The Most Powerful Man in the Record Business
In January of 1988, CBS Records – the largest record company in the world and the owner of the greatest catalog of original American music – was sold by CBS Inc. to the Sony Corporation of Japan for $2 billion. To retain the label’s key executives, Sony offered a sizable sum – reportedly $50 million – in bonuses. The chief beneficiary of Sony’s largess was the president and CEO of CBS Records, Walter R. Yetnikoff, who lobbied hard for the sale to Sony and whose share of the pot is said to be as much as $20 million. Yennikoff won’t divulge just how much Sony paid him, but he does allow that the Japanese firm has made him a rich man.
One might wonder why any record exeutive would be worth that kind of money. But Yetnikoff is in a position to guarantee something that perhaps no one else can: a roster of bona fide superstar talent. Record companies sell CDs, LPs and cassettes, but their true value is also based on something that no accountant can measure – the artists they have under contract. And Walter Yetnikoff, perhaps more than any other executive in the record industry, is very good at keeping big artists happy and under contract. Michael Jackson has described Yetnikoff as “a friend and a true believer. In my years with CBS, he’s encouraged me to be my own man and to do the things that had to be done the way I had to do them.” Among the other CBS artists Yetnikoff counts as personal friends are Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.
Now fifty-five, the Brooklyn-born Yetnikoff is one of the record industry’s most colorful and outspoken executives. A graduate of Brooklyn College, he received his law degree in 1956 from Columbia University, where he was an editor of The Columbia Law Review. After serving in the army and spending three years in private practice, Yetnikoff joined CBS Records in 1961 as a lawyer. He became president of the CBS Records Group – which includes the Columbia, Epic, Portrait and Associated labels – in 1975. Yetnikoff’s large corner office at the headquarters of CBS on Fifty-second Street in New York is decorated with mementos of his twenty-seven-year career with the record company. Pictures of CBS artists like Mick Jagger and Barbra Streisand decorate the wall over an immense stereo system. The wall behind his desk is practically a shrine to the label’s biggest-selling artist, Michael Jackson: there are platinum records for Thriller, a letter from Jackson thanking Yetnikoff for his help and an assortment of photographs of the singer. Leaning against one wall is a six-foot screwdriver, against another is a framed copy of the cover art for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s album Live: 1975-1985. It is inscribed, “To Walter – The wildest man north of Asbury Park. Thanks for your friendship – Bruce.”
In the outer office there are two secretaries and a giant display for Ruthless People, a film Yetnikoff helped produce for Disney’s Touchstone Pictures. On the day this interview is to take place, he tells one of his secretaries to call a prominent New York law-enforcement official: Yetnikoff has been helping to arrange a benefit concert at Radio City Music Hall for the city’s Police Athletic League; now he wants parking permits for CBS employees. And he wants her to remind the official that “he promised me a gun permit.” When asked why he needs a gun, Yetnikoff says it is to protect himself from Larry Tisch. Tisch is the president and CEO of CBS Inc. and Yetnikoff’s former boss. The broadcast company has recently filed a suit charging Yetnikoff with financial mismanagement, but whatever bad blood exists between the two executives there’s no reason to imagine Yetnikoff’s life is in danger. In the record business it is bluster and effect that often count most, and Yetnikoff – known as a tough negotiator – can muster more than just about anyone else. The Sony deal is the crowning achievement of Yetnikoff’s career: Sony has taken a hands-off approach to the day-to-day operation of the business, and for all intents and purposes, CBS Records is now Walter Yetnikoff’s company.
How healthy is the record industry?
The record industry feels very healthy. Every couple of years, when the industry goes into one of its downswings, we all sit around and analyze the reasons: “It’s the advent of video games, it’s the economy, it’s interest rates, it’s this, it’s that.” But it also seems to happen at the same time that the music is not interesting. Right now the feeling of a lot of music is real good. There are periods when I can’t listen to the radio, and right now I like the kind of things I’m hearing. I’ll pick one from a competitor’s label – Guns n’ Roses, which I think is a great band. And that’s not even mine. You won’t get me to do that twice.
What factors make the music exciting in a particular time?
It’s almost impossible to say. I’m too old to run down to CBGBs, but there are a lot of young musicians, a lot of young singers around. It’s not the record company that is making the music. Later on, we do get involved, but not at that stage. When there’s a thousand great young bands out there, it can’t be us.
You’ve been with this company since 1961. What’s important in the record business today?
In ’61 record companies were real small. They were not really part of corporations. Atlantic Records was not part of a corporation. [Motown’s] Berry Gordy was not part of a big conglomerate. Also, it was a different kind of business. Most artists in the pre-Beatle era made their money performing in clubs, not out of records. Today the records are the integral part of the whole thing. If you don’t have a real hit record, try going on tour profitably. If you don’t have a real hit record, try selling your T-shirts. You can’t Of course, artists make a lot of money touring. But now the record is almost the necessary precedent for success in other areas. If you are successful – as it should be – you simply have to pay an artist, give them a check for all this money. It is my pleasure CBS Inc. never understood this. “You pay them so much money,” they’d say. I said, “They earned it.” It’s my pleasure to give Michael Jackson a big, big check. Number one, it shows that we’re successful. Two, whatever he earned, we earned more.
