The Rolling Stone Interview: Walter Yetnikoff
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.
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