It's one thing to report on the goings-on in the music industry. It's another to glean insight into the actual nuts-and-bolts of the business. Longtime music journalist Fred Goodman has delved into the weeds to write "Mansion On The Hill," which examines the relationship between artists, their managers and the labels; "Fortune's Fool," which details Edgar Bronfman's tenure running the Warner Music Group; and most recently, "Allen Klein, The Man Who Bailed Out The Beatles, Made The Stones and Transformed Rock & Roll," which recounts Klein's efforts to get artists such as The Beatles and Rolling Stones the remuneration they deserved. Here, he describes the discovery process into the past and puts it in context to what's going on in the business today.
After years as music journalist for Cash Box and Billboard, when did you decide to delve into book writing?
After working at Cash Box and Billboard, I was offered job at Rolling Stone. It was a great opportunity because I had been at the trades for about five years – at Cash Box, it felt like you wrote by the pound — and Rolling Stone was looking for a writer who knew the business. So I went from deadline writing at Billboard to Rolling Stone, where I was encouraged to take a deeper look at things and put more time into research and writing. This was not solely a deadline gig, but a combination of the two. It was an opportunity to go deeper into stories.
That was also when you started writing "Mansion On The Hill"…
Yes, my first book was "Mansion On The Hill," which is basically about the relationship between artists and managers. This also goes back to my days at Cash Box, where publicists always came by with new artists to be interviewed. I was a year-and-a-half into it when it occurred to me that the most interesting and intelligent person in those meet-and-greets was often the manager, that guy quietly standing against the back wall. That intrigued me. And that's when it also occurred to me that when you have consistently great records, you are hearing a great artist, but when you see a great career, you are probably watching a great manager at work. I became interested in the relationship between the two.
Were the relationships you developed with those managers and artists impacted in any way after that book came out?
It didn't change too much. I continue to have a pretty good relationship with everybody. I was not going to firebomb anyone with my book. It was intended to be a thoughtful look at the music business and how it actually worked.
After that you wrote "Fortune's Fool," which dealt with Edgar Bronfman Jr.'s tenure at Warner Music Group. Why did you decide to focus on him?
I approached it as a look at the record business and the impact of the Internet — specifically Napster and file sharing — and how the industry dealt with it, if at all. I saw Edgar Bronfman's purchase of Warner Bros. after the bad ending he had at Universal with the Vivendi sale, and I thought that if anybody was motivated to really dig down and try and figure this out, it would be someone who had something to prove — and that sounded like Edgar. He liked the idea. I happened to introduce myself to him at about the same time he turned down a Canadian film crew that wanted to make a documentary about him. But he liked "Mansion On The Hill," and agreed to let me watch him for two years.
How closely were you able to watch him? Were you in the executive board room when they plotted out strategy?
No, I certainly was not involved in their executive meetings and I was not invited in to become part of the fabric of the company. Instead, I did have regular sessions with Bronfman and his label heads to talk in depth about what was going on. I relied on Edgar to discuss their business decisions and the thinking behind them. I believe it worked out well.
Which brings us to "Allen Klein, The Man Who Bailed Out The Beatles, Made The Stones and Transformed Rock & Roll." Word has it that Klein's son, Jody, offered you the chance to write about Klein's career…
Yes. Jody asked me if I'd be interested in writing about Allen – and if I was, he said he'd be willing to open the company archive for me, which included the contracts, correspondence, and litigation of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and others. It was both out of the blue and very straightforward. Jody's interest was that a lot had been said of his father — some true, but some not true. Jody had read my books, and he felt I was someone who had a grasp of the industry. He was willing to let me look at the records and decide for myself. We agreed that he'd have no editorial input whatsoever and I cautioned him that he might not be happy with the results. He was willing to accept that. In fact, Jody didn't read the book until it was back from the printer.
When you have so much inside access to your subject, is there a tendency to examine the material with a more sympathetic eye?
It's not a question of being sympathetic. It's more a question of thinking constantly about what the man did and what the record says. Here's a businessman who went to jail on a tax charge, a man certainly I wouldn't want as my financial manager. Some of the things he did while handling the Stones' money were certainly dubious; he made a lot of money for himself off their money, and he wasn't giving them much information about that or advising them of all the opportunities he should have. On the other hand, they were initially delighted to have Klein because he was so brilliant and got them far better deals than they'd believed possible. He was certainly ahead of his time and I think in some ways the judgment against him has been unduly harsh.
As the reporter, I certainly form an opinion about my subjects over time, but I'm careful to be clear with readers about what that is while presenting the facts as broadly as possible. I also want to provide the kind of reporting and information that allows readers to disagree with my conclusions. Personally, I don't go for books that try to tell me what to think or simply confirm beliefs I already hold; I prefer books that make me think and question myself, and that's the type of book I aspire to write. I want readers mulling over the book's questions; it doesn't matter to me if they conclude I'm right or wrong — my goal is to write a book that is big enough and good enough to get someone thinking.
Did your perception of Klein change as you went through all the research and wrote the book?