What attracted you to the record business?
Pure accident. I was working at a law firm, and I wanted to practice law with a capital L. I came over to the old CBS Records building at 799 Seventh Avenue for some file search. It was around Christmas time, and they were having a big party. All these girls were around, and everyone was having a great time and playing music. It seemed pretty glamorous. Clive [Davis, the former head of CBS Records and now the president of Arista Records] was here as general counsel at the time, and I received an offer. The money was only a little bit more; it wasn’t a money move. I thought it would be interesting, exciting. And I got my own office and a telephone with, like, four buttons on it. Back at the law firm, I had to share an office that had a telephone with no buttons on it. Things like that. I sort of closed my eyes and jumped into it. Later on, a lot of lawyers became executives when the business exploded, because we understood the nature of the business and the structure of the deals.
You mentioned Clive Davis. When he wrote his autobiography, ‘Clive,’ he discusesed the way he protected the CBS roster with expensive prestige signings – paying a lot of money to keep someone like Bob Dylan from going to another label, even though he didn’t sell many records. What do you think of that strategy?
Occasionally we do something like that, because we are in a form of show business, and it matters less what reality is than what the illusion is, the perception. It’s often sizzle that’s important. Billy Joel once said to me the reason he signed with Columbia was not the money or anything; it was because Bob Dylan was on that label. So there is a lot to that whole mystique and environment. In a hypothetical situation we might move a little bit to keep a Bob Dylan on the label, because it does mean something. Or once in a while you might try to reach out and pull in an artist who’s about to break real big. Like [Warner Bros. Records chairman] Mo Ostin did with R.E.M. We were bidding for them; I wanted them very badly. He got them. I know why he wanted them so bad, the same reason we wanted them – to pull in an artist that everyone thought was about to break and say to his people. “Hey see.” But as an ongoing business, to sign for prestige? It is not the right way to go.
What’s it like to work with Dylan? He has a reputation for being difficult.
No? He’s easy?
Being an artist means you’re not easy. You are an original. Being a great artist means you’re different. Dylan’s not complicated. He’s moody … he’s Dylan. He’s not difficult at all; I don’t know where people get that impression. The funny thing about Dylan is when you talk to him, he doesn’t realize what he is – he doesn’t get what Bob Dylan is. If you say to him, “Bob, do you know what you did? You were the spokesman for a generation. …” He doesn’t get it. If you talk to him, musically, as well as sociologically, about what he represents, he doesn’t get it. He’s an old Jew, is what he is.
Do you talk to him about recording at all?
Have you ever discussed why his records don’t sell that much these days? Does he care?
First of all, his catalog sells up the kazoo. I think Springsteen said it best: Dylan is standing in his own shadow. Empire Burlesque would’ve been a major record if it had been somebody else. But in terms of being difficult to deal with, no, he happens to be a surprisingly nice guy. That doesn’t mean that I can tell Bob Dylan how to record. I’ve tried that – forget it. If there is a criticism, and it’s hard to be critical, he doesn’t aim to get a hit single, he doesn’t aim to record anything in a high-tech fashion. It’s a waste of discussion. He once called me and said, “Can you find me an old four-track recorder?” I said, “Yeah, in my basement.” I don’t know where else. Certainly not in a studio.
Do you think he’s become indifferent to what he does at this point?
No. You want me to tell you Dylan’s not interested in money? It’s not true. But he basically makes records for his art. And it would be a silly endeavor to sit him down and say, “Let’s talk about how you can write and we can record a hit single.” He just won’t respond to that. But that doesn’t make him difficult; that just makes him a very unique artist.
What about Bruce Springsteen? Does he ever allow the company to participate in the recording of his albums?
I produced Born in the U.S.A. He didn’t give me credit. I also wrote most of the songs. Bruce? I’ve been at Bruce’s sessions. Again, you’re talking about someone who’s the ultimate artist. And wouldn’t it be ridiculous for me to try to tell Bruce Springsteen how to make a record? Is it totally closed-door? No. I’ve heard early versions of what he’s done. I’ve given him my opinion. You know what? He’ll do what he wants. I cannot tell Bruce Springsteen how to record. Only Clive Davis would attempt to do that. In times past, Bruce has been halfway through a record and [Springsteen manager] Jon Landau has played it to me. And I said, “This is great.” You know what? Bruce would throw it away. One day I’d like to release Bruce Springsteen’s outtakes.
