T he record industry loses one of its icons today when Joe Smith retires as president and chief executive officer of Capitol-EMI Music.
Smith’s career roughly spans the rock ‘n’ roll era. After years as a disc jockey, he spent 1961-1983 as an executive at Warner Bros. Records and Elektra/Asylum Records, where he had an up-close view of the pop culture revolution. Among the acts he helped sign: the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and James Taylor.
The affable, articulate Smith landed at Capitol-EMI in 1987 with the mission of rebuilding the label, which had fallen from its ‘60s Beatles-Beach Boys peak. Smith and his staff developed acts such as Hammer, revived the career of pop-blues singer Bonnie Raitt and encouraged Garth Brooks’ growth.
But the record industry also changed, as international conglomerates brought a more bottom-line mentality to the business.
While Smith, 65, was known to be frustrated by the layers of management at Capitol’s parent company, London-based Thorn EMI, he insisted during an interview that the decision to go was his.
Question: Some people see your move as the passing of an era, and a further indication that corporate powers have taken creative control of the record industry. What’s your response?
Answer: Well, the nature of this business began to change a number of years ago, when it became very big money and major corporations moved in. . . . And to the extent that it’s become a bigger business, it’s become necessary to put people in charge who are more business-oriented than those of us who were very music-oriented. We’re very much like other businesses now.
Q: How has that affected the music?
A: Fifteen years ago we might have blithely gone ahead and done what we thought was right musically. Today there are bound to be some business considerations applied, and to an extent that hurts music because you don’t know what you’re missing.
Q: In the 1980s you called the record business a family. Do you still feel that way?
A: No. I think the sense of that has diminished greatly. I see companies having meeting after meeting discussing long-range planning and strategy without the same kind of conclaves on where the music is going, where is it coming from and what should we be looking for.
Q: What are some of the most interesting acts you signed?
A: The first real rock ‘n’ roll group I signed was the Grateful Dead. I signed those guys in San Francisco. That’s a quite a story too, because you knew something was happening there. I didn’t quite understand it because it was like a Fellini scene at the Avalon Ballroom--people painting their bodies and light shows. And I had never seen them before. When Tom Donahue, who was a disc jockey up there, told me the guys were ready to see me, I was over at Ernie’s Restaurant in my dark blue Bank of America suit, and my wife was in her black dress with pearls. I said, “We’re dressed kind of funny.” And he said, “Nobody will notice.”
Q: In those days, what did it take to be a successful executive?
A: Well, it took a lot of energy. Because your energy was immediately reflected in your enthusiasm. You didn’t go through layers of management. It was very personal.
Q: The labels were largely buying into your taste.
A: Buying into my taste level, my judgment that I’d been right enough times to go with it. I made it a point to go see everybody. Most of my nights were spent at the Whisky and at the Troubadour and running around with (other record people).
Q: Does anyone stick out in your mind that you were certain would click and didn’t?
A: I thought Jesse Colin Young was going to be a superstar. He was great looking, sensitive, he came with credentials out of the Youngbloods. I also thought J. D. Souther and Warren Zevon would be a lot bigger than they were. But that never happened. On the other hand, things happen that you never expect.
Q: Which ones were surprise successes?
A: I was amazed at the success we had with America. They looked like together they weighed 80 pounds or something like that. And their music connected so fast. . . . Then there was Garth Brooks. . . . And Bonnie Raitt. She is the most satisfying success story because I signed her twice. I signed her at Warner back in the ‘70s and gave her a shot again at Capitol . . . and saw her win seven Grammys.
Q: Did you ever see it coming when a star tumbled?
A: No. You don’t know when all of a sudden they’ll hit the wall, and the star is doing the same thing they’ve always done, but the taste level and the public have moved on. And it’s very hard for some artists to understand that.
Q: Of all the musicians you’ve dealt with, which had the keenest business sense?
A: Oh, to be honest with you, Garth Brooks, without a question. He did his own negotiating. He was the guy. It was he and I, in this office for six hours one day.
Q: No manager, no agent?
A: No manager, no agent, nobody. Then it got turned over to other people. Rod Stewart’s a very good businessman, too. Rod understood all the complexities of the deal, knew what he wanted, and knew where he was going. Jackson Browne is a very hands-on guy as well.
Q: What about your personal taste? What’s playing on your CD player at home?
A: It’s mostly jazz and R&B.; I’ve developed a classical interest since I’ve been here, because we got these 2,000 albums on Angel. But there’s no question with jazz. I’ll go to one of the record stores and buy 20 jazz albums at a time. I can never get enough Stan Getz, whom I became friendly with just before he died.
Q: You are well known as the industry’s toastmaster. If you were going to deliver your own testimonial, what would you say?
A: Well, I’m proud of encouraging and fostering a lot of people. I’m very proud of that, because I’m in awe of the creative process. I can’t do it. I can’t write and sing and perform, but I’ve been involved with music all my adult life, and to know that I maybe have pushed somebody in the right direction, or gave ‘em the room to make a mistake, or make a bad record, and do something else--I think I like that.