This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Neil Portnow, president, the Recording Academy.
A 40-year music biz veteran, Neil Portnow brings passion, commitment, and exceptional integrity to his job as president of the Recording Academy.
With persuasive personal and professional charm, he has been adept at overseeing the Recording Academy during an era of unprecedented music industry in-fighting.
He has also been able to deftly maneuver through day-to-day label, publishing and management politics with an apparent ease.
Long active in the Recording Academy (then known as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), Portnow took over the helm of the trade organization in 2002, following the resignation of its previous head, Michael Greene after a 14-year tenure.
An industry insider—though he’d scoff at this description—Portnow brought to the job his diverse music business experience in production, publishing and label operations.
Portnow, who grew up in Great Neck, New York, graduated from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. in 1971 with a degree in communications.
Prior to NARAS, Portnow spent more than a decade working for the Zomba Group. As chief of its West Coast operations, he developed its celebrated "one-stop shop" for television and film producers in search of compositions, soundtrack material and other music services.
Among Portnow’s past career highlights are:
1997: Senior VP of West Coast operations, the Zomba Group.
1989: VP, the Zomba Group.
1985: VP of A&R, EMI America Records.
1982: VP of A&R, West Coast, Arista Records.
1979: Senior VP, 20th Century Fox Records.
1977: Executive producer, RCA Records.
1972: Manager of talent acquisitions and development, Screen Gems Publishing Group.
1971: President, Portnow-Miller, a music promotion, marketing, publishing, production and creative services company.
Portnow has worked tirelessly with the Academy, and within the music industry, to ensure that American government legislators better understand the importance of sound cultural and intellectual property policies.
He has been a fierce, but still measured, advocate in the music industry’s battle against illegal downloading, and piracy. He also led efforts to help musicians affected by Hurricane Katrina through the Record’s Academy's MusiCares Foundation.
The 53rd Annual Grammy Awards will take place on February 13th at The Staples Center in Los Angeles. The show will be broadcast on the CBS Television Network from 8–11:30 p.m. (ET/PT). It also will be supported on radio worldwide via Westwood One, and covered online at Grammy.com, CBS.com, and on YouTube.
Among those performing on the telecast are: Barbra Streisand, Eminem, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Lady Gaga, Dr. Dre, Kate Perry, Arcade Fire, Justin Bieber, B.o.B, Miranda Lambert, Bruno Mars, Lady Antebellum, Janelle Monáe, Muse, Jaden Smith, Cee Lo Green (joined by actress Gwyneth Paltrow, and the Jim Henson Company Puppets), Usher, Drake, Mumford & Sons, Adam Levine, Avett Brothers, and Rihanna.
You once said the reason you joined the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) in 1972 was so you could vote on your own projects.
Yes. As so many do. My group, Today’s Special, had a release on Decca Records, and I thought, “Could we possibly be nominated for a Grammy?”
In November, 2002, you became the president of NARAS. You were, in fact, first a part of the search committee to find the replacement for Michael Greene, who had served as president/CEO for 14 years.
People, both inside the organization and the industry, urged you to seek the position.
That’s pretty much the case. As all of that was developing, I was secretary/treasurer of the Board of Trustees. It wasn’t something that I was planning to do. I had been a trustee on-and-off for many, many years (including being chairperson for the finance (committee).
I had termed out (as a national trustee), and a bunch of people said to me, “Take a year off as a trustee, and then run for secretary/treasurer. It’s not that demanding a role or job. You have a day job.” I was skeptical about it, but it’s good sometimes to step away from (things). So I thought I’d do that, and I was elected.
With Michael Greene’s abrupt departure, NARAS was in crisis. Still, you hesitated in seeking the job.
I was thinking about my Zomba work, which was going extremely well, and thinking about being a national officer with my new shared responsibilities. But, a lot of people (on the board) did say, “If you think about your pedigree, and what we're thinking we are looking for, you are probably the ideal guy.” And so I thought about it. And then I thought, “There’s probably a reason for this (coming up). It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. What could be more wonderful, unique and different for me?”
Now you can see my career path. I’m lucky where, if there’s an open road and I’m willing to follow the yellow brick road as it unfolds, it usually works out pretty well.
[NARAS re-elected Nashville producer Garth Fundis as chairman of the board at the organization's annual trustees meeting on May 21-24, 2002. At the same meeting, the trustees appointed a search committee made up of Board members to hire a replacement for president/CEO Michael Greene who had resigned in late April, 2002.
The search committee developed a list of characteristics they'd like to see in a new president. They also brought on the executive recruitment firm Korn - Ferry International to help in the process. NARAS received over 100 resumes, and the search committee met dozens of candidates, including Neil Portnow, who was treated like any other candidate.]
As it turned out, with Zomba Music Group being acquired by Bertelsmann for $2.74 billion, you made the right decision. You had no idea that Clive Calder was going to sell Zomba?