During the period of The River, I said, “Bruce; would you finish the fucking record?” I went to see him in California in the studio. I said. “When you walk into your 7-Eleven stores, don’t your fans say, ‘Bruce, where’s the record?’ I’m sure they do.” He says. “Yeah. you trying to make me feel guilty?” I said, “Yeah. Don’t you think you owe the company?” He says, “You re making me feel guilty,” and I said, “I’m trying.” Remember, I’m talking the period of The River. It took a long time to happen. He says, “You’re right, you’re making me feel terrible.” I said, “How about me? I’ve stood by you all this time, blah, blah, blah. Don’t you owe me a little bit? Finish the funking record!” He says, “Yeah, yeah.” I said, “Bruce, do you know who’s paying for this record? It’s not me. It’s you. It’s an advance against royalties – it’s your money that you’re spending” His response was “How would you suggest I spend my money better than on my art?” You know what the answer to that is? Nothing.
I understand that you had to persuade Michael Jackson to end recordings on ‘Bad.’ How do you do about doing something like that?
Look, that’s not true. There was no particular time sequence on Bad. Actually, he wanted to release it earlier. He wanted to release it on the anniversary date of the release of Thriller – December 11th, I think it was. I talked him out of that on the grounds that we’d miss Christmas [sales], so he might as well hold it and finish it and be happy with it. And it came out roughly six months later.
Do you still talk to him on a daily basis, as you did when ‘Thriller’ was out?
We still talk a lot. We’re also friends. I think I’ve been very good to Michael, and he’s been very good to me. At the Grammys he called me onstage; that’s unheard of. You don’t bring record executives up at the Grammys, ’cause no one’s interested. I went back to CBS, and I said, “Give me another $2 million for that.” He’s been very good to me, and sometimes personally I’ve had problems and I could talk to him. And I believe that I have reciprocated that. We’re not the same. … He’s the right age to be my son, not my contemporary, but we talk about a whole bunch of things. He’s intense in what he does, and I’m certainly not gonna try to talk him out of that.
When ‘Bad’ was released, it was reported that Michael expected or had hopes that the record would sell in excess of 100 million copies. Are you satisfied with the performance of ‘Bad’?
It is not finished. The score card isn’t in.
How much more do you expect?
A lot. Right now, I guess we are at 14 million worldwide, 15 million – something like that. It will not be less than 20 million. I would like to match or beat Thriller. Michael, if you know him at all, you know his approach to things is “Let the magic begin, the best is yet to come.” That’s his philosophy. But it will not be less than 20 million. That’s a guarantee. How much better, I don’t know yet. Now that is real far from chopped liver. Would I like it to be Thriller and do 42 million? Yes.
So am I totally happy? No. Neither is Michael. He wants more. So do I. He is certainly working hard at it, but it is 20 million minimum floor. And he’ll read this, and he’ll say, “What do you mean 20 million?” I’ll say, “It is a floor, Michael, floor.” It won’t be less than that. It hopefully will do substantially better than that. That’s not – your question is, Am I happy? I’m not unhappy. Am I satisfied? I’m not satisfied.
Now let me ask you this: Bruce Springsteen makes “Born in the U.S.A.,’ and Michael Jackson makes ‘Thriller,’ and they are huge albums, and you renegotiate recording contracts with those artists based on those successes. Do you then expect them to deliver albums that will duplicate that success?
No. I don’t think that an artist should always deliver the record that I think is going to sell the most copies. What was the next record after Nebraska? I have no misgivings, no qualms. Bad is the record that Michael had in himself to do, and it is doing terrific. I mean comparing it with Thriller – you are comparing it with the record that has sold more than any other record in the history of the world. I almost feel I shouldn’t answer that question, because you are saying to me that Tunnel of Love –
Well, you’re the crass executive.
I am not that crass. I agree with you – Tunnel of Love is not Born in the U.S.A. If you were running a record company, would you want Bruce Springsteen on your label? Sure. So would everybody else.
You have close relationships with many of your artists. What do you see as your role with CBS artists?
I think I have a heavier caseload than most psychiatrists. But you have to: this is the product. It doesn’t come off an assembly line, and as you know, it’s temperamental by definition. And it’s often difficult, because the touchstone of being a great artist is to be unique and original. Now, those who are unique and original, you don’t have a mold to deal with, because they’ve broken the mold. That’s what makes them good.
I try to have relationships with newer artists, too. When I first took this job, there were two ways to go. One was not to get involved with the artist and just run the business. And one was to get very involved with the artist. That’s where a lot of the fun is. I am in awe of these people. My role is as rabbi, priest, guru, banker, for sure, adviser, counselor friend, psychotherapist, marriage counselor, sex counselor, you name it. Punching bag. I don’t want to personalize this – I’m not the only one in the company with relationships. But when something is really serious. I have a big hammer. Sometimes the problem gets knotty, so you go to the court of appeals.
I don’t know quite what my role is. While there are structures, and we have an organization, I am trying to change my approach to things, more like the mishpocheh theory. I don’t know how you are going to write that, but I have to do a little Yiddish. It’s expected of me. It means the extended family. And we do cross lines. I don’t say I solve the problems perfectly, but I do get the ones that can’t get resolved elsewhere.
