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.

Former Great Indie Record Label: A&M Records
Founders: Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss
Founders' Connection to Music: Musician/songwriter Alpert co-wrote "Wonderful World" with Sam Cooke among others, and played that goddamned trumpet. Moss was a record promoter, back in the days when payola meant getting some poor DJ a broad and a steak.

Humble Starting Point: A&M initially operated out of Herb's garage. The second single, the Tijuana Brass' "The Lonely Bull," sold 700,000 copies.

Label's Identity: A&M was an easy-listening haven to acts like Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, Burt Bacharach, the Baja Marimba Band, the Carpenters and champion whisperer--and future felon--Claudine Longet. Later, A&M would embrace British prog rock (Procol Harum, Rick Wakeman, Supertramp), British cock rock (Joe Cocker, Free), British folk music (Cat Stevens, Fairport Convention) and British New Wave (The Police, Joe Jackson). Also, the label sired two of the best-selling albums of all time while still an indie, Carole King's Tapestry, and Frampton Comes Alive!. As for Alpert, his Tijuana Brass albums outsold the Beatles two to one, a figure that can only be believed when one spots the countless Alpert LPs now filling up Salvation Armies everywhere.

First Sign of a Shark's Tooth: By all accounts, A&M in its first configuration was a pretty easygoing place to be. Even after signing the Sex Pistols in 1977 and dropping them a week later, the company let them keep the $400,000 signing bonus and gave them an extra $200,000 as an added incentive to make it snappy and not hassle the secretaries on the way out. Their lone possible sin was pushing poor Peter Frampton so hard.

Giant Cash Bonanza: After Alpert & Moss sold the company to MCA, A&M was Polygripped for $460 million in 1989.

Former Great Indie Record Label: Island Records
Founder: Chris Blackwell
Founder's Connection to Music: This Jamaican native sold ska records in a Kingston market.

Humble Starting Point: After incorporating for about 1,000 pounds, Blackwell sold the first Island releases out of the trunk of his Mini Cooper.

Label's Identity: Every reggae legend from Bob Marley to Toots and the Maytals to Sly and Robbie called Island home. Soon the label would expand to licensing American R&B records on the Sue Records subsidiary. Although many of Island's British rock acts such as Traffic, Cat Stevens, Roxy Music and Jethro Tull were licensed to other U.S. labels, Island had them in other territories. For many years, U2 carried this label and had the privilege of near-bankrupting it with the money-losing Pop album and tour. Lemon, anyone?

First Sign of a Shark's Tooth: Island showed savvy but cruel business sense by dropping Sparks before every other major and minor label did.

Giant Cash Bonanza: Sold to PolyGram for $272 million.

Former Great Indie Record Label: Motown Records
Founder: Berry Gordy
Founder's Connection to Music: Gordy wrote many of Jackie Wilson's earliest hits, including "Reet Petite," "Lonely Teardrops" and "That Is Why (I Love You So)." Probably still hasn't gotten the money he should've earned for them.

Humble Starting Point: Berry borrowed $700 from his sister to start Motown Record Corporation.

Label's Identity: "The Sound of Young America," or, more aptly, "The Sound of Young Black America for Young White America."

First Sign of a Shark's Tooth: The lessons Gordy learned of not getting paid fairly by record labels he leased masters to he passed down on his artists, most of whom were kept on salary and prevented from seeing the company's bookkeeping. His most successful songwriters, Holland-Dozier-Holland, were the first to publicly gripe, suing Gordy for $22 million for deceit, conspiracy and fraud.

Giant Cash Bonanza: Gordy sells out to MCA for $61 million. After a few years, MCA parlays that into a $325 million PolyGram payday.

Former Great Indie Record Label: Chess Records
Founders: Leonard and Phil Chess
Founders' Connection to Music: Leonard actually took a bulky tape recorder all over Chicago's south side to scout the best blues talent. Music lover? Apparently.

Humble Starting Point: Leonard formed Aristocrat Records, soon to become Chess, and delivered records from his car trunk to barbershops, shoeshine stands, grocers, liquor stores and, yes, even record stores, all over Chicago. No one is more amazed than he when Muddy Waters' first single, "I Just Can't Be Satisfied," sells 80,000 copies.

Label's Identity: Marketing black music to white audiences. All the blues greats (Howlin' Wolf, Little Milton, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry) called 2120 Michigan Avenue home.

First Sign of a Shark's Tooth: Stiffs Berry Gordy on a few licensed Miracles singles.

Giant Cash Bonanza: Sold to GRT Tape Corporation for $10 million in 1967. Long after it stopped being an ongoing label, its rich back catalogue was gobbled up by MCA, which sold to PolyGram for $6.6 billion in 1990.

Former Great Indie Record Label: Verve Records
Founder: Norman Granz
Founder's Connection to Music: Jazz impresario who staged Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and created the label to release recordings of those concerts.

Label's Identity: Leading jazz label with a roster that included Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie.

First Sign of a Shark's Tooth: Verve always had financial trouble. Its first venture in pop, releasing Ricky Nelson's first single, was a bust because he was a minor and was able to sign with another label. Verve was almost bought by Sinatra, no stranger to the cutthroat.

Giant Cash Bonanza: Sold to MGM for $2 million in 1960, thus explaining how Frank Zappa, the Righteous Brothers and Janis Ian wound up on the label.

What follows now is the template of today's music-biz executive and why it's all gone so horribly wrong. Here's a guy who wanted to be a Hollywood mogul and was so named in the press as recently as the January 10 Parade magazine. Instead of pursuing films directly, he latched on to music as a viable fast lane. He publicly admits that he listens only to Mozart at home. He showed his ignorance by booking his label's leading act, Guns N' Roses, featuring the publicly homophobic Axl Rose, to perform at an AIDS benefit for the Gay Men's Health Crisis. In fact, "AIDS" was one of the names Axl had originally wanted for the group.

When the GMHC refused to include a band that sang "Immigrants and faggots . . . spread some fucking disease" in its show, this label prez likened the snub to refusing a blood transfusion from Adolf Hitler. Now, in Paul Harvey fashion, here's the rest of the story.

Former Pseudo-Great Record Label: Geffen Records
Founder: David Geffen
Founder's Connection to Music: A former William Morris agent, he latched on to singer-songwriter Laura Nyro and made his first millions selling her publishing. Later he co-managed Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, discovered Jackson Browne and the Eagles, and formed Asylum Records.

Humble Starting Point: Hardly one, since he was worth $30 million after selling Asylum to Warner Communications. Still, he made Warner Bros. pony up $25 million for 50 percent of Geffen.

Label's Identity: Geffen becomes the George Steinbrenner of rock by building his roster with already established superstars like Elton John, John Lennon, Donna Summer, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. The David Geffen Company (DGC) establishes itself as the alternative branch of Geffen, with acts like Nirvana and Sonic Youth.

First Sign of a Shark's Tooth: He opened other people's mail at the William Morris Agency and lied about being a college grad.

Giant Cash Bonanza: Geffen is sold to PolyGram for $500 million.

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