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The Seagram Acquisition, a Year Later

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The calendar is packed these days for Aimee Mann, what with the holidays and a slate of new projects, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the singer-songwriter was oblivious to the looming, grim anniversary. But that doesn’t mean she’s forgotten the pain.

“One year, huh? Well, get your party hats out,” was the singer’s wry response when told that Friday marks one year since Seagram Co. completed its $10.4-billion acquisition of PolyGram.

That seismic moment in the music industry created the world’s largest record company, one that has accounted for 27% of the U.S. market this year. But it also set into motion a corporate bloodletting that would result in Mann and close to 200 other acts leaving the labels, many involuntarily.

“A year ago we had no power and we couldn’t make any decisions or know what was going to happen,” recalled Mann, who had been with Seagram’s Geffen Records. “It was an absolutely horrible and dispiriting time.”

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The pain has receded and may now give way to a career resurgence. Mann’s songs are not only the foundation of the soundtrack to “Magnolia” (released this week on Reprise Records), but writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson calls them the “heart and soul” of the entire film. Mann says she has rarely been happier as an artist.

But how many other “Seagram’s refugees” can say the same? The corporate shake-up may have begun a full year ago--and reached its most dramatic moment in January with the shuttering of the historic A&M; Records offices--but its repercussions continue, with some artists still awaiting word of their future with the music giant. Some say it will be years before anyone can size up the true impact.

Some conclusions, however, can be made at the anniversary of the deal that brought labels such as A&M;, Motown, Mercury, Def Jam and Island under the banner of Seagram’s Universal Music Group:

* The predicted windfall of proven talent for independent labels and Internet music ventures never materialized. The artists who were cut loose (or bolted) from the Universal labels have done so in dribs and drabs, so no flood emerged. “And frankly,” notes Cheryl Botchick of CMJ New Music Report, “some of these bands probably should never have been on a major label anyway.”

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* The emotional pain lingers, but none of the artists, managers or executives interviewed for this story disagreed with the overall logic of whittling down the bloated, underachieving rosters. “You know, if I was them, I would have done the same thing,” says the manager of a former Geffen act who asked not to be named.

* Universal Music Group has emerged relatively unscathed and has seen its market share grow in 1999. The conglomerate weathered criticism from outspoken artists and flouted tradition by bruising the legacy of the A&M; and Geffen success stories. “The real corporate crime wasn’t cutting these artists, it was signing them in the first place,” says one executive still within the conglomerate.

Pinning down the toll of cutbacks is difficult. Instead of dropping artists en masse, the labels are often waiting for acts to reach an option threshold in their contract. And executives within the company, stung by media coverage of the crisis, declined to disclose their current rosters for this story. On the other side, managers are often loath to announce their clients are out on the street.

“A lot of people would rather keep quiet,” says Michael Hausman, Mann’s manager. “They see it as a black mark if they get dropped.”

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Among the acts who bolted or were cut are 10,000 Maniacs, Cowboy Junkies, Elastica, Morrissey, Aaron Neville, Paula Abdul, Remy Zero, Barry White, Tricky, Peter Wolf, Kurupt, Southern Culture on the Skids, Gas Giants and Nashville Pussy, according to managers and label sources.

Some of them--such as the Maniacs and Kurupt--have landed with other labels, while Southern Culture and the Gas Giants (which features former members of the platinum-selling act the Gin Blossoms) are among those who went to Internet-based music merchants and labels, a realm that offers more in future potential than certain payoff.

“Now we have more control and more freedom,” says Robin Wilson of the Gas Giants. “My first and biggest fear was that we wouldn’t be able to get the same level of promotion . . . but now I’m very confident that we can score a Top 40 single. We will just have to work a bit harder for the opportunities.”

Elastica, Morrissey, Aaron Neville and Nashville Pussy are among those currently unsigned, and perhaps dozens more remain under contract to one of the Universal Music Group labels but know they likely will be jettisoned down the line.

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“There are a lot of people with a bitter taste left in their mouth, and I don’t think it’s over yet,” says manager Arnold Pustilnik, who represents Neville and the Gas Giants.

Pustilnik cited a third client, a young rock band called Black Lab, as a “real, absolute casualty.” “One day the label says they were hearing hits, the next day they were gone,” Pustilnik says. “Now they’re trying to pick up the pieces.”

Perhaps no one has picked up the pieces as well as Mann, who, ironically, has been the most outspoken victim of the Universal downsizing. Described in Entertainment Weekly as the “poster child” of the crisis, Mann may be on the verge of a renaissance with the “Magnolia” soundtrack and other opportunities percolating.

Mann has a completed album she bought back from Interscope Records (to which Geffen acts were shuttled after the merger) and hopes to release it early next year. Her bitterness about the major label system has led to another venture: United Musicians, which she calls “a collective where artists can make the most money possible” off their music.

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Hausman, Mann’s manager, is now lining up investors for the company, which would handle marketing, publicity and radio promotion for acts that want to retain ownership of their songs and buck the traditional industry routes.

“In this era,” Hausman says, “artists are going to have to learn to be more adventurous.”

Some acts that have experienced platinum sales, though, find it hard to leave the majors. The Cowboy Junkies, a critically admired veteran band with a loyal fan following, put out a collection of rarities on their own label, Latent Recordings, but last month rejoined the major label scene by signing with Arista Austin.

10,000 Maniacs have signed with Bar/None, a New Jersey indie, where they have found autonomy--and anonymity. “We used to sell 200,000 copies,” says the Maniacs’ manager, Blair Woods. “Now we have a new album out and nobody even knows it’s there. There’s nothing like a major label when it comes to promotion.”

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What about the artists who stayed within the Universal fold but watched fellow acts and key executives pushed out the door? Some say the upheaval undermined the marketing and success of their recent albums, but others say that was only a fleeting problem.

“There were uncomfortable moments in the transition, and the style is a lot different [at Interscope] than at A&M;, which was maybe more like a family,” says Sheryl Crow’s manager, Scooter Weintraub. “But to say there are problems, no, that’s not true at all. They’re still finding their place and the right chemistry, but that’s to be expected.”

It may take five years to gauge the true fallout, says Danny Goldberg, the Mercury Records chief who was ousted after the PolyGram purchase and has started up his own independent label, Artemis Records.

Goldberg has signed Kurupt and is eyeing several other Universal artists he expects to be cut loose, but he says the slow process of recording albums and developing artists makes it far too early to grade the downsizing decisions.

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“Very little time has passed, really,” Goldberg said. “It hasn’t been a year in the life of the artists. . . . And [for the company] the momentum carries you through the first few years, so it’s way too early to say.”


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