So you do get involved in the day-to-day career stuff?
Yes. And with some artists very much so. That has nothing to do with whether they are big artists – it’s just what I find myself doing. But day to day, I do not review the marketing plan of every single artist. Occasionally I do, for whatever reason – if I think this one is going to break. But that’s not my job day to day. I poke at it. I’m a noodge, and I push, and I occasionally order, but not too frequently.
On the issue of bringing down the hammer – how frequently do you get invobved in contract negotiations?
That I do a lot.
With new artists as well?
No. There are sort of standards and forms. But occasionally new artists that we’re really interested in will want something that it is not our general policy to give. And so that will come up on an ad hoc basis. But I often do the big, expensive artist negotiations personally. Sometimes if I don’t do it personally, the artist says, “What’s going on here, Walter?”
How do you view those negotiations?
A pain in the fucking ass.
On one side you are representing CBS Records and you have to –
On all sides, I’m representing CBS Records.
All right, on all sides you are watching out for your compary. But if you are watching out for the company’s best interests, you obviously don’t want to alienate the artist with a one-sided contract. That’s not in the company’s best interests, either.
Seldom are those negotiations conducted with the artist. Seldom. Mostly it’s through the manager or the attorney. But even they have to be a little careful. Often I use managers and attorneys as filters. I’ll say things to them I wouldn’t dream of saying to artists, and I expect them to filter it down in other language, so I get a sense of how the artist’s going to react. But you’re right, you have got to be very sensitive to the artist’s requirements. And you have to be sensitive to what is too easily called artistic temperament. It sounds like a negative thing, but it’s not. The artist must have artistic temperament in order to be an artist, because you can’t have an M.B.A.’s temperament and be an artist. How can you be a performing artist if you don’t have ego? How do you go out there and perform and in fact say, “Love me, love my music,” without some pretty big ego backbone to back you up? So you have to be very sensitive to it. And there are lawyers who complain to me, “Look what you say to me – you would never say it to the artist!” They’re absolutely right – I would never say it to him. Because you get paid for it, take my abuse.
Do you think any of the artists you deal with demand too much of themsehes? What about somebody like Cyndi Lauper? She’s got a reputation for being a real stickler.
Cyndi is difficult. Very headstrong. Cyndi is very difficult on herself. Very. Cyndi happens to be a very good singer, a great singer, who has also developed a public personality. You know what I’m trying to say – the style, the dress, the everything. But you’re also picking another person with artistic integrity. You have a special relationship with her, don’t you? She’s my buddy. What do you bring to that relationship in terms of, say, how much tine she spends in the studio and what form her finished work takes? I have spoken to her a number of times – “Do this, do that, do the other thing,” or “Don’t do this.” We do have those conversations. She is very headstrong, but yeah, I probably have more input into a Cyndi Lauper than a Bruce Springsteen.
What makes your relationship with her so special?
We’re just friends. We’ve gone on vacations together, that kind of thing. But that doesn’t mean that Cyndi Lauper does what I tell her.
Do you think she’s putting extra pressure on herself after the single from ‘Vibes’ – “There’s a Hole in My Heart (That Goes All the Way to China)” – didn’t chart well?
I think that was unfortunate – I thought that was a major hit. It wasn’t, and it’s just one of those things I don’t have an explanation for. And then, of course, the movie … She came off okay, but the movie didn’t. She’s taking it like a lady. I suspect we’ll put out a record early next year with Cyndi.
But the new record was supposed to be out earlier. Did the ‘Vibes’ situation push it back?
No. I think she felt that she could make a better record. The single was disappointing. She said, “Okay, I’m gonna make a Number One record.” She didn’t fall apart, she didn’t cry in her beer, and she’s gonna have a big record. It ain’t done yet.
Just to get a feel for you, too, what is it about her that you like?
She’s crazier than me. The first time we met, we had a big fight over her women’s-lib routine. I’m a bit of a male chauvinist pig. She told me I was, and I said, “Are you crazy? You’re out of your mind.” I said, “You see over in the corner, a pile of hay and straw? Go sit on it, have your period, and come back when you’re finished.” So we had a major fight when we first met, and then we became very close friends. What do I like about her? I think she’s screwier than I am.
What about Billy Joel? I heard that you were responsible for returning several valuable song copyrights to him.
A long time ago. Billy is as much a songwriter as he is a performer. His copyrights are his children, his creation. Years ago, Artie Ripp [who originally signed Joel is a solo artist to the Family label] had an interest in like half of Billy’s catalog. Artie owed me a favor, so I went to him, and he sold them back at a very low price. We paid the money, and I gave ’em to Billy, because he wanted ’em. It could be we charged it as an advance – I really don’t remember. My recollection, which may be inaccurate, is that I laid out the money and gave it to him, because he needed them, he wanted them. It was important for him to have them. And part of my job is to make sure that major artists are okay. So I think I gave him a gift. I’m not sure at this point.