Well, I didn’t until a little bit later. The next thing (in seeking the NARAS job) was that I had to have this conversation with him. I said, “Clive, this has come up.” I didn’t know what his reaction would be. I did know one thing, which did make me feel a little more comfortable about it, is that he’s always been very respectful of me. I was almost the only outside guy there (at Zomba).They were all home grown people working there. He took me on as an outsider, and it worked out well.
[In June, 2002 Clive Calder exercised an option to sell his interest in Zomba to German media giant Bertelsmann. Its BMG music division had acquired a 25% stake in Zomba's music publishing division in 1991 and a 20% stake in the record unit in 1996. As part of those deals, Zomba had an option that required Bertelsmann to acquire the company if Zomba exercised it by the end of 2002. The BMG music division completed the purchase of the remaining stake in the Zomba Music Group in Nov. 2002].
How many members does the Recording Academy have?
We vacillate between 18,000 and 20,000 members, typically. We are at the highpoint, historically, of our membership numbers. We have seen no dip or attrition based on the economy which, I think, is a great testament to the value our members put on their membership.
The Academy has a Grammy University Network that includes membership for over 4,000 students from over 350 colleges and universities participating.
We feel that part of our mission is to nurture the next generation of music makers and creative people. How better to do that than at a college level? We also have high school programs that run through the Grammy Foundation, so we cover quite a spectrum.
We felt that having the Grammy University Network with membership to young people at a college level--who are serious about pursuing a career in music—made a lot of sense. And, it’s a very logical farm team for us for the next generation of membership. It also creates a very nice dialogue (in) two ways. We can feed information, and help people with their careers and futures in music but, equally as important—and selfishly to us—it gives us insight to what those young people are thinking, what is important to them, and what we ought to be thinking about, and focusing on.
The Grammy Awards is just one part of what the Academy does. This is a 365 day organization.
Yes. We are very vibrant, and we are dynamic. There’s a lot going on. That being said, what gives us the platform to be able to do a lot of these things, both economically, and in terms of brand recognition, is the telecast. I am the first to acknowledge that. My goal, though, is to take that (Grammy) brand, which, arguably is the most recognized and most prestigious brand in music in the world, and do other things beyond the telecast in terms of the economics of the Academy because we are not for profit. Historically, we have had a fairly limited source of income, and we need to broaden that.
The Grammy Foundation is hosting “Word Revolution: A Celebration Of The Evolution of Hip-Hop” in L.A. on Thursday, Feb. 10th as a preservation project.
That’s going to be a great event. Again, that speaks to the 364 other days of the year where there is a Grammy Foundation project that is phenomenal. Again, we use the platform of the Grammy Week to bring something like that forward.
Part of the Grammy Foundation’s mission is protecting America’s musical heritage.
Absolutely. We’re committed to continuing to do that kind of work. We do grants every year. We have given millions of dollars over the years to archival and preservation (works).
How does the artist line-up impact ratings for the telecast?
Different segments of the audience are interested in different elements of the show. In terms of the commercial side and in terms of ratings—that whole element of what you chase because you have to—that certainly relies on contemporary, current, and well-known talent. We are able to have a wide berth of what that means. Star talent is certainly Eminem and Lady Gaga whom we’ve booked, but it is also Barbra Streisand who we’ve booked (Streisand kicks off Grammy weekend when she receives the Person of the Year Award from MusiCares on Friday, Feb. 11th). There are a couple of bookings yet to come that will turn heads in terms of that kind of established star power. We like to do that, and the combination brings the kind of audience that we have.
[Following this interview it was announced that Bob Dylan would perform with folk-rock band the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons in a salute to acoustic music; and Dr. Dre — in his first live television performance in more than a decade — will perform at the awards wards for the first time, joining Eminem, along with Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards.]
Ratings for the telecast in 2010 rose 36% from the previous year, to 25.9 million viewers overall, and were up 32% among adults, ages 18-34, according to Nielsen.
Correct. That follows the previous year where there was about a 10% jump.
[The 2009 Grammy telecast also saw an increase, with 19 million viewers, up from 17.2 million in 2008; almost a quarter of viewers in 2009 were ages 18-34, up from 21.9% in 2008.]
What has accounted for the bounce in ratings?
There were a lot of factors. I think that this show, by the nature of what we do and what it is, is always going to have a graph that has ups and downs. I think that is the nature of award shows, and television; and it’s also the nature of the music that comes in any given year. Some years (the music is) going to be more compelling than others. Last year, a lot of things aligned to create that kind of bump.
We have booked the show probably better than ever over the past couple of years. Last year, was very strong, and, I think, that this year is equally strong.
On the side of things that are within our control—and that we do proactively—we have launched an incredibly wonderful marketing effort that includes social networking,the internet, and all of the current technology.
This is the fourth year of working with the advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, Los Angeles.
