From Studio to the Board Room : Lenny Waronker’s low-key, laissez faire style pays off at Warner Bros.
On a sun-dappled spring afternoon, employees and guests gather on the patio of the Warner Bros. Records building in Burbank to watch a private performance by Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. It’s a joint welcoming gift from the two celebrated artists, who have come to Warners after long stints at CBS Records.
Between songs, an ebullient Costello expresses his gratitude to the Warner Bros. staff. “Spike,” his musically complex label debut, has sold more than a half-million copies since its release in January, and he has a potential hit single in “Veronica.” Fittingly, Costello climaxes his mini-set with an emotionally charged rendering of the song.
Unnoticed in the crowd is a slight, unremarkable-looking man in a crew-neck sweater and blue jeans. When the show is over, he climbs the steps to the second floor, where Costello is receiving visitors, and goes to the end of a long line of well-wishers.
“Lenny!” says the cult star when the little man’s turn comes. Costello’s display of affection seems to make Lenny Waronker both happy and slightly ill at ease. Bidding Costello goodby, he walks through a foyer into a large office and takes a seat behind the desk. He has to get back to running the biggest little record company in the world. . . .
“To say that I run it makes me uncomfortable, but I guess I run it in some ways,” the president of Warner Bros. Records said on the eve of the patio performance. Shy and thoughtful, Waronker tends to speak with a hand over his mouth, two fingers scissoring the tip of his nose.
“I’m not your typical record executive,” he continued. “I’m not much of a boss in the traditional sense. Every time I try to do it, it feels weird. It’s a team here, and there’s a lot of freedom for talented people to do their stuff. I think that’s one of the reasons it works.”
And work it does. In 1988, Warner Bros. and its in-house labels--Reprise and Sire--had their most profitable year ever, pacing the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic (WEA) family of labels, which collectively far outdistanced once-dominant CBS Records, WEA’s closest competitor. Last year, the WEA labels notched an astounding 29 platinum and multi-platinum albums. Warner Bros. contributed nine of those million-plus sellers. CBS as a whole had but 11.
Early 1989 has been even better for WEA in general and Warner Bros. in particular. Recording Industry Assn. of America figures show nine platinum and multi-platinum albums for Warners through May 16, a figure equal to the company’s entire ’88 performance.
According to figures compiled from Billboard magazine by WEA’s parent organization Warner Communications Inc., WEA’s 1989 first-quarter market share was a staggering 56.5%, compared to second-place CBS’ 12.7%. It’s worth noting that three other red-hot WEA labels--Elektra, Geffen and Virgin--are led by former Warners executives Bob Krasnow, Eddie Rosenblatt and Jeff Ayeroff, respectively. Each is operating his label in the A&R-driven; manner pioneered by WB.
In no small measure, Warners’ impressive performance can be attributed to the dual leadership of chairman Mo Ostin, who created the company’s non-authoritarian structure, and the perspicacious Waronker, who works more closely with artists than any other major-label head in the business.
In a field run more and more by accountants and attorneys, Waronker is a rarity: a president who came right from the studio.
When Waronker took over 6 1/2 years ago, Warner Bros.--along with the rest of the industry--was in a deep slump. After a traumatic first few months, during which Waronker was forced to jettison a number of acts, among them Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt and T Bone Burnett, Warners began its turnaround under the new president’s artist-oriented leadership.
It wasn’t long before the company was scoring dramatic breakthroughs with all kinds of acts--cult bands like Talking Heads, retreads like ZZ Top and new artists like Madonna. The hits have kept coming for six straight years, each of them bigger than the last.
There’s no question the Warner Bros. hierarchy is doing something right. According to Waronker, “Mo somehow has been able to depoliticize this place--not that there aren’t politics here, but they exist in a normal, fairly reasonable way.”
Explains Stephen Baker, the company’s vice president of product management and Waronker’s right-hand man, “Mo set the style for Warner Bros., and Lenny’s been successful working within that style. The two of them make one whole.”
“If they have a game that they play there, it’s about taste--and they have exquisite taste,” observes Virgin Records co-chairman Jeff Ayeroff, a former Warner Bros. executive. “They make a lot of money, and they can hold their heads up high. And that’s because of Lenny and Mo. They’ve proved that size does not belie intimacy and understanding of music.”
It’s doubtful that any record executive is more highly regarded by his peers than Waronker. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to find anyone willing to utter a negative comment about the Warner Bros. president.
“I’ll give you something,” offers Irving Azoff, chairman of MCA Music Entertainment Group. “Lenny Waronker is an absolutely terrible dresser. That’s the most negative thing I can say about him.”
Before becoming president of Warners, Waronker was best known as the producer (mostly with longtime partner Russ Titelman) of numerous acclaimed albums by such individualistic artists as Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Van Dyke Parks, Paul Simon, Maria Muldaur, James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot and Rickie Lee Jones.
But in 1982, after 16 years in the recording studio, Waronker found himself staring at the clock on the wall.
“It was becoming tiresome,” he says. “It was time to make a move. I went to talk to Mo about becoming more involved as an executive, not knowing where it was gonna lead. It was clear from that conversation that I was changing roles in my life.”
