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Posted by: Rohan Kohli (08/15/06)
The LA Times recently wrote an article on the promotion of Ron Fair to chairman at Geffen Records; the article explores the debate over whether it is better to have a musician running a record label or to have a "suit" running the business - chime in with your thoughts!
LA Times ArticleRon Fair, the new chairman of Geffen Records, is the rarest type of music chief: a musician.

The son of an opera singer, Fair has taught himself to play multiple instruments. He tried his hand as a wedding singer, jingle writer and pianist before eventually rising to prominence as the executive behind such acts as Christina Aguilera, the Black Eyed Peas and the Pussycat Dolls.

Now, as head of one of Universal Music Group's most prominent labels, Fair has rekindled the debate over who should run the music industry: business executives or people with experience creating music.

On one side are people such as Fair's boss, Jimmy Iovine, the chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M Records.

"I'd always rather teach a music guy how to sell a record than try to teach a business guy how to make one," Iovine said. "Ron knows what a star looks like, and he knows how to produce a hit. The rest of the business is easy compared to that."

Others, however, say it's more complicated.

"We need executives who think about groups as brands, not just musical acts," said Andy Gould, manager of such Geffen acts as Rob Zombie. "There are very few execs who know what to do beyond send a song to KROQ and pray it gets played. I think Ron is up for the challenge, but it's going to be tough if he's mostly in the studio."

The contemporary music industry was founded largely by executives who straddled both worlds — people such as Sam Phillips, whom many credit with discovering and producing Elvis Presley, and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun.

But in the 1980s, when publicly traded companies began gobbling up labels, businessmen with little or no musical experience started running the show.

Results have been mixed. Industry leader Warner Music Group stumbled badly in the mid-1990s, when a parade of tone deaf chieftains forced out musicians-turned-executives, including Doug Morris, a onetime songwriter who today heads Universal Music, the world's largest record seller.

"The corporate bosses used to buy a music company and then make the lawyer the CEO because he was the only one who spoke Wall Street's language," said Peter Paterno, an attorney who once headed Walt Disney Co.'s Hollywood Records. "But those are the guys who destroyed the industry."

Yet musicians also have had spotty records as bosses. For instance, Matchbox Twenty producer and Virgin Records Chairman Matt Serletic was shown the door in October after three disappointing years.

"It's hard to make the transition from the studio to the boardroom," said Iovine, who produced albums by Dire Straits and U2 before ascending to the executive suite. "A good producer has tunnel vision and wants to control everything. A manager has to learn how to delegate. Not a lot of guys can make the change. But it's always better to have someone who understands music calling the shots."

Fair clearly knows more about musical scores than organizational charts.

After singer Macy Gray wrote a batch of new songs this year, Fair decided some of the hip-hop tunes needed a classical tilt. He hand-wrote a score for 27 violinists, cellists and other musicians, booked a studio and conducted the orchestra in recording what became the background sounds for the forthcoming album.

It is such attention to detail that propelled A&M, under Fair's leadership since 2001, to release bestselling albums by Sheryl Crow, the Black Eyed Peas and Keyshia Cole.

Iovine was so impressed with Fair's accomplishments that he expanded Fair's role in March to include A&M's much bigger sister label, Geffen Records. At Geffen, Fair replaced two executives — Jordan Schur and Polly Anthony — who made their names selling records rather than writing tunes. Under Schur and Anthony, Geffen was wracked by internal tensions, according to people who work there.

At the moment, Universal Music is faring better than most record firms. During a year that has seen almost no big breakout hits and a huge drop-off in sales among the best-selling albums, Universal's revenue was up 5.3% in the first half of 2006.

But Geffen has struggled: It didn't have one album among last year's top 20 sellers. Only one Geffen record — Nelly Furtado's "Loose" — was on last week's list of top 50 albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Fair says he will shift Geffen's focus from a mishmash of genres to singer-driven albums and the most commercial of genres: pop.

"To succeed today you have to get the biggest exposure possible, and that means pop," said Fair, 50. "Pop music dominates radio, it dominates television, it dominates commercials and the Internet."