They have been a phenomenal partner. When I started nine years ago, we didn’t have a marketing department here. We certainly didn’t have a digital media department. We have both now. We started the marketing department six and a half years ago. So I’ve had a group of people that have been really focused, and worked very hard to try to identify our path—making sure that we are current, and contemporary, and that we are relevant.
You rolled out the promotional MusicMapper app MusicIsLifeIsMusic for this year’s awards.
That’s Chiat. They have been building that campaign. We have been contacted by all of the other (music industry organizations), everybody in what I call our business (about our marketing), saying, “Please tell us your secrets.” So we know that we have done a phenomenal job with that (marketing).
The shrinking impact of major labels was reflected in the great showing of indie acts being nominated last year.
That’s right. Statistically, we don’t have the breakdown quite yet, but it seems that it will be very similar this year. The other statistic, interesting for this year, is that we have the most number of nominations. There were close to 20,000 submissions. It’s enormous.
In 2004, you identified the "four pillars" of NARAS as: membership and awards; education; philanthropy and charity; and advocacy. Still the case?
I think that really encompasses (the organization). Having been an elected leader/volunteer of the organization for many, many years prior to being on staff, I had a pretty good insight and the background about the many the things that the Academy does. But, I found that it was always a little bit challenging to communicate, in a somewhat simplistic form, what we do, other than the awards and the Grammy telecast.
So I tried to categorize and, essentially, create a sound bite. I came up with the concept of the four pillars. While each of the pillars may have several different elements of what we do within that nomenclature, the fact is that has been a pretty good way to generally explain the missions of what we do the other 364 days of the year.
As one of the greatest brand names in music, the Grammys is utilized as a political force as well.
It’s pretty interesting how it all plays out.
In 2003, you created the Grammy Cultural Policy Initiative based out of organization’s Washington, D.C. chapter office. Over the years, that presence has greatly expanded.
I recognized a number of things when I started with the Academy that I thought needed some adjustment and, in certain cases, needed to be prioritized, and given more resources and attention.
In Washington, D.C., at that point, we had a local chapter—we have 12 chapters around the country. The executive director of each chapter looks after the activities of the chapter, and deals with the local members, and members services and things of that nature. The individual in Washington was wearing a number of hats. He was the executive director, and dealt with all of those day-to-day issues. Then, when he had some time, he would also be looking at things that were going on the Hill, and reporting back to us. He was sort of acting as our liaison person in Washington.
The Washington chapter office was, in effect, the Academy’s point force for dealing with the legislators?
I thought that that’s not the way to do this. The way to do this is to separate those functions, and have the chapter stand alone, and do its business. We needed someone at a senior level in Washington, full-time with an office. Not only listening, learning and gathering information, but helping us to develop policy.
Daryl Friedman is our vice-president of Government Relations in D.C. Daryl has been in that role for six or seven years. He’s very effective for us.
You also work with a lobbyist.
Well, we do. We do have a lobbyist that we hire independently, Diane Blagman who is with Greenberg Traurig. I’ve seen her in the halls of Congress and I have seen how the people in government relate to her. She does a phenomenal job for us.
[Launched in 1998, the Recording Academy's Washington, D.C. chapter was established to deliver services to the Washington, D.C. music community and support policies strengthening the arts.
Diane Blagman, senior dir. of governmental affairs at Greenberg Traurig, has more than 20 years of experience working on Capitol Hill prior to joining Greenberg Traurig. Total lobbying expenditures for the Recording Academy in 2010 (until Nov. 2010) were $60,000.]
Your current priority is the Performance Rights Act which would require terrestrial radio broadcasters to pay performance royalties for use of sound recordings. Because it’s been a bipartisan-supported act, it seems there will be strong support for it in this session.
That’s one that has been, frankly, spearheaded by us. One of the things that I identified about six years ago as I spent more time in D.C., and we really listened to what people in government were saying to us in terms of feedback, what I heard time and time again was, “You guys in the music business have to get your act together. We are getting visits and being lobbied from so many disparate groups within the music industry. We are very confused about a lot of this.”
The publishers would come in one week and talk about one thing. Then the labels, and the PROs (performing rights organizations), and the unions. The legislators didn’t know how to figure this all out. They told me, “You guys need to sit down, and figure this out for yourselves. So when you get here, you try to come with some kind of unified message.”
My reaction to hearing that comment over and over again was to take an introspective look at us as an industry.
What I found was that we had no vehicle for any sort of behind-the-scenes, off-the-record, face-to-face discussions. Most of the discussions were held either in public or in the press. When you are in that situation, everything almost becomes grandstanding. So, what I suggested, and what we created with other industry leaders, was a CEO summit. It is a group of 25 presidents and CEOs of major industry associations, and groups that represent a variety of constituencies. We meet twice a year now in Washington.
What was at the core of the (summit strategy) was the realization for me that any negotiation between parties becomes most effective when the parties have a personal relationship. We now have a group that speaks and communicates regularly.
