Not Bad for a Kid
When people started comparing Guy Oseary to Sammy Glick soon after Oseary began his fast-track rise at Madonna’s Maverick Records, Oseary thought Glick was a real-life show-biz wheeler-dealer he just hadn’t met yet.
It wasn’t until his friend Ben Stiller mentioned last year that he was writing a movie script from the Budd Schulberg novel that produced the ruthlessly ambitious Glick, “What Makes Sammy Run?,” that Oseary realized Glick was fictional.
“It was amazing when he told me about the book,” says Oseary, the 24-year-old dynamo who signed Alanis Morissette, whose album “Jagged Little Pill” has generated estimated worldwide sales of more than $250 million in two years. “I told Ben that this writer had compared me to Sammy Glick, but Ben said, ‘No, you’re nothing like him.’ ”
Oseary should be flattered that Stiller doesn’t see in him the cutthroat, amoral tradition of Schulberg’s show-biz heel. News of Oseary’s success has spread through the inner circles of the record industry so fast and so thoroughly in recent months that his name may for years become applied to youthful fast-climbers the way critics and fans label promising singer-songwriters the “new Bob Dylan.”
And his rise comes at a time when veteran executives were lamenting that the old-time entrepreneurial spirit of the record business was being squelched by the arrival in the record industry of conglomerates. Oseary, however, shows that young, strong-willed individuals can still set the industry on its ear, even at a label that is half-owned by industry giant Time Warner.
“I think we are suffering from a lack of imagination and individuality in every area of the entertainment business,” Madonna says. “But I think there are people like Guy coming up who are going to keep us all from falling into conglomerate hell.”
Besides signing Morissette (an estimated 25 million album sales worldwide) and Candlebox (4 million), he played a major part in helping Maverick land a multimillion-dollar pact with Prodigy, the English techno band that many in the industry see as the group at the forefront of a looming commercial trend in pop. In doing so, Maverick beat out older, more established labels, including red-hot Interscope, Geffen and Epic.
Beyond a good ear for talent, Oseary is a master of networking--winning the confidence and support of some of the industry’s most powerful players, including former boy wonder David Geffen, who calls Oseary “terrific.”
Madonna and her manager, Freddy DeMann, are such believers that they’ve just made Oseary a partner in Maverick Records.
For outsiders, it’s easy to look at the ultra-confident Oseary and make the Sammy Glick comparisons. How else could he get so far so fast?
“He’s not Sammy Glick, he’s no angler,” says manager Bernie Brillstein, who was approached by Oseary eight years ago for advice on how to get into the entertainment business. “He’s done it through study and hard work.
“He was a friend of my kids at Beverly Hills High School and he came to see me. You could see right away that this wasn’t just someone hoping to get a job in the mail room at ICM. Here was a kid who had a vision about his future and a presence. He wanted to be in show business and you knew he was going to make it.
“To show you how things go in this business. My son Nicholas is in the record business now and I hope Guy is nice to him. . . . Isn’t it strange how things work out?”
It’s past 6 p.m. at Maverick Records on Beverly Boulevard as the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Oseary sits on a sofa in his new office, down the hall from business affairs head Ronnie June Dashev, who also was named a partner in Maverick last week. He’s relaxing after a day on the phones and meetings. The only other sound as he begins talking about his industry ascension is the music from the radio, which is constantly tuned to KROQ-FM, the rock station that Oseary fell in love with as a kid.
Before he was even in his teens, he listened to KROQ religiously and plastered the station’s stickers on the bedroom wall in the West Hollywood apartment where he lived with his father, Yossi. He was able to identify records quickly--”within the first three seconds . . . always”--and won so many station contests that KROQ personnel suspected an inside contact was feeding him information.
Oseary wears a blue shirt over a Deftones T-shirt (another of his signings), dark slacks and Adidas low-tops. A Star of David, a gift from Madonna, hangs around his neck.
He’s a natural talker--confident, but not in an off-putting way. He prides himself on being approachable, opening phone calls with a disarming, “Hi, buddy.”
There’s an intensity, even an occasional impatience in his eyes as he races to the point of a conversation. He rarely seems tentative or uncertain in the manner of so many twentysomethings.
Oseary knows he’s causing a buzz.