Waronker may not exhibit the traits of a born record executive, but he certainly has the grounding.
When he was 13, Waronker’s father, Si, a classical violinist and recording contractor, formed Liberty Records, which would become a powerful West Coast label during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
“The concern about ‘What am I gonna be?’ was an issue with me, and all of a sudden this record company popped up, and everything about it seemed cool,” Waronker recalls.
“So I took a real keen interest in how it was being put together, and I saw the business part, though that part bored me. The creative side was always the interesting side to me.”
When his father started Liberty, Waronker already had the bug, partly the result of his lifelong friendship with musical prodigy Randy Newman. As kids, Newman and Waronker not only played baseball and basketball together, they also played artist and producer.
Waronker: “We’d take an old standard, and I’d say, ‘Why don’t you do it like the Drifters would do it?’ And then he’d be able to figure it out. It was great fun for me. We used to know every song on the charts--who published it, who wrote it, what was cool about it.”
After working as an artists and repertoire gofer and a promotion man at Liberty during the summers while attending USC, Waronker began producing song demos for the label’s publishing wing, Metric Music.
“You really learn how to make records that way,” he says. “I think my relationship with Randy and then dealing with other songwriters helped me eventually get into this thing about working with artists and understanding how important it was to get the song right--and get the vision of the songwriter right.”
Those song demos led directly to a job in the Warner Bros. A&R; department. Soon, Waronker produced a pair of hit singles: the Mojo Men’s “Sit Down, I Think I Love You” and Harpers Bizarre’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).” Both were remakes of other acts’ songs. But it was Waronker’s fascination with songwriters that continued to drive him.
Accordingly, in the late ‘60s Waronker signed and produced Parks, Newman and Taylor, who became the vanguard of the singer-songwriter movement. Among the biggest fans of his work with these writers-turned-artists was Ostin, who installed Waronker as the head of the A&R; department in 1970.
“Everything he did was a class kind of project, and one could never question his taste,” says Ostin. “He built a phenomenally strong A&R; staff--Tommy LiPuma, Ted Templeman, Russ Titelman, Steve Barri, Gary Katz and others.
“It was Lenny and that staff, along with some of the things that I was doing"--Ostin himself signed such artists as Jimi Hendrix, the Fugs, the Sex Pistols and ZZ Top--"that helped define what this company ultimately became.”
Twelve years later, Ostin appointed Waronker president of Warner Bros. Records. Says the chairman about that appointment, “It was a very important statement on the part of Warner Bros. Records. It was clearly an effort on our part to say that this is a company that is about music.”
Like his record productions, Waronker’s executive style--or lack thereof--is unorthodox.
He’s more likely to eat at Paty’s Coffee Shop than Le Dome. And you won’t find him joining several of his counterparts courtside at the Forum during the NBA playoffs. Waronker’s passion is for the beleaguered Clippers rather than the dominating Lakers. (“I like pain,” he deadpans. “There’s something about rooting for a lousy team and watching ‘em build. I love that.”)
Waronker’s self-flagellating, acutely cerebral demeanor makes him the Woody Allen of the record biz. And like Allen, Waronker has somehow turned his reticence into affirmation.
Recalls MCA’s Azoff, “My most fun moment was when Lenny was first appointed president, and any time anyone would refer to him as the president , he would shudder--I mean, he would physically shake. Ever since that time I’ve been calling him Mr. President. He stopped shaking some time last year.”
“The first year was brutal,” Waronker recalls of his administration. “I’d walk into a meeting, Mo would go through all the business stuff, I’d get 30% or 40% of it, and then I’d go crazy. I’d say, ‘I don’t get this stuff.’ And he said, ‘Stop it. You don’t have to get it.’ And it dawned on me a year into this thing that if I just do what I’m comfortable doing, I’ll sink or I’ll swim--but if I swim, it’ll probably be a good thing.”
Once he found himself in his new role, Waronker discovered it was a very good thing indeed.
“Artists and others seem comfortable with the fact that they have somebody like Mo, who is an incredible record man, and they also have somebody like me, who’s aligned himself with music and the record-making process.”
Says Costello, “It’s a good reason to respect somebody’s opinion--that they’ve done good work. Because of that, the consultation that we went through during the making of ‘Spike’ was valued and valuable.”
Waronker has no misgivings about releasing idiosyncratic albums by non-mainstream artists, despite the likelihood that they won’t become hits. He sees other, less tangible, benefits.
“Those records follow you around,” he says. “See, I know about that stuff, ‘cause I made some of those records. The point of view here is that if you have somebody you really believe in and you make a great record, even if it doesn’t do well, it’s OK. You never get hurt making a good record. Ever. Even if it doesn’t sell. Somewhere along the line, there are people who will find that record. And it comes back to you in the neatest ways.
“I remember that and lived that, so I hang on to it now. If an artist can come out of this office with something like that in the back of their mind, even if it means one or two cuts are gonna be a little weird--maybe they’re gonna bend themselves and write this great weird hit, like ‘Good Vibrations.’ And then I’d be happy.”