In Review: The Business of Song

Starting in the late 1950’s, the music industry attracted a raft of talented, aggressive, sometimes ruthless personalities who loved the music.

— Tommy Mottola —

Starting in the late 1950’s, the music industry attracted a raft of talented, aggressive, sometimes ruthless personalities who loved the music, the glitz and the money, not necessarily in that order. After Elvis Presley jumpstarted the Rock ’n’ Roll Era, record company executives quickly recognized the emerging goldmine and the rush was on to identify the next great singer or group who would turn vinyl into platinum.

With the arrival of the Beatles and the great musical renaissance of the 1960’s, the baby boom generation embraced a wave of sound that would define an era. The age of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll was under way. Synergistic businesses — radio, record labels, concert promoters, creative management, marketing gurus and the musicians themselves — understood what was at stake, and everyone wanted a piece of the action. The power brokers and geniuses of that era — Ahmet Ertegun, Walter Yetnikoff, David Geffen, Irving Azoff, Tommy Mottola and Clive Davis, among others — created what Joni Mitchell called “the star maker machinery” and enriched themselves, along with a few stars, with the dual rewards of money and power. It was an alluring environment but not for the faint of heart.

Tommy Mottola chronicles his star maker career as the head of Sony Music Entertainment in his new book, “Hitmaker.” Mottola, who is probably best known for discovering Mariah Carey, marrying her when she was 23 (a couple of decades his junior) and then emerging from a very painful, very public breakup. In the divorce, Sony lost one of its signature stars. Mottola is also known as the guy who forced Michael Jackson out of Sony, which led to Jackson driving around Manhattan with a megaphone calling Mottola a racist, a charge Mottola vehemently and convincingly denies.

Mottola became chairman and CEO of Columbia/Sony Music in 1989 and, for 14 years, under his strong-willed, obsessive and controlling hand, the company sold $65 billion worth of CDs. The star-studded lineup included Bruce Springsteen, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, Billy Joel and Pearl Jam. Some were there when Mottola came on board, but for others, like Carey, Dion and Estefan, Mottola was the guiding, if sometimes overbearing, paterfamilias who shaped their rises to fame and fortune. Where Davis was a patient, more cerebral mentor, Mottola was volatile and passionate.

Mottola was a colorful character in a vibrant industry at its most exciting moment. Typical of celebrity memoirs, “Hitmaker” includes far too much of the early life story. Mottola describes his dogged pursuit of his first wife, Lisa, daughter of music industry magnate Sam Clark, who rejected Mottola because he wasn’t Jewish. Eventually, he won over father and daughter by converting to Judaism. It illustrates Mottola’s pit-bull tenacity at getting what he wanted in life and career, even if the short-term determination led to long-term pain.

Mottola began as a singer with the stage name T.D. Valentine, but learned quickly that a career as a second-rate lounge act paled before the chance to be behind the scenes making deals, finding talent, building careers. He credits his short-lived recording career with giving him much-needed empathy with the artists he would later mentor. He became a publisher and manager who had a keen ability to identify talent and nurture it to stardom. His first success: Hall & Oates, who under Mottola’s deft handling became international stars selling tens of millions of records.

“Tommy Mottola is relentless — and that is the key to his success and everything he’s done,” the book quotes Daryl Hall as saying. Starting in the late 1970’s and finding his stride in the 80’s, Mottola immediately recognized the potent synergy between the music business, technology, cable television and the corporate sector. As the 1980’s began with the advent of CNN and then MTV, Mottola realized that managing artists was merely a stepping-stone to what he truly desired: to run a major label.

“The magnetic attraction between corporation and artist really started in the seventies and exploded after MTV appeared,” Mottola writes. “I was eager to forge these new alliances and I actively pursued them for my artists, knowing full well what the benefits could be.” Under the tutelage of Walter Yetnikoff, the iconoclastic and explosive head of Columbia Records (who had taken over after Clive Davis had been fired and Davis’s successor, Goddard Lieberson, retired), Mottola found his dream situation. When Yetnikoff’s instability had finally gone too far and he was fired, Mottola took over Columbia as the youngest music industry CEO ever. And when Sony Corporation acquired the stagnating music arm of CBS, Mottola emerged as one of the industry’s most influential, if explosive, hit makers.

In so doing, Mottola helped end the era when musicians dismissed corporate sponsorships as selling out and began to make the deals that would make a lot of people rich, especially himself. One of his signature efforts was creating the Latin Explosion in the 1980’s and championing the careers of such Latin stars as Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony and Ricky Martin.

Mottola’s story digresses into a long apologia for his relationship with the equally volatile Carey. The press, he says, painted him as a controlling Svengali with a terrible temper who drove Carey into a musical corner. Mottola’s take, not surprisingly, is different. He slew dragons for Carey, turned her into an international megastar and tried desperately to make her happy as she became more and more dissatisfied with her burgeoning career.

“Was I obsessive?” Mottola writes. “Yes. But that was also part of the reason for her success. Her success and my success. If you’re not controlling things when you’re running a company with four hundred artists and fourteen thousand employees, you’re not going to be successful — or on the job very long. The problem was that I was the chairman of Sony and her husband at the same time.”

After 14 years at the helm, Mottola was fired from Sony Music in 2003. He is no longer running a major label but he has kept a finger on the pulse of the industry. His book offers excellent detail and insight about the impact of the Internet. Despite the tsunami of change that has led to massive consolidation of the industry and reshaped the musical landscape, Mottola points out that one thing will never change: “Talent is talent” he writes, citing current superstars like Adele, Justin Bieber and Beyonce, and no matter what the delivery mechanism, great music will always make its mark — along with mountains of money.

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