“IT WAS 30 YEARS AGO TODAY!”
The title above is not a typo-hobbled headline to a story about today’s Sgt. Pepper semicentennial; it refers to nothing as earth-shaking as that. It’s just that it was 30 years ago today—June 1, 1987—that I began my career in the music business. And so I write this remembrance, before I forget.
I wore a jacket and tie and arrived at 75 Rockefeller Plaza at 9:30, which the HR person had told me was the start of the workday. When I got to the 26th floor, no one else in the company had arrived, except for the receptionist. I waited.
The company was WEA International Records, with WEA standing for Warner/Elektra/Atlantic. I only vaguely understood what the company actually did, to be honest. Before I started, I told my friends it was responsible for marketing WEA’s foreign acts in America, but that didn’t really turn out to be true—in fact, it was more nearly the opposite. But more on that later.
The receptionist led me to the area of the office where the publicity department was located. My new job was as staff writer—in charge of press releases, artist bios and the house newsletter “WEA International Eye On The World.” As I sat at a cubicle waiting for my boss to arrive, I was happy to notice that many of the desks had on them a cassette player and a pair of headphones. Of course—at a music company you get to listen to music all day while you work! This job would probably not be as bad as I’d feared.
I took the job at WEA International to pay off some debts. I’d been a graduate student at Stanford and then Penn and was working towards my PhD in Communication Research. I hated Penn, and decided to leave and go back to Stanford the following year. In the meantime, I somehow wound up running for the New York State Assembly in 1986, as a response to the corruption in the Democratic Party in Queens, which had erupted in a major scandal that resulted in, among other things, the suicide of the sitting Queens Borough President. As the young, fresh-faced idealist, I was determined to “throw the rascals out.” But while campaigning for office was truly an enlightening growth experience, I wound up in the end with nothing more than a significant legal debt, the result of numerous rounds of court battles in which the local Democratic machine attempted to throw me off the ballot. On their third appeal they succeeded. By then I owed a lot of money to lawyers. The result was the postponement of any return to academia until the legal debt was repaid.
I needed a job. I figured music was one of the few things I knew enough about to find well-paying employment. Luckily, in researching my MA Thesis “Broadcast Media and the Pop Music Audience” I’d spent some time interviewing Irv Lichtman, who was the editor-in-chief of Billboard. Now in need of employment, I called Irv, figuring maybe he could help me find something. Irv told me about the open staff writer job at WEA, made a phone call, and on St. Patrick’s Day 1987 I found myself at the Warner Communications Building in Rockefeller Plaza interviewing with the head of publicity, Tracy Nicholas Bledsoe. She was the ex-wife of legendary R&B deejay Jerry Bledsoe, who’d hosted the music show “Soul Alive” on local TV when I was a kid, so I was impressed. Throughout the interview, a succession of Irish marching bands could be heard just outside the window, blasting out “Sidewalks Of New York” or “McNamara’s Band” one after another as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade made its way down 5th Avenue. We shouted our way through the interview, and Tracy said she’d call me.
Some time went by and I didn’t hear back. I also hadn’t heard back from a syndicated radio company I’d interviewed with for a job writing on a rock trivia radio show. The owner of the company quizzed me on rock trivia and told me my one of my answers was wrong. When I took issue, he told me to go to the library—this was before the internet– to ascertain the truth and to call him with the answer. When I called him to confirm that I was, indeed correct, he quickly ended the call and I never heard from him again. As these were the only two interviews I’d gotten, I was kind of desperate for the WEA offer to materialize.
I called a few times, and finally in mid-April reached Tracy Nicholas Bledsoe, who told me she thought I was “overqualified” for the job and that she didn’t think I’d last long before looking for something else. I assured her she was wrong, and that being staff writer at WEA International was would be a dream come true for me. In reality, I was desperate to raise the money to pay off the campaign debt so I could go back to grad school. And also so I could move out of my parents’ house in Queens, where I had found myself living for the first time since high school after the ill-fated Assembly run. She said she’d think about it.
