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The New Plan: Um, How About If We Make Some Good Records?

<i> Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. </i>

Add Gary Gersh, the new president and CEO of Capitol Records, to the list of entertainment world executives who started out in the mail room. But the Los Angeles native adds a special twist to the familiar tale.

Gersh was only 19 when he worked briefly in the Capitol Tower mail room, but it wasn’t his entrance into the record business.

Fibbing about his age, he got his first job at the Wherehouse store in Westwood when he was 14--so eager to be in the business that he accepted records rather than a salary. Within three years, he had graduated to head buyer for the then-popular Licorice Pizza chain in Southern California. Things were moving so fast that the University High graduate decided to sidestep college. His dream: making records.

After shifting to Capitol in pursuit of that goal, Gersh worked in promotion and other areas before being named at 23 to the artists and repertoire staff at sister label EMI, where the roster included David Bowie, the Stray Cats and Gary U.S. Bonds.

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In 1985, Gersh joined the highly regarded A&R; team at Geffen Records, where he signed or worked with such acts as Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson, Sonic Youth, Pat Metheny and the commercial-critical sensation of the ‘90s so far: Nirvana.

An intense, articulate man, Gersh, 37, made his reputation as someone who can spot and nurture talent. When EMI Record Group head Charles Koppelman turned to him for the Capitol post, initial industry reaction was generally positive. Yet some questions have been raised about Gersh’s lack of experience in running a record label.

In an interview after his appointment, Gersh--who is married and has a 3-year-old son named Noah Mays Gersh, after baseball hero Willie Mays--spoke about his love affair with the music business, his years with David Geffen and what needs to be done at Capitol, where he takes over July 1.

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Question: What about this matter of experience? Any insecurities about running a label rather than working primarily with artists?

Answer: People who know me know I don’t have many insecurities in those areas. Basically at Geffen it was our job (in A&R;) to make sure the promotion, marketing, all those things ran well for our acts. . . . to oversee it, much the way a label president would. I think what I bring to those other areas at Capitol is a fresh sense of excitement. . . . I’m eager for new ideas.

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Q: What music excited you as a kid?

A: I was just taken by the sound of Motown . . . and Phil Spector things and the Stax stuff. Since that time, I studied about all those companies . . . how they worked, and what I saw was that those companies were all about the music. That was their focus, their passion. The same with David Geffen and what Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler did at Atlantic. Everything started with great records, and then they talked about getting them marketed and promoted. My sense of what I want to do at Capitol is just take a page out of that book.

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Q: What lesson did you learn about making records at Geffen?

A: One thing is that you can’t really have a great record company without having people in there who know how records get made. That’s more than just signing the right artists. A great scout is one thing, but you also need to know how to make the right record with the artist.

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Q: You mean that someone might be able to find a great talent, but then not be able to figure out what kind of record that artist should make?

A: I’m speaking about drawing it out of the artist. I don’t think the Geffen situation was about molding people. It was bringing out of them what they were capable of being. If the artists were a little to the left of center--which is what appeals to me--then I would try and bring the center to them, rather than bring them to the center by making changes in their music. In Sonic Youth’s case, I wanted them to make the records they normally made, but then if we could just make it sonically sound better, then people would be more likely to be more involved in their music, which has been the case.

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Q: What about working for David Geffen himself?

A: He’s as smart as there is. I learned so much from him about deals, how deals get made, how they get closed . . . but one of the main things he taught me about the business was that the way to succeed in business is through relationships. You create your relationships and you work on your relationships, not any different from a friendship. You make it work.

Eddie Rosenblatt (label president) was also an essential member of the team. He’s a people person. Eddie’s very fatherly, very nourishing in case you are going through something personally and professionally; he sort of walks you through it. You can’t have just David without Eddie. That balance is what really made the company run.

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Q: If music is the most important element at a company, what do you see when you see the Capitol roster?

A: I see a lot of opportunity in some of the younger things they have and even some of the older things. I had a really interesting phone call with Punch Andrews (Bob Seger’s manager) this morning about what I perceive about Bob and the future if we target the whole thing properly.

But I also see some things that need to be changed. Their main problem is that people who don’t necessarily know how records get made are signing the artists. So if you are scouting and signing an artist but you can’t follow through with the biggest part of being an A&R; person-- making the records --then you have a really big problem.

At Geffen, it was our job (in A&R;) to make sure a record got set up right, got followed through right, got marketed properly, got promoted properly, and made sure the tours were right with the agents. We worked closely with all those people. At Capitol, it works differently. An A&R; person signs, then a producer produces, then it is handed over to a product manager. I don’t necessarily see that as the right way to run a record company.

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Q: Geffen is a sort of boutique label. What’s it going to be like having to work with so many artists at Capitol?

A: Strangely enough, the Capitol roster is smaller than Geffen’s. In fact, the artists that are signed directly to Capitol is half of what Geffen’s roster is and I think we will even take that down a little further . . . and then we will start to build it back up.

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Q: Any way you can take any of the Geffen acts with you?

A: If there were artists that David no longer wanted on his label and that I still believed in, I would probably love to work with those artists, but . . . getting into a battle with David Geffen over artists he still wants isn’t high on my priority list.

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Q: What about the recent rash of massive contract signings in the record business? Do you believe in going after big free agents as in baseball or is it better to sign and develop new acts?

A: You have to take it on an individual basis, just as in baseball. If you spend $4 million signing Darryl Strawberry, you are an idiot. But what about Barry Bonds? If you sign the right act at the right time in their career, you spend the money that it takes. We spent a lot of money at Geffen signing acts like the Waterboys and Stone Roses. Those are futures. If there is an act really good for the Capitol roster, something we believe in, we’ll go in big. But there’s no formula.

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Q: How long do you think it will take to make a difference?

A: I don’t know how to answer that. What I do know is my mandate from Charles (Koppelman) is we are not on a time schedule. We realize there is a lot of work ahead. But I think some things can be done right away. At the marketing meeting yesterday, we got very, very focused on some records we want to try and bring home. And there were some records they were working on that aren’t showing signs of life--records by artists that even people at the record company don’t necessarily believe in.

We just said, look, “Let’s not do this. Let’s not spend money on something none of us believe in.” What I hope to accomplish in as short a period of time as possible is create a situation where we are working on records we all do believe in.


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