This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Field Notes from a Music Biz Life.
In early 1973, shortly after I took over as editor of Record World, a mysterious package from our Latin American Headquarters in Miami -- aka the apartment of our sole employee in that city -- appeared on my desk. I opened it to find a jumble of single-spaced typewritten pages, a small stack of checks, photos of Nelson Ned, Tito Puente, and other Latin luminaries, a wad of cash, a Fania Records logo, and a slew of crude ad layouts. The copy, which bore the introduction, "First in Spanish and then in English," was spiced with sentence fragments, glaring typos and randomly placed exclamation points (something about "a concert! At Madison! Square Garden").
A jolt of angst stabbed me in the gut and spiraled brainward; there was no way to make this publishable. I relaxed a little when Sid, our co-owner, arrived just before noon in good form -- in other words, not drunk. Maybe he'd agree to send the mess back to Miami for a do-over. Sid's sober response made me wish I were drunk: He rummaged through the checks, stuffed the cash in his pocket, and said, "It's a special. Run it."
At that time Record World was only marginally profitable, and Sid never looked a gift horse in the mouth, regardless of what tongue that mouth spoke.
Unlike our deep-pocketed competitor Billboard, with its healthy mix of worldwide subscribers and strong newsstand sales, the overwhelming majority of Record World's revenue came from advertising by just a handful of major labels -- CBS, WEA (Warner/Elektra/Atlantic), MCA, RCA, and Capitol -- and a dozen or so indies, including A&M, Roulette, Brunswick, Buddha, and Bell.
And there was more than money at stake.
Ads made us look good. A thick book (that's what we call magazines in the business - a book) larded with lush four-color spreads featuring album covers that were often themselves works of art broadcast success. Which bred more success. More important, we purported to tell the story of what was happening in the trade, and trade ads were unfiltered signifiers of who was hyping what and how aggressively.
With Lenny's revolution in the charts making some labels see red, we had to broaden our ad base to stay out of the red. We doubled down on that time-honored trade magazine cash cow, the special issue.
Except for a higher print bill, a little extra in mailing, and increased sales commissions, it cost roughly the same to produce a 128-page special as a 64-page regular issue, with two or three times the revenue. The pressure from Sid to do more and more of them was intense.
Our most reliable special, the summer "Annual," was an ode to tedium. It was nearly as thick as Vogue's Fall Fashion issue, but there were no stunning supermodels or fabulous clothes -- just the names and addresses of thousands of rack jobbers, one-stops, distributors and other participants in an industry infrastructure that few, including most of our own writers, understood or cared about.
What saved our Annuals from drowning in minutiae were the covers, such as this Norman-Rockwell-with-a-twist gem from art director David Skinner:
With no clear plan, we stumbled from special to special, choosing subjects around which we could pitch ads -- Packaging! Women in Music! The Midnight Special TV show! The content tended towards puffery and the ads turned out to be tough sells. You might think it was groovy that lots of women were having hits, but why would you need to advertise about it?
The turning point, both editorially and financially, was our 10th Anniversary tribute to The Who in November, 1974.
That we were chosen over Billboard to tell the story of my favorite band seemed too good to be true. What it took to tell that story nearly broke me.
My obsession with The Who began in 1964-65 when I was 15 and their singles "I Can't Explain" and "My Generation" explained why it was impossible to explain my generation to myself, let alone my parents.
The perfectly interlocking musical personalities of the four members -- the funny-looking/rebellious/guitar-smashing/ leader/songwriter Pete Townshend, the great-looking/passionate/ golden boy vocalist Roger Daltrey, the brilliant, enigmatic bassist John Entwistle and the gloriously chaotic drummer Keith Moon -- were the very illustration of a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.
The Who's subsequent string of '60s hits -- "Happy Jack," "The Kids Are Alright," "I Can See for Miles," "Pictures of Lily" -- were as essential to my teenagery as basketball, my guy friends and my lack of girlfriends. Their 1967 concept album The Who Sell Out, was a hilarious, prescient satire on consumer culture.
By the time I graduated from college and started at Record World in the summer of '71, the sixties were gone and Carole King's Tapestry had become the founding document of the era of the softer singer-songwriter. Who's Next, released that August, was a defiant declaration that The Who hadn't sold out and that biting, meaningful rock 'n' roll was alive and kicking out the jams.
Who's Next was a great record, but The Who were at their core a live band, and their performance at Forest Hills Stadium that summer was the most thrilling show I'd ever seen.