I guess Tracy didn’t find any other qualified candidates, because she called me in mid-May to say I should come back in for another interview. After a second round with Tracy, she seemed convinced I really wanted the job and sent me down the hall to interview with the chairman of the company, who had final approval before she could make the hire. This was pretty cool, as the chairman was Nesuhi Ertegun, legendary record man and brother of Atlantic chairman Ahmet Ertegun. We talked about the earliest Atlantic jazz LPs, and his intention to reissue them on the new CD format. We talked about how the shellac shortage during WWII indirectly led to the rise of bop, causing confused jazz musicians returning from the war to abandon jazz and create R&B. It was an amazing interview. I got the job.
(Sadly, one of the first assignments I had at WEA was to craft a press release announcing the retirement of Nesuhi Ertegun and the ascension of Ramon Lopez to the Chairmanship. Lopez was a more of a corporate executive type, poached from PolyGram after an aborted merger attempt between WEA and that company. He was definitely not a guy with whom you’d sit around discussing music history.)
Anyway, on that first day on the job Tracy finally turned up at around 10:30, about the same time as everyone else. Upon seeing my co-workers, I immediately realized that my jacket and tie were overkill and made a mental note shed them both as soon as possible. I was anxious to find out where I’d be sitting, as only some of the desks had cassette players and earphones and I was hoping to be among the lucky ones. Tracy said “I’ll show you your office,” which came as a big surprise. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d get my own office!
When I opened the office door I was in heaven. The office had a big desk and a couch, to boot. It had a stereo system with a turntable. And most amazingly, behind the desk there were LP shelves with thousands of albums—every album WEA had released over the past few years, in fact. I was starting to like this. Over the next few weeks, I discovered the delights of working for an international record company, as I listened to mind-blowing records from WEA West Africa’s Great Magicians, WEA Brazil’s Pepeu Gomes, WEA Australia’s Weddings Parties Anything and so many more.
I was taken around the office to meet everyone, a blur of faces and names, with two standouts: Alan Betrock, legendary pop music critic, producer and expert on all things rock ‘n roll, was, strangely, employed by WEA International as an A&R man assigned to listen to all the unsolicited demos. I guess rock journalism didn’t pay that well even back then. I knew his work with the dBs and Marshall Crenshaw and was thrilled to meet him. At a later stage in my career, I was lucky enough to collaborate with Alan on a reissue of rare Atlantic singles produced by Phil Spector when he was an Atlantic staff producer. Alan know more about that kind of stuff than anyone ever. He is missed.
The other standout introduction as I did the rounds on my first day was even more unlikely: Incredible as it might seem, the legendary soccer star Pele, who held the title of WEA International’s Goodwill Ambassador, had an office on our floor. This honorary position was a leftover perk from the time when Warner Communications—with the Ertegun brothers centrally involved—owned the NY Cosmos soccer team and brought Pele to the USA to finish out his career. Although the Cosmos had folded, Pele still got to keep the title and the office at 75 Rock. He happened to be in town that day, and I got to meet him. Over the next couple of years I met him a few times and came home with numerous autographed photos for my friends. He was a warm, happy guy, but very much surrounded by hangers-on who seemed to always have some hustle or another up their sleeves. Between the record collection and meeting Alan Betrock and Pele, this job was starting to seem pretty sweet.
Tracy took me to lunch that day—the only time that occurred during my 15 months working for her, but a nice gesture nonetheless. We went to the Bombay Palace, an Indian restaurant in the building that was a default end of day watering hole for WEA employees due to its location. I felt very much like a grownup, being taken to lunch at a midtown restaurant.
Over lunch, Tracy explained to me what WEA International actually did: Basically, the company was an umbrella for WEA’s foreign affiliates, who collectively marketed the US WEA repertoire overseas. WEA International also marketed the repertoire of MCA and Geffen Records overseas, with neither of those companies having their own ex-US system in place at the time. Plus, the affiliates all had their own local repertoire; the U.K’s Simply Red were a prominent example, and before that week was out I would actually find myself introducing them at a press conference.
Importantly, WEA International itself owned some repertoire directly, such as Donna Summer and Phil Collins. Snatching Summer from PolyGram had proved for WEA to be a disappointment, her chart-topping days largely behind her. Collins was another story: Fear of taking a risk on the balding drummer from Genesis had led his US & UK labels—Atlantic and Virgin, respectively—to lean on WEA International to sign Collins directly for the rest of the world in order to spread out the costs. This proved to be a major windfall for WEA International, as Phil Collins was about to become the biggest-selling recording artist in the world, with WEA’s share of his sales far outpacing those in the US & UK.