On his message book, there are requests for interviews during the week from the New York Times magazine, Rolling Stone, Newsweek and more.
“I don’t plan to do many interviews,” he says. “But I’m proud of what we are doing at Maverick and I want people to know about it. I also think there are some misconceptions out there about me and it’s a way to introduce myself to people, including bands who might like to work with someone who is their age. . . . “
One early, celebrated piece of misinformation about Oseary can be traced to the enormous industry skepticism surrounding the formation of Madonna’s label in 1992 with Time Warner, a deal that many observers felt was simply the latest in a long history of do-nothing vanity labels by recording stars. The catty rumor was that the only reason Oseary got his job was that he was her boyfriend.
The irony, Schulberg would appreciate, is that Oseary’s own strategy in getting into the record business--and to Maverick--was far more interesting than the rumor.
Born in Jerusalem, Oseary came to the United States with his parents and two older half-sisters when he was 6. His mother, Gila, returned to Israel with him and his sisters two years later when his parents separated and eventually divorced. But Oseary missed America so he came back to Los Angeles after about six months, learning English at the Temple Emanuel school in Beverly Hills.
Oseary and his dad, who then worked at the temple but is now an artist, lived in an apartment across the street from Le Parc Hotel near the Beverly Center. The hotel was a favorite in the mid-’80s for the Smiths, Culture Club and other visiting rock groups whose music was played on KROQ. Fans would show up at the hotel, hoping to see the bands, and young Oseary, starting around age 12, made friends with the fans. He often scored free tickets and would get rides to the shows from the fans. He soon became obsessed with being part of the pop world, any way he could.
After leaving Temple Emanuel, he attended the Center for Enriched Studies, a magnet school that was then located just west of downtown Los Angeles, and loved the cultural diversity. But he was frightened one night when he was roughed up while waiting outside the school for his father to pick him up. Some gang members mistook Oseary for someone they had been chasing and threatened him with a knife. The teenager thought it would be better to transfer to Beverly Hills High School even though he didn’t live in the school’s district.
Giving school officials a false address, Oseary enrolled at Beverly Hills High, where he felt out of place among the rich kids. He calls the experience a turning point in his life.
Oseary points to the time his father sacrificed to buy him a new Honda Civic when he was 16. Oseary was so proud of the car that he couldn’t wait to get to school to show it off. But the kids, more accustomed to BMWs and Porsches, looked down on the car, and he was crushed.
Oseary set himself a goal. “I vowed that I was going to have what I want on my own terms,” he says now. “I told myself that I would drive back on that campus some day in my own BMW.”
It’s no surprise that when he leaves the Maverick building later in the evening, a new gray BMW 840ci is waiting in the parking lot.
So he finally got his BMW?
“Oh,” he says. “This is my second one.”
Hungry for success in the pop world, Oseary set out at 16 on a systematic search at Beverly Hills High to meet students whose parents worked in the entertainment business. He tried to arrange meetings with many of the famous parents, including, he says, Michael Landon, Peter Guber, Smokey Robinson. No luck.
But Bernie Brillstein, whose clients over the years have ranged from Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi to Garry Shandling, agreed to see him.
“He was a friend of my sons, Nicholas and David, but when he came into the room, he had this presence, . . . this real positive vibe, . . . a tremendous belief in himself and what he could do,” Brillstein recalls. “How many kids, other than Michael Jordan, do you know who are that focused at 16?
“There was something about him that made me want to help him. Now believe me, I don’t say this often, but I told him I’d give him 25 grand to get started and if he did well, he could pay me back . . . if not, forget the money. He was stunned.”
But, Brillstein continues, “Listen to this. He didn’t take the money. I couldn’t believe it. Instead, he asked me to make three phone calls . . . of introduction.”
None of the calls led anywhere, but Oseary’s meeting with Freddy DeMann, the parent of another Beverly Hills High School student, opened the door.
By this time, Oseary had already decided that his role in pop would be behind the scenes rather than as a performer. He had made friends with Poorman, a celebrated KROQ disc jockey in the late ‘80s, and with rapper Ice-T, who spread the word among other young rappers that Oseary was someone who could help advance their careers.
Oseary took one of the tapes sent to him by a rap hopeful and played it for DeMann, who has managed Madonna throughout her career and formerly co-managed Michael Jackson. DeMann was impressed by both the tape and the youngster. He told Oseary to keep in touch.
