THE BLOG
10/18/2014 01:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Field Notes From the Music Biz: Life at The Trades

(This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Field Notes from a Music Biz Life.)

Record World co-owner Sidmore Parnes was a man of his word and a man of few words.

After abruptly firing his editor, Mitchell Fink, in the fall of 1972, Sid handed me the job, saying simply, "I assume you're prepared to take over the magazine." I was 23 and had worked there for a year and a half.

Mitchell would go on to a successful career spreading the gospel of gossip for People Magazine and on TV. For the moment, I would look at Sid's back: He didn't wait for my answer -- just walked out of the conference room to the office we shared. Perhaps he wanted to let me gather my thoughts, but information hunting was necessary before thought-gathering could take place. When I returned to our office, he offered two key deal points: "You start now. We'll pay you what we were paying Mitchell." Then, silence.

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My negotiating skills needed work. I didn't know -- or care -- what Mitchell was making. I was so anxious I could barely speak. I was so elated I could barely speak. I think I nodded my head.

As the news spread, I fielded calls from staffers. All were surprised. Some were angry. John Gibson, our outstanding West Coast editor and a friend of Mitchell's, was pissed. Somehow his anger calmed me down and we had a good talk, though he soon left the magazine for the far greener pastures of Atlantic Records. (Years later, John veered to the right to become a Fox News personality.) John Sturdivant, who ran our Nashville office and was married to the daughter of country music queen Kitty Wells, wondered if he were next. I told him everything would be fine, but I didn't really know and I don't think he believed me.

Editors in the New York office, including the able Fred Goodman, who also happened to be an excellent songwriter, offered support. Our incoming chart editor, Lenny Beer, a marketing whiz I'd known since we were in seventh grade, liked Mitchell well enough but was delighted to learn that the friend who'd brought him in was moving into a position to run interference for him as he revamped our research department.

Sid seemed relieved that the firing was over, and, after a morning of steadfast sobriety, headed out for a long, liquid lunch.

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Bob Austin, Sid's partner and Record World's publisher, played no discernible role in these events. The Austin/Parnes partnership, which had started out beautifully eight years before, wasn't merely strained; by this time, the two men were no longer speaking.

On paper, Sid (Mr. Inside) and Bob (Mr. Outside) complemented each other perfectly.

Bob had been an ace salesman for Billboard during the '40s. My mom, who was Louis Prima's Gal Friday in the latter part of the decade, recalls that he showed up every week at the Brill Building in relentless pursuit of ad dollars. He didn't care if you bought because you loved him or because you were dying to be rid of him. He just wanted to make the sale.

Bob left Billboard to become general manager of the rival weekly Cash Box circa 1950, where he met and worked closely with Sid, a City College graduate who joined in 1951 and rose through the ranks to become editor-in-chief.

In 1960, Sid left Cash Box to start the music publishing firm Skidmore Music, where he gained the rights to that year's Academy Award Winning song "Never on Sunday," which became an international standard and a huge money-maker.

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Sid and Bob stayed in touch and a few years later mapped out a plan to start their own magazine. The goal: to knock the crap out of Cash Box and its nutty owner, George Albert. (George famously claimed credit for the careers of scores of industry execs. Before I ever met him, he called me for a favor and explained, in deep rasp, "I started you in this business.")

Starting a publication from scratch was costly and risky. And so in 1964, Austin/Parnes purchased the faltering jukebox weekly Music Vendor -- owned by Dick Steinberg, who also manufactured the strips which listed the songs on the jukes -- and relaunched it as Record World. The motto "Dedicated to the Needs of the Music/Record Industry" would be emblazoned on the cover of each issue.

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I never learned when or why Sid and Bob's relationship soured. Sid hired me and promoted me. Bob acted as if he were my boss. Sid told me to ignore Bob. Bob told me to ignore Sid.

In practice, both were AWOL most of the time -- Bob in various convention halls from Tokyo to London to Miami and Sid in his cups. That left me with a power vacuum in place of a training program.

I learned a few lessons during my first week as editor.

