Industry Moguls: The Good, The Bad, and The Crazy

There are countless job positions in the music industry: Managers, Attorneys, Concert Promoters, Publicist, Agents, Producers, Tour Managers, Radio Broadcasters, Business Managers, and the list could go on. Yet the spotlight is placed upon that small group of businessmen that go above and beyond the standard, or just get plain lucky, to work their way to the top of the music industry food chain. These are the “music industry moguls” that wield the power and have great standing in their field. Some of their names have recognition worldwide, others only in their homeland, but their influence has certainly been felt throughout the global music industry for decades.
There are many moguls who use their wealth and prominence to help those in need, be it starving children in Africa or talented and aspiring music musicians. Their open generosity can help direct the public’s attention towards the important political, musical or global issues. For this purpose, I have chosen to examine the lives and careers of two men who have famously shared the benefits of their success: Richard Branson, English entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin brand, and David Geffen, American record executive, film producer and founder of Asylum Records, Geffen Records and DreamWorks SKG.
However, with great power and influence obviously come great responsibilities, some of which are too much for the unprepared music mogul. The music industry has seen some of its greatest minds fall prey to their own personal demon, destroyed by the sudden influx of riches and authority. Others have let their egos or public personas devour and take over the person they truly were. For this purpose, I have chosen to examine the lives and careers of two men who famously suffered from their own success: Walter Yetnikoff, president of CBS Records from 1975 to 1990, and Don Arden, English manager, agent and businessman best known for his work with Small Faces, Electric Light Orchestra, and Black Sabbath.
Finally, in my study of these different music moguls, I had the opportunity to interview my friend and Canadian music force, Gary Slaight. As the President and CEO of Standard Broadcasting Corporation from 2000 until it’s sale to Astral Media in October 2007, Gary has lived the music mogul life. He is currently the reigning President and CEO of Slaight Communications, enjoying his time exploring the new frontiers of radio, working with new Canadian artists, and heading the Slaight Family Charitable Foundation. In other words, he’s a good one.

