Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Warner plus Atlantic plus

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Thursday, July 25, 2013
70s
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Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Warner plus Atlantic plus

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.

Atlantic Goes Off Shore

The end of the 1960s meant the beginning of a new Atlantic Records. Changes were many and fast: Ahmet Ertegun was now rounding up acid rock bands, often from England (Led Zeppelin was just beginning in January, but that signing would make a huge difference). Soon, Zeppelin would even play in Carnegie Hall.

The anthems from Atlantic Act One (R&B singles from Aretha back to 1949, to Stick McGhee's "Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee") were no longer any grown label’s main meal. Jerry Wexler lingered less in Muscle Shoals, and more in Manhattan, administering a bigger company, while Ahmet was overseas.

Record promotion was now not the paper handshake it had been – singles + cash. FM radio had come in, and those Top 40 sleazy promo guys were now getting looked upon like they were Civil War veterans. Younger, into-acid-and-album-rock promo guys made the difference now.

Jerry Wexler, running things from morning to ten at night, needing relief, first hired a hot promo man from New Haven named Jerry Greenberg, brought him down to Atlantic HQ, and introduced him as “my assistant.”

Greenberg had landed in a new ocean working under Wexler. “Wexler was a maniac, but a great maniac,” he once told me. “Learning the business from him was like going to Marine Corps boot camp on Parris Island. You came out either a man or a corpse. He never stopped working deals. Once he called my house on Yom Kippur, wanting to discuss an urgent business matter. My wife said I was in synagogue. ‘What’s the number there?’ he wanted to know. ‘I’ll have him paged’.’”

As record promotion was changing, Atlantic raced to keep up with acts like Led Zeppelin and their odd rules, like not ever wanting to release a single. And the Zep turned out to be the best-selling band ever to sign with Atlantic. So there.

“Woodstock” – The Movie and the Soundtrack Album

The Woodstock Festival had stunned Atlantic’s elders crew. They had only one act appearing at the muddy “festival,” and even that was from Laurel Canyon: Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

At Woodstock, acid had flown like cash once had. John Sebastian nailed it: “I was basically on a triple acid trip, right when they asked me to play. Which answers the question: ‘Can a man still play his own songs when he couldn’t find his car?’”

Kinney was now up there, above Atlantic and Warner, and the rights to both the film and its soundtrack were picked up for Warner Bros. Pictures.

The soundtrack album for “Woodstock” came out, to the shock of Warner Bros. Records, on Atlantic’s Cotillion label. May 11, 1970. At WBR, employees were used to being the label for Warner soundtracks. They asked Kinney’s Manny Gerard why Atlantic now? Why? When WB/R had four acts on stage, vs. Atlantic only one?

Gerard’s answer: “From a corporate standpoint, it didn’t matter who put the damn record out. It said to the label people, ‘We’re all on the same team. We don’t have favorites. We don’t play the game that way’.”

And then a Woodstock Two followed. On Atlantic, too:

Kinney Corporate had made it clear to Atlantic and to WB/R that it was time to harmonize their labels. Atlantic’s defensive attitude melted. Ahmet was by-title up top, anyway.

Atlantic’s stubborn insistence on running its own distribution, both in America and Internationally, now melted. Wexler was heard saying, "The worst branch distribution is better than the best independent distribution.”

Atlantic’s financial head, Shelly Vogel, still had doubts about combining: “At Atlantic, we had lots of clout, and little in bad debts. We could run the show, dictate to our indy distribs because of our size and power. But under a Kinney branch system, Atlantic would no longer have that clout. We couldn’t pull the line. We were somewhat against going branch, but not violently so.”

So Mo Ostin’s dream – “our own distribution, Warner with Atlantic, together,” began having appeal with Atlantic.

Discussions began. Steve Ross flew out to the Studio to meet with his Warner-head,Ted Ashley, on this. A guest, Elektra Records’ founder Jac Holzman, got pulled into meeting with Ross (pulled in by both Mo and Ahmet). Ross caught on, and asked Holzman whether he’d sell his Elektra label. Holzman answered “Yes, but only if we’re going to have our own distribution.” Elektra would make three labels together.

It felt like those 60’s were now over for sure.