Over the years, we have all had a cup of coffee together. We all have been in one city at one time or other, and we will have meetings and, maybe, we will go to a concert or we will have an event together. So friendships have developed. Out of the friendship has come the trust.
Last year’s Grammy on the Hill Advocacy Day drew nearly 250 advocates, meeting with more than 100 legislative offices.
We decided what we would do was honor some folks in government and some folks from the industry and do it on the Hill. It’s great when people can come to the Grammys, but you can’t expect that. This annual event has become very powerful in combination with the CEO summit. Last year, we had close to 300 people from all around the country that the Academy recruited.
It seems that your strategy was to first improve the environment for the music industry on the Hill; whereas in the past 18 months, you have addressed specific issues.
Right. Well, the great thing, from an industry standpoint, is that at least we are talking to each other. And, we are seriously talking with each other.
Something like the Performance Rights Act, prior to the CEO summits, could never have taken any traction because there was so much internal fighting and suspicion. I remember at one meeting, getting a couple of the stakeholders in a room, and I basically said, “You guys aren’t leaving until we talk this through, and figure out how to approach this issue because it’s going to come up. We can’t go and do this divided.” There were some real, first-class discussions. It was clear that there was a level of trust. A compromise was on the table from all sides.
You came to the Academy as illegal downloading was heating up as an industry-wide issue. In 2004, you advocated for an educational “carrot stick” strategy program for consumers. You also referred to what the RIAA had been doing as “appropriate.” In hindsight, do you think the industry reacted well to the crisis?
Overall, we didn’t do very well. First of all we had our heads in the sand in terms of what might be coming. Now, it’s easy to say that in hindsight, but in my previous incarnation as a record label and music publishing executive, I walked through the same halls that all the other executives walked through. I remember hearing comments such as, “It’ll take 20 years before the internet means anything.”
There was general music industry skepticism, and a denial where things were headed.
Absolutely, and, again, in hindsight it’s easy to say—I don’t think that anybody thought through what we were unlocking by creating digital files of our content that ultimately could not be protected. The combination of those two factors set the stage for the problems that followed. So upon identifying these problems, I think that most peoples’ reactions would be, “Well, defend yourself.” It is more of a defensive, rather than an offensive play.
So, from that standpoint, I do think that creating an awareness in terms of behavior that is legal, preferred and, certainly, acceptable, compared to behavior that is clearly not legal and, from many points of view, not acceptable, could only be done with the stick. Taking that approach, as a wakeup for everybody, frankly made sense to me.
We had to create a sense that something was okay, and that something was not okay. And that there might be some consequence to (illegal downloading). Kind of the basis of a society that has laws. You institute those laws, and there are some consequences to breaking them.
[NARAS introduced an educational campaign “What's the Download” during the 48th annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 8, 2004. The campaign was designed to teach consumers to make informed ethical and legal decisions about downloading. NARAS spent more than a year developing the campaign. NARAS, and the research division of the Edelman marketing firm, first gathered proprietary information to determine the path of the campaign.]
The harsh actions that the recording industry advocated was a defensive move.
We missed the offensive move, which is to say to ourselves that, “This is far more pervasive than we may have thought. There is going to be a generation coming next that won’t necessarily have the history that we had in the past of music as physical product—with albums, album covers, jewel cases, CDs, cassettes, whatever we delivered as the product.
So, if there is going to be a generation that isn’t invested in that or doesn’t care about that or doesn’t understand that, then it becomes very difficult for them to understand the difference between just downloading and sharing something, and stealing.”
How do you create that awareness?
Well, it has to be educational, and educational means a lot of things. One would hope that knowing the difference between stealing and borrowing or copying is something taught at home. As a kid, I learned about not going into a store, and taking a candy and putting it into my pocket and not paying for it. I think that I learned that more from mom and dad than I did anywhere else. Then it would be reinforced in school. I think that the problem that we may have had, however, was that we didn’t have a generation of mom and dads that really understood the (downloading) issue.
Music is everywhere, and it feels like it’s free.
Exactly, especially when you eliminate the physical product. To us, even though we would turn on the TV, and the radio and it would be free, it had a value of something that we wanted to have. You could hold it. It was collectible. There was information in it, and it wasn’t as easily accessible as it is today. You might have turned on a FM station, and heard the newest album of your favorite cool band or not. Today, you have the choice of accessing (music) whenever you want.
There’s a different consumer sentiment to music today.
Absolutely. The availability (of music), and the ability of a music fan or a consumer to have access to music is greater than it has ever been. That provides for some incredible opportunities for musicians, who may otherwise may not have had the chance to have been exposed. That’s on a worldwide basis. You can get and listen to anything that you want. That wasn’t possible years ago because the physical product of that music wouldn’t have been available from a distribution standpoint. It was just so limited.
