This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Mike Carden, president of North American Operations, Eagle Rock Entertainment.
Mike Carden knows more about music video than anyone you can name.
He also is an astute judge of musical talent, and business potential, and he knows retail, marketing, distribution, artist management, and about A&R.
Over close to a decade, Carden, the New York-based president of North American Operations, Eagle Rock Entertainment, has expertly overseen releases of documentary or live performance titles by such acts as Jeff Beck, the Doors, Talking Heads, Eric Clapton, Usher, Miles Davis, the Who, Deep Purple, Queen, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper and others across all media.
Eagle Rock Entertainment, an international visual and audio rights acquisition, and exploitation company, has offices in London, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Hamburg and Paris.
Eagle Rock’s roots stretch back to U.K. music catalog specialist Castle, Communications, which Terry Shand—Eagle Rock’s executive chairman and CEO—co-founded in 1983, and sold to Alliance Entertainment in 1994.
Prior to Castle, Shad had been involved in independent distribution in Britain as sales and marketing director of Stage One Records.
Over the years, Castle developed a formidable record business, and diversified into the feature film business. In the late '80s, the company bought the Pye, Bronze, Immediate, NEMS, Sugarhill and Solar catalogs.
As the independent film business imploded at the end of the '80s, Castle was retooled as a record company and as a sell-through video business with titles by the Backstreet Boys, Pavarotti, and Belinda Carlisle.
Shand launched Eagle Rock in 1997, taking the key members of his Castle team with him. In fact, he took the entire visual division of 22 people. However, he had to start his record division from scratch. He recruited Lindsay Brown, now Eagle Rock U.K. MD, and signed up Earth Wind & Fire, and the Stranglers.
Eagle Rock soon had a U.S. office in New York, local marketing offices in France and Germany, and representation in Scandinavia. Its early network of distribution partners included BMG and Warner Music.
Meanwhile, the company developed two frontline record label operations, Eagle Records and Spitfire Records. Eagle was home to albums by established acts; while Spitfire, headquartered in New York, was a hard rock and metal imprint.
Carden has worked in many facets of the music business, from retail and distribution, to independent and major record companies.
He began his career in music retail in New Jersey, and moved on to working at regional one-stop distributors in the ‘70s; to WEA Distribution in the early ‘80s; and to Malvern Distribution until 1987.
Carden hit music industry prime time when he became Atlantic Records’ North East Regional sales head. This was followed by Carden being head of sales and marketing at Atlantic’s affiliated label imprint, East West Records.
By the new millennium, East West Records would be mothballed; its acts shifted to Elektra Records; and Carden had returned to Atlantic as national dir. of Sales/National Accounts.
This was followed by a short stint as general manager at CMC International, an established-artist label, acquired by Sanctuary Records Group in 2000.
Carden was initially hired on as a consultant to Eagle Rock Entertainment in 2001. Impressed with his experience, and his management skills, the company made him GM of Spitfire Records, and Eagle Records. After Carden became president of operations in North America, and executive VP of the company in 2003, he consolidated the audio and video portions of the company.
In building up Eagle Rock Entertainment in the U.S. marketplace, Carden successfully pushed for it to be one of the first music companies to move into the high definition DVD arena by utilizing Blu-ray technology—Eagle Rock is now one of the largest holders of hi def music and documentary rights in the world—and he now is vying to lead the way with 3D music video releases.
What’s happening with the music video market? It was supposed to die three years ago when sales dipped so sharply but the sector has proven resilient.
This is a huge generalization, but people decide that if someone says, “The sky is falling,” than it must be. A lot of people jump on that, and you end up going over the cliff. What (really) happens is that—with sales declines—we refine our business because it is our business. We are 13% or 14% of the market. Why are we that? Because we concentrated on it, and made it our own, and it is our own. Is it easy? Absolutely not. We are market leaders 99% of the time in price and in deals and product offerings. It’s pretty obvious that we are. Our chart position for the past year has been seven or eight titles in the Top 50. Last week, we were 13.24% of the U.S. market.
Half of Eagle Rock Entertainment’s business is in the U.S.?
I would say that it has to be close to that. The big element of Eagle’s business-–and I’m not sure how aware anyone is about it—is television, theatrical and other means of exploitation. We have a tremendous television sales department out of the U.K. that gets worldwide placements on TV for us. That, of course, sometimes constitutes the main market driver. It’s an interesting element to have.
