Turnaround After 2 Years of Setbacks : Warner Bros. Records Plays a Happier Tune

Times Staff Writer

Around the halls of Burbank-based Warner Bros. Records these days, you can often hear the strains of an upbeat new song playing on office stereos:

"Put me in Coach, I'm ready to play today/Look at me, I can be Centerfield."

The title song from John Fogerty's new Warner album "Centerfield," it celebrates Fogerty's professional comeback after a nine-year recording drought, but the lyrics seem appropriate for the record company as well.

After enduring two years of flat sales and falling profits while the rest of the recording industry was reporting gains, Warner Bros. Records, a unit of New York-based Warner Communications Inc., is in the midst of a remarkable comeback.

The company posted a 51% increase in revenue over 1983, according to Warner executives. They expect the improvement to continue this year, although Warner Communications, which has not yet released its 1984 results, does not break out separate profit figures for its Warner Bros. Records. The label's profits are lumped together with those of such other Warner labels as Atlantic and Elektra/Asylum in Warner's record group.

"They're definitely on a roll, and it's building and building," said Tom Noonan, associate publisher and director of charts for Billboard magazine, the record industry trade publication.

Warner currently has four of the top 10 albums on Billboard's chart of best-selling records and tapes, including the No. 1 album, "Like a Virgin," by rock artist Madonna. And after just four weeks in release, Fogerty's "Centerfield" is No. 5 with sales of 780,000 copies, making it the fastest-rising record of 1985, according to Billboard.

Warner's 1984 performance was paced by Prince, whose "Purple Rain" album has sold more than 9 million copies. But the label's recovery has been broad based. Warner currently has 33 of the 200 top-selling albums on Billboard's chart, outperforming even its arch-competitor, CBS Records, which has 22.

The turnaround is especially satisfying for Warner Records President Lenny Waronker. Head of the company's artist-and-repertoire department for 12 years, Waronker took over the presidency in November, 1982, from Mo Ostin, who was named chairman, and he weathered a particularly frustrating year in 1983.

Artists Failed to Produce

"We had a problem in delivery in '83--a lot of major acts we counted on didn't come through with records," Waronker said in an interview. "A record company has to deal with that problem the best it can--you can't go twist an artist's arm and say, 'Come on, we need it for the billing.' "

Among the artists who failed to deliver albums as expected in 1983 were the Pretenders, Prince and Van Halen--all of whose eventual 1984 releases turned out to be big sellers.

A number of Warner's top artists--Christopher Cross, Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton--did deliver albums during 1983, but they fell far short of expectations.

For example, Stewart's 1983 album "Body Wishes" didn't even reach "gold" status of 500,000 copies sold, whereas his previous album, "Tonight I'm Yours," sold more than a million copies.

"Sure we were worried," Waronker said. "There were a lot of angry people around here--angry at the situation, that we weren't doing as well as we could do, angry because we have great artists and weren't getting the mileage out of them, angry because we've always felt that we're No. 1."

Founded in 1958, Warner rose to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the strength of such artists as Peter, Paul and Mary, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Alice Cooper, the Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead.

Throughout the 1970s, Warner engaged in fierce competition with longtime industry giant CBS Records. The two companies battled back and forth for chart and market-share dominance and often raided one another's artist roster. However, in the last few years CBS, with artists such as Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, pulled well ahead.

Morale Slumped

As a result of its disappointing showing, Warner was beginning to be written off by some in the industry as a hapless has-been.

"There's always been an enormous amount of pride at this company," Waronker said. "Historically, we've pranced around with our acts, so we weren't oblivious about what the outside world was saying about us--'They're not hungry and they don't play hard.' "

"Morale was not good," said Russ Thyret, Warner's vice president of promotion. Lapsing into the kind of baseball metaphor common around the company lately, Thyret explained: "When you've played a bunch of back-to-back championship seasons and all of a sudden you keep getting up to bat and striking out, you start turning on each other."

In mid-1983, Warner quietly began making some changes "and trying out some new things," Waronker said.

In a move that most other record companies had already made, Warner pared back its artist roster, dropping more than 30 performers. "We realized we were just too big and had to make some hard decisions," Waronker said. The hardest of those decisions, he said, was opting not to renegotiate with singer Van Morrison, who subsequently signed a new contract with Polygram Records.

"Van Morrison wasn't dropped," Waronker said. "We were in a position to renew our contract with Van, but we knew he'd been offered a deal by another company that we couldn't afford to match."

Warner also cut back on its number of album releases--from 178 in 1983 to 149 in 1984--and put more effort into promoting each one. The result, said Thyret, was multiple hit singles from a handful of albums that subsequently sold several million copies each: Van Halen's "1984," 5 million copies sold; Chicago's "17," 3 million; Madonna's "Madonna," 2.5 million, and "Like a Virgin," 3 million, and ZZ Top's "Eliminator," 4 million.

Both Waronker and Thyret pointed to the success of Prince's 1983 album "1999" as an example of the company's renewed aggressiveness. When the title song from the album was released as a single, it didn't do very well and sales of the album leveled off at about 750,000 copies, Thyret said. After a second single from the album, "Little Red Corvette" made it into the top 10, the company decided to re-release the "1999" single.

The second time around, "1999" went to No. 12 on the charts and the album eventually sold more than 2 million copies and set the stage for "Purple Rain," the biggest-selling album of 1984.

Warner's streak has "completely dispelled the negative perceptions of the company in the minds of the industry," Billboard's Noonan said. "In the record business, when you're hot it's a lot easier to break new artists. It's a psychological thing with radio programmers--they give your records a closer listen."

'Feeling of Euphoria'

However, Warner executives acknowledge that things can't go on this well indefinitely. "Right now there's a feeling of euphoria around the company," said Murray Gitlin, Warner's executive vice president and treasurer. "But this is a business of ups and downs, of pendulums, so I try not to get too excited when things are good. The important thing is not the particular roll you're on, it's your artist roster, personnel and your relationship with radio stations. In the long run, a quality batter is going to get more hits."

"There's no question in my mind that we are a better record company than we were two years ago, even with the same people," Thyret said. "You can say all you want about artists not delivering records, and it's true that not all the problems were our fault, but our performance was not as good as it should have been.

"We should have been more aggressive. The only danger now is returning to complacency and that's not a trap we're going to fall into again, I can tell you that."

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