“If you only knew all the dealing that goes on in back of the store.” --Van Morrison, in a song by Mose Allison
I never really understood what Morrison, a battle-hardened veteran of the music business, was complaining about until I picked up “Hit Men” by Fredric Dannen, an intimate history of the music industry that shows exactly what kind of dealing goes on--and has always gone on--in the backrooms of America’s glitziest record companies. According to Dannen, the star-making machinery that has literally given us the soundtrack of our lives is brutal, exploitive, ruthless, venal and, at times, outrightly corrupt.
Like all business books about the entertainment industry, “Hit Men” makes the uncomfortable but unsurprising point that most of the decision-makers don’t really seem to know or care much about the music itself; they could be selling soap. For every passionate (and visionary) music-lover like John Hammond, the A & R man who “discovered” Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, we get half a dozen boardroom bullies with sharp tongues and sharper pencils--some are street-smart, some are Harvard-educated, but all of them are intent on the bottom line and the executive suite. One pioneering record-industry heavy, for example, liked to buy up copyrights precisely because it was a way to make money without putting up with artistic temperament: “It’s always pennies,” he said, “but it accumulates into nice money. It works for itself. It never talks back to you.”
“Hit Men” focuses mostly on CBS Records, the recording-industry giant that has, at one time or another, featured the work of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Billy Joel, Janis Joplin, and Aretha Franklin. And Dannen delights in telling some shocking stories about celebrities--the ones in the recording studio and the ones in the front office. But, above all, “Hit Men” is a knowing and unsentimental glimpse into the inner workings of the music business, a world that is usually invisible to those of us who merely buy and listen to records.
For example, we see the skirmish between a young Bob Dylan, who belatedly tried to squirm out of his contract on the grounds that he was under 21 when he signed it, and lawyer-turned-mogul Clive Davis, who found a legal technicality of his own to trap Dylan into staying with the label. We see the medieval pomp in which Neil Diamond insisted on signing a record-breaking contract with CBS. He even chose to use a quill pen! And we find out exactly how Janis Joplin proposed to “consummate” the deal with Clive Davis when he signed her to a contract. (“Clive demurred,” the author reports.)
The archetype of the founding generation of rock ‘n’ roll impresarios, at least according to Dannen, was Morris Levy, affectionately known as “Moishe.” Founder of Birdland and Roulette Records, collector of other people’s copyrights and a heavy player in the music business for 30 years, Levy was long suspected of being a cat’s paw for the mob. (To distance himself from his friends in the mob, Levy used to point to a photograph of himself and Cardinal Spellman: “That don’t make me a Catholic.”) Still, Moishe’s mob connections were taken so much for granted that when a prominent record executive was called upon to “roast” Levy at a fundraising banquet, he was able to joke: "(E)ither tonight I’m a hit, or tomorrow morning, I get hit, one or the other.”
But even the latter-day generation of record moguls seem to pride themselves on being bigger SOBs than the next guy. Walter Yetnikoff, for example, boasts of his face-to-face showdown with Laurence Tisch, the new man in charge of CBS, amidst their intricate legal and corporate maneuvering: “So he starts screaming at me, and the top of his head is getting red,” Yetnikoff boasted to an impromptu press conference at a CBS shareholders meeting. “And finally, I had enough of this. So I get up, and I said to him, Listen, you! I’m generally a classy, cultured guy, but calling me a p----? Your yelling doesn’t mean s---, but I have to warn you: If I lose my temper, I . . . COULD . . . GET . . . PHYSICAL!” (“Disgraceful,” Tisch later said. “Walter is an animal.”)
There’s an urgent, knowing quality to Dannen’s reporting that somehow justifies the relentless name-dropping and enlivens even the stories that Dannen apparently found in old issues of “Rolling Stone.” He shows us how the music business actually works, how fortunes are made and lost, how the most outlandish and vicious behavior has become a convention of corporate politics. For instance, Dannen explains that payola, the panic-button issue of the late ‘50s, is merely business-as-usual in one form or another. “Payola was the greatest thing in the world,” Dannen quotes one of the old song pluggers who greeted disc jockeys with a “fifty-dollar handshake.” “You didn’t have to go out to dinner with someone, and kiss their ass. Just pay them, here’s the money, play the record.”
Most of the book, of course, is devoted to the music industry executives who succeeded Levy and his cohorts: not only Clive Davis and Walter Yetnikoff of CBS, but David Geffen, Irving Azoff, Joe Smith, Mo Ostin, and dozens of others. But Dannen suggests that a man like Levy is still the real role model for the lean-and-hungry lawyers and MBAs who pick the hits nowadays: “If the label bosses today are not quite as intimidating as he was,” Dannen writes, “it isn’t for lack of trying.”
As I devoured Dannen’s book, the thought occurred to me that some of the stories were too good--that is, too outrageous--to be true. After all, Dannen is a supercharged business reporter who catapulted from Institutional Investor to Vanity Fair. So, at lunch last week, I started mentioning various characters from “Hit Men” to a music lawyer who knows them all. When he started telling the same war stories that appear in “Hit Men,” sometimes word for word, I was reassured about the authenticity (if not the originality) of the book: Dannen got the inside story, and he got it right.