“Let’s Get Going”

The head of Warner Bros. in 1970 was Ted Ashley, ex-Hollywood agency head and the man who, for Steve Ross’ Kinney conglomerate, now sat atop both Warner/Reprise and Atlantic plus newly-bought Elektra Records for Kinney. Hearing that connecting the labels was now getting possible, Ashley called a meeting of their heads at the Beverly Hills Hotel, in a private bungalow. Ross attended.

“Let’s get going,” said Ashley. He turned first to Mo Ostin. Mo had a typed set of plans that had been devised by Warner Records’ marketing head, Joel Friedman. Mo passed out copies of the plans: “How Distribution Could Work” and “How to Administer Distribution.”

Mostly, the question was not “whether to.” The major issue now was “who’ll be in charge.”

Joel Friedman’s plans emphasized that each label would keep its own identity, and distribution wouldn’t meddle with that. So no centralized ads, for instance. The memo said “Surely you could save enormous amounts of money. But the way each company did things individually had to be preserved.”

Nodding around the room. Good. WBR’s plan was making sense. To Atlantic, co-distributing still meant abandoning its marketplace allies, guys like Miami’s Stone, who’d taught the world (Atlantic especially) how to sell records, meeting industry cohorts in bars, radio stations, hooker joints, and providing whatever “things” it took.

“Things like what?” asked Ted Ashley.

“You don’t want to know,” answered Joe Smith.

The bigger question was in mid-air. WHO would we get to run Kinney Distributing? Ostin and Smith suggested Joel Friedman, who’d written the plan.

Silence.

Atlantic was still leary of Burbank being in charge. Of anything. Elektra, having only 20% of the vote due to its smallness, kept its opinion to itself.

Foreign distribution came up, as it had in an earlier meeting, when Warner’s international head Phil Rose had heard “yes” and flew off to Australia to set up Kinney combo #1, only to learn that Atlantic had already made its own deal there, and it was not a combo.

Silence.

“So...who’ll run International?” and that got just hemming and some hawing. Finally, Joe Smith, knowing how Atlantic’s Nesuhi Ertegun felt – eager – to run International – Joe put forth a deal:

“Look,” he spoke, “if you’ll accept Joel Friedman for North America, then you can name the head of International.”

Deal. Warner’s Friedman = domestic, and Atlantic’s Nesuhi = international.

Safely GRP

In this new deal, the three labels would own and administer Disribution. Split costs and profits 40-40-20, with Elektra having the 20.

Overseeing it all in the U.S. would be one sales heads of the three labels: David Glew from Atlantic, Eddie Rosenblatt, then a new hire at Warner, and Mel Poster, who’d been Elektra’s own first employee and current label sales manager. Their three last names start with the letters G-R-P. The committee gets called “Grip,” and they’d watch over Joel Friedman for their labels.

G and R and P each had done selling, month after month, working distribution. Now, they’d help Joel form Kinney Distribution.

Dave Glew had joined Atlantic in the mid-60s, coming to Atlantic from an indy distributor into a home-office job. Such jobs meant travel, though. Short plane hops from distributor to distributor, meeting those buyers in little “conference” rooms, flipping through the pages of “slick books” (album covers), play a track or two, take down the order, throw in some freebies, and off to dinner at a place with cloth napkins, Atlantic picking up the tab.

Rosenblatt, the newest of the three, authoritative of voice, had just been hired by Warner to be its new, in-house Joel Friedman. He’d come from Cleveland, stopping first at A&M, and moving now to Burbank. Before California, Eddie R had become a dedicated quick-sell expert, on the phone from his distributorship, making deals anywhere in under 60 seconds.

The three GRPs kept their new roles secret. To exclaim about opening an in-company distribution system would mean the labels’ current indies would skip sitting through meetings with slick books.

Quietly, lawyers incorporated a new company: Kinney Records Distributing Company.

The ‘70s had begun.

First on the list: Kinney Records Branch #1 was about to open in Burbank, with trucks and trucks hauling Atlantic albums over to nestle beside Warner albums.

Even as the trucks were getting unloaded, people wondered how well the two brands could nestle together. Sunday night, Atlantic albums snuggled agains Warner albums. Ben E. King snuggled next to Petula Clark. This gonna work?

- Stay Tuned