So you have that incredible access and ability to be out there now. At the same time, we have a dilemma as to the business model of how one, frankly, can make a living in music, and how companies can flourish, and be successful. So, I think that it’s a transitional time. I don’t think that’s it’s a permanent issue. But I do think that there is more pain ahead before we get to where there will be a more comfortable, and more reasonable, business model.
In 2009, you called for a Secretary of the Arts in America. Why do you think that is necessary?
I think that in any area, in any company, in government or in any institutional sense, where there is a mission that is important, that it should have a dedicated approach and focus in order for it to flourish, and to be protected.
To me, the arts is such a vital part of what is the human experience. Not even the American experience. Frankly, there isn’t an advocate, from a government standpoint at a high enough level, in my opinion, to take on that responsibility, and to look after the arts (in America)—whether that is making sure that we have the arts in our school system or insuring that there is an environment where creativity can flourish while overseeing the exporting of our arts; and having a cultural exchange and so on.
Without having a focus, and a designated sort of institutional person or persons to look after it, (the arts) sort of gets kicked around. It depends on what administration is in office, and what the priorities are and so on.
Such a position would recognize the role of arts in American life. Right now, tough economic times are hitting arts and cultural organizations, spurring cutbacks, and new fundraising efforts.
When I made that statement, the economy was not in great shape, but it hadn’t fallen off the cliff that was subsequent to the statement. The practical reality of creating something like that in the midst of the crisis that we were in, and are digging out of, I understand the politics that this would not become a top priority. But, I think that it should continue to be a goal as we ease ourselves out of this deep hole that we are in, and start to think about what’s important to the future. Kids who don’t have exposure to the arts are not going to turn out to be the same kind of citizens that those who do are.
You are a guitar player who started playing in bands as a teenager.
Bass player, actually. The group that was the big deal was the high school band called the Savages. We played in various incarnations. Can you see me as a Savage? On bass, and sort of playing guitar. In that band, I was first playing guitar. We had to replace someone, and the (new) guy that was going to be one of the two lead singers was supposed to play bass as well. When he was singing lead, he couldn’t play bass. It was too confusing to him. So I would play bass on those songs, and I decided I liked it.
Where did the band play?
We played in Long Island. We played the local places in Great Neck. There was a great place called The Oriental Zest. We played at My Father’s Place (in Roslyn). We also played in the city (New York) a bit too. We played Trudy Hellers, and The Telephone Booth. I still have a plaque ashtray from the Phone Booth. That was my background. I was still in high school. Then I did a little bit of (playing) in college and little bit after college.
Were you on the circuit with the Hassles with Billy Joel?
Not quite as big time. They were a step above. I remember seeing Billy. We did some demos or recordings at Ultrasonic Studios in Hempstead (New York), and Billy was doing a live concert of his first album “Cold Spring Harbor” (1971) with (producer) Artie Ripp.
You graduated from George Washington University in 1971.
My degree was kind of by default. I went to Washington because my other passion (other than music) was politics. My real plan—because it was unlikely that I could have a career in music, I thought—was to go to law school, and run for office. That was sort of the plan.
My plan was to go to school in D.C. to be at the heart of (politics)—be a political science major. Well, I didn’t find political science interesting. Their music department, at that time, was mediocre though they had a couple of wonderful professors that I became friendly with. But, as a major, music didn’t make sense. So I ended up with a major in Communications—speech, public speaking, debate and audience psychology. There was a phenomenal teacher that was teaching that, and I really liked it. Years later, it came in handy.
While at George Washington University, you booked bands.
In 1967, when I first started at GW, I ran for (the position of) cultural affairs director. Basically, I was the guy that would book talent for shows at the school. I remember dealing with an agent, and I booked Blood, Sweat & Tears. By the time they showed up, the (the group's self-titled second) album had exploded.
After college, you continued to play in bands, and you started the production company Portnow-Miller.
My high school buddy and bandmate John Miller and I decided to have our own company. At one point, he said to me, “When we are 30, do you think we are going to want to be carrying around these huge amplifiers, and be out every night? There must be another way.”
While in college, we had been signed to Decca Records for two minutes with Today’s Special. We were sort of a quasi-psychedelic rock kind of band. We were assigned, as a producer, Milt Gabler, which was strange. It didn’t work out very well. The guy who did “White Christmas” doing this psychedelic rock band? So that didn’t work.
[Label executive Milt Gabler produced Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton, Louis Jordan, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, the Mills Brothers, Bing Crosby, Bill Haley and the Comets and others for Commodore and Decca. Gabler retired from the front line of business activity when MCA consolidated Decca with its other labels, and moved the merged MCA Records to Universal City, California in 1971.]
Were any of Today’s Special recordings released?
There was one release. We did a four-track EP. I probably have the only remaining copy. The name of the band was a marketing concept. The concept was that since we were called Today’s Special, we’d automatically have promotion in every diner in the country.