You accompanied Billy on his Russian tour. How’d you like it?
I loved the tour; I hated Russia. I understand it’s better now. I thought I was gonna be welcomed, you know, “Ah, Yetnikoff, Yetnikoff, welcome home.” Forget it. It’s real bleak over there. And like an idiot, I didn’t go through Intourist [the Soviet travel bureau]. I went by myself, which I suppose you shouldn’t do. You go to passport control and some eighteen-year-old kid in a funny Russian hat looks at you and looks at the picture on your passport and says, “Nyet, nyet. It’s not you.” I did not have a great time in Russia. I was a wise guy, the Great Yetnikoff, you know? Forget it.
Joel recently put out a record from his Russian performance that was a commercial disappointment.
It sold what, 600,000 copies? You can’t count that as a regular Billy Joel record or even a live record. That was a special event. That was released because it should be released. It has no bearing whatsoever upon Billy’s career.
So you have no feeling that he has peaked?
There is a rumor around that it was suggested by somebody at CBS that Billy should consider writing songs with somebody else. Is there any truth to that?
It’s me we are talking about. Billy is going to get mad at me, and I don’t want him mad at me. I like him, and I admire him. In the course of a long conversation – like a four-hour dinner – I said, “Billy, I know I shouldn’t ask you this, but if we came across a song that we thought was great for you, should I submit it to you, or am I wasting my time?” He said, “You know not to ask me that question.” I said, “Billy, it has nothing to do with our confidence in you. It is just a question.” Because, if you recall, many years ago in his live show, he was doing “Still Crazy After All These Years.” But it was an innocuous question. And the story that got back to me had been blown up out of proportion. It was just a throwaway question. I knew the answer before I asked him.
CBS Records was recently purchased by Sony, a Japanese company. The year before, RCA Records was acquired by Bertelsmann, a West German company. Do you think the record industry has lost its glamour or allure for American corporations?
I think that the record industry still has a sexy, glamorous feel for almost everybody. The RCA thing happened because RCA decided that it didn’t want the record business. The CBS thing is a whole other story. But there were a lot of people who were interested in it who were Americans. A lot.
I spend time dealing with a lot of rich guys around New York. I am introduced as Walter Yetnikoff – “Walter Yetnikoff, he’s the president of the CBS record company.” “Do you know Bruce Springsteen? Do you know Terence Trent D’Arby?” And all of a sudden that’s all they want to talk about. And I’m not talking only about real young people, but old farts like me. So it probably hasn’t lost its allure or sex appeal.
During the brief period of time General Electric owned RCA Records, Jack Welch, the head of GE, asked Elliot Goldman, who was the president of RCA Records, to send him a memo outlining any problems that might arise for GE as a result of recording industry payola. Do you think the payola issue has caused any problems for American companies as far as ownership in the record industry?
I don’t know what the payola issue is. I don’t think it’s a widespread practice – that’s my understanding. I hear recurring talk about it, there are recurring investigations. Mike Wallace must have looked into it a number of times. Are there individual violations? Yes, I do see them. But a pattern of payola? I don’t think it really exists. And let me ask you a question: I know the networks all talk this way. You think that a news crew has never given a cop a bribe to put a camera where it shouldn’t be? But never?
Felix Rohatyn, who was involved in the sale of RCA to GE as an investment banker – he’s also on the board of MCA – spoke out against the sale of CBS Records to Sony. The gist of what he said was that quintessential American companies like Time lnc. or CBS should not be sold to foreign firms.
But we’re a multinational company.
Yet you own the largest collection of American recorded music in the world. Do you think there is any downside to that being owned by a non-American company?
No. I think Sony is a better company and a better caretaker of that heritage and will serve it better than the current CBS Inc. would. I prefer Sony. I feel passionate about that. Artists go over there, they come back enthralled about the way they’re treated. I don’t have any problem with it. On the contrary, I think Sony is an excellent caretaker of the heritage.
You say “caretaker,” Do you think Sony will be a hands-off owner?
They are now. That doesn’t mean I don’t communicate with them. We are independently run. They want us to be a free-standing company. Also, I can talk to them. When I say I need more promotion men, they know what I’m talking about. If I were talking to CBS Inc., they’d say, “What does a promotion man do?” Sony is a worldclass company. Do you think CBS Inc. is a firstclass company today?
It’s got a lot of money.
It’s got a lot of cash. Is that your definition of a first-class company? If you want to preserve the cultural heritage of all these records we’ve produced? Equate cash with good things? Cash is not bad. My problem with the stewardship of CBS Inc. is that it seems to be the only thing that matters. Sony’s got a few bucks, a few yen. They’re not exactly broke.
The record industry is really reaping a financial windfall from the sale of CDs. Do you think this is creating any sense of false security within the record companies?