A “mogul”, by definition, is “an important, powerful, or influential person” (MLA). Having reached a prominent place in their particular industry, they typically have great wealth and the respect of their contemporaries. The terms “mogul”, “tycoon”, and “baron” are often attributed to the North American business magnates from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century era known as the Second Industrial Revolution. These wealthy, usually corrupt men, controlled many of the American industries of that time such as mining, petroleum, railroads, steelmaking, banking and newspaper publishing (“Business Magnate”).
In the music industry, moguls can grace either side of the corruption scale. The majority though, have used their power for good. David Geffen has been a presence in the music and film industry since 1971 when he established Asylum Records, which was acquired by Warner Communications a year later and merged with Elektra Records. As a top record producer, manager and agent, he helped launch the careers of artists such as The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Guns N’ Roses and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. However, Geffen did not begin his entertainment career at the top. His first job, for which he submitted a forged college degree, was in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency, where he met his future partner Elliott Roberts. Wanting to represent a few musicians he had discovered, among them Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, Geffen teamed up with Roberts to found a talent management company in 1969. (Variety).
Asylum’s 1972 transition to Warner Communications no only made Geffen the president and chairman of Elektra/Asylum Records, but gave him the beginnings of his immense fortune: two million dollars in cash, as well as five million dollars worth of Warner stock. David ventured into the film industry in 1975 when he became the vice chairman of Warner Brothers Pictures, until he was soon after misdiagnosed with bladder cancer and receded into a four-year retirement. Reentering the business in 1980, he founded Geffen Records, which, along with its companion film company, released several successful records and movies. A true mogul, Geffen capitalized on his success, selling the label to MCA in 1990 and the year after received around $710 million when MCA was sold to Matsushita (Variety).
These days, Geffen is one of the richest moguls in the entertainment industry, with an estimated net worth of $6.5 billion, according to Forbes Magazine. A prominent supporter of medical research, AIDS organizations, and the arts, David has established his good mogul stance by pledging to donate whatever money he accrues later in life. His most notable contribution also set a nation record. In 2002 Geffen’s $200 Million unrestricted endowment to the UCLA Medical School became the largest donation ever given to a medical school in the United States. On top of that, during the October 2007 California wildfires, he opened the doors of the Malibu Beach Inn, which he owns, as a refuge for evacuees and firefighters.
Unfortunately, not every success story has evolved in the same way as that of David Geffen. As an intellectually gifted child born into an impoverished family, Walter Yetnikoff was fortunate to obtain a law degree from Columbia University. While employed at a law firm, he met fellow lawyer and future music mogul Clive Davis, who convinced Yetnikoff to follow him to work at the legal department of CBS Records. Although Walter did not possess the same musical genius as Davis, he quickly worked his way to the top and by 1975 he was running CBS Records, the house of Columbia, CBS and Epic Records (Janicke).
Yetnikoff marked a beginning in the shift from “record men” to businessmen running the music industry. As journalist Bruce Janicke wrote in his review of Walter’s memoir, Howling at the Moon, “What he lacked in music appreciation he made up for in corporate savvy. He learned to please his bosses because he understood that all that mattered was getting hits, selling millions of records and generating big profits. He could get away with anything, including an outrageous lifestyle, as long as those goals were met” (Janicke).
Yetnikoff’s lifestyle was outrageous indeed. As the president of CBS from 1975 to 1990, he oversaw the careers of music superstars like Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen. He also battled an addiction to alcohol and cocaine, among other things. In a March 2004 interview with Eric Olsen, Walter described his daily routine at that time: “‘I’d come out of a coma around 7 or 8 a.m. By 9, I might have drunk a half a bottle of vodka. Then I would call someone at CBS, maybe the head of the network or accounting, and yell at them. I’d finally drag myself out of bed and get into the office around noon. The steward would immediately bring me a screwdriver…I might walk out of my office and say, “That one’s nice, lets make his career,” or I might say “Get rid of that one”” (Olsen).
However, despite his demons, Yetnikoff’s mogul brainpower managed to raise CBS’s annual revenue from $485 million to more than two billion dollars during his term as president. Regarding any questions concerning his business practices, Walter “insists he was always ‘squeaky-clean’ when it came to fraud or any criminal wrongdoing” (Janicke). After organizing the two billion dollar sale of CBS Records to Sony in 1987 and signing a contract rumored to contain a twenty million dollar bonus, it took less than three years for Walter Yetnikoff’s lifestyle to cause Sony to break that contract. Now, after several years spent clean and sober, Yetnikoff occupies his time with volunteer work at recovery centers and homeless shelters, and is devoted to saving others afflicted with addiction.
It is always unfortunate to see such a thriving career find such a tragic end. In Walter Yetnikoff’s case, he basically fell into the position of a music industry mogul with a quick decision to follow his friend to another company. He was unprepared for the life and responsibilities of a mogul, and his intelligence was not enough to compensate for that. Walter’s success was definitely supported by the industry’s boom following the introduction of the Compact Disk format, but it would be wrong to attribute it to that completely.
The next mogul managed to transform his 1970 discount record mail-order business into a worldwide commercial empire now consisting of over 360 companies. I am speaking of course, about Sir Richard Branson, the English entrepreneur who formally established his Virgin brand in 1972, when he launched the record label Virgin Records. Luckily, the label’s first release, instrumental artist Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, was a best seller on the British charts. The label went on to sign hit makers such as The Rolling Stones, Genesis, Simple Minds and Culture Club. Branson also earned praise for funding controversial artists like The Sex Pistols, whom other labels were reluctant to sign, as well as artists who produced a more obscure, avant-garde sound (Woopidoo).
Over time, Sir Richard’s Virgin Empire began to accumulate companies. In 1984, he launched his international airline Virgin Atlantic Airways. However, in a move to keep the airline business afloat, Branson had to make the difficult decision to sell Virgin Records, the epitome of his Virgin brand, to EMI in 1992 for one billion dollars. Awarded knighthood in 1999 for his contribution to entrepreneurship, Richard himself declares that he is constantly looking for a new and interesting business to start. Airlines, radio stations, health clubs, bridal shops, hotels, television, mobile phones, railways and travel agencies are among the many companies that have been “Virginized”. One of the most recognizable brands in the world, Virgin’s business expands to cover a wide range, from the United Kingdom to Australia, Canada, America, Asia, Europe and South Africa (Woopidoo).
