Secrets of the Rockand Roll Business
“There aren’t any secrets,” Atlantic Recordspresident Jerry Wexler growledat me, as if I were the stupidest personhe had ever met. I was nineteen and it was thewinter of 1969, more than thirty - five years beforeWexler would be immortalized by Richard Schiff'sportrayal of him in the movie Ray. I was writinga column for the weekly trade magazine RecordWorld when Wexler had asked one of his executives,Danny Fields, to gather a group of youngjournalists who wrote about rock and roll. Thereal Wexler was far more imposing than the cinematicversion. He was broad - shouldered, with asalt - and - pepper beard and sunken eyes that gavehim the look of an Old Testament prophet. He hada thick Bronx accent, an intimidating intellect, andthe ultimate rock and roll and R&B pedigrees.
Some months earlier, at the storied GreenwichVillage nightclub the Village Gate, I had seen atalented R&B singer named Judy Clay dedicateher hit, “Storybook Children,” to Wexler, whostood up and waved with an understated noblesseoblige.
I had no idea what a record company president did, but Iwas stunned that such a soulful singer would publicly acknowledgea mere businessman. I soon discovered that Wexler hadalso worked with Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Sam andDave, and had been the person at Atlantic who actually signedLed Zeppelin.
My awe at Wexler’s résumé was reinforced by seeing hishouse in Great Neck, Long Island, which had an entire roomfilled with gold records and a living room with original Légers.Amid thick marijuana smoke, Wexler played records on hisstate - of - the - art stereo, alternating an acetate of a forthcomingDelaney and Bonnie album with the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Itwas a relief to know that even an insider like Wexler was a Beatlesfan. “Those guys sure know what they’re doing,” he sighed,listening to the end of “Carry That Weight.” During a momentbetween songs, in a lame attempt to enter the conversation, Iasked Wexler if he was going to an upcoming conference onthe music business. “I never go to those things,” he snarled.“The premise is that you can go there and learn secrets. First ofall, there aren’t any secrets.” He paused dramatically and then,with a wolfish grin, concluded, “And second of all, if there wereany secrets, we wouldn’t tell them.”
Over the next several decades I would come to understandwhat he meant. Although I never came close to equaling Wexler’shistorical contribution to the music business, I was luckyenough to find myself in many situations that would make rockhistory. I had a press pass to the Woodstock Festival. I workedfor Led Zeppelin from 1973 to 1976, first as their publicist andlater as vice president of their record company. I managed Nirvanawhen Nevermind came out and Bonnie Raitt when she wonfour Grammys. I did PR for Kiss and Electric Light Orchestra. Iworked closely with Bruce Springsteen on the No Nukes movie.At the peak of Fleetwood Mac’s popularity I helped launchStevie Nicks’s solo career. And twenty - four years after meetingWexler I was given his old job as president of Atlantic Records.What few secrets there were could not be of any help to anyoneelse. But there were stories.
I can’t be objective about the music business. I know it hurta lot of people; artists were often lied to, royalties weren’t alwayspaid, bad people sometimes got promoted while goodones were fired. Drugs, misogyny, and death stalked rock androll. A lot of shlock was produced. A lot of pretense maskedshallow, materialistic quests for fame and money. It’s not like Idon’t know these things and it’s not that I mind writing aboutthem. It’s just that the part of the music business I know best,the rock and roll business, also produced and popularized a lotof music that I love. And it gave me and a lot of my friends aplace in the world.
One nonsecret of the rock business is the intertwined natureof art and money. No one became a rock star by accidentor against their will. Bob Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles, beginsnot with a reference to Woody Guthrie or Allen Ginsberg, butwith a meeting Dylan had as a young man with music publisherLou Levy. Levy showed him the studio on the west sideof Manhattan where Bill Haley and His Comets had recorded“Rock Around the Clock,” which is widely considered the songthat made rock and roll music a part of mainstream Americanculture.
Dylan did inject a folk music aesthetic into the commercialrock culture that existed. Steve Earle, who grew up in Texasin the 1960s, saw folk music as the vehicle that “brought artinto rock and roll.” The great beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg sawDylan’s song “A Hard Rain’s A - Gonna Fall” as “the passing ofthe torch of Bohemian illumination and self - empowerment.” Theideals and aesthetics that informed folk music of the early andmid - 1960s would continue to be present in varying degrees inthe minds of many successful rock artists for decades to come.