A burst of rain threatened to cancel the concert, but the skies cleared and the group blasted through one masterpiece after another, building to a driving "Magic Bus" that would have blown the roof off the place if the place weren't outdoors. Townshend put an anti-ribbon on the proceedings by smashing not just one, but two guitars, after which he decimated those instruments with a third piece of equipment.
Needless to say, no encore was necessary -- or, given the destruction on display, even possible.
Record World's West Coast Ad VP Spence Berland, a transplanted New Yorker and a natural salesman who could get you to buy an ad even if you didn't want one and had no money, convinced The Who's brain trust to give us exclusive rights to publish a special commemorating the group's 10th anniversary.
Quite a coup, considering Billboard's international reach. Spence also enlisted MCA Records, The Who's label, to help us score "Congrats" ads from the label's distributors and the band's friends and associates. The resulting bonanza meant lots of room for editorial coverage, a good thing because there was a big story to tell. It also guaranteed a boatload of extra work for me and our small staff.
Putting out the weekly magazine -- and dealing with industry politics -- was stressful enough; I'd become prone to anxiety attacks, bouts of insomnia, and nasty lower back pain.
Knowing that my workload would spike for the next couple months added a simmering anger to the mix. I was mad at the gods for making me work so hard, mad at Sid for not paying me and the writers better, and mad at Spence who, working on commission, earned more than the top three editors combined. I was even mad at our writers for expecting me to be nice to them while I was doubling their workload without bumping up their salaries.
Anxiety and anger notwithstanding, we threw ourselves into producing an issue worthy of The Who. I was too consumed with planning and editing to interview my heroes, but between our New York, LA and London editors -- and Who experts including John Swenson, Marty Cerf, Greg Shaw, and Binky Phillips -- we told a compelling story.
The trick in avoiding hagiography in a special was finding the quirk. Here, that was easy -- Keith Moon was the quirk that kept on quirking. We wrote about the time he got arrested for a gold bullion robbery because, well, because he was Keith Moon. (He didn't do it.) One advertiser was clearly thinking of Keith with this copy: "...without whom Holiday Inns and Remy Martin may never have survived...doesn't time pass quickly when you're having fun."
This year it's The Who's 50th anniversary. One wonders what Pete Townshend, who famously wrote in "My Generation," "Hope I die before I get old," would say about this quote from his RW interview: "The great thing about rock is that it makes you feel young." Or what Roger Daltrey would think of this remark: "There's no chance of us ever breaking up."
The Who will embark on an epic "Who Hits 50" tour next spring. Maybe they'll make one more record and call it, Who's Counting?
Our book -- the regular issue and the 92-page pull-out special section -- had to be press-ready by Friday afternoon so it would land on subscribers' desks by Monday morning. The 72 hours before that deadline were pure hell.
Along with RW associate editor Howie Levitt -- a terrific person and a fine editor with whom I shared a Long Island upbringing, a love of rock and sports and a post-hippie sensibility -- I spent nearly every one of those hours at Dispatch Press, our printer, whose desolate location in Hoboken, New Jersey -- when Hoboken wasn't cool -- came to reflect my mood.
Our writers had knocked themselves out to get their stories in on time, but Sid insisted we keep the ad window open till the last minute, which was good for the bottom line but torture for Howie and me.
With more ads pouring in -- which taxed our art department to its limits -- I had to keep increasing the page count, and we ended up laying out -- and re-laying out -- hundreds of pages using the primitive implements available to us at the time: cutting out reams of paper galleys with scissors, then Scotch Taping them to cardboardish "dummy" sheets. Then tearing them up and doing it again.
The irresistible force of Sid was matched by the immovable object of Ray Stein, who ran Dispatch and, as Wednesday turned to Thursday, began to freak out. Ray was a solid guy, and when he warned that if I didn't start feeding him finalized pages he simply wouldn't get the magazine out on time, I believed him.
Sid argued that Ray was crying wolf but Sid had never been to Dispatch and didn't know what he was talking about. Shaking with rage, I told him that our production crew and proofreaders were on their way and I didn't have pages to give them. I told him it was panic time.
Sid relented and we broke our backs and made deadline. Another hour and someone would have had to arrest me for verbal abuse. Another two hours and murder might have been a more appropriate charge.
The special hit the streets on schedule and turned out fine. No, it turned out wonderfully. My state of mind -- and, not coincidentally, the tone around the office -- had swung from dread to relief. More to the point, we were proud of what we'd accomplished.
Before leaving for the day, Howie gently pointed out that he and other staffers felt I had been uncharacteristically short with them while we were on