The music video market now consists of so many ancillary platforms. People overlook that.
I know that they do. The interesting thing is that is what we do. We can monetize our projects, and our opportunities on a couple of different platforms. It’s not just the DVD that has to do well. It’s not just the DVD that has to do well in North America. The DVD can do well in many countries in the world; and the DVD can do this business on downloading and streaming. It can do business on TV. There are a lot of other businesses—potentially—out there.
Are these aspects of the music video business that the labels overlooked?
It isn’t that they missed it. It is that they don’t concentrate on (music video). It’s not their thing, and they don’t have the dedicated staff.
Their 360 deals will include video rights.
And you know what? A lot of times we can go in, and make a deal to do (a release) with them. And we do.
You came to Eagle Rock in 2001 to oversee the audio division. Over the years, audio has been pushed back at the company.
A little bit. I think what you would say is that we focus on video. The audio is there, but it’s not necessarily our business. I don’t want to compete with Atlantic or Sony or Epic for breaking artist titles that are going to cost me a fortune. I can’t throw 10 up, and hope that one sticks. It’s not going to make my business model work. So that’s one of the primary reasons. We do the live (CD) element to a (DVD) release. If we are doing the visual, we will do the live. We have a great relationship with Deep Purple. So if Roger Glover comes out with a new album, we’ll want to do it—that kind of thing.
[Eagle Rock will release Roger Glover’s new album “If Life Was Easy” in Sept. 2011]
Instead of cannibalizing music DVD sales, don’t Netflix and other online video services offer Eagle Rock some new business opportunities?
Sure, if you are playing it right. By that, I mean timing your releases properly, and adding, and taking away little bits and pieces to make everything interesting, and unique. There’s business to be done all around. I have never really bought into the concept of the cannibalization thing anyway. If you are playing it right, the fan will still want it. I think that the fan will still buy it in a finished good configuration. They might want to see it before. They might want to view it on Netflix or something. But (a music video is) not like a movie. You watch a theatrical movie once or twice, and you are done with it. It will stay on the shelf. Forever. You watch a music video, and if you like the format, you will play it for friends; you will play it again; and you will play it at parties.
In recent years, every record label has seemed to be packaging full-length concert videos with CD releases which some say cannibalize sales of new music video product.
Then the (labels) played all of those games, calling it a DVD on release, but it was really a CD with only a bit of DVD content. They didn’t stay true to (the music DVD) as itself. In other words, it wasn’t, in fact, a DVD. It wasn’t a full-fledged, respectable DVD with great quality images and sound, and well thought out content and bonus features. That’s what we do every single time. The only time that that we end up (not doing that) is when the content is of such a historical nature; that, even though it’s a bit sub-standard—by peoples’ impression of standard—it just begs to be put out.
For instance, we are just doing a project now with (music video producer) David Peck. David came up with some great master tapes on Ray Charles live from 1961 in France. It’s black and white, but it is absolutely gorgeous footage, beautiful looking, and beautiful sounding. It is part of Ray’s career that we thought was a special moment, and should be showcased properly. So we are going to take that, and not only putting out the absolutely best standard def master that we can end up with from it, we are probably putting out a black and white HD of it sometime next year.
In 2008, Eagle Rock changed its American distribution to Fontana Distribution for music DVD titles, and to affiliated Vivendi Visual Entertainment for non-music DVD titles.
It is a great relationship. I have had a relationship with Jim Urie (president of Universal Music Group Distribution) for 30 years. He was very passionate about (the deal). He came to us at MIDEM, and wanted to talk about the possibilities. He was ramping Fontana up, and felt that we would have a good fit. We had a couple of meetings. It wasn’t, “Hi. How are you? Where do I sign?” We talked long and hard about it. Part of the deal was that they showed up with the right relationship perimeters, and the right guarantees of ongoing support.
That was important because your business is a heavy acquisition business.
We spend a lot of money on great assets and it takes a lot of money to float the boat. And the boat isn’t always sailing but it has to be floating.
How many titles in the catalog?
Almost 700 DVDs, and close to 200 titles in the audio catalog.
Eagle Rock has done well with DVDs by such musically credible acts as Jeff Beck, the Doors, and Peter Gabriel.
