The ding of the cash register still tolls louder than any guitar, synthesizer or kick drum in today’s record business, if one were to judge by the opening sessions of the weekend “Music Business Symposium” at the Ambassador Hotel.

As the symposium name suggested, this was no musical love fest with wide-eyed fans swapping classic rock singles and apocryphal tales of life on tour. Instead, sober-eyed record label executives, producers, managers, agents and others of the industry’s mandarins of commerce conferred over the shape and direction of the multibillion-dollar international music trade.

Condition: Guarded. Prognosis: Continued conservatism. Occasional spasms of wistful idealism, but lots of accusing fingers being pointed.


In the conference’s keynote address Friday, Arista Records president Clive Davis blamed the current highly formatted state of radio for pop music’s creative constipation--and in no uncertain terms.

“There are large and vital areas of modern music that are being disenfranchised by all radio formats who, it seems to me, have made arbitrary and narrow decisions about what listeners will and will not accept,” said Davis.

“And because of those decisions, record companies become more and more cautious about what kinds of music get recorded.”

Some other industry figures took artists to task for homogenizing their creations to the point of what one record executive termed “pop yogurt.”

“We can’t be held responsible if the majority of what we are presented with falls right into line with what sells millions of records,” said Columbia Records’ artist-and-repertory (A & R) director Ron Oberman. “It’s easier to sell rock to large audiences, and the musicians who are trying to make it know that, I think, all too well.”

Still others shook their heads at the relentlessly mainstream mass pop audience. “How can we make the music consumer more tolerant, more interested in really new product?” asked Enigma Records’ A & R chief William Hein. “We work in a tremendous vacuum of taste out there.”

In a heavily attended Friday evening session with such top pop producers as Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, the Cars), Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, the Go-Gos, Joan Armatrading), and Tom Werman (Motley Crue, Cheap Trick), art-versus-commerce was again the main theme. But since the panel was dominated by former musicians, the tone of the panelists’ comments was wider-ranging than those of the business people who preceded them.

“One of the big problems we face in music is making records that matter ,” said Gottehrer. “We have to produce tunes that are magical, yet stay within the budget limitations imposed upon us. If I am instructed to make sure that a particular record remains profitable, that is what I’m going to do because I like working. But the magic is a matter for the artists and me--that’s what we get to deal with.”

“Our main job is to make it possible for that artist to perform his or her best in the studio,” said Margouleff. “We have to be asking three questions all the time: ‘Is it musical?’ ‘Is it commercial?’ and ‘Does it communicate?’ The order of those, of course, depends on who you are and who the artists are.”

‘There are large and vital areas of modern music that are being disenfranchised by all radio formats.’