days we were in the office before that, barely recovered from the show the night before that ended at midnight. You may think that sounds glamorous, but try doing it four or five days a week and also on many weekends. It took stamina to be ON all the time. We were expected to be.
I don’t drink or do drugs. Contrary to popular belief not every executive does tons of blow. It would just be impossible to do you job. Many found that out the hard way. By not drinking, I believe that I was immediately suspect. Those who didn’t know me well probably thought that when I placed an order for a Coca Cola that it was because I was a recovering alcoholic. How else could I be in the business? There were some people that used partying to get close to the people they needed to work…Program Directors, Head Buyers, etc.. I was fortunate to be at Columbia and have access to the greatest roster in the industry. I didn’t need to ply anyone with drugs or hookers. They wanted to get close to me, because of what I could deliver for them. I watched their backs and made their jobs easier. They would help me out when I needed them to play a record. My job was to earn their trust and get the most out of the relationship, for my artists. I became friends with quite a few programmers. Many of which I still consider friends, even though we only speak occasionally these days.
While the Presidents took the acts out to dinners we would be in the trenches, making things happen. We would be invited to some of the larger dinners in New York. But we spent a lot of time on the road with the acts and that is where friendships were born. Trust me, none of the acts you know of today would happen without good promotion, marketing, Publicity and A&R people. We spent a ton of time with the artists. Often defending the company line, even if we didn’t fully agree, when it came to singles or other strategies. On occasion we would be thrust into the middle of a band dispute.
I remember an incident involving Aerosmith, vividly. Let me preface this by saying that I loved working with Steven, Joe and the rest of the band. They were serious workers, total pros and always on their game. At one point, without me knowing it there was a dispute within the band on what the second single from the “Nine Lives” album should be, I got put in the middle. The first track did not distinguish itself. Steve calls me and asks me if I thought “Pink” was the next single. He didn’t tell me that he wrote the song and would benefit financially and other ways if it were the single. Trying to stay out of the fray I hemmed and hawed, but eventually told him that I thought it would make a good single. Joe didn’t agree and then called to discuss it. The other three had their opinions. So the fur did fly a bit. The next thing I knew, I was the major proponent for “Pink”. Fortunately Don Ienner agreed, taking me off the hook and the single ended up doing very well. It is not a classic like “Dream On”, but it was one of Aerosmith’s last radio hits.
Most of the time we just did what we were told. Diane Warren wrote a song that the band recorded for the soundtrack to the movie “Armageddon”. The movie turned out to be huge, in part due to the scene in which this song appeared. It features Steven’s beautiful daughter Liv and Ben Affleck. Expecting a ballad to be a hit single on an Active Rock chart, was really dreaming. “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” appears on the album with a lush instrumental intro. The band’s A&R person, the legendary John David Kalodner, came into my office and played it for me. I said it would be tough, but I thought if we could change the intro we would have a chance. It wasn’t tough because the song wasn’t good. It was going to be tough, because Active Rock played hardly any ballads. Maybe one a year. My staff and I were determined to make this the one that they played. Kalodner, did a masterful job, substituing a piano for the strings and the track was #1 for several weeks. The song’s placement in one of the most memorable scenes from the movie, huge box office and a great edit, made this song #1. It is my favorite Aerosmith ballad.
Very often there are bands that break despite the opinion of the label heads. Train is an example of this. Train was actually signed to a label called Aware, owned and run by a great record guy named Greg Latterman. Greg also discovered John Mayer and others. The first Train cassette (yes we still got cassettes as advances in the old days) sat on my desk for ages. It wasn’t until an independent promoter and friend of Latterman, Scott Burton told me to listen and I did. It was obvious to me there were a couple of songs that would do well at radio on the album. Initially the rock department and the Triple A departments were the only staffs working the band. We got the first track Top 10 at rock radio and the second track “Meet Virginia” did very well at both rock and alternative. The record started to sell and everyone else climbed on board. They needed proof before throwing the strength of Columbia behind the band. I was sort of a scout. If I got shot by the enemy, I was expendable. No real harm done. No huge sums of money invested. If it turned out to be a hit I looked like a hero. I took a few for the team, but this was not one of them. We broke a band. Or at least we thought we did.