Fair's model is the Black Eyed Peas, the pop sensation also on A&M's roster. When Fair started working with the band in 2003, the group appealed to white, slacker college students. To broaden the band's draw, Fair found the group a pop-friendly female singer named Fergie and gave Will.I.Am, the band's primary songwriter, some advice.

"The Peas saw themselves as a hip-hop group, and they were scared that if they tried to become a pop band they would lose their musical credibility," Fair said. "So I said, 'You're entertainers. You sing and dance. That's not what hip hoppers do. You need to have the courage to appeal to the mainstream. I think you should do a song with Justin Timberlake.' "

It was a risky move: Music purists saw Timberlake, a former member of the boy-band 'N Sync, as the embodiment of a manufactured pop star. But when Will.I.Am and Timberlake met a few days later, they composed the song "Where Is the Love" within 20 minutes. It spent more than 25 weeks near the top of 2003's most-played lists.

Since then, the Black Eyed Peas have become America's house band, appearing in commercials for Verizon, Apple's iTunes and Best Buy. The band rewrote one of its songs for use in a major NBA advertising campaign. The group also performed at the Super Bowl, have become characters in a video game and are helping design a suite for the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas.

"There's so much competition for people's consciousness now that a band has to grab anything that gives them exposure," Fair said. "There's no such thing as selling out, now. There's just getting heard."

The other prong of Fair's strategy counts on extending a band's identity beyond songs. Under Iovine's guidance, Fair has been instrumental in transforming Los Angeles-based burlesque group the Pussycat Dolls into a marketing juggernaut, affixing their names and images to lines of makeup, perfumes, children's toys and lingerie. A reality television show will begin shooting in October.

If the plan is successful, not only will it provide Geffen with new lines of revenue, it will offer the Pussycat Dolls new promotional platforms. Few other musical acts can advertise themselves from makeup counters.

It's a tactic that Fair is now extending to a new band — the Slumber Party Girls. Aimed at the teenage set, the band is launching a television show and album this year.

Some observers are cautiously optimistic.

"It's good to have someone in that position who actually loves music," said Gould, the manager. "If it works, the music guys might just win back this business."

By Charles Duhigg, Times Staff Writer
August 14, 2006
  
 
Displaying posts 1 - 15 of 37
09:17 AM on 08/15/06
#2
spikestoyou
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for stockholders, I'd want a suit in charge.

for music lovers, I'd want a music lover in charge.

edit: oh, and I love the quote about making a group into a brand, not just a musical act. I mean, look at Radiohead. They're a brand, whether they want to be or not. They'll sell a million of their next record even if it is independently released. Also, the Black Eyed Peas are horrible. They're rich, but they're horrible.
09:17 AM on 08/15/06
#3
Rohan Kohli
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There were a few good responses to this article on The Velvet Rope:
VornadoAs an outsider, I have three reactions:

1. If the president of a label with a roster of more than three artists is handwriting orchestral scores and conducting a recording session, because he thought that would make the songs better, something is fundamentally wrong. If he has time for that, either he's not doing his job or his job shouldn't exist. Can anyone imagine the president of General Mills futzing in his kitchen with new Cheerios recipes?

2. I'm so glad a "music guy" is masterminding the success of Black Eyed Peas, Pussycat Dolls, and, now, Slumber Party Girls. It clearly makes all the difference.

3. Running a complex enterprise takes a variety of skills, and few people have a complete background in all of them when they take the helm. But one way or another institutions create the leaders they deserve. It's comforting to know that someone who is a competent professional musician and songwriter can be just as much a craven whore as any attorney or accountant.

DanhedoniaI want to make sure I have this right: it takes a lawyer to ruin a record company because we all know that no lawyers love music, but it takes a performing arts major with a fondness for the Pussycat Dolls to bring us all back from the brink?
09:24 AM on 08/15/06
#4
Ryan Phantom
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The slumber party girls? Wtf
09:27 AM on 08/15/06
#5
SwedishHeat
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Quote:
To broaden the band's draw, Fair found the group a pop-friendly female singer named Fergie and gave Will.I.Am, the band's primary songwriter, some advice.