But one of the main points of Dylan going electric was notmerely that he was adapting a more complex musical backdropfor his songs but that he was consciously entering a world anda business defined, at the time, by the Beatles. One of the salientpoints about Dylan’s rock single “Like a Rolling Stone”was that it went to number one on the pop charts. If it hadn’tbeen a hit, it wouldn’t have mattered anywhere near as much.Members of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Lovin’Spoonful, and the Byrds all started as folkies. Far from sellingout, they were buying into a rock and roll culture and businessthat, from the very beginning, had been as much or more aboutmoney and success as about the nuances of the art. The trade -off was that rock and roll, corrupted as it had to be to win inthe marketplace, was a vehicle that could impact millions morepeople and, yes, make artists lots of money The contradictionsbetween art and commerce were not something that took folkartists by surprise, but were implicit in their decision to enterthe world of rock and roll in the first place.
As the rock and roll business developed, most rock starsamassed unprecedented power in relation to the corporationsthat profited from their work. In addition to exploiting rebelliouscreative talent, the business itself was repeatedly transformedby that talent.
I was one of millions of rock fans who went to high schoolin the 1960s and one of a thousand or so who figured out a wayinto the business of rock and roll in the years that followed. Ihad all of the contradictions of rock and roll. Like most of mycolleagues, I soon got caught up in the sometimes grim realityof what did and what did not make money. And like most ofthem I never stopped being a fan.
In 2007, at a memorial service for Ahmet Ertegun, the founderof Atlantic Records and Wexler’s former partner and my formerboss, David Geffen repeated one of Ahmet’s aphorisms aboutthe rock business. The way to get rich was to keep walkingaround until you bumped into a genius, and when you did —hold on and don’t let go. In the early nineties, when I finallygot an executive job at Atlantic, the story had been repeatedso many times that it had become an axiom. Of course, no genius was likely to let you hold on very long if you didn’t haveanything to offer them. One had to know something valuableabout aspects of the way the business worked. Some successfulrock businessmen started as record producers. Some beganas tour managers or concert promoters. Many offered financialexpertise. I began in the subculture of rock criticism andpublicity but, over the years, developed a reasonable numberof clues about radio promotion, the workings of record companies,and the dynamics of touring as well. Like anyone in businessI spent a fair amount of time arguing about and keepingtrack of money, but I was always of the school that was a littlemore interested in making the pie bigger than in calculating thedistribution of the crumbs.
I was in tenth and eleventh grade in 1965 when the rockand roll business was in the middle of a dramatic expansionand reinvention that began with the launch of the Beatles in1964. Although the Beatles had initially come across like a turbochargedversion of the pop pinup idols that had precededthem, they soon spawned an intensification of focus on rockand roll by both artists and fans. In March 1965 Dylan releasedthe first of his albums to include electric guitars, Bringing It AllBack Home, a coherent and brilliant body of original songs suchas “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Gates of Eden.” It made a dramaticcontrast to the disposable pop/rock albums that had oneor two hits and lots of fi ller. (Even the Beatles’ early albums hadcontained a number of “cover” versions of old songs to pad outthe Beatles’ original material.) In July 1965, the Rolling Stonesreleased Out of Our Heads, much of it edgy and rebellious forthe time (this was the album that had “Satisfaction,” and thefirst ironic commentary on the record business itself, “The UnderAssistant West Coast Promotion Man”). Responding to thechallenge in December 1965, the Beatles released Rubber Soul,which was widely considered their first serious album. These albumsand others created and defined a new business. Previously,the primary rock and roll product was the single, which sold for around a dollar. After 1965, the dominant creative and businessproduct of rock and roll was the album, which sold for five toten times as much. To the new generation of rock fans like me,these albums were worth every penny. Every photo, every wordof the liner notes, and every single song was another windowinto the minds of artists who were perceived by their fans as thecoolest and most interesting people in the world.
Because the rock music of the late sixties was so radicallydifferent from the pop versions that came before it, most ofthe A&R executives at record companies who had controlledthe production of commercial records were marginalized and ayoung generation of rock producers, songwriters, guitar players,singers, and the young friends who became their businessassociates grew rapidly in wealth and clout. The corporationswere making so much money from selling albums by the likesof the Doors and Cream that they were more than happy tokeep their hands off of the creative process. Although in futureyears the record companies and radio stations would start toassert more pressure for orthodoxy, the new template had beenestablished. Rock and roll was a business in which the creativeelements were mostly controlled by rock and roll auteurs whodemanded and increasingly received a much bigger share of theeconomic pie, and who had much more control over their workthan previous generations of performers. Dylan could havebeen speaking for many artists when he described the leveragehe found once he had success. “I had gotten in the door whenno one was looking. I was in there now and there was nothinganyone could, from then on, do about it.”
