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Managing Michael Jackson and More: A Chat with Ron Weisner, Plus William Beckett and Noel Exclusives

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A Conversation with Ron Weisner

Mike Ragogna: You've got a new book, Listen Out Loud: A Life In Music -- Managing McCartney, Madonna, and Michael Jackson with a foreword written by Gladys Knight. You are entrenched in the history of and managed many iconic artists. So let's start out with a basic question. What does a manager do?

Ron Weisner: Actually, that's a very good question. I guess it's the jack-of-all-trades; you wear many hats. When you're involved in the music world that I've been involved with, I was in the record end of it first and then the management next, then the television live concert world, and each relates to each other in a different way. When you're in the management business and you're dealing with an artist, which is basically "talent," your responsibilities and goals are pretty much that you need to find the best people possible to surround your artist with in terms of whether it be additional musicians, writers, anybody that's going to enhance what they do and take it to a different level. Also what you want is for the people you're managing to have the biggest reach in terms of an audience. A lot of times early on and still sometimes today, certain kinds of artists got branded and labeled.

When I first started in the record management business, if you were a black artist, you were, in most cases, assigned to the black music division of a record company. Basically, they had their own genre and their own way to promote, advertise and market product being put out through their division versus the pop side. What happened was for many years, you would find that a major, major African-American artist would peak in album sales at maybe a million, two million, three million. The record company would always spend money that would support maxing out at that. A lot of the artists I was fortunate to get involved with were artists that I felt--and they felt--had broader appeal. To give you an example, early on, Gladys Knight had a very successful career in the "urban" marketplace over the years at Motown, and they did great because they opened up a door that never existed for them. When I had gotten involved with them, it was a different time, a different level, and we were looking to collaborate. That's a big word in the music business, it doesn't mean selling out, it really means a collaboration with other talented people. We felt that if we could come up with the right music and the right combination of producers or whatever, we would start making music that would be for much bigger mass appeal. All of a sudden "Midnight Train To Georgia" came along, which was a number one "urban" record and it was a number one pop record. Radio was fragmented into a lot of different genres, so to really get massive sales and big success, you really had to appeal to a bigger audience. So the managers' responsibilities were to get all these creative elements in hand, then go and find ways of exposing that music and that artist to as many people as possible. The more you were able to put all those pieces of the puzzle together, the more you were successful.

For me, I was fortunate because I was dealing with people who had a gift in terms of their talent and were able to do these benchmark songs and music and performances and each one had their own niche. Gladys Knight & The Pips was one thing, Bill Withers was something else, Michael Jackson was yet a whole other animal, and there was a lot more involved with that. Madonna was Madonna and we can discuss that if you want. I was also representing Earth, Wind & Fire, a lot of English bands in the eighties, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Bananarama, Curtis Mayfield, Steve Winwood. It was a cross-section of people. I always seemed to go towards artists that I felt had career potential, not one-off kinds of things. The business today is very--I guess at best--fragmented. Michael Jackson, in my opinion, was probably the greatest entertainer of our generation and there's nobody around like him today. I can't relate to--I'm not trying to stick it to them but--Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. They're not Michael Jackson.

MR: What about multi-talented artists such as Bruno Mars?

RW: Bruno's talented. Would I equate him to Michael Jackson? Me, personally? No. And who knows if any of these people will be around in five years. The music I'm talking about with the people I'm talking about is timeless. It's just timeless music. It just goes on and affects different generations of people for different reasons. The record business that I grew up in is over. There's no longer a record business today. It's evolving into something different. It's very difficult to get these corporations to invest in and nurture new talent. That's the biggest sad part of it all.

MR: I'm imagining the best part of being a manager in the old days was having solid business and personal relationships with Irving Azoff at MCA or Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss at A&M or David Geffen and Clive Davis since they all seemed to understand the long-term development of an artist. I don't really see much evidence of that now.

RW: The problem is, and it's not just in the music business. If you look at television, you look at films and realize the fact that all of these creative companies were into building and nurturing projects and talent. Now they're big corporate entities. It used to be the pecking order for a long period of time had the A&R department at the top of the pile, and then it was the marketing people, the promotion people, and on the bottom was business affairs. Now that's completely turned over and you have, in most cases, business people dealing with the creative world and they're basically making decisions based on numbers, not on creativity. Even if you look at the Oscars, every other year, the best picture wins and the producer comes up and makes a comment to the extent of, "I've been turned down by every studio in town. I was trying to make this picture for fifteen years and everybody passed, and here I am." It's like, "Invest in yourself. Put your money where your mouth is and build it and support it and get behind it."

