Universal Greed

Seagram's merger invites a look into how the suits took record labels away from the true music enthusiasts

It's too bad we can't take a Soundscan of all the lives the recent $10.4 billion merger of PolyGram and Universal Music will ruin.

Sure, we can do a feasible head count of the hundreds of artists and managers whose necks will meet the chopping block, and those ratzafriggin' bean counters are already projecting 3,000 employees will be let go. But why stop the tally there?

Let's consider all the recording studios that probably won't be paid anytime soon while finished masters continue to collect dust. Then you've got the countless roadies, booking agents and assistants who will probably get axed because of canceled tours. Not to mention the hundreds of groupies, hangers-on and sycophants that make this business of show worthwhile, suddenly devoid of someone they can suck up to. Who will utilize their special talents? No one--they'll be forced into a life of telemarketing, and then who they gonna call? That's right, you and me. Five minutes before supper's ready.

And if you've got a heart as big as my migraine, you might shed a tear in your beer for that rare record executive for whom an eight-figure severance check will not even begin to console. "It's not the money, dammit, it's the music," he softly cries.

Okay, maybe we can scotch that last one, because there ain't no such beast lurking in the corridors of power anymore--you'd have a better chance of running into Sasquatch. You can poll executives at Seagram, Inc. (the parent company to this massacre), and they probably haven't bought a record since Rumours. These guys buy record labels, not records. Gone forever are the days when a record executive like Jerry Wexler, vice president of Atlantic Records, would even be invited to a recording session, let alone be qualified to make musical suggestions.

Read a book like Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music and you'll find hundreds of unbelievable anecdotes like this one: During the recording of Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour," Wexler, by then well into his 40s, was dancing the Jerk and telling Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn that they needed to put the accent on two, "'cause that's what the kids are dancing to." And they knew he was right!

If the expression "music business" has become an oxymoron, rest assured it wasn't always so. For every 30 fast-buck merchants, you could always count on one or two record mavens who couldn't envision a life where music didn't play a substantial role and for whom starting a label was a logical by-product of that love. People like Ahmet Ertegun, the son of a Turkish diplomat and the founder of Atlantic Records. If the desire to make a million bucks was his driving force, it wasn't the overriding one. It was the desire to see the R&B music he loved, referred to as "race records" back in the day, marketed with the sophistication and respect it deserved.

What really puts the glum in conglomerate is that so much of our musical heritage is getting lost in the boardroom shuffle. Like a historic landmark getting razed by the umpteenth Circle K, we have no more great musical dynasties we can point to with pride. In the CD age, it's pretty hard to get a religious fervor just talking about a record label, especially when logos are one-sixteenth of an inch whenever they're reproduced, and chances are you won't see it while it's in your CD player spinning at 3,000 rpm.

Back when people had turntables, the act of placing the needle onto a record ensured that people had to take some active role in the music beyond listening, and this usually entailed looking at what you were listening to. You'd become familiar with a label, especially if it happened to keep winding up in your record collection. So many artists have reproduced vintage record labels on their new CD releases in the hopes of rekindling those nostalgic attachments we used to have for our record labels and, thus, our music.

The Gin Blossoms slapped the infamous brown-and-red A&M label with the equally infamous Herb Alpert trumpet on their last album. Both offshoots of that band, Pharoahs 2000 and Lo-Watts, are still signed to A&M and face an uncertain future, the former sitting on a completed album since May of last year. Drastic cuts in staff and roster are expected to cripple this once great label. If A&M even remains in operation into the next millennium, it will be as a comatose shadow of its former self.

A&M is just the latest label started by musicians and music lovers getting run into the ground by a bunch of suits without a soul. In this stench, record-label founders of the past come out smelling like folk heroes. Even the ones who shortchanged their artists (e.g., Berry Gordy) can be lionized for being architects of a sound, a movement, an all-time great record label. If you can accept that Davy Crockett really didn't go down fighting and was captured and killed execution-style, you can forgive these guys for taking their megamillion-dollar buyouts when they realized they could no longer compete independently in an industry they helped create. Future record-biz sharks take note: Here are five such folk heroes, on labels swallowed up by Universal greed. This is what you've got to beat/eat.

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