Among the biggest and most talented rock stars I wouldmeet when I got into the business, even those with the fiercestsense of integrity balanced their artistry with streaks of pragmatism.In 1980, I worked with Bruce Springsteen in the contextof making No Nukes, a political concert documentary that featuredseveral live Springsteen performances. While waiting forthe editors to cue up an edit one night, Bruce mused about how elusive a Top 40 hit single had been for him. (Born to Run wasa press phenomenon, and the title song had been a huge albumcut on rock radio stations, but Top 40 barely touched it.) I wasamazed to hear that Bruce had recently met with Kal Rudman,who ran a radio tip sheet called the Friday Morning Quarterback,filled with radio and promo hype. Rudman talked fastwith glib high - pressure shtick. Although, like Springsteen, Rudmanwas based in New Jersey, he was the personification of theold-school pop business hype that was the ultimate contrast toSpringsteen’s intense, poetic, unpretentious rock and roll persona.(In Rudman’s tip sheet, a hit song was called a GO - rilla.)“Kal explained to me,” said Springsteen in his urgent, hoarsedrawl, “that Top 40 radio is mainly listened to by girls and thatmy female demographic was low. And I thought about the songson Darkness and I realized that the lyrics really were mostly forand about guys,” he concluded, shaking his head ruefully. “Soon this new album I’m working on — there are some songs forgirls.”
Just to hear the Boss utter the word demographic was ashock to my system, but then again why wouldn’t he want toappeal to as many people as possible? The River album wasreleased several months later, and, in addition to its many poeticgems and macho celebrations that protected Springsteen’sidentity, the album included the single “Hungry Heart,” whichfeatured a sped - up vocal, a romantic lyric, and retro harmoniesby the sixties pop duo the Turtles, with the result that Springsteendid, as planned, finally have his first Top 40 hit.
Of course, the fantasy of rock and roll liberation was oftendashed by the reality of the business. More than one rock starI knew found the classic parody of a rock documentary This IsSpinal Tap depressing because of its painful similarities to reallife. Drug and alcohol abuse were far too common. The tragicarc of Elvis Presley’s career was a metaphor for the dark sideof rock and roll: materialistic, druggy, and predictable. KurtCobain, the greatest rock artist I would ever work with, shot himself to death. He was only one of dozens of brilliant rockerswho died decades before their time.
The idea of this book is to give some impressionistic views,through my eyes and through the examples of a handful of artists,of the rock and roll business from 1969 through 2004. It isby no means an attempt at a comprehensive overview. For onething, when I made my first tentative steps onto the stage of therock business in 1968 I had been too young to really experiencethe seminal rock and roll in the fifties of Elvis Presley, ChuckBerry, et al. I had been a mere fan during the early - sixties Britishinvasion of the Beatles and Rolling Stones and during the initialyears of psychedelic rock.
There were many vital aspects of the business (engineeringthe sound of albums and selling them at record stores are twothat come to mind) that I was to know little or nothing about.Although I tried to live by and impart commonsense principlesof business such as the difference between hype and income,between the gross and the net, and about the need to spend lessthan one makes, my focus was primarily on working with artiststo protect their art, market it, and get them paid as much aspossible. I am neither an accountant nor a lawyer and have littleof interest to share about the way artists spent their money orwere screwed out of it after they made it.
Moreover, my perspective is very American. Although Iworked closely with several British artists and represented severalwho toured and triumphed all over the world, the bulk ofmy experience was in the United States.
Large gaps in my memories are interspersed with vividscenes that exist in my memory as if on videotape. I have writtenthose scenes with quotations from people as I recall thembut the truth is that other than a few interviews I conducted inwriting this book, there were neither tapes nor notes. The conversationsrecounted merely represent my personal recollectionof them.
No one artist or group of artists can contain the sprawling and complex totality of rock and roll, but I believe that the artistsI write about here, Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Stevie Nicks, BonnieRaitt, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Hole, Warren Zevon, and SteveEarle, among others, represent a broad and powerful portion ofthe psychic real estate of the rock and roll kingdom. I am notobjective about any of them. I love them all.