‘It Was A Porn Movie’: Atlantic’s First Female A&R Exec Reveals the Worst of the Music Industry
“Men are going to try to break you,” one of Dorothy Carvello’s teachers told her in grade school — and, she says, they were words that seemed to prove true every day she worked in the record industry. Carvello began as a secretary to legendary Atlantic Records president and co-founder Ahmet Ertegun in the Eighties, later rising to be the record label’s first female A&R executive. She was fired from the company after she refused to sit on the lap of a male colleague in a boardroom meeting.
From the existing canon of music memoirs, interviews and documentaries in the world, there has already been a clear portrait of depravity painted about the music industry in its heyday — sex, drugs, fraud, booze, rinse and repeat — but it’s hardly ever been from a woman’s perspective. Carvello’s new book Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story of Surviving the Music Industry recounts the rampant sexual harassment, toxicity and egoism she got to know firsthand in the business. Casual anecdotes include music executives ordering sex toys and lube to the office, signing paperwork while receiving a blowjob in a recording studio and, in one instance, breaking her arm as punishment. The book describes a loveless business, fraught with cheating in every sense of the word, but also one complicatedly thrilling and worthwhile. Carvello sat down with Rolling Stone to talk about the scandals of the book — as well as what she left out.
What was it like on the very first day you walked into Atlantic?
It was insanity. It was like a porn movie. That’s what I walked onto: the set of a porn movie. I was raised in Brooklyn. I’m an independent, street-smart kid and I was always labeled tough. But it was insanity. Right from the beginning. When you work a 12-hour day and you’re serving a man like Ahmet Ertugen, you’re not sleeping, you’re not capable of making decisions, you’re a slave with a half hour for lunch. This was all wrong and illegal, but nobody cared. You just did it. It became normal: guys showing you their penises, people asking you to blow them, people reading pornography during meetings. This is the shit we did. And I contributed to it. I got caught up in it and it became normal.
What were the most, I wouldn’t say favorite but, the most memorable stories or important things you wanted to point out with this book?
That toxic work culture starts at the top. If you’re going to have a boss or somebody running the company that’s completely a narcissist, that all trickles down to even the receptionist in the company. My experience was people grabbing everything for yourself, amassing great wealth and throwing artists and employees under the bus. The culture is different now, but these people I’m talking about are dinosaurs who only knew the one way, and they were so enabled by the business to be thought of as gods and kings.
One striking thing about the book is how the few women who did work in the industry treated each other. You described a female colleague sabotaging you by giving you the wrong information to give to a male executive, for instance.
Yeah. For this book, I contacted most of the men in it to sit with me, speak with me. Some men refused to talk — but what was more shocking is that the women refused to speak with me. The women feel like, ‘okay, I made it, I’m not going to screw up my thing.’ I’ve not heard from one woman. That’s how it is in the business.
You mention some women in the book, like Sylvia Rhone, who were able to rise up with men on their side.
She had a mentor; Doug Morris looked out for her. That’s what it took. Women cannot rise without men in the music business. Men are not our enemies. They have to mentor us and lead us but in the proper way, as equals, and that’s important and it’s not being done.
Have you been back recently?
Yes, and it’s a different company now. They have a female COO now. Craig Kallman’s morality and idea of how to run a company is 360 to what Atlantic was under Ahmet. I always joke, “You’re really letting Ahmet down.”
How do you feel like the #MeToo movement has affected the dynamic in the music industry? Or hasn’t?
There isn’t one big fish, like a Harvey Weinstein, who was using a casting couch. Or there could be. But the women in the music industry are still afraid to speak. In film, I didn’t see anyone at a movie company come out; I saw producers, actresses, people who have power independently. If you speak up at a label, are men going to back you? I don’t know if that’s the case. And a lot of these guys are gone. Ahmet’s not alive. I think if Ahmet was alive, believe me, there’s tons of women he touched inappropriately and did shit to.
When did you start putting the book together?
I tried six years ago to get it published, but nobody would represent me as an agent and no one would publish it. Four years ago I got an agent that believed in the book and saw it as the first time a female was speaking out in the music business. I sold the book in April 2017.
So, before Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo. Did all of that add pressure to the writing?
No, I was lucky. As an A&R person your job is, when you sign an artist, to believe in it. Similarly, I had an agent who believed in me, which made all the difference. I was lucky — I found two men who believed in it and understood it.
What would Ahmet say about the book?
Ahmet wasn’t a hypocrite. Any time Ahmet got caught doing something, he would admit it. He’d say, ‘Yeah, I did that.’ He did tell me to wait till he was dead for this book. Out of all of these guys, he lived his life and was enabled by everybody but wasn’t a hypocrite.
