Power Brokers and Fast Money
Inside the Music Business
By Fredric Dannen
Times Books. 387 pp. $19.95
FREDRIC DANNEN's prose is pedestrian at best and he organizes his material with a fine eye for confusion, but Hit Men is a necessary document all the same. It tells the story of how American popular music is manufactured, promoted and marketed, with particular emphasis on the hit-making machine at CBS Records; it is a story populated by people so uniformly odious, who concoct deals so uniformly underhanded if not blatantly illegal, that after reading it you're likely to swear off pop records for life.
For all its macabre fascination, reading Hit Men is no day at the beach. Quite apart from Dannen's uninviting writing style, the book suffers under a fundamental handicap: it never comes into focus. In the beginning the tale seems to revolve around "the Network," an "informal alliance of the dozen or so top independent promotion men" whose song-plugging operation sucked millions out of the record industry; then it shifts to Dick Asher, a CBS executive who undertook a short-lived effort to resist the Network; then it moves on to Walter Yetnikoff, the blustering, loutish president of CBS Records. The result is that in the end the book has no center at all; add to this the army of characters who pass through it, and what you have is a foolproof recipe for bedlam.
Still, after you've worked your way through the chaos you'll come away with a clear picture of an industry in which principle is nothing and payola, in one form or another, is everything. Though there seems to be plenty of mob activity in various aspects of the business, what it comes down to is that the lords of pop music are a mob unto themselves, presiding over a world in which "conflicts of interest that would scandalize most businesses are commonplace," in which musicians are routinely exploited, in which "the macho street . . . personality" is revered, in which insincerity and hypocrisy are universal.
It is not, by most standards, all that big a business: "Americans today spend about the same amount on breakfast cereal -- $6.3 billion a year -- as they do on compact discs, tapes and records. In 1985, the U.S. record industry grossed no more than $4.5 billion and made pre-tax profits of perhaps $200 million -- and this is a generous estimate." But if music is small change by contrast with movies or television, there's still more than enough money floating around in it for a hustler to turn a nice profit; and if there's anybody who's been attracted to the business side of pop music over the years, from vaudeville to jazz to swing to rock and roll, it's the hustler.
Nowadays, Dannen writes, the hustler is called a dealmaker: "By the end of the '70s, the record business was no longer one in which music men like Goddard Lieberson were likely to rise to power. Now, it was the day of the dealmaker. The top label bosses would be the men who could grasp the concept of 'front-end points' and 'cross-collateralization' and 'recoupable items.' " In a business heavily geared to young people and dependent on women and blacks both as artists and as consumers, these dealers are middle-aged and white and male. They know almost nothing about music -- which may help explain why so little of what they sell can be called "music" -- and are if anything contemptuous of those who make it; their sole interest is in the accumulation of wealth and power, and there seems precious little they won't do to acquire it.
THEY TRACE their origins to the early years of rock and roll, when "a new ruling elite took charge of the record industry," one that "established the shaky moral foundation on which the modern record industry is built." Within the business the tendency is to sentimentalize these founding fathers as "characters," but Dannen views them otherwise: "The pioneers deserve praise for their foresight but little for their integrity. Many of them were crooks. Their victims were usually poor blacks, the inventors of rock and roll, though whites did not fare much better." Dannen writes:
"Their legacy, three decades later, would be an industry held hostage by the Network. This was progress, indeed. If the early rock and roll labels were unspeakably crooked, at least they did not spend tens of millions in protection money. It would take the big, lawyerly corporations of the '80s to bring that about."
This money -- Dannen estimates that it ran to "at least $40 million" in the '80s -- is paid to independent promoters whose sole function appears to be passing some of it along to disc jockeys and programmers in exchange for favorable play for the songs the Networkers represent: in a word, payola. It is a system that favors the six major record companies -- CBS, Warner, BMG, Capitol-EMI, PolyGram and MCA -- and discriminates against the minor ones, for the simple reason that the latter do not have the wherewithal to pay off the promoters: "the Network was the means to deprive small labels of access to the Top 40 airwaves and increase the market share of the large labels." In the process it made the satraps of the Network rich, and sharply reduced the profits of the major labels by drastically increasing their cost of doing business -- while in the process giving them no guarantee that the broadcast time thus purchased would result in greater sales of the songs in question.
It is a system without redeeming qualities in a world without character or ethics. Reading Hit Men is like reading the life story of that performer off whose corpus so many millions have been made, Elvis Presley; at the end of the story you feel as if you need a long bath, if not defumigation. But it's a cautionary tale to which you'd better attend if popular culture, music in particular, is down your alley; you may keep on buying those records and tapes and discs, but at least you'll know precisely where -- and to whom -- your money is going.