Less than a year later the band’s manager and my old friend Arnie Pistulnik, sent me an advance (this time a CD) of the second album. I later found out that I got it before practically anyone else, including my boss Don Ienner. When Donnie found out, he was not too happy about it. I don’t blame him. I remember getting in my car and being very excited to hear what they came up with. I listened to the first track. It was pretty good. I went to the second track and once again found it good but not great. Ditto for the third track and on and on to the end of the record.
I called Arnie over the weekend and told him that I didn’t hear a single. He of course told me I was wrong and that I should spend more time. Actually he might have said I was crazy. I listened several more times. I still didn’t hear anything exceptional. All good songs, but no real hits. I told the manager and later the band that if we put this record out that Train would be a “One Hit Wonder”. One of the things most dreaded in the industry. They of course had spent months writing and recording these songs and totally disagreed. They were gentlemen about it, but they thought I was wrong.
About a week later, Ienner was arriving at work and as he passed my office on the way to his, he sticks his head in and says “there isn’t a single on the Train album is there.” I said “Nope”. The band went back and re-worked some songs on the album and sent us a few songs they left off. Once again, good, but not great.
It is my understanding that they moaned and complained and even asked to be released from their deal. Ienner would not relent. Then one day several weeks later, Pat Monahan sits down in my office and sticks in a DAT of a song called “Drops of Jupiter”. After about thirty seconds I said we’re done!!! That is a smash. Pat said that is exactly what Donnie said. Another label head would have let the band leave or put out the record they wanted to put out. So in this case, Donnie more than earned his paycheck. He saved this band from themselves.
Train at the Grammy’s performing “Drops of Jupiter”- The track won the Grammy for “Best Rock Song”
Old Lady Peace was another example. Relativity Records was being purchased by Sony. Ienner came to me and asked if we had a choice between Our Lady Peace and Joe Satriani, the two significant acts on the label, which one should we take. Without hesitation I said OLP. They had song that had gone Top 10 at Alternative radio a year before. They were also big in Canada. Which is sort of an oxymoron, but I thought they were good. Satriani was old news in my opinion. In truth, Donnie didn’t like the first album the band delivered to Columbia very much. He had issues with the singer Raine Maida’s voice. He felt he yodeled. The first single from the album, “Clumsy” was a hit in the U.S. and the album sold about 700,000 units. This was solely due to Active Rock and Alternative radio play, plus a great marketing campaign. The band also had developed a good live following. Donnie must not have been convinced, because despite the success at other formats “Clumsy” was never worked at Top 40 radio. To this day, I still believe the best song on the album never got its day in court. “4 AM,” a song that Raine wrote about his Dad, was the best song on the album. It was a ballad and a huge hit in Canada. No one in the states really knows it exists. Too bad, because it would have really broken the band.
Our Lady Peace “4AM” Here is a live acoustic version of the song. You will notice the audience sings the entire song. There are several other live videos on Youtube, where Raine barely sings at all. The audience knows the song so well, they sing the entire song. Many of the best videos from the band are not available in the US. Not sure why.
Later, Donnie figured it out and several years ago he admitted that OLP was one of his favorite acts on the label. The band made several albums after “Clumsy”, but never quite got the success in “the States” they deserved.
There are numerous stories about staffers making all the difference in the successes. I like to think that I played even a small role in the success of some of the acts on Columbia. There are individuals in promotion or marketing departments that you could point at and say they were responsible for breaking a certain artist. Quite honestly, there are too many to mention. The acts don’t forget, that is for sure and those are relationships that defy time. Being in the trenches with the artists fighting tooth and nail was the best part of the job. When you succeeded. The hardest when you failed.
So, if and when you read Clive’s book or Tommy’s book, remember there were dozens of people struggling behind the scenes to make them look good.