After high school, Oseary started managing some of the rap groups while attending Cal State Northridge and got one of them, Hen Gee & Evil E, a contract with Elektra Records. With that, he went back to DeMann, who gave him office space. No money, just a desk and a phone.
When putting Maverick together about two years later, DeMann interviewed numerous people who were already working in A&R; (talent acquisition and development), but he didn’t find anyone who impressed him as much as the kid down the hall.
“What amazed me when I first met him was how confident he was and how focused he was for an 18-year-old,” Madonna recalls. “Guy wants to learn and he has a lot of humility. If you say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, go read this book or see this art exhibit,’ he will read the book or see the exhibit.”
DeMann uses some of the same words: “smart, focused, quick learner.”
Once on board at Maverick, Oseary followed his instincts and tried to sign bands he liked, shifting his focus from rap to rock. Even though the company had no track record, he went after Hole and Rage Against the Machine, which went to Geffen and Epic, respectively, in the early ‘90s.
He finally brought Candlebox, one of the many rock bands to emerge from the Seattle grunge scene, to the label in 1992. The group’s debut album, “Candlebox,” sold 3.5 million copies. Oseary was 20. Then, in 1994, Morissette.
“I got a call from my attorney Ken Hertz who asked if I would meet this girl who was having a hard time getting a deal. So, she comes in with [producer/co-writer] Glen Ballard and they played a tape and I lost my mind . . . the first song. I told Freddy that it was unbelievable, amazing.”
About Oseary, Ballard says, “His reaction to music is visceral. He trusts his instincts and his tastes, which takes courage in this business. He responds to what he likes, and that’s exactly what he did in the case of Alanis. I had never really encountered someone of any age who was willing to commit himself so fully.”
The living room and den of Oseary’s upper six-figure house in the Hollywood Hills, an efficient five minutes from the office, showcase his passions. There are photos on the walls of some of his musical heroes, including John Lennon and Nirvana, and stacks of movie and musical videos in various cabinets.
He has a slew of big-screen TVs, though he says he doesn’t spend much time watching them except for “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Seinfeld,” CNN and sports.
The three-bedroom house is tidy and relatively compact. There’s a pool and a guest house, but it’s not especially flashy or extravagant in the pop star tradition. He lives alone and he’s not involved, he says, in a relationship. His life, for the most part, is his work. He normally skips breakfast, and eats all his meals out.
On this night, he’s got a table booked at chic Coco Pazzo restaurant at the Mondrian hotel.
Oseary comes alive in a social setting the way performers blossom on stage. It seems as if half the restaurant knows him. He stops by several tables briefly before making his way back to a prized corner table, which affords a lovely view of the city.
The scene is repeated several times each week at restaurants, clubs, parties.
“Everywhere I go in this town, there’s Guy Oseary,” Bernie Brillstein says with a laugh. “It’s like there are 10 of them.”
Ben Stiller ribs Oseary about his networking.
“I don’t understand what happens in those luncheons and meetings where people just kind of get together and talk, and then go out and create mega-empires, . . . record companies, studios, whatever.
“I kid Guy all the time. I’m not good at that kind of stuff, but it works for Guy. He’s really curious about people, their ideas, their projects. He thrives on it. He’s like a sponge in the best sense of the word.”
Oseary finds it all quite natural.
“I’m a people person, very approachable,” he says, between
bites of cheese-less pizza. “I go out every night, tons of functions. I love all facets of this industry. . . . Music, film, TV, books, art. I love being around creative people.
“I’ve got one outlet now--music--and it’s great to be able to sign someone that excites me. I’d like to also be able to do that with the scripts I get or books or TV shows. . . I’m not going to limit myself.”
That’s heady talk for a 24-year-old, especially one whose credentials are based on two signings. And, it should be noted, Candlebox, the band that first put Oseary on the pop map, stiffed with its second album last year. So, if it hadn’t been for Morissette, Oseary might be in the midst of career crisis rather than celebration.
Oseary thinks Candlebox’s second album, “Lucy,” suffered from distractions in the band caused by its sudden success, but he believes the band is back on track and says he’s confident about its third album, which is due late this year. He’s also excited about some other groups he’s signed, including Summercamp, Rule 62, Love Spit Love and, of course, Prodigy.