There are new artists that warrant that kind of commitment, but it's very, very difficult in today's marketplace. The business has evolved, not necessarily for the better. Personally, I used to go to Tower Records once a week and spend an hour and a half, two hours going through all kinds of music and listening to things and finding things. There's no retail record business any longer. If you want to buy a CD, you go to Walmart, you go to Target, but that's not the record business. They have very limited space. They're selling all kinds of items, plus if you put a record out on a Tuesday, you have a couple of weeks to have some kind of success, otherwise, they just move on. Just like films. Open on a Friday, you have a couple of good weeks and if it does some business, they'll support you, and if it doesn't, they'll move it out a couple weeks later and then three months down the line, all of a sudden, you can get it on Netflix or buy a DVD.

It's all a numbers game. I don't mean "game" in a negative way, but the world that I was in was a creative entity. You had people who were obsessed about music. Also think about this--everybody used to play live then. Everything was live. Now if you have a laptop, you can go in a closet and make an album. You don't need musicians, and that's not for the better. There's a whole generation of kids out there that never really have experienced live music or live performance. When I was spending a lot of time with Winwood, Steve played everything conceivable. I even made a joke to him once, "Hey, that toothbrush you have, if there was a string on it you'd probably play it." He'd laugh, but he played everything! If you've ever gone to a Steve Winwood concert, he would sit at a Hammond B-3, he'd be there on guitar, he'd be there at the keyboard, he'd be there on banjo, he'd play everything. Everything. These were gifted people. Curtis Mayfield, besides personally being one of my closest friends, he was the voice of the Civil Rights era. Some of the music, whether it's "Keep On Pushing," or "Were A Winner," was timeless music. Michael Jackson today... They just put out something, but basically, he's gone. The fact is, he's no longer here. They're trying to mine what they can. I heard three or four of these songs thirty years ago and it is what it is. It's sad, but the man is now gone almost five years. He's not here.

MR: You mentioned Curtis Mayfield having been part of the Civil Rights movement. Did you hone in more on artists that had a depth to their art or messages?

RW: I think, in all honesty, it was to the artist who had talent. Whether they were a singer, a singer-musician-songwriter, a singer-songwriter, whatever combination, if they had a gift in any of those genres, you knew that that gift was their life. Everything else evolved around that. It's almost as if they were a sponge. For years, until his horrific accident, Curtis used to just pick up his guitar and when he would start playing words would come out. Winwood was the same thing. Michael, who was alien to all of us, was a whole different process because everything was in his head. Every minute detail. Every little minute piece of the puzzle. He'd have images in his mind and the challenges were, "Okay, how do we get the best person to do this, the best person to do that?" I spent many nights in Flushing Meadow Park in New York, the old World's Fair grounds, when I got started on The Wiz with Michael and Quincy [Jones] and Diana Ross and Lena Horne. They'd have shots and then you'd have a two-hour break and do another shot, then another two-hour break, and they brainstormed. Michael was part of the Jackson entity, and they were very successful on Motown. They were cute little kids then and when the Motown deal was up, they went to Epic records, did two albums where nothing whatsoever happened, and then they were in this transitional period where they were no longer these young little kids. They were turning into adults. So we had to find these creative pieces as a manager--writers, producers, songs that would put the group back on the charts again, which we were lucky and did.

Then Michael wanted to do solo projects, which, if you read the book, there was a lot of drama involved with that. We wanted to hire Quincy Jones to produce the album, and nobody wanted to hear about it. The record company didn't want it, they felt he was too old, he was a jazz producer. Michael's father wanted nothing to do with Quincy because he had a great relationship with his son and felt that was threatening. There were a lot of issues to get through the maze, almost to the point where we were trying to get off the label because if they weren't going to allow us to do what our vision was, we didn't want to be there. At the eleventh hour, they finally agreed and the first project, Off The Wall came out. As I said early on, we were making music for the masses. We weren't making music for a limited audience or one specific genre. Nobody was doing those things then, and the record companies never promoted and marketed that thing because our attitude was, "Just because it hasn't been done before doesn't mean you can't do it." That was our line.