Yeah, and that fan base, if we can make them aware that (a DVD) is available, they will buy it. We have proven that. We have taken Jeff Beck from a spot where his records were interesting, and were out there and doing okay, but he really transcended when we hit with “Live At Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club” (released Nov. 2008). We got a great, great profile going with Jeff with that. It was just at the right moment when he was just going out on tour. Everything clicked. It’s like timing is everything.
Jeff’s “Rock 'n' Roll Party” DVD honoring Les Paul is even better.
The Les Paul video is great. It’s our own production. My name is on the back.
[“Rock 'n' Roll Party” was recorded at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York where Les Paul played almost every week until his death in August 2009. It was recorded on June 9, 2010, which would have been Paul's 95th birthday. Beck is joined by Imelda May and her band, as well as Jason Rebello, Brian Setzer, Trombone Shorty, and Gary U.S. Bonds.]
You don’t tend to seek pop superstars like Britney Spears and Beyoncé for DVD releases. Of course, they would want big money.
I know. This will sound really pretentious and cocky, but they are less meaningful to me than the next Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton or the next Van Morrison. I will tell you why. These (pop) people are making a tremendous amount of money; and selling a lot of records. I don’t think they are going to sell a lot of DVDs. We have been asked to make an offer on Britney Spears, and we haven’t.
Why not? Because pop acts are all over the visual media already?
Yeah, and their audience is not necessarily receptive to a DVD. Also even if you do it, the (production) costs are so high, and you have to sell it so low (in the marketplace) that it’s a waste of time.
Anyone can sell a Miley Cyrus DVD depending on what level.
And what week it is.
I think a Lady Gaga DVD would do well.
I do too. We have made some forays into a conversation with Lady Gaga, and Interscope, and we haven’t gotten anywhere. But that’s a target for us. There’s been a lot reasons for her to do what she did to get herself out there, and get her substance known. She’s done that and, to me, she’s done it smartly. I don’t think that she had done anything that she shouldn’t have done. She has been marketing a thousand percent of herself. She’s been talking a lot, but I haven’t seen any nastiness. I’m really impressed by how far she’s gotten.
It’s about timing.
Especially with pop and new rock (releases), it’s about timing. Everything is timing. That’s all of it. We did Usher just after his big album (“8701”) and (the DVD) sold tremendous numbers. We’ve just done another Usher (“OMG Tour Live at The O2 London”) that is coming out in the 4th quarter too.
[Eagle Rock promoted "Usher: Live—Evolution 8701" in theaters in 2002.]
Rap and hip hop on DVD?
Very difficult. Our first big record was "The Up in Smoke Tour" (a 2001 release which was culled from the 2000 rap tour) but that was the moment Dr. Dre was showcasing Eminem. We have done things since with (with rap and hip hop), and just fallen flat on our faces.
[“The Up in Smoke Tour” tour in 2000 featured performances by Ice Cube, Eminem, Proof, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Nate Dogg, Kurupt, D12, MC Ren, Westside Connection, Mel-Man, Tha Eastsidaz, Doggy's Angels, Devin The Dude, Warren G, TQ, Truth Hurts and Xzibit.]
You are such a huge music fan.
I love music. That’s why I started doing this. It wasn’t the money. There wasn’t any money. I often say, “Get this. They pay me to do this?” Today, I was watching videos. We just did an Owl City recording. The band is really good. Not that I didn’t know it was good, but I kind of took a shot, honestly. John Rubey called me, said that he was recording Owl City, and asked what I knew about the band. “Not a hell of a lot. Tell me.” He told me who and what they are. I looked at YouTube, and some other stuff, and we made a deal, which was a pretty good deal based his needing to do it, and mine—which was needing good repertoire. We recorded it and, you know what? The show is fantastic. The guy (singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Adam Young) is really good. He’s that good.
What else is coming up this year?
It’s not all 100% firmed up, but we have Peter Gabriel—that is firm. We shot Peter Gabriel at The O2 in London. That is an original production. We are redoing all of the Monkees’ TV episodes. That is coming out. We licensed them from Rhino. They haven’t had them out for a while, and we thought there was a real opportunity. We are working on (releasing) some big acts, but they aren’t 100% ink on paper, so I can’t comment.
Did last year’s enormous success of the Doors’ documentary “When You’re Strange” surprise you?
No, it really didn’t because it was so good. I am looking at a couple of things now (by the Doors) and they are just so good. I was compelled to do (“When You’re Strange”) even though it wasn’t 60-70% music—there’s a lot of documentary content there—but it’s so compelling, and so good that we just felt that we were going to be successful.