[Today's Special evolved out of two bands, the Savages, and London and The Bridges. Lead guitarist Jon Sholle went on to work David Grisman, and recorded with Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Allen Ginsberg, Esther Phillips, Chip Taylor, and Maria Muldaur. He also appeared in and played on the soundtrack of the 1979 film “The Rose" starring Bette Midler.
Today’s Special single “Krista” (Decca 32408), produced by Milt Gabler in 1968, can be heard on YouTube at: Video.
Decca was a strange label in the late ‘60s.
It really was. From strange to even stranger. When it didn’t work out with Milt Gabler, Decca hired someone who was going to be the young, cutting-edge A&R producer guy that was going to contemporize things. It was Paul Simon’s brother Eddie. That was great, but Eddie had no experience.
[A former member of Guild Light Cage, Eddie Simon recorded solo for Tornado Records (“Pretty Lass” and “Beach Boy”). He later became founder/director of the Guitar Study Center on East 60th Street in New York.]
How long did you have the company with John?
It lasted a couple of years. I got myself a job with a trio in a steak house to pay the rent. I was living on the island (Long Island) and going into the city every day to sort of hock our wares.
We decided after that experience with Decca that we could be record producers. What the hell? So we found some talent, and we put up some money and we partnered with another guy who I met at GW who was a law student. We started this little company. We also put some money up with another friend who was a stockbroker. We invested, and we made a little money.
We did demos with another friend from the Savages, who had opened an electronic store. That was when everybody was installing 8-tracks players in their cars. This became a pretty good business for him. He had a relationship with the TEAC company, and he bought all of the TEAC (recorders) they had. He had a basement in the store, and he set up a studio there.
Then we recorded a couple of demos. I went into the city every day and knocked on every door, and was turned down by everybody. And I knew nobody. People got into the business because they had relationships and had family. I knew nobody. It was just pure adrenaline. I read Billboard, Record World and Cashbox, so I had a little bit of information and managed to get in the door with people.
Who did you produce?
The first guy I produced was Neil Harbus, a guy I went to college with. He was a singer/songwriter, kind of like Cat Stevens or Paul Simon. We actually got a deal with a little company called Evolution Records in New York that had Lighthouse. They signed Neil Harbus, and we got a budget to do an album.
[The short-lived Evolution Records recorded Lighthouse, Gloria Loring, Mike Quatro Jam Band and Stu Nunnery among others. In 1973. Neil Harbus released two singles, “Please Come to Nashville” and “All You Want To Do is Rock ‘N’ Roll.]
They connected us with (producer) Brooks Arthur, who owned a little studio in Blauvelt, New York called 914 (914 Sound Studios). It was formerly a gas station. We were assigned Louis Lahav (the studio's resident sound engineer), who did the first Bruce Springsteen album. A phenomenal engineer, and Brooks gave us a very reasonable deal.
[Bruce Springsteen began to record at 914 Sound Studios after he signed with Columbia Records in 1972. Recordings made at the studio during 1972 would make their way onto Springsteen's debut album “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” All of Springsteen's second album, “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” was recorded at 914 Sound in 1973. The first song for Springsteen's next album, the classic "Born to Run,” was also recorded at 914 Sound.]
We did the (Neil Harbus) album there, it was released and we had some AOR airplay. Nothing significant, but I learned so much. I packed up my car with albums, and traveled on the East Coast, and went to radio stations. Because Evolution was so small, I could get in, and spend my time there (in the office) during the day. There was a fabulous promotion woman there, Margo Knesz, who later became a VP at Atlantic. A great lady.
You and John produced a number of acts including Cashmere, and Sunshine & Vinny before having success with Charlie Kulis.
Instead of doing demos, we began to produce masters. We had the relation with Brooks, who gave us the greatest deal (for the studio). We’d drive up to 914, and we would produce these records. There were a lot of great people involved, everybody from David Lasley and Arnold McCuller, who sings still with James Taylor (the two began touring with Taylor in 1977, and have been featured on every album from "Flag" forward). Great players. We would pay them. I would put them in my car, and drive them up there.
One record we did came from the brainstorm of putting an ad in the Village Voice asking people to send us demos. We were looking for talent. You can imagine how awful it was. But Charlie Kulis, a school teacher, sent us a tape, and we liked his voice. John and I decided we wanted to do Del Shannon’s (1961 #1) “Runaway” as a remake. This kid had a great voice, and a falsetto for it. So we did a remake of “Runaway” and I did the same drill all around town (seeking a deal) .
This time the response was very different.
I ended up selling the single to Playboy Records. Playboy was coming off (hits with) Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds, and Barbi Benton. So, they bought the master, and put it out. The record went Top 30 on Cashbox. At that point, I got the call from Dick Clark at “American Bandstand” to put Charlie on the show. We flew out (to Los Angeles) and did “American Bandstand” (on May 10, 1975 with Captain & Tennille also as guests).
[“Runaway” by 24-year-old Charlie Kulis (Playboy 6023) reached #40 on Billboard’s Easy Listening chart in 1975. it reached the Top 10 in several American markets.]
