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Why the music biz is hurting
It was billed as a lecture on the collision of art, music and the corporate world from a seasoned veteran of the music industry.
Former Reprise Records president Howie Klein is not one to stick with a script, however, and so when he recently spoke at McGill, he ranged from right wing politics and censorship (Klein was denounced when one of the groups he signed released a song called "Cop Killer") to the wardrobe of the artist now-known-again-as-Prince (during one memorable business meeting, the star wore bright canary yellow from head to toe).
PHOTO: Owen Egan
Klein was introduced by psychology professor Daniel Levitin as being "unique among record company executives" focusing on artists and their art. Throughout the two-hour talk what emerged was that after a lifetime in the music business -- as a promoter, DJ, and record company executive -- Klein believes that the corporations that own the record companies have lost touch with the entrepreneurial spirit that leads to the creation of good music.
A lack of corporate vision and connection with creative people has led to the state of popular music today.
"[It's the] avaricious, rapacious nature of corporations...that have nothing to do with art or artists," said Klein.
Not that Klein, whose talk was sponsored by the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music, Media and Technology and the Audio Engineering Society of McGill, sees anything wrong with making money. In fact, some of his most profitable decisions as president of Reprise revolved around Canadian acts like Alanis Morissette and the Barenaked Ladies.
Most of his criticism was reserved for monster corporations like AOL/Time-Warner, who see music as simply another product to sell. Moving units is the name of the game, and building the careers of young musicians is not a priority.
He told the story of how, when he first heard Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, he ordered a run of 50,000 CDs -- very high for a then unknown artist.
"At its worst, that album sold 100,000 every day. Alanis kept Time-Warner [Reprise's parent company] going for two years," he said, laughing.
The problem is, unlike other businesses, there is no way to tell when a CD will break out like that.
"These guys would call me up and say, well why can't you just find another Alanis? As if I could go to the store, look on the shelf and find one that no one else had taken and grab it."
What needs to happen, and what does happen with smaller labels, is that musicians need to be carefully nurtured, sold to the public, and promoted hard. He did that with the Barenaked Ladies, because he believed that the band could duplicate its Canadian success in the U.S. He was proven right, but it took several years for it to happen.
Big companies are banking heavily and unrealistically on big name artists to make their profits. The fact that Virgin Records found it more profitable to pay Mariah Carey millions of dollars to leave the company's stable of artists after her last album failed speaks volumes about the industry, according to Klein.
"No company should be able to sell two million records and not make a profit," he said of Carey's Glitter.
Klein said he doesn't believe that the major corporations will stay in the business too much longer. They can't make money, and don't understand artists' needs. One thing that may hasten that demise is the Internet, and music-swapping programs such as Napster, which he likened to the impact of the giant meteor that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.
"The Internet is going to change everything. It will destroy the record companies," he said, adding that the old guard that controls these companies doesn't understand the medium.
"To this day you have the least creative people in charge of Internet strategy at these companies -- chief financial officers. And what's really scary is that when those guys are creative -- then you get Enron."