Thursday, July 10, 2008


More music biz mishigaas
Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group. Stan Cornyn and Paul Scanlon. William Morrow & Co. 480 pages.

Published January 21, 2002 in The Miami Herald

If you've ever read histories of companies penned by insiders, you quickly discovered that they either glossed over or omitted huge chunks of potentially actionable material, or the author wielded and ground such a colossal axe that the reminiscences were worthless.

Such is not the case with Stan Cornyn's terrific history of Warner Brothers Records and the Warner Music Group. One would expect no less from the man who wrote such dynamic and irreverent advertisements and album-liner notes in the '60s and '70s that they are recalled with alacrity and fondness to this day.

But deft copy writing is no guarantee of anything, although Cornyn's memory, aided by surprisingly revealing interviews with key (and bit) players makes for one of the most authoritative books on the now-past golden age of the music business.

Hard to believe today, as the world's few remaining companies cling to their existence in the wake of the digital music suicide-massacre, but Warner Music was once a nimble, fertile enterprise run intuitively by hardheaded businessmen.

Now, like most labels swallowed up by successively larger corporate fish, the Warner Music Group is but an appendage of a many-tentacled conglomerate, with AOL at its head. But once it was a key component of a smaller, though formidable corporate enterprise headed by Steve Ross, who parlayed his marriage into a family who ran funeral parlors in New York City into the CEO-ship of a company that owned everything from parking lots to DC Comics.

Then he acquired the Warner Brothers film studio, with its afterthought of a record company, and was astounded to discover the huge gobs of cash generated by the music entity. So he got into it with a vengeance, adding Atlantic and Elektra Records to the mix, creating a music monster that dominated the industry for decades.

Cornyn and Scanlon accurately evoke many of the casual excesses of the industry as it grew like mad in the '60s and '70s, cooled in the '80s and achieved nova status in the '90s. The book works on many levels: For business people, it's a fascinating view of the inner workings of one of the country's most interesting, celebrated and imitated companies and its blindingly colorful cadre of executives, including Steve Ross, Mo Ostin, Joe Smith, Ahmet Ertegun, Robert Morgado, Doug Morris, Richard Parsons and the rest.

For music fans, it's a trip through the history of popular (and unpopular but influential) music of the last half century: Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead, Madonna, Debbie Boone and everyone in between.

For music industry personnel, Exploding is the very best attempt yet to make sense of a time when what used to be called "the record business'' was an irresistible magnet for creative people — before the hegemonic destruction of the domestic radio and concert businesses, when bands sometimes didn't take off until their third albums — or fourth tours, when promotion was in still in motion . . . back in the day.

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