I don’t think so. One, the CD phenomenon is picking up – it is moving geometrically, and I think it will continue to sell. Two, after the hard times – ’81 was another bad year – I think most of us in the business have learned that we do have to be as lean and trim as possible. All of us have been bounced around enough by our own silliness and our own overblown sense of grandeur. It’s possible we may screw it up again, but I think most of us are aware of it, because we have been beaten up badly.
Obviously the compact disc has made a lot of older titles valuable again. I wonder if the sales and the attention that the catalog is getting in any way hurt new artists.
When you look at the charts, you would not get that impression. You always see new artists.
At the same time you get the impression that their success doesn’t have anything to do with CDs.
It doesn’t. Catalog is an extra boon, and I don’t think it hurts at all. What it may be doing is bringing people into the stores. Similarly, I can’t say I like something big by a competitor, but when a big record comes out that’s not ours, there are times when – although I hate to admit it in my heart – I say, “You know, this is sort of good for the industry.”
What about the money that the CDs are generating? How is that money being used? Do you say, “Okay, we can sign more acts new”?
We can spend more on developing them. Maybe it is a smarter approach than signing more. The old cliche is “New artists are the lifeblood of the industry.” I sense that our company and others are spending more time or money or effort on actually breaking and establishing new artists. And sometimes you take those extra profits and you don’t plow it all back in. The fact is that there is always corporate ownership. They like to see profits, they like to see cash, and there is nothing wrong with it. I think it is called capitalism.
But Sony’s not looking for the payoff today.
Oh, they’d love it to be today. No, I’m not trying to say that they are not into commerce, but they also understand a longer-term view. When we were part of CBS, in those dim, dark days, it was, “Where’s my profits, where’s my profits?” I remember walking into a board meeting and playing Born in the U.S.A. I got all crazy when I heard that record. And I brought the record into a board meeting. I had to play it a little bit, so I think I played them something quiet – “I’m on Fire.” Someone said, “That sounds like Elvis Presley,” or something like that. And then I wanted to play them “Born in the U.S.A.,” so I turned it up a little bit, and they said, “That’s much too loud.” I said, “Well, I can’t play that song at a low volume.”
Now, that would not happen today. I think our parents would understand, since they run a record company [in Japan]. But I had to turn that one up a little bit. These guys are saying, “Oh, it’s hurting my ears!” Of course, when Bruce went on tour, they wanted tickets.
A minute ago you mentioned spending money on developing acts. How does the label decide who gets a major push?
I don’t know. Oh, come on. Oh, occasionally it’s me. But not every day. Do I push on certain things? Of course I do. But you know, it’s a mélange – it’s what A&R feels, it’s what marketing feels.
Well, what about a situation where you have a new artist like Tommy Conwell? How does a band like his get signed?
I had heard about Conwell before he was signed. And a lot of people were chasing Tommy Conwell. Now, we had a relationship with his manager, Steve Mountain, through the Hooters. I did push on the Conwell thing, to get it signed. But again, I was sort of after the fact. I think it’s being handled quite intelligently. Rather than do a big hype blowout on Conwell, we’re taking a long-term view. We got a major talent here, and we’re not gonna overhype it at the beginning.
How did CBS come to sign Terence Trent D’Arby, and what was your involvement in that?
Initially? None. Terence was signed by the English company, by Muff Winwood [an A&R executive at CBS Records in Great Britain and the brother of Steve Winwood]. I don’t know exactly who it was, but it’s under Muff. He’s the talented Winwood. I was in England a year and a half ago, and I saw the video, the first one. They were just showing his product, and I said, “Holy shit, this kid’s great.” And I came running back with the video and showed it to all the people. So I do claim some responsibility. Candidly, I am sure that if I didn’t come back with the video, it would’ve happened the same way – someone else would’ve seen it. But I did come back with it, ’cause it really knocked me out. So I feel that I’m entitled to some credit. But frankly he was too good to miss. I have been involved with Terence since then, but the original Terence Trent D’Arby signing was the English company.
In terms of taking a long-term view, how involved is a company like CBS Recaords in forging an artist’s image?
We are not interested in a hit single all by itself. The television business and the movie business do not have the long-term relationships with the talent that the record business does. Steven Spielberg will make a movie at a different studio any time he wants; we’ve had Barbra Streisand signed for longer than she would like me to tell you. It’s the nature of the business. If Sony buys a movie studio, I’m gonna try to reinstiute the star system – it’s got its pros, and it’s got its cons. But because the record business has long-term relations, we’re not interested in a hit single just by itself. The hit single becomes a hit album, the hit album becomes a career. Because we’re together with the talent for a long-term period, I think most record companies won’t go for the quick buck. That does not mean we don’t want to make money, but we are interested in all the things you’re talking about, the long-term career, the image, the nurturing, whatever it takes.I mean, we talked about Springsteen earlier. I would say that from the start, to Born in the U.S.A. and the tour, a twelve-year process… Quite a payoff. Quite a payoff, for all of us. Including the artist, who accomplished what he wanted to accomplish.
