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‘Fortune’s Fool’ tells story of Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music and crisis in the music industry

The collapse of the old music industry — the happy business of spotting talent, pressing millions of LPs or CDs and wondering how to spend the profits — is so well documented that it is almost a surprise to find a new book on the subject.

If you were starting now, you might tell the story by dissecting Guy Hands’ disastrous buyout of EMI, studying the Lady Gaga-to-Amy Winehouse hit factory at Universal Music or even revisiting the Japanese-German culture clash that followed the Sony-BMG merger.

Warner Music Group Corp. seems unpromising by comparison. After Edgar Bronfman Jr. bought it with private equity backers in 2004, they rapidly recouped their money in an initial public offering, cushioning the blow of subsequent share price falls.

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In his new book, “Fortune’s Fool: Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis,” journalist Fred Goodman uses Warner as an effective starting point for a crisp account of all the industry’s recent dramas. Goodman’s earlier book, “The Mansion on the Hill,” chronicled record labels’ boom era, and there is a pleasing symmetry in him tackling their crisis years in a crisp insiders’ account.

Published by Simon & Schuster, “Fortune’s Fool” tracks Bronfman’s route from the family’s Seagram liquor business, through the MCA and Polygram deals that created Universal Music, to how he fell for Jean-Marie Messier’s patter and sold his holdings to the Frenchman’s doomed Vivendi empire.

Goodman never quite backs up his thesis that Bronfman’s attempt at a new beginning with Warner Music was driven by the need to atone for the Vivendi debacle, “as high-profile a humiliation as any businessman not sent to prison is likely to endure.” Indeed, Bronfman derides the argument in the book, saying, “I made all the money I squandered.”

But the story gives Goodman a structure for a sweeping tale, from the Bronfmans’ days running “boozoriums” across the Canadian border during Prohibition to Time Warner Inc.'s retreat from rap after hits such as Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” drew unwelcome political heat.

It is almost too sweeping. Goodman seems happiest writing about the heady era from the 1960s to the late 1980s when conglomerates fought to get into the soaring record business. Those days seem to be another age, and it takes a while to get to the industry’s stark post-Napster challenges.

Reviewing Bronfman’s pursuit of digital bundles, patchy investments in start-ups and “360-degree” deals with artists, Goodman concludes that they add up to “a confounding picture,” with wiser moves balanced by questions about Bronfman’s judgment.

Bronfman emerges as an elusive character, “as languid and patrician as a French king” one minute, an unpretentious mensch the next.

Much of the value in Goodman’s account lies in interviews with the likes of Ahmet Ertegun, the late industry legend who steered artists as diverse as Ray Charles and Led Zeppelin. The book is full of anecdotes, such as a former EMI chairman’s indifference to a $3,000 bottle of Château d’Yquem with which Bronfman had hoped to woo him.

Bronfman’s quotes to Goodman, although often self-serving, are also sometimes disarmingly frank. “It’s the downside of a family business,” he says at one point. “Anything good is because I’m somebody’s son; otherwise, I’m a schmuck.”

“Fortune’s Fool” comes alive with its portrayal of Lyor Cohen, the insatiably competitive former president of Def Jam Records, whom Bronfman picked to run Warner’s record labels. “In the best way, Lyor’s an animal,” Bronfman says admiringly, and Goodman nearly allows Cohen to steal the show.

Bronfman’s deal is as much a private equity story as a music industry tale, but readers hoping for deep financial analysis will have to look elsewhere.

Goodman’s most compelling argument emerges in his epilogue, where he tells Internet users who refuse to pay for music that they are creating a more unfair economy for artists than the old record industry model.

“Why advocate fair-trade coffee but not fair-trade music?” he asks pointedly. In his nostalgia, Goodman fails to come up with much of a prescription for the future of an industry redefined by Napster and Apple. That, perhaps, will take another book.

Book reviewer Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the New York-based media editor of the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.


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