“One of the most discouraging things about this business is that so many people think of it only as a business,” says Rick Rubin, record producer and head of American Recordings. “Guy lives and breathes music.”
The campaign for Prodigy shows how Oseary’s ear for music and his networking skills combine.
He’s been a fan of the English group ever since seeing video footage of it in a rave documentary several years ago. Hoping to release the video through Maverick, Oseary went to London to meet with Prodigy’s British record label. But the deal didn’t work out.
As a fan, however, Oseary continued to follow Prodigy, and he thought the group’s “Firestarter” single was one of the musical high points of 1996. “To me, it was like seeing ‘Trainspotting.’ . . . It was so original and refreshing.” Too bad, he thought, the group was on Elektra Records.
At dinner about two months ago with Rubin and friends, he learned that Prodigy had been dropped by Elektra and that it was free to sign with any U.S. label.
Rushing home, Oseary stayed up all night, calling all the people he had previously met in the Prodigy camp or people at other British companies who had dealings with the group or its management firm. He tracked down scores of people in England and even some vacationing in Spain.
“The race was on,” he said. “I knew everybody was after them. But I thought we had a lot to offer, . . . a small company with an incredible success rate. Plus we had just hired Russ Reiger [as general manager] who had worked with Orbital, Portishead, DJ Shadow and other techno-dance acts at London Records.”
With DeMann and Reiger, Oseary made several trips to London to make their case in person.
“It really was a team effort,” Oseary says. “Freddy wanted the group so bad he didn’t get sleep for weeks.”
All the talk earlier in the evening about his past seems to have put Oseary in a nostalgic mood. After dinner, he drives the BMW down Crescent Heights toward the old apartment on West Knoll where he lived with his father for 13 years and then on his own for four years.
“This is only the second time I’ve been by here in the two years since I moved into my house,” he says as he slows in front of his old first-floor apartment.
“That’s one thing about me. . . . When I do something, I want to do it now. I don’t want to wait until tomorrow. I want to keep moving forward.”
Later, as he pulls up in front of the Maverick offices, he is still reflecting on all that has happened to him since the Beverly Hills High days.
“The most satisfying thing is that Freddy and Madonna gave me a shot,” he says. “They didn’t go out like every other label and hire eight to 10 veteran A&R; guys and spend zillions of dollars out of the box trying to get a hit. They nurtured me, gave me an opportunity. They gave me my break.
“When I started, Freddy had me sit in his office for days just to hear him on the phone, . . . how he dealt with people and got things done. He would never say ‘no’ to his artists. It was always, ‘Yes, I’ll make it happen.’ He showed me anything is doable.
“Madonna was just the same. She was extremely supportive. When I was 19 and as green as you can be, she taught me about art, about classic movies. She would tell me about directors and introduce me to all these incredible people. I’ve been lucky.”
You can find Oseary doubters once you move beyond his high-profile network of friends and admirers. At 24, he presents a big target. Some say he has been lucky--that two good signings don’t make a career. Some find him arrogant and see all the schmoozing as superficial. But they don’t want to voice their complaints publicly. They don’t want to cross him.
“A lot of young people sit around and say Guy is just lucky, but no one is that lucky,” says Russell Simmons, whose Def Jam empire opened the commercial door in the ‘80s for the rap explosion in pop. “You can be lucky once. But it’s more than luck when you sign Candlebox and then Alanis Morissette and then you beat out every other company for Prodigy.
“Guy is smart and focused. . . . He’s the kind of natural you find once in a generation.”
And what makes Guy run?
“That’s a bit of a mystery to me,” says his friend Stiller. “It’s not a mystery in that I can identify knowing what you want and going after it at a young age. I knew I wanted to make movies when I was 12. But I don’t know where he gets his drive.
“I think he’ll learn a lot about himself in the next 10 years. He’ll figure out what’s important to him--and my guess is it’s totally within his power to achieve it.”
Oseary ponders the question of how he was able to get into the business at such a young age.
“I wanted to be involved in music and I felt I needed to get in quick,” he says. “I didn’t want to spend four years in college and then hope for the best. I gave myself a year, which is why I kept pushing people for a chance. I literally felt my whole life was in the balance. Music was my life, and I was scared of having time pass by and missing my chance.”
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