[At the 53rd annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 13th, 2011, “When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors” won for “Best Long Form Video.” The documentary is an account of the Doors’ history, from their 1966 inception to lead singer Jim Morrison’s passing in 1971.]
You personally didn’t receive the Grammy for “When You’re Strange.”
It was (producer) Jeff Jampol and two of the guys who worked on it previously. (Doors’ guitarist) Robby Krieger himself said, “C’mon Mike, c’mon onstage.” That’s enough for me.
How much of the Eagle Rock catalog is exclusive content?
About 90%. There are two kinds of exclusivity. We have found archives that have never been out before or are in peoples’ private possession that have never been out before; and there are things that we go out and shoot—so two different things.
How much has Eagle Rock developed itself?
The things that we go out and shoot? It varies. Some years we shoot 10 or 15 projects. Some years not that many. I would say that, probably, 30% of our catalog is stuff that we have shot over time.
One reason for the 2008 plunge was that the lengthy format war between Sony and Philips' Blu-ray, and Toshiba's rival HD DVD confused customers.
It hurt. It took a plus and turned it into a bit of a minus. That market has still not recovered at this point. That marketplace should be completely dominating sales, the HD and Blu-ray market. Let’s just call it the HD market for now.
It really hasn’t.
No it hasn’t. I was at CES (International Consumer Electronics Show) the year (2004) that they announced all of this because I was really involved with all of the guys from the manufacturers, Toshiba, Panasonic and all of those guys. As matter of fact, they wanted me to be on that Blu-ray board that they had. I just couldn’t see it because I wasn’t ready to plop down on one side of the line or the other. I thought that it was a huge mistake that a line was going to be drawn because it created the kind of confusion among consumers, “What is this? I don’t understand.”
[The Blu-ray Disc founder group was launched in 2002 by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, and nine leading electronic companies: Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer, Philips, Thomson, LG (Lucky GoldStar) Electronics, Hitachi, Sharp, and Samsung.]
All of this was a replay of the JVC’s VHS and Sony’s Betamax video format war of the ‘70s. Many people maintain that on technical merits Betamax was superior to VHS on picture quality, tape wear, system design and convenience of use. By 1980, however, VHS controlled 70% of the North American market.
Betamax and cassettes and 8-track. It goes on and on and on. And it always will.
Don’t forget mini-cassette, DAT, and quadraphonic—the surround sound of the ‘70s.
You can keep going. The problem was that you could see that (Philips' Blu-ray and Toshiba's HD DVD rivalry) coming. They telegraphed it. The bottom line is that HD had a lot of things to offer and the Blu-ray had a lot of things to offer. But the important thing about HD was that it was a lot cheaper to offer, and it was a lot easier to deal with on (some aspects of) quality control, but the problem was that it wasn’t quite the quality overall.
So we didn’t see any traction in the marketplace
Do you know why? They lost it when they started it out that way. They’ve never gained it back. People were so reluctant. The funny thing is that, over this time, everybody and their brother has come to us wanting 7.1 (7.1 surround sound: the common name for 8-channel surround audio), and they want to do 3D. We just did 3D with Peter Gabriel. Everybody is asking me, “What do you think of 3D?” The thing that resonates with me with 3D is that the manufacturers are now going at 3D as just another aspect of hi def—another option in hi def. To me, as long as you have to wear the glasses, that’s all it’s ever going to be.
[Peter Gabriel’s upcoming “New Blood 3D” release features a live concert performance filmed March 23, 2011 at London’s Hammersmith Apollo with Gabriel accompanied by a full orchestra. The Eagle Media production was directed by Blue Leach whose credits include tours for Snow Patrol, R.E.M. and Toto, and it was co-produced by Gabriel’s company Real World. Eagle Rock will distribute the release in Oct. 2011 across 3DTV, theatrical, digital, DVD and Blu-ray platforms in all territories.]
Eagle Rock Entertainment was one of the first music companies to move into the hi-def DVD arena by utilizing the Blu-ray technology, and you have one of the big holdings of HD music and documentary rights.
We do, and we’re blazing this trail in 3D but we’re doing it the same way. As I said before, we don’t look for what we can do to just jam something out there. We look for the right stuff. If we get an opportunity for an artist like Peter Gabriel, who is really excited about the format, and who is more than willing to create something totally unique, we’re interested. If we just got the opportunity to shoot something cheap and we could just throw it out there, I wouldn’t want to do it, frankly.