The beginning of the eighties was the beginning of the MTV generation. MTV at that time never, ever played a black artist no matter how successful they were or how big a record was. They just didn't. And all the videos that were on there were these really cheap, cheesy videos. When we were making the music for Thriller, we wanted to make a statement. We wanted to make what I called "mini-movies," not music videos. We went out of the box and hired people who never did music videos. They were either some film people or they were commercial directors, to get a whole different feel and have a story line. So when you look at "Beat It," you look at "Billie Jean," you look at "Thriller," they were all mini-movies and yet again, besides the music, these were the first of their kind. Nobody had ever done that, and by doing that, it opened up a whole other world. MTV was on fire. All these other artists wanted to try to replicate and do these mini-movies, get commercial directors. I think literally a week after we hit with "Beat It," its director Bob Giraldi was hired by Lionel Richie to do "Dancing On The Ceiling." All of a sudden, it wasn't just a music video. Everything took giant leaps. The audience was accustomed to hearing people sing, they weren't accustomed to seeing people. The record business, at that time, had really bottomed out. MTV brought it back to life.

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photo courtesy Ron Weisner Archives

MR: But it can also be argued that, literally, as the song goes, "Video Killed The Radio Star." And pretty quickly, fashion played a huge part in how and even if an artist was accepted.

RW: But most importantly, most of the people I've been fortunate enough to be involved with have been artists that had very unique music and what you had to do was you had to back up and look at it differently and approach it with a different kind of way. I get in my car in LA and almost every single day, if I turn the radio on, I'll hear a Bill Withers song. Whether it's "Lean On Me" or "Grandma's Hands" or "Sunshine," these are forty-plus-year-old songs, but the music was so impactful. In my opinion, probably the greatest soundtrack ever made was Superfly. I think we did better business with the soundtrack than the film did. The music was ahead of its time. When you're dealing with artists like this, everything you do needs to be different and set out from the crowd and everything else that's done. Do things differently. Make it bigger and bigger. I should clarify, "bigger" doesn't mean "better," but the quality. You have to be in a position where you're able to do things to expose the music and expose the artist. Then if you have an artist that's magical on stage, they perform and they do that music and other things and people just sit out there and they're amazed because they're great singers, they're great musicians, and that's their gift. That's their craft. It's like an artist. There were painters that were unique to themselves and had their own identity and I always try to get involved with artists that I felt were worth the investment to me and their body of work would stand the test of time.

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photo courtesy of Ron Weisner Archives

MR: Ron, you haven't been a fly on the wall, you've been the spider's web!

RW: [laughs] Right.

MR: Having been in that position, watching your artists mold and reshape our culture's music, how do you contain yourself?

RW: Well, it's funny. I've worn these multiple hats, all relating to the music business, and I still have friends in the management business these days. I've had very good relationships with a lot of artists--older ones and newer ones. Even the last couple of years, a couple of meaningful people have contacted me to see if I want to get back in the management business. But I'm not interested because the whole complexion of marketing and selling music today "is" no longer. In my time, if you signed an artist to a record deal, in a lot of cases, you would have like a three album deal over a couple of years' period of time and there would be an overview and a plan of what you're going to do and how you would build. Today, it's get a record out as quickly as you possibly can and as inexpensively as you can and we'll put it out there and nurture it for a couple of weeks and we'll see what happens. Back then, if you were an artist... Bill Withers probably played every club in this country. He was such a personable kind of guy who interacted with the audience on a smaller level, but his music was impactful in a big way.

The elements then are not the elements today, and that's the problem. And you see it all! Most people honestly don't have any idea of what it takes to put these things together. You're dealing with talented people, then you're dealing with egos. You're dealing with money, you're dealing with all these pieces of the puzzle, and it was a lot easier then even though it was difficult to do it then. Today, it's like getting in a boxing ring and saying, "Before you go in, can we tie one hand behind your back?" If you talk to any film people or television people that have ideas in the creative process, trying to make that come to life and dealing with the cross-section of people you need to deal with...