"The Peas saw themselves as a hip-hop group, and they were scared that if they tried to become a pop band they would lose their musical credibility," Fair said.

Oh, bitter irony.
09:29 AM on 08/15/06
#6
aminorthreat55
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I'll take the musician anyday.
09:40 AM on 08/15/06
#7
youareallfreaks
thoust dare quoth i?
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a combo. you can't just have it in black and white. a guy with a musical background but with an MBA and maybe his JD.

what i'm trying to say is, me.
09:42 AM on 08/15/06
#8
Steve Henderson
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Ah, come on...this guy is not a starving artist and probably never was. He is just a suit in musician's clothing - a PR move if there ever was one. The fact that this guy is clasically trained is likely more a convenent corollary than a primary driver behind the decision.
09:51 AM on 08/15/06
#9
YourMusicSucks
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Good article. Thank god The Starting Line got off that shitty label.
10:04 AM on 08/15/06
Brian Boitano
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The Black Eyed Peas did lose their musical credibility...
10:09 AM on 08/15/06
emobeans
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"We need executives who think about groups as brands, not just musical acts,"

that right there is exactly the reason i stay away from pop "music" altogether!
10:09 AM on 08/15/06
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In my opinion, i think its important with todays "industry" to have a partnership. It shouldnt be one or the other. It should be a consistent 50/50 partnership of ideas, thoughts, actions and dedication. I think if more bands were given the oppurtunity to continue to build with the label what they started and what worked from the start, with a touch of the labels ingenuity and marketing and business stratagy, we wouldnt have amazing bands feeling like they have to struggle to make music, or giving up for "normal" jobs. I get bummed when i read about all the amazing bands who break up i.e. Acceptance. Its more than personal shit too, because if the label was taking care of them, the way they should have, the band would have done alot better sales wise, and a band like thrice, fuck, that band should be pushed more than 90% of the shit on the radio anyway. It just is what it is, until someone decides to change things up.
10:12 AM on 08/15/06
Steve Henderson
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In my opinion, i think its important with todays "industry" to have a partnership. It shouldnt be one or the other. It should be a consistent 50/50 partnership of ideas, thoughts, actions and dedication. I think if more bands were given the oppurtunity to continue to build with the label what they started and what worked from the start, with a touch of the labels ingenuity and marketing and business stratagy, we wouldnt have amazing bands feeling like they have to struggle to make music, or giving up for "normal" jobs. I get bummed when i read about all the amazing bands who break up i.e. Acceptance. Its more than personal shit too, because if the label was taking care of them, the way they should have, the band would have done alot better sales wise, and a band like thrice, fuck, that band should be pushed more than 90% of the shit on the radio anyway. It just is what it is, until someone decides to change things up.
It makes no business sense for labels to change the status quo when the public's horrible tastes in music are not swaying much at all. If the Black Eyed Peas are selling, then they will get pushed, not Thrice.
10:15 AM on 08/15/06
emobeans
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It makes no business sense for labels to change the status quo when the public's horrible tastes in music are not swaying much at all. If the Black Eyed Peas are selling, then they will get pushed, not Thrice.



it's just so unfortunate!
10:17 AM on 08/15/06
Augustine Rock
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We can bitch all we want, but as long as people keep eating up poorly manufactured pop acts, they will keep making more and more of them.

You know, its a lot like hwo people around here buy up Cavaliers instead of Civics, its lazy ignorance. The same attitude goes into how most people approach the music they listen to. If its easily accessible, and doesnt challenge their mindset, they will eat it up.

As far as looking at acts as "brands" - he is right. The problem is, they only have one brand that they continue to sell over and over. There are so many different bands and types of music that can be pushed the same way, if they have a person with a brain behind the marketing. If this werent true - why are there sudden influxes of trendy genre's every so often? You can turn any musical act into a brand - you just have to think outside of the traditional distribution chain. As long as majors cling so dearly to radio and video as their selling source they are going to continue to cling to a dying chain of distribution and method of marketing.
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