Consumers are already turned off by all of the crappy and cheap DVD product available.
You characterize it correctly. There are many things that we could have put out that the artist’s name, and the time period of piece, sounds great. We get the available asset and it turns out to be so sub-standard as to be worthless. It’s a shame. We are always depressed about it, but they would have made a great project.
We work, of course, with Montreux (the Montreux Jazz Festival), and there are things from their archive that were on Swiss TV. We do things with Rockpalast (the German music television show broadcast on German television station Westdeutscher Rundfunk). We just picked up a couple of titles from Rockpalast and one of them is Rockpile. I love Dave Edmunds. I just always thought Dave Edmunds was great.
[Eagle Rock Entertainment presented the first series of DVDs from the archives of the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2004. The titles included live performances by Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Earth, Wind & Fire, Charles Mingus, Gary Moore & the Midnight Blues Band, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Al Di Meola and Shane MacGowan & the Popes.]
In picking up archival stuff, Eagle Rock has to insure that all rights are cleared.
Well, that’s our second biggest concern (following quality of content). It could be more aligned to our biggest concern because the fact of the matter is that the rights clearance is the next thing on the agenda. If we can’t clear it, we aren’t even going to bother. That’s it. It has to meet all of the initial (quality) criteria. Then it has to meet that criteria of being able to be cleared. That is a simultaneous judgment call, I think.
There have been concerns over legal issues of releasing videos in Wolfgang’s Vault archives.
Well, it does concern us. We talked to them. The fact is that they couldn’t show us anything other than an incredible job of work that needed to be done to try and clear this (video) stuff. They have incredible stuff there but, without being able to clear it, I wouldn’t say that it’s worthless but close to because we won’t do anything that there is any kind of legal question on. We won’t do it.
How about the Jeff Healey Band’s new release on Eagle Rock North. There have been claims from his widow that….
Yeah, that’s what she said. From what I understand, she made all her assertions in court, and she lost. We looked at that before we made the final deal. Once we were told by all of our attorneys that, in fact, she lost and there were no rights situations with her on her side of it, that it belongs to this guy, we then went forward.
[“It is absolutely untrue to say I made my assertions in court,” says Jeff Healey’s widow Cristie. “The rights to the Jeff Healey Band material are still in question. There was no ruling that I have no rights to anything. It has never been to court.”
In 2009, Winnipeg-based label Arbor Records released “Legacy: Volume One,” a collection of previously unreleased music by the famed Canadian guitarist and musician, and his band. After Cristie Healey criticized its release in the media, Arbor announced plans to sue her, Toronto publicist Richard Flohil, and former Toronto talk-show host Bill Carroll.
However, these cases have yet to reach court.]
Why start a Canadian imprint?
For a lot of reasons. The Healey stuff is Canadian. There is such a huge archive of this completely Canadian content. We are very friendly with Randy Lennox (president/CEO, Universal Music Canada); with Universal Canada; and the guys from Conveyor. Peter Piasecki and I have been talking. We licensed them some things for Canada, including “Blood Ties” and things like that over time. So the conversation came up, “How do we take advantage of the opportunities to get some additional funds from FACTOR (The Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings) and the other societies in Canada that might help with productions costs, and let us better optimize this catalog—vast amount of material—that is sitting there.”
Do you have other releases planned?
Oh yeah. There’s a veritable archive of material there. There’s some out-take stuff from over the years from various parts of Jeff’s career. There are three or four great shows on video. There’s a lot more.
[In June, 2011 Eagle Rock Entertainment announced a collaboration with Conveyer Canada/Convexe Entertainment on a new imprint, Eagle Rock North. The release of “The Jeff Healey Band Live at Grossman’s” on June 14th, 2011 is the inaugural release under the agreement with other releases forthcoming. Eagle Rock North is headed by Conveyer Canada owner Peter Piasecki.]
Did you know Terry Shand, and Lindsay Brown before joining Eagle Rock?
I had met Terry back in the Castle days. Lindsay was at Polydor for years (including as international director at Polydor U.K.). It’s interesting that years back, I went to work for WEA because the Polydor/WEA merger was right on the horizon. My friends at Atlantic brought me in there and said, “You’ve got to get in here. You’ve got to establish yourself on the WEA side. It’s all going to change in three weeks.” We know how that worked out.