MR: Ron, what advice do you have for new artists?

RW: You still have to be persistent. What's made most people successful is they have a feeling inside them that expresses their music, their words, whatever, and you just have to put a blinder on and keep pounding and pounding and pounding away. There are things that will come through. A couple of years ago, there was an artist who wasn't the most attractive person so she couldn't compete with the anorexic-looking girls from flavor of the month music. But Adele came along, a brilliant singer, great songs, and for a two-year period she owned the music world. She wasn't doing what everybody else was doing. That's why I'm a big proponent of, "Just because it hasn't been done before doesn't mean you can't do it." If you can't get in the front door, find a way to get in the back door or the side window or whatever. You've got to be persistent and do what you do best and use your gift and find the best people you can to help you bring that gift to a different level. There's no slam dunk anymore. A couple of people have asked me, "Who out there today would you want to be involved with?" As I said before, Michael Jackson, in my opinion, was the greatest entertainer of my generation. Somebody asked me a couple months ago, "Who else is out there today that you would think that of?" In all honesty, not just because I like her and I've worked with her a number of times, but the only artist that's out there and has that mass appeal is Beyoncé. She is beyond professional and committed. She basically doesn't compromise her work. She hones in on what she sees and what she feels and that's what she works on. Rarely do you ever see any controversy with her, it's not Madonna stuff. She is a dedicated gifted musician and performer. She does it all. In my opinion, she is the closest and the only one out there today that I would put in his league.

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photo courtesy of Ron Weisner Archives

MR: You've talked with a lot of affection about a number of artists you've managed and matter-of-factly about others. Which is the best kind of artist to work with? The "real" artist versus, I guess, the career-minded?

RW: It's not really in all honesty making that kind of decision. There are two parts to that answer. Michael Jackson and Steve Winwood had success very early on in life, and then nothing. There was a big lull. I find it's much more difficult to get involved with an artist who had a career and had a big lull than signing a brand new artist and being obsessive and compassionate about them. Each one was different. When I got involved with the Jacksons, there was nothing going on with them. Nothing whatsoever. It was an even bigger challenge. Today, people say, "Wow, you got lucky with Michael!" But it was basically going to square one and beyond to make that happen. Bill Withers was a labor of love in a different way, you know what I'm saying? He used to make toilets for a company called Weber Aircraft in LA. That's what he did, and then he came in with some demos of some great songs. Slab Fork, West Virginia, it's a coal mining town. This guy knew nothing about the music business, never really had any hopes and aspirations of being in the public limelight, he just loved making music, and again, he also had a gift. It becomes challenging in different kinds of ways, so it becomes difficult to lay one against the other, because each is a different thing.

Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne

WILLIAM BECKETT'S "WALLS"

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photo credit: Ryan Russell

According to William Beckett...

The inspiration for the song 'Walls' actually came from a fan. Her story was so touching and relatable that I just had to write a song about it. There comes a time in everyone's life where you feel lost and uninspired; stagnant and not sure which way to turn or how to pull yourself out of the rut. This song is about believing in yourself and holding out hope that, with a positive attitude and dedication, each day can be better than the last. Of course things happen that are well out of our control, but the weight of each problem is measured in how you respond and react to it. After writing the song and recording an acoustic version of it at my home studio, I decided that I wanted to match the power of the message in the song with the energy of a live band performance. Just two days at my producer Marc McClusky's Chicago studio and 'Walls' had fully come to life. I'm so excited to be able to play this song on my upcoming tour with Rick Springfield & Pat Benatar. I still can't believe that I have the opportunity to share the stage with such amazing songwriters and legendary performers. I'm also looking forward to sharing my music with an audience that, for the most part, hasn't heard it yet. Its going to be fun to show that my songs can speak to all generations of music fans.

NOEL'S "LOST IN LOVE"

According to the artist...

I wrote 'Lost in Love' about the reluctant acceptance that a relationship had always been doomed, in a moment when the clouds of melancholic memories gave way to the first breaking light of gratitude." And on the album, Noel says, "When I started looking over the songs on this album I realized there was a running theme drawn directly from my very religious upbringing in the Deep South. I can see now there was a clear desire to make an album for people like myself who feel their own spirituality has out-grown their religion.