Doing “American Bandstand” was a huge deal.
It was a huge deal. That (record) changed my life. It was that I might be the next big producer guy. Who knows? That’s when I got to the publishing side because we were thinking about doing an album (with Charlie Kulis), and we were looking for songs. The door was wide open at that point from all of the publishers in the city. I had started a bit of a relationship (with music publishers). So who did I spend a lot of time with? (Screen-Gems’ VP) Irwin Schuster, who was the most lovely, wonderful guy. I took songs from everybody and made relationships with all of those people. Then Irwin called, and said,” I’d love to have you come and work here. I have a thought that if we sign a new writer, who we think is potentially a recording artist, that we should sign them to a production deal. Shop the deal, and have a piece of the production contract.”
So you came to Screen-Gems in 1972.
Irwin Robinson was running the company (as VP/GM), and there was Irwin Schuster in creative, and Irwin Griggs ( dir., financial administration). I was there about two years. I had a lot of fun signing some artists, making demos and trying to get them deals and being a little bit of a song plugger, which opened a lot of other doors, obviously. Schuster always took me to his Clive Davis meetings, so I had a little bit of a relationship there which paid off years later.
How did you come to RCA in 1977 as an executive producer?
The head of A&R at RCA was then Michael Berniker. I had met Mike on my journeys to sell masters. We never did anything together, but we stayed in touch. Then (president) Ken Glancy brought him to RCA as head of A&R, and he was producing for them at the same time. Remember Mike had produced Barbra Streisand, so he had good producer credentials. After awhile he found that he couldn’t do both, effectively. There was too much administrative stuff, so he called me. The people Screen-Gems were very gracious. They understood that I was being hired to be a producer at a major label. So I jumped at that.
[While in his late-20s, Michael Berniker produced Barbra Streisand's first three Columbia albums. As an executive with RCA Records, Berniker signed Daryl Hall and John Oates, and Juice Newton.]
I probably spent a year at RCA before Ken Glancy got bounced out. Then, Mike decided to leave because there was going to be a total overhaul (of the company). I thought I was going to be toast as well. I thought it was all over when Mike was leaving. I started looking around.
But the label’s marketing label VP Mel Ilberman moved you to L.A. in 1977 to become VP A&R West Coast for RCA.
Mel was the only one that survived that upheaval. He invited me to a lunch at the Algonquin and I figured, “This is it. The end.” He also invited Warren Schatz, who ran the publishing company. Warren was also a producer, and had done all of the Vicki Sue Robinson records. Mel said, “Look guys, there’s going to be a big change in the company, but we want some young guys to run A&R.” He looked at Warren, and said, “You are such an animal. You stay in New York, and you will be VP of A&R East Coast.” He looked at me and said, “You are mellow enough. You will deal with the la-la people. You go to L.A.. and be the West Coast VP of A&R.”
So you went to LA for RCA while in your mid-20s?
I did. I was totally freaked out about it. I didn’t want to go. My family was there (on the East Coast). My girlfriend was there. My business relationships were there. I had been to L.A. once or twice. Mel said, “You are a schmuck if you don’t take this job. It’s a major company. You will only go forward, if you are good. You won't ever go backward. It’s a great stepping stone.”
I said to Mel, “On one condition. If I hate it, you will buy me a plane ticket back.” He agreed to that, and out I came to LA as head of A&R for the West Coast.
What appealed to you about A&R?
I felt that I had a skill for it being a musician, having done my own thing, having worked at different companies, seeing how it worked—and I kind of felt like I had the left brain/right brain piece. So, it was just not about the creative side being able to translate that to the business side. It was just a thrilling job, more so in those days than these days, I think, and very highly coveted.
L.A. must have been a huge change for you.
One of the things that I vowed when I came to Hollywood was that I must never become a Hollywood guy. It’s not at all in my temperament or style. I never did hang in those circles, playing golf with the promotion guys on the weekend. My free time was my free time. I never went there. I managed to do it on my own terms.
Your next move was to the 20th Century Fox label in 1979.
I started as senior vice-president. When I got there the label was in a slow period. They had had Barry White, “Star Wars” and some pop stuff that was up and down. At that point, Russ Regan had left (as president), and the company was being run by the CFO, Phil Donnelly. Alan Livingston (Senior VP and president, of the Entertainment Group at 20th Century Fox Film Corporation) had the direct day-to-day (responsibility).
Alan made this distribution deal with Bob Summer at RCA because Plan B was to shut (the label) down. Alan said, “Let’s not close it. If I can make a distribution deal where we can cut the overhead so we are basically a production company, let’s see what happens." Management agreed to that. So they downsized the label, and I was the point person.
Alan came to me (at RCA), and said, “You are what we need at the company. If Bob is okay with it, you can be senior VP. If it works, in six months, I will make you president of the label.” I thought hard and long about that. It was a tough decision because the label was sort of down and out. Then I decided, “Let’s roll the dice here.”
