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Rewarding a Music Career

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bob Ritchie’s rap music career seemed to have peaked the night he took the stage at Detroit’s State Theatre. He’d been dropped from two record labels, and though his local concerts sold armloads of T-shirts, he was viewed by most music scouts as a knockoff of Vanilla Ice, the white rapper who quickly faded in the 1980s.

In the audience that night was Atlantic Records executive Jason Flom, who found himself seduced by the rapper’s self-possessed persona. He called himself Kid Rock, and Flom signed him to a record deal.

“With Jason, I can’t say what he saw exactly, but he saw that thing that other people never did,” Ritchie said. “He heard the songs and he could see where it was going.”

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Ritchie’s first album, “Devil Without a Cause,” has sold an estimated 9 million copies. The album’s success once again affirmed Flom’s reputation as a scout with platinum instincts. Flom has signed more than a dozen top-selling acts during his two-decade career, including Sugar Ray, Matchbox Twenty, Tori Amos, the Corrs, Skid Row and Twisted Sister.

Albums by two of those acts--Kid Rock and Matchbox Twenty--have been certified as “diamond,” selling 10 million units, a distinction achieved by only about 90 albums in music history.

“The biggest records I’ve ever had,” Flom said, “are the ones that nobody else wanted.”

Flom was rewarded Wednesday with a dramatic expansion of Lava Records, the small label he has run inside Atlantic since 1995. Warner Music Group will pay Flom $50 million to buy the share of Lava it doesn’t already own and sign him to a new five-year contract.

The payoff punctuates Flom’s long ascent--and sometimes rocky ride--in a business in which executives fade as fast as yesterday’s pop novelties. The 41-year-old executive has survived by consistently predicting which acts will win mass consumer appeal, from hair-metal bands to pop-rock singers, despite ever-shifting public tastes.

Record companies rise or fall on the ears and eyes of their artist and repertoire, or A&R;, scouts. Major labels receive hundreds of demo CDs each week and keep track of dozens of unsigned bands receiving radio airplay or selling self-released albums in their local markets. Scouts prowl clubs and music festivals. From all that, each label can sign only about 20 new acts a year.

The wrong choice can mean millions of dollars wasted on radio promotion, marketing and studio expenses. The right choice can mean marketplace clout and personal enrichment.

Flom signed Irish pop act The Corrs, for example, after they showed up in the lobby of Time Warner’s headquarters and asked for a meeting.

“I figured, they’re here all the way from Ireland. But I was expecting the worst....They marched into my office in full evening regalia. They looked like they were ready to do a concert.”

Instead, they played a tape that impressed Flom so much that he signed them and put them on a Fleetwood Mac “tribute” album. The Corrs’ version of “Dreams” became an international hit. Since then, the group has sold an estimated 25 million albums worldwide, becoming one of Warner Music’s biggest moneymakers.

Even competitors acknowledge that Flom’s success over such a long period is virtually unmatched. “He instinctually understands what is credible,” said Universal Music Group Chairman Doug Morris, Flom’s former boss. “Not many people have that ability and it doesn’t stay with you for that long.”

Critics question whether his acts will be forgotten or have the staying power of previous Atlantic superstars Led Zeppelin or AC/DC. Last year, the label dropped two of Flom’s signings, Amos and rock band Collective Soul, after their new albums failed to meet expectations. Kid Rock’s latest album has sold just 1.6 million copies--far less than his debut.

“I think the attention span of the public is shorter than it used to be,” Flom said. “Obviously, everyone tries to find the next Springsteen. Those are the rarest of the rare.

“What I try to do is find great artists and help them realize their goals, and do a good job of promoting them.”

Rock Star Dreams

Flom got into the music business hoping to be a star himself. The son of a prominent corporate-takeover attorney, he discovered music as a teen, hooked on the funk arrangements of Sly & the Family Stone and the showmanship of KISS.

While his father, Joseph, turned Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom into a legal powerhouse, Jason wore his hair below his shoulders and practiced guitar in a rented studio or--when his parents were away--in the living room.

After prep school, Flom told his father that he was going to pursue his rock star dreams. His father said he would give him one year before forcing him to enroll in college. When the younger Flom’s fantasies didn’t materialize, his father called an attorney who worked for Warner’s then-chief, Steve Ross, landing his son on the Warner Music payroll.

“I showed up that first day and I had more hair than you can imagine. I looked like Cousin Itt,” he said, referring to the hair-covered character in “The Addams Family.” “They took one look at me and said, ‘You’re going to Atlantic,’ ” a nod to the label’s rock-heavy roster.

Flom entered the business as a field merchandising trainee, meaning he was stuck hanging posters of Atlantic acts on record store walls.

In 1981, he took an assignment to the label’s sales research team. Poring over radio playlists in a trade magazine, he latched onto unknown bands picking up local airplay. On the phone with a programmer at a Long Island rock station, he made his first discovery, a hard rock band called Zebra. Flom had the band’s demo tape shipped to him by overnight mail.

The next day, Flom told Atlantic’s talent division that he had discovered the next Led Zeppelin. A label talent scout told him he was wasting his time. Undeterred, Flom gave the tape to Atlantic’s president, Morris, who played it while commuting home. He decided to sign the band. Zebra’s first album sold a few hundred thousand copies--much more than expected--and Flom was soon promoted to the label’s artist and repertoire division.

One of his first signings was Twisted Sister, a New York rock act considered a novelty by many label executives. In a club in Poughkeepsie, Flom saw the potential for mass appeal.

“There were 2,000 kids there and it was a Wednesday,” Flom recalled. “They were all wearing Twisted Sister T-shirts. That was a good sign.”

The band’s first album for Atlantic, “You Can’t Stop Rock ‘N’ Roll,” sold about 100,000 copies, better than expected. The next album went platinum.

Stumbles in Life

But as Flom’s career soared, his personal life crashed: He had become a drug addict and an alcoholic. As a result, he often didn’t show up at the office until noon.

“It sort of fed on itself. The hits dried up because I got worse, and I got worse because the hits dried up,” he said.

Flom’s boss, Morris, finally persuaded him to check into a rehabilitation center for a month.

When he returned to work, Flom said, “it was weird. I thought I could stay sober, but I didn’t think I’d have another hit”--until a Minneapolis radio station began playing the music of rock band White Lion, which Flom had signed several months before hitting bottom. White Lion’s album went on to sell about 2 million copies.

Soon after, he signed singer-songwriter Amos. Flom picked her demo off a table piled with tapes because it was the only one wrapped in church stationery.

By 1992, he had become the head of the label’s talent division, which is credited with signing, among others, multi-platinum rockers Stone Temple Pilots.

Morris rewarded Flom by agreeing to finance his own label, Lava, which survived a corporate bloodbath that soon erupted at Warner Music and claimed Morris’ position.

Under Wednesday’s deal, Lava will add about 35 employees and keep Flom at Atlantic, whose management team has been the target of repeated raid attempts.

“We value Jason tremendously for his ability to spot talent, to see where the market is going,” Warner Music Group Chairman Roger Ames said this week. “Obviously we have to make sure he’s treated right.”

Flom said he is not intimidated by the new pressures he faces. “I’m not going to have any excuses if I fail, and I’m not going to fail.”

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