The truth is, the entire record industry was at the start of an unprecedented boom, due to the rise of the compact disc. Since its introduction in 1983, sales of CDs had risen dramatically each year. CDs were more expensive than LPs, and the improved sound quality led many to re-purchase their entire music collection in the new format, and so a previously unimaginable amount of money was beginning to pour into the industry. The initial adopters of CD players tended to be older and affluent, so the titles that seemed to be in everyone’s CD collection in 1987 were disproportionally things like Paul Simon’s Graceland and one or more of the first four Beatles albums, which had been released on CD earlier that year. Plus the token classical album. It seemed like everybody who owned a CD player bought a classical album on their first CD purchasing trip to Tower Records, because classical music supposedly sounded particularly amazing in the new format. This led to a temporary spike I the overall market share for classical music in the late 80’s, prompting WEA’s entry into the classical business, from which they’d previously abstained.
But in the offices of WEA International, there was not a CD player to be found. They were too expensive. We all listened to music on vinyl, or for the people without their own offices, on cassettes. We received a lot of product from overseas on CD, though, and in those early days anything on CD was so coveted that my friends would eagerly make the trip over to our offices to pick up promo CDs by obscure German dance acts, or really by anyone at all.
After lunch, I had my first writing assignment, and it was nearly Pele-like in its glamour: I had to do a phone interview with former ABBA member Agnetha Faltskog in order to write her artist biography. She was about to release a solo album entitled “I Stand Alone,” produced by Peter Cetera of the group Chicago. The interview was unmemorable: Agnetha didn’t like to fly, she enjoyed recording songs with her children, she was a massive solo star in Sweden years before the formation ABBA. Still it was fun to speak to her–a great music biz initiation.
I typed the notes from my conversation with Agnetha on the Wang word processing/email system at my desk. I’d used Ethernet systems in grad school, but someone form the office still felt it necessary to show me how to use the newfangled Wang. Everyone from all the WEA worldwide affiliates was on the system and you could send any of them email messages. But it was an internal system—there was no way to use it to communicate with anyone outside the company. I used the Wang to send my work to Tracy for approval (I recall she’d often change “LP” to “album” and then change “album” to “LP” in the same paragraph) but we didn’t use email for casual office communication the way we do today. If we had a simple question or message for a co-worker, we’d walk down the hall and ask it, or call their phone extension. Though we had the Wang, the use of text-based systems for transmitting simple thoughts or queries was not yet a behavior we had adopted.
Furthermore, the Wang didn’t have the ability to send media of any kind—no photos, music, artwork and certainly not video—just plain text. We were constantly using an international courier to get the art/music/photos/videos to wherever they need to get. There was also a weekly Warner Pouch, which sent materials back and for the between 75 Rock and WEA’s London office on Baker Street. The most exciting thing the Pouch brought every week was a packet of all the singles to have debuted on the UK chart that week. This was a treasure trove heretofore only accessible to people with bank accounts large enough to finance frequent trips to Bleecker Bob’s Records in the Village. And yet here it was, every week without fail—every new British single, ready to be recorded onto my own cassette that I could take home! The other record companies in town all got similar packages, and I still remember the excitement a few years later when everyone got Primal Scream’s groundbreaking single Loaded at the same time and I frantically called friends at Island to rave about it—only to find out they had just heard it too, and were equally awed.
To cap off my first day, Jeff from the publicity department came around that afternoon and explained one of the truly great perks of working for a record company in those flush times: It turned out I could get two tickets to any concert by any of our acts if they came to town. And by “our acts” I mean all of the acts on any WEA US label, the MCA and Geffen acts we distributed overseas, plus anyone on Island and Virgin, two labels which Atlantic distributed in the US. Taken together, that was probably about half of all the major label acts there were in those days. So I saw a lot of shows. And I only sold my freebie tickets once: 10,000 Maniacs at The Pier. My friend and I decided to buy ourselves a nice dinner instead.
Free concert tickets and records, celebrity encounters wherever I turned. Working in glamorous midtown Manhattan, and going out after most nights after work, in the giddy final months before the stock market crash in October of that year. It promised to be a nice summer, and a pleasant way to pay off my debts while waiting to resume graduate studies. Except here I am, still in the music business 30 years later. But that’s another story.