[Warner Communications and PolyGram began discussing a merger of their record businesses in 1983. The proposed merger was opposed by both the German Cartel Office, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for its potential in reducing competition, and the merger was finally denied.]
Any hesitation in joining Eagle Rock?
Not really. It was interesting because I was going to be at the helm of a great deal of the business being done, and I would be running the biggest territory in the world, North America. It seemed like a real challenge. I thought, “This is great. I get to, hopefully, put it back together.” At the time, Spitfire was suffering. It was almost out of business. Terry, in fact, said to me, “Do you think there is a business there? Come in, be a consultant for six months and tell me at the end of that if there is a business. If there is, we’ll continue it. If there’s not, thank you. You’re paid, and that’s that.”
Considering the disarray of the music industry at the time.
Oh, I know. There was no question that there were reasons why, but I didn’t see that (the disruptions) needed to be profound as they were. Before, it was making decisions without any information. People were signing acts based on that they had three drinks with the guy on Saturday night, and they thought he sounded good. They never looked at the marketplace or if (the artist) had an independent release before.
That was the music business.
I thought, “Oh my gawd, we have to do something about this,” and I did. Then I saw the larger picture. Spitfire was being distributed by ADA, and it was (operating) all by itself with an entire staff, backroom, finance, everything. Eagle Records was run by a company here in the U.S. called red ink (a label partner of RED Distribution). They took a higher percentage, and they ran it though. (red ink senior VP/GM) Howie Gabriel did a fine job. But here was a second part of the company, (audio) that ran as one company in Europe, but it was part of another company here. Then there was (video division) Eagle Vision. So there were three separate companies doing basically one thing: putting out projects to the same marketplace, and to the consumers. That made zero sense to me.
[Both Eagle Records and Spitfire Records built their early success on high-profile releases by veteran artists. Eagle Records had major international success with Alice Cooper, Ronnie Dio, and Deep Purple. Spitfire was founded in the U.S. in 1999 as the company's hard rock and metal imprint. The company signed on Zakk Wylde's Black Label Society and Testament early on, and also developed an extensive catalog by obtaining rights to older titles by Twisted Sister, Deep Purple, and Yngwie Malmsteen. The label also tried to develop new acts, including Sixty Watt Shaman, and Hair of the Dog.]
So you took on the challenge.
I did everything I could to straighten up the systems because there weren’t any. I put some in place, and made it a real company with accountability across departments. Lo and behold, it was a business. We could actually spend less on a release then we made—which is always a good thing. It wasn’t run well. That’s all. When I came, everybody was amenable to working it out, but they didn’t know what to do.
You were with Atlantic Records for many years.
Almost 10 years. I was with WEA before that. When I got to Atlantic, it was with Doug Morris (as president), and Mark Schulman was GM. (Co-founder) Ahmet (Ertegun) was a figurehead, but he was there (in the office) every day.
A great time to be at Atlantic.
It was. I’ll tell you, Ahmet was the brightest guy, and a good guy. I will tell you a little anecdote, and you will see what I mean. I had (ex-Ted Nugent vocalist) Brian Howe in my office. It was when Brian was doing Bad Company. We had released the first Brian Howe Bad Company record (“Fame and Fortune” in 1986). I was taking him over to WEA to present the new record after lunch. Ahmet had been chasing Brian to get a deal with him for a solo album. So we’re walking by the office, and I wave to Ahmet, and he says, “C’mon, c’mon in here.” So we walk into Ahmet’s office. Ahmet says, “You don’t mind if I talk to Brian for a few minutes?” I say, “Ahmet, we have plans, but they can wait.” I got to hear the Ahmet Ertegun pitch to (Brian), “Kid, you really should be thinking of coming with us for your solo career. Look at what we are doing for you with Bad Company,” and blah blah blah. That was very interesting. And that happened often enough.
[Brian Howe, who replaced original frontman Paul Rodgers in Bad Company, wouldn’t release his first solo album, “Tangled in Blue” on Touchwood Records until 1997.]
While regional director at Atlantic Records, you were responsible for breaking Alannah Myles’ hit single, “Black Velvet.”