You describe him as deeply flawed, but also sympathetic and helpful at times. It’s a complex, nuanced portrait of a person rather than a straightforward accusation.
They do 100 bad things and then when they do one good thing, you feel like you want to be a part of them. I had empathy for him that he maybe didn’t have for me. It’s complex. I don’t have an answer for it. At times I was shunned by everyone in the record business and he was at times my only friend. I feel loyalty that he certainly didn’t feel.
Do you still have relationships with most people in the book?
A lot of them. It’s been great, I have to say, to come full circle with many of the men and have forgiveness and be forgiven as well. It’s part of growth. A lot of these guys — they made mistakes, they were at the beginning of their careers, they also deserve a second chance. I made mistakes too.
The people in the industry who’ve been running the record industry from that time to now — have they changed? Are they capable of changing?
I think the absolute old guard can’t change. In order to change, you have to admit mistake and failure and have less ego. The men that have started out in my book at certain areas and grown to run companies, they are capable of change, absolutely. They’re the hope to train other men and women to run companies.
Were there anecdotes, instances, people, that you left out?
I left out a lot. You can’t put everything into a book, and also I had worked with so many different companies. Mainly I wanted everyone to see how these guys controlled everything and worked together to dominate the industry. Who knows? There could be volume two.
Where were all the female artists in this?
Lots of women artists engaged in sexual payola at Atlantic, for sure. I think women are put into horrible positions, but then again, back then, it was just accepted. The women were held to a different standard. Today, women have more power and men wouldn’t dare. I mean look at Taylor Swift. This is a woman who put a man on trial for touching her ass. This is someone who is saying, “I control my destiny, I’m not taking that shit from anybody.” That is an amazing testament. I was blown away by that. Here’s somebody who wasn’t afraid. I was always afraid in my career.
What would you do differently if you were to start your career over, knowing what you do now?
I would not enable men to treat, not just myself but other women and men, disrespectfully. I would not tolerate it or be afraid when they came at me with punishment. I would’ve gone over their head to corporate or to the newspaper — if I’d known there were the option to go to the press or other ways to beat these men, I would’ve done it. But you’re naive when you first start, and they tell you right to your face: “We’re gonna get you, we’re gonna blackball you.” That’s how emboldened they were. And also, men are brought up entitled to make money. Women come in not knowing our worth. I spoke recently with a woman who is super qualified in the music business and I said, you know, you’d be the perfect candidate to run the Grammys. And she said to me, “I’m too old.” You’d never hear a man say that. We have men who are 80 years old who had to be carried out of record companies, okay? They look in the mirror and they think they’re young Brad Pitt.
In one particular instance in the book, you were in an elevator and two male colleagues just pulled your skirt down.
Yeah, it was like, not a big deal. It was a cult. The men did what they wanted to do. I would open up those naked pictures in the office, I mean — it was normal. Go to the safe. Make an NDA. Why does a woman have to go through that every day at work? It was degrading and damaging.
What do you hope to accomplish by telling these stories?
I’ve been hearing from women and from men who read my book that it kept them up all night. Some people in the industry and outside of it. People saying, “This happened to me, somebody touched me inappropriately, somebody said I was nothing.” This is a conversation. I’ve been answering every single email. People thought this book was going to be me criticizing a bunch of men. No. I made mistakes. I had sex with so-and-so, I learned it was wrong, I learned lessons, too. I hope to appeal to the person who’s passed over or abused and doesn’t even know. I’m the first woman that’s written a book in the music industry, and I criticize myself as much as I criticize this business. But I love the business, and it should do better. It shouldn’t be the freak show like how even its parent corporations used to see it.
How do you think people will react to the book?
We’re in the beginning of a cultural change. Let’s see what the next five years bring. Maybe we have a woman finally running one of these three music companies. Some men don’t see the cultural significance of it. I heard one guy say to me: Well, is your book just going to be about your complaints? And I burst out laughing and I said, it’s so great to know how not advanced you are in your thought process. “Oh, she’s complaining.” Then don’t read my book. I didn’t write the book for you. I’ve received some emails from some women I don’t even know that said, “Yeah, so-and-so did this to me too, showed me his dick.”
Just strangers, sharing those stories with you?
Yep. They were saying, “So-and-so did that shit all the time.” I think we’re going to have more of that as the book comes out.
So what are you up to these days?
I’m an independent publicist and I work with some people in the music business, some not. Right now my plans are just to promote my book and hopefully speak within the music community. I’m very interested to see who’s going to invite me to speak at conferences and really talk about the ugly side people are ignoring. If the music business is serious about change, it needs to close down like Starbucks and do that unconscious gender bias training. Because we all have it.