With a net worth of approximately $4.4 billion dollars, Sir Richard Branson has established himself not only as a music and business mogul, but also as a humanitarian and philanthropist. A major supporter of environmental preservation, he pledged in 2006 to donate the personal profits from his airline and rail company, an estimated three billion dollars, to the development of energy sources that won’t contribute to global warming. In 2004, Richard launched Virgin Unite, a charitable vehicle to utilize the many global resources of the Virgin Group and help tackle important worldwide challenges, particularly HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. Branson has also supported many health and education projects in Africa, helping to found the Branson School of Entrepreneurship at the CIDA University in South Africa. Says Branson, “with extreme wealth comes extreme responsibility. And the responsibility for me, is to invest in creating new businesses, create jobs, employ people and to put money aside to tackle issues where we can make a difference” (Coughlan).
As a music mogul, the pressures of living up to his extreme reputation consumed the life of English manager, agent and businessman Don Arden. Nicknamed “Mr. Big”, “The English Godfather” and “The Al Capone of Pop”, Arden achieved notoriety in England for his aggressive, and sometimes illegal business tactics. The most legendary incident occurred in 1966, when Don and a gang of large companions are rumored to have dangled Robert Stigwood off a balcony after he tried to convince Arden’s band, Small Faces, to change management. Arden is also infamous for pursuing the band Skip Bifferty in a high-speed car chase after they attempted to end their management contract with him (Performing Songwriter).
Arden helped his acts achieve fame and considerable sales through “hyping” their records. He claimed the process to be legitimate, paying housewives to purchase around five records from each record store in their area, which Arden then supplied to DJs and ballrooms. His greatest period of success was in the 1970’s, through his management of Electric Light Orchestra, Black Sabbath and the solo career of Black Sabbath’s lead singer, Ozzy Osbourne. Arden relocated to America in 1977 and founded his record label, Jet Records (Telegraph).
Arden’s rough business tactics did not escape anyone, not even his daughter, Sharon. Their troubles began in 1982 when she married Ozzy Osbourne and Don gave her Ozzy’s contract as a wedding gift. However, when Sharon tried to break Ozzy’s contract with Jet Records, Arden sued his own daughter in a case that was settled at one million dollars. Their estrangement lasted for twenty years.
So, what does it take to be a successful, levelheaded music mogul? To help answer that question I turned to the former president and CEO of Standard Broadcasting Corporation, a family radio empire that grew from five stations in 1985 into a dominant fifty-two-station force on the Canadian airwaves. Gary Slaight’s first venture into radio began on the campus of the University of Western Ontario, where he volunteered at the student radio station. However, that was not how he became interested in the music industry. In our e-mail interview, Gary said it was when “my father brought home the first Beatles LP when he ran a radio station in Toronto…CHUM…the year was 1964” (Interview). Gary’s father and his “biggest influence”, Allan Slaight, is the man who started the radio empire that Gary fully took over in 2000.
His first job in the business came in 1973, when he joined McLaren Advertising’s media department. He then moved on to work in promotions at Quality Records and WEA Records before joining his father’s “up-start Toronto rock station”, Q107, in 1977. Although it was his father’s business, Gary did not move up the corporate ladder based on family ties. He filled many positions in Standard Radio Inc. before becoming the president and CEO of the company in 1987, following his father’s purchase of Standard Broadcasting Corporation Ltd in 1985. After fully replacing Allan at both companies in 2000, Gary used his business smarts to establish Standard as a major player in Canadian broadcasting, gaining more than a twenty percent market share (Wedge).
When asked the motivation behind his difficult decision to sell Standard in October 2007, Gary wrote, “We felt that Commercial Radio was at its peak and faced difficult years ahead with the proliferation of new media…iPods, internet radio, satellite radio, etc. [Also,] young people just don’t listen to radio as much as they did 10 years ago…as well we felt that the economy was in for difficult times…finally…we had worked extremely hard building our business and wanted to take time to do other things…especially in terms of philanthropy and music projects” (Interview).
Gary has lived up to his word. However, he has always been heavily involved in philanthropy, and was the 2004 recipient of the Award for Outstanding Community Service by an Individual Broadcaster from the Canadian Association of Broadcasters. He has been on the boards of the Toronto Hospital Sick Children, the United Way Leadership Giving Committee, is the owner of the Slaight Family Charitable Foundation and is praised for his support of Canadian artists through the National Songwriting Contest, the Canadian Radio Music Awards, and the Homegrown Contest. Gary was also inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2005 and the list of his achievements could go on (Wedge, Farber).
Concerning the changes in the music industry, Gary is not too worried, stating, “great music will [always] be heard and purchased” (Interview). A major supporter of Iceberg Internet Radio, Gary believes that the advent of the Internet has been more helpful to the industry than harmful. “The big issue”, he says, “is what the music collectives charge for the usage of [online] music” (Interview). How has Gary Slaight gotten through the life of a music mogul in one piece? Maybe it’s his positive attitude, maybe it’s his business smarts, or maybe it’s that he never wears a suit without Converse sneakers. Whatever it is, Gary has definitely made it to the other side while still retaining his sense of humor. When asked how he feels being called a music industry mogul, he wrote, “I guess it means I have been around for a long time…isn’t a mogul a bump on a ski hill…” (Interview).
I wonder if there will ever be a formula for the successful music mogul. Through the history of the music business there have been those who have fallen under the pressure, and those who have risen to the challenge. I have definitely realized that the road to the top is full of challenges, hard work, and dedication, and that very few have what it takes to be the leaders on such a cutthroat industry. The tragic stories of Walter Yetnikoff and Don Arden can be seen as examples of what can happen when a music mogul is not stable, or well prepared for their success. However, it is the stories of men like David Geffen, Richard Branson and my personal favorite, Gary Slaight, which will inspire future music moguls to put in the extra effort to achieve that same gratifying, music-filled life experience.

By Morgan Nusbaum


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One Reply to “Industry Moguls: The Good, The Bad, and The Crazy”

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