It always evolves and changes. If you have a set idea when you go into a subject and insist on sticking to it come what may, you'll write either a screed or a static, boring book. The book becomes what you discover while you're doing the research – and in this case there was a lot to go through. Before I started, I said, "Let's see what you have," and Jody took me out to a warehouse that had skids of documents. I thought, "Oh my god, how am I going to get through this?" I literally sat and read these skids for a year before I started writing anything. I had to see what was there. There were a lot of contracts, which were very convoluted, that I had to try to figure out what they really meant. So it makes no sense to cling to preconceived notions about the subject you're writing about.
How you were able to analyze all these convoluted record contracts?
You have to talk to people who have experience in those type of contracts. I was able to talk to other accountants and a British business manager to explain some of this, and some current managers, too. Also, when you finish the book, it goes through a legal vetting as well.
In a sense, was Allen Klein's managerial career similar to those you profiled in "Mansion On The Hill?"
No, he was different. Allen was a financial manager; this book had a lot of do with the changing of the financial culture. Klein saw that the labels were making dollars while artists were making pennies. He wanted to do something about it – and he did. He had no pretensions about music. He didn't know anything about the Stones' musical direction. It's not like we're talking about Albert Grossman or the relationship Jon Landau had with Bruce Springsteen. They were clearly involved in shaping the personalities and the artistic vision. Klein had almost no role in shaping the artistic vision of his clients.
When you delve into so much of the dollars and cents and legalese as you did here, was it difficult to bring out their humor?
I got into it; there's a lot of humor and a real warmth, especially between Klein and Bobby Vinton, and Klein and Lennon the first couple of years of their bromance. They really did connect and Lennon felt Klein was looking out for him. Klein also ran an unusual company. People would come to ABKCO and never leave. Allen was shaped by the years he spent as a child in a Newark orphanage, and later in life Allen became a grand figure; he'd pay hospital bills … nobody picked up a tab or flew coach or sat up in the rafters at a Knicks game when Allen Klein was around. He had good times, was an outsized personality and sought to live life as he wanted — that's one of the things that got him into trouble. I think there's a good deal of life in his story.
After examining how the business has been run for the past 40-odd years, where do you see the current music business going? Can it ever prosper as much as it did in the old days?
I can't say I know where the business is going. One thing I keep thinking about — especially when I watch Taylor Swift and other artists trying to figure out what do these days — is how desperately this business could use another Allen Klein, someone gimlet-eyed who rolls up his sleeves and goes very aggressively on behalf of the artists' interests. So much has been said by fans of the Beatles and Stones about Klein being the snake in the Garden of Eden who broke up the Beatles and robbed the Stones. The fact is they came to him because they weren't getting paid what they were worth, and he got great deals for all of them. Later on, of course, things turned not-so-good.
Are the labels the main issue anymore, especially when Apple, Google and Spotify have essentially become significant means of music exposure, distribution and sales?
If the power has shifted, with the record companies being supplanted by Google and Apple, it's still "meet the new boss, same as the old boss." It's sort of déjà vu in a sense where you're seeing new applications or new exploiters. And in every case, it's always about distribution, access and control — and not about the value of the content … until the artist makes it about the value of the content.
Do you see music losing its relevance due to its lack of artist development, in terms of the paucity of multi-Platinum superstar acts that used to drive the culture?
I don't see any negative culture attached to what's going on. When I was a kid, I remember Muhammad Ali being interviewed, and the person asking questions was giving him a hard time. He asked, "When you retire, will boxing die?" Ali said, "No, all of the other sports will die before boxing because they need teams and uniforms and fields, and all you need for boxing is two guys in an alley." Music is the same way in that all you need is someone who wants to make music. The real question is how you go about reaching people who want to be involved with that music in a way that pays off for the artist. It's incumbent upon us to create something worth owning.
It has long been said that the music business, like all other show businesses, is a balance between art and commerce. But if the commerce isn't there anymore…
The art goes begging. Of course you can't put it on music fans, because they're just being human: No one wants to pay for anything ever. And you can't put the genie back in the bottle in terms of CDs or vinyl. It's incumbent on people who continue to want music to find something worth owning – and at the moment, the only thing worth owning is ease of access to get it as cheaply as possible, or for free.
Now that this book is out, have you decided on what you're setting your eyes on next?
I'm still not sure which way I'm going next. Whatever I decide to write, it won't be because I'm forcing myself into doing another music book. As a reader I'm all over the place. Primarily, I've been a business reporter, so I could easily find myself being interested in a business other than this one. That is also what fascinated me most about Allen Klein. Music aside, here was a chance to write about a self-invented man who was a businessman, an original, an empire builder. While writing this book, I found myself also thinking about Edgar Bronfman's grandfather, Sam, who founded Seagrams. He was that kind of success-at-all-costs figure, too.
Bottom line: In terms of the future of the music business, are you bullish on its future?
Long-term, certainly. But don't ask me for a short-term solution to the issues artists are facing. The business may not even be music per se, but some other application in which music has a role or is an appropriate use. Some of these applications have come and gone; some evolve and others don't pan out. Many certainly don't seem to last very long; then you start to wonder if it's even possible to predict this. To succeed long term is probably going to take lot of time and money. And I'm not prescient enough draw you a reliable map.
To get a copy of "Allan Klein," click here.
For his other books, click here.