I really liked “Black Velvet.” There was something that was clicking with me. I was really close with all of my promotion guys. There was a retail store called The Wall in Philadelphia. They had a lot of retail stores throughout Pennsylvania. In some of the markets, they dominated. One of the markets was Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They had 10 or 15 stores there. My buddy was Frank Sciarra who was a radio promotions guy. He’d call me when he had anything going on with a record. He called and said that this record (“Black Velvet”) was going to hit on Saturday. “What can we do with it at retail? The phones are going to jump off the hook. I just know it’s going to happen.” So I went to my guys at The Wall, and said, “Look we have a new artist, and the single is a smash, it is going to start playing on (local radio) Saturday. We know the phones are going to light up, and the station is going to put it into super heavy rotation,” blah blah blah.
I said, “Take in so many pieces. I will guarantee it. If it doesn’t click, you can send them back. Make sure it is in every one of these stores in the marketplace.” Well, as predicted, the phones lit up; the stores, went crazy; the stores reported that the record was selling off the shelves; and radio went, “We’ve got something.” We upped the ante. We start spreading (the promotion), and it goes to Philadelphia and the rest you know. Off to the races—record company 101.
[Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet” was #1 for two weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 1990. It was the most played song on American radio for 1989 and 1990. In 2000, it was honored with the ASCAP Millionaire Award for having received over five million airplays at U.S. radio. "Black Velvet" won Myles a Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Performance in 1991.]
You worked at East West Records.
It was an interesting thing trying to re-invent that independent label off the main Atlantic label connection with Atco, East West, and with Cotillion for a while. What happened was that I had just been put in national sales at Atlantic for national accounts. Doug Morris called me into his office, and said, “Look, we are going to start some new things around here. Would you have an interest in doing something with another label that we are going to put together. It’s a historic label.” He kind of laid it out. I said, “Sure, I’ll talk about it. Why not?” I met with Sylvia (Rhone). She liked what I had to say. So she brought me over there. It was like a transfer over to the next building.
[East West Records, an unsuccessful Atlantic off-shoot label from the ‘50s, re-emerged in 1990, when Atlantic revamped the imprint as East West Records America headed by Sylvia Rhone.
East West’s roster included Simply Red, En Vogue, Pantera, Yo-Yo, Das EFX, Snow, Gerald Levert, AC/DC, Dream Theater, Missy Elliott and MC Lyte. It distributed Interscope Records (Atlantic owned 53% stock in the label). By the new millennium, East West Records had been shut down, and its acts shifted to Elektra Records.]
In 2004, you were responsible for worldwide release of Yusuf Islam’s DVD, “Cat Stevens: MajiKat: Earth Tour 1976” which benefited his charity organization, Small Kindnesses that rescues war orphans in countries like Kosovo, Bosnia, and Iraq.
The drought-caused famine in five Somali regions must be heart-breaking for you.
It is an absolute tragedy. I don’t know what the West is ever going be able to do about that. We are in trouble too. I saw the President put up $105 million for (new) aid over there. I am glad that happened after all that has happened with Somalia and the (famine-stricken) province in Mogadishu (the fighting, and theft of food aid) has really left a really negative taste on a lot of peoples’ palettes. We are trying to give aid and the warlords, and local gangs (there) have kind of created hell on earth for the U.S. and the international forces there trying to help. The Somalian pirate thing doesn’t exactly endear everybody (in the West) to that area either.
The West has provided aid over the years to needy territories but it also largely ignored what happened in Sarajevo, and Kosovo and certainly ignored the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
We turn a blind eye to a lot of things. We do. I’m not going to point strictly at the United States.
You and your wife have adopted orphans?
Yes. All three of my kids are. The oldest boy is from Moldova, which is part of the Soviet Union, and part of Romania over the years. It is between Romania and the Ukraine. The other two are from Russia proper. The girl is from a town in the southern Urals called Chelyabinsk; the other boy is from Yennessie in Siberia.
A lot to take on.
I have to say the fact of the matter is it was for me as much as it was for them. My wife and I felt very strongly about having children. My ancestors are part Russian. I was of an age where it was tougher and tougher to think that I could put something together with a U.S. adoption. The only other affinity that I had—cultural affinity—was for Russians. They like to say that Russia is more like America than any other country. In certain ways I believe it. It is the European Russian foundation that I feel a kinship with. That’s where my ancestors (on my mother’s side) were from.
From what area?
Moscow. My grandfather was Alexander Freyman. He came to America in the 1890s. My two uncles, and my aunt were born in Russia. One other aunt was born here in the U.S., and my mother was born here.
How about from your father’s side.
Irish. There’s a combination, eh?
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.”
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