You stayed at 20th Century Fox for almost three years.
What I found was that they had a phenomenal R&B promotion department. When I looked at the roster, there were a couple of black acts that were pretty good, and I was pretty strong in that area. So that was where we focused. Stephanie Mills broke first and we had a couple of (Top 10 R&B) hit singles with her, and a crossover hit (“Never Knew Love Like This Before”) that was hugely successful (reaching #6 on Billboard’s Hot 100). We had Carl Carlton, and a huge hit with “She’s a Bad Mama Jama (She’s Built, She’s Stacked).” I signed a (production) deal with Tri-Sound with Carl Davis so we had the Chi-Lites, the Staples Singers and the Dells. I signed Eddie Harris, and did a record with him. It was primarily in the black area. And I signed Jim Photoglo. I gave him his first record (“Photoglo” in 1980).
After 20th Century Fox was sold, you went to Arista.
Clive Davis had called me, and said, “When this is all done, I have not had a head of the West Coast since (Arista West Coast VP) Michael Lippman left. I’d like to offer you that if you are interested.” I took that. Clive was very gracious. He waited until the Fox sale was done.
Next, you were VP of A&R, EMI America Records.
At the end of three years as an A&R person at Arista, I became a little frustrated and went to EMI America Records for another three years. Then EMI went through its typical “Let’s add a label; let’s close a label.” They added Manhattan Records in New York, and closed EMI-America, folding it into Manhattan. Turned out to be a disaster with a redundancy of all of the staff. They bought me out of my contract. Then, I went and I was a music supervisor for a year and half.
[Portnow worked as music supervisor on three films: “Permanent Record” (1988); “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child” (1989); and “Wired” (1989).]
You then received a call from Clive Calder from Zomba Group, who you knew from Arista, handling distribution of his alternative rock acts, including A Flock Of Seagulls.
Clive called out of the blue and said, “We are at a point now in the growth of this company that we need an office on the West Coast. He said, “I don’t believe in opening an office for convenience. I’m not going to have the truck back up and install marble floors, and hire 12 vice presidents. I want a guy who knows it all, publishing, records, production” and so forth.
[After opening the Zomba/Jive office in Los Angeles in 1989, the operation grew from just two employees (Portnow and an assistant) to 70 employees. In particular, the film & TV division expanded greatly, encompassing a large, music licensing department, a music editing and supervision firm, a film composers agency, and a leading music library. In addition to these film & TV operations, Portnow oversaw the West Coast creative activities of Zomba Publishing, and Jive Records.]
You created Zomba Music Services.
As I dug into the Zomba’s business, and looked at the assets, I thought, “This is very unique. Not only do we have the mainstream record and publishing business. In many cases we have the rights to both.” Zomba had also become one of the leaders in production music. That was key to me.
Having had the two years before as a music supervisor going through licensing and finding material and composers, I got a real hand’s on taste of that (world). I thought, “We have something that nobody has because none of the major labels are in this business.”
How did Zomba develop such a large production library?
Very interesting. This was Clive Calder at his best. In London, they owned recording studios, including the Battery Studio. What to do with the studios during down time? Take some of the publishing writers who are un-recouped, and let them do albums that can be used for libraries. Also, when Michael Jackson bought the ATV catalog (in 1985), ATV was partner with EMI in a company called APM Music. Zomba took over the APM stake, and became a co-owner. Zomba was huge in the music production library business.
The growth of this West Coast office was simultaneous to the worldwide success and expansion of the Jive and Zomba companies. Jive Records became home to such leading artists as Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, and R. Kelly; and Zomba published Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Korn, Macy Gray, and writer/producers Robert John "Mutt" Lange, Max Martin and Teddy Riley.
Macy Gray was a Zomba success story.
We developed her. Jeff Blue, who was my A&R guy on the publishing side, signed her and developed that. He also signed, and put together a lot of what turned out to be Linkin Park. So we had a lot of things going on there.
In the early ‘90s, Zomba continued to expand its film & TV operations, moving into the music editing, supervision and film composers field.
What I did was (adhere) to Clive Calder’s manta of, “Let’s have each office have something that is special and unique.” So I was thinking about where we were in this town. Nobody had really created a one-stop shop for film and television projects. We had a lot of (the elements), but not all of it. I sought to fill in the blanks for the things that we didn’t have. That’s why we ended up buying Segue Music editing company (retaining Dan Carlin and Jeff Carson to run the business). We now owned the leading music editing company in town. We also started Zomba Screen Music, which handled licensing for both masters and synchronization. We’ve also hired staff to actively promote our music into film and TV.
At what point will we see the video clip of you playing a band leader in “Wired” on the Grammy telecast?
Well, anytime you want, I will send you a copy. That’s a pretty obscure one.
You are 62.
I choke when I say that. It doesn’t seem possible.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide: Celebrating 40 Years Of The Juno Awards.”
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