1. Be decisive. Most people want their leaders to help them make decisions -- often to make decisions for them -- even if those decisions have no basis in experience or expertise. As soon as I became their boss, staffers began to seek me out for advice not just about their jobs but about their lives. Sure, some wanted to curry favor and sure, some were scared. But mostly, it seemed, they wanted relief from uncertainty.

It's equally necessary, though vastly harder and more unpleasant, to be decisive with narcissists and know-it-alls who are convinced the world revolves around them.

2. At all times, someone, somewhere is mad at you. And often for good reason.

I wasted no time getting into trouble for failing to heed the mantra of my first editor, Doug McClelland: "When in doubt, leave it out."

In those days, having a hit single was of paramount importance to artists and record labels. To this end, coverage in certain industry "tip sheets" -- listings of AM radio activity and "radioactivity" with commentary --was crucial. One of the most powerful tips was Friday Morning Quarterback (FMBQ), published by Kal Rudman out of Cherry Hill, NJ.

Kal leveraged his message via a weekly Record World column called Money Music in which he expressed his excitement about the nation's most happening records, sometimes in off-color language. For the first issue I edited, his raw copy said that one record was so hot it made girls' "nooshies wet." I had my doubts, but I failed to leave it out, more due to the crush of events than editorial judgment.

The day the magazine hit the streets, Bob called from some industry outpost and let me have it. In a tirade resonant of the "No fighting in the war room" scene in Dr. Strangelove, Bob, who rarely lost his temper or cursed, said something like, "What were you fucking thinking? You can't fucking say nooshies in my magazine." I had to admit Bob was fucking right.

In that same issue, something I did leave out prompted a phone call from Atlantic Records publicity chief Bob Rolontz. Rolontz, one of Sid's closest friends -- he became a Billboard reporter the same year Sid joined Cash Box -- had submitted a photo of Ahmet Ertegun, the company's chairman, doing something meaningless. Instead of running that shot, I ran a pic of a lower level Atlantic exec doing something meaningless. Rolontz calmly but firmly let me know that when Ahmet was in a picture, I should run the picture. That rule, it turned out, applied to all music biz honchos.

3. At all times, someone, somewhere is mad at you for something you have no control over.

A promotion guy called in a fury because a record he was pushing didn't get a bullet on our charts. I didn't do the charts, nor did I have -- or desire to have -- any influence over what got a bullet and what didn't. Sensing that passing the buck was the worst thing I could do, I mentioned that our charts were going to be more accurate with a new person coming in. I wish I could say that made things okay with Mr. Promo Man. He was still furious.

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Shaken after that first issue, I asked Sid why he had entrusted his magazine to a kid with so little experience. He said my youth and inexperience were assets.

Irascible and inebriated as he was much of the time, Sid wanted to win. And he knew how he could win. Billboard, the industry's Goliath, was staid, hidebound, and unloved. Cash Box had a few talented writers, but as long as crazy George Albert was in charge they were in no position to play David.

Sid believed that under my leadership, Record World could become the hippest, best-written, most passionate, most respected trade in a business that was in the early stages of an unprecedented boom. And Sid, who was already a millionaire, wanted very, very much to be very, very rich.

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I made plenty more mistakes in those early weeks and months, but with each issue I became a better editor and a better manager.

A voice in my head still occasionally insisted that I had gotten my promotion by default. Those doubts were dispelled one morning about six months in when the ever-phlegmatic Sid -- with whom I'd never shared a meal -- said, "When we gonna have lunch?"

Translation: "We're having lunch now." We repaired to the Carnegie Deli down the street, where the waiters could put your corned beef on rye on the table within two minutes and lunch could be over in 10. Sid wanted to tell me just one thing: "I've redone my will. I'm leaving all my money to David (David Schneider, his significant other). I'm leaving you the magazine."

That promise turned out to have no material value, but the trust it cemented was invaluable.

Sid's unwavering support would prove essential for the battles to come as we radically changed and improved our chart methodology and grappled with fierce resistance from an industry to whose needs we were avowedly dedicated.

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