Do you think there is a lasting injury to the company when you lose an artist like Paul Simon, who had been with Columbia for many years and then signed with Warner Bros. Records?
A lot of damage. When that occurred, it was a large misunderstanding, and I don’t want to go into it. You know, Paul and I – I don’t know if we are friends, but certainly cordial and wish each other well. We made up. But there was an awkward period at the time. And I think it was all due to a misunderstanding, mutual misunderstanding. We both fucked up in terms of our understanding what the deal was. At the time, I was not devastated. There was a story – probably in Rolling Stone – that said that I got so angry I threw a bed against at the wall at the Hotel Bel-Air. That’s not what occurred. Actually, I heard you threw his attorney, Mike Tannen. against the wall. This would have been more likely. Was it upseting? Of course it was upsetting. It was upsetting to Paul, it was upsetting to me. We got into litigation, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Then afterward he did One Trick Pony, which had Rip Torn as the evil record executive at a charity dinner, which seemed to look a little bit like his version of what I was like. I think there was a little malice in it at the time. Not enough people saw the movie to make any difference, and I was happy that the movie was a flop. Today, if you say to me that Paul Simon won a bunch of Grammys, and Graceland was a different thing to do, and he is doing great, I’m happy for him. I don’t think it made a lasting difference.
If Paul Simon’s contract was up with Warner Bros., would you bid for him to return to Columbia?
Probably not. It was a bitter time that we both went through. And I think it was the first time that a major artist and a company really got into that kind of business. I mean, at the beginning, if he wanted an artist of mine to cooperate in a project, I would forbid it. Now I would say, “Hey, if you want to do it, go right ahead.” He remains a major talent. In the end, Warner Bros, made the right move. You think our taking James Taylor from Warners had a negative, lasting effect on Warner Bros.? I don’t think so, although it looked that way at the time. James has done well, Paul has done well, we’ve done well, and Warner Bros, has done well.
In a bit of more recent history, CBS paid a lot of money for the Rolling Stones. The company’s gotten one Rolling Stones album that didn’t really do great guns. And Mick Jagger’s solo career has been something of a commercial disappointment.
Not the first record – it did pretty good.
The first record did okay. What are you going to do?
Good question. But you don’t know what the terms of the contract are. I’m not saying it was cheap.
Let me put it to you this way: At the time there were rumors-
It is not $171 billion.
Rumors at the time it was done put it at a value of $20 million.
Okay. You know, sometimes I don’t mean to be critical of journalists, because we all make mistakes. This happened to me before, when we signed a bass player … [he pretends he can’t remember the artist’s name] when we signed Paul McCartney. It was not a wildly cheap deal. But the newspapers had it about three times what it really was.
Are you sorry now that you ever signed McCartney? Was that completely a wash?
I don’t even know at this point.
When an artist records an album for a label, the rule is that the record company retains that album even if the artist later leaves the record company. With McCartney, that wasn’t the case. Since then, has CBS Records signed any other deals that involve the artist’s retaining ownership of the records the way that one did? Do you still have to make those deals when you sign a group like the Rolling Stones?
Frankly, I don’t know what’s in the Stones deal. We resist returning the catalog, because we paid for it. We worked on it, it’s a shared property between us and the artist. That is a serious point – we’ll blow a deal over that. The Stones deal was not cheap. There were a lot of people bidding for them. But it’s not what you read in the newspaper. No one will tell you otherwise. It is confidential between the artist and ourselves.
The first Jagger record did well; the second one did less well. I love both of them. I don’t know why they were not greater commercial successes. One can speculate on that, too Jagger and Keith talk of getting together or not getting together. And getting together and doing this kind of record or that kind of record and then going on tour, which, by the way, I would pay to see. That’s what I would like to see happen. I feel, not guilty, but, like, did I do something wrong? Why wasn’t it better? But at this point that decision is really up to Jagger, Keith Richards and the rest of the guys. And I don’t know when the next record is going to come out. You would be much better advised to ask them.
Are you doing anything to hasten that?
This is something that they have to work out between the two of them. I would try to help and talk to both and get a messenger and go back and forth, but it’s a complicated relationship.
You sound like you think commercial success for their records would be largely predicated on the band touring.
I think it would help a lot. And I think the tour would be very important to the commercial success of the Stones. I don’t mean to speak for Jagger or Richards, but I think they both view the Stones as an institution bigger than both of them or either one of them I’m just hoping.
Was there any particular reason why you didn’t sign Keith Richards – who recently released a solo album on Virgin – as part of that deal?
It was so complicated at the time, and there were such intense negotiations – the subject did come up. We had about a hundred lawyers around and almost as many people negotiating, and when it finally came up, we weren’t sure what he really wanted. Rupert [von Lowenstein, the Rolling Stones’ business and financial manager] was intensely involved in the negotiations, and he was a little closer to Jagger than he is to Keith. I’m not sure if he exactly knew. And I said, “Let’s just pass that point. We’ll deal with it later.” We didn’t deal with it later. I’m also not entirely sure that both artists might not be more comfortable as individuals being on separate labels. People called to say Keith Richards said nice things about me in Rolling Stone [RS 536]. I can’t believe that. You know, he started off not liking me.
Because of the Stones contract?
Because he thought I was siding with Jagger. Not true. He said, “Why’d you let Mick do a solo record?” I had a lot of choice on that, right? He says, “No, you did it.” I said, “No, he did it.” But he’s a nice guy.
It has been reported that the latest Boz Scaggs album was originally rejected by CBS and that the company recommended some changes.
We do that occasionally. We do talk with the guys, and we do get involved. And the more we get involved, the better off we feel about it. With some artists we suggest songs. We find producers. It depends on the artist. It is all over the lot. There are artists who record twenty tunes. They say, “Pick the ten you think I should have.” It’s different because all artists are different, and all the relationships are different. It’s not a question I can give an easy answer to. Yes, there are occasions where we’ve said, “Don’t do it this way, do it that way,” and we actually got the artist to change. There are times when we’ve said, “You just can’t do this.”
Are these normally commercial considerations?
They are both career and commercial considerations, which are not so different. If you have a bad commercial flop, it can’t do your career a lot of good.
Let’s tie this issue in with something you mentioned before: that you spend more on development now than in the past. You’ve recently had sophomore records from both the Outfield and the Hooters that didn’t do as well as expected. What do those bands do next? And what does CBS Records say in this situation?
[Producer] Rick Chertoff is going in to do the next Hooters record.The next record has got to be more commercial, and he’s fully aware of it, and that’s what he’s going to try to do. The Hooters are not chopped liver, by the way. I think that album you are referring to has pulled a gold record here. Yes, they should sell millions of records. I don’t think a good artist’s career ends because one record doesn’t happen. I don’t believe that at all. Does it lose a little momentum? Of course it does. I would prefer to see the Hooters at Madison Square Garden rather than the Ritz.
When you have a situation like you had with Boz Scaggs, where an artist takes an eight-year layoff, I assume the label is actively pursuing him and asking, “Why won’t you work?”
Boz sort of disappeared. I asked a lot of times, because I like Boz as a person. And I would say, “Where’s my Boz Scaggs record?” I think he went off for personal time. He was getting divorced at the time. I think he was just having what is called writer’s block or whatever it may be. And all you can do is say, “Boz, where’s my record?” And then about a year and a half ago, he says, “You’re getting your record.” Then the tape comes in with just tracks, no vocals. I said, “Irving [Azoff, the president of MCA Entertainment Group, who was Scagg’s manager at the time], stop it.” I said, “Boz Scaggs and no vocals? What am I supposed to do with that?” That’s my record? That’s to get me off his back.
At this point, do you still have any feelings about Boston leaving CBS and having a hit for MCA?
I don’t like it. There’s a lawsuit pending. I’m waiting to get Irving on the stand. I would just like to ask him, “What’s your name?” and he’ll say, “Irving Azoff,” and I’ll say, “You’re lying, you always lie.” Irving’s problem, and he’s not a bad guy, is that it’s not a character flaw, it’s a genetic defect. Irving lies when it’s to his advantage to tell the truth. He just can’t help it. And if you want to print it. I’ll indemnify you. Irving’s the kind of guy that walks in the room and says, “Good morning,” and someone says, “You’re lying.” He can’t help himself. I’m thinking of suing MCA under a RICO charge….
You know what RICO is?
Yeah, it’s the federal Racketeer Influenced and Comipt Organizations Act – it’s used to bring a lot of Mob cases to trial.
Yeah, I haven’t quite thought it through, but I have got the first paragraph of the complaint. I drafted it – you know I’m an ex-lawyer – and the first paragraph of the complaint reads: “On information and belief, the pattern of corruption at MCA goes back to April 1927, when Jules Stein made his first deal with Al Capone.” You know that’s true. I mean, MCA was started by an old eye doctor, booked music acts in the late Twenties on the South Side of Chicago, Now, you didn’t do that without making a deal with Al Capone, did you? So what is this high and mighty moral bullshit that we hear from Sheinberg that he’s learned to…did you see the Manhattan, Inc, article back in the summer? That was disgusting. Particularly, how can you say that Mickey Mouse is crooked? [Sid Sheinberg, the president of MCA Inc., attacked the Disney studio and its head, Michael Eisner.] I like Michael Eisner, but aside from liking Michael Eisner, I happen to think he’s real good at what he does. I mean, Touchstone, Disney, started in effect a movie company from fucking scratch. I would say that’s one of the better studios in Hollywood.
Are you going to continue to produce films for them?
No. I couldn’t – I’m too busy. We’re looking to buy a studio. I might become chairman of the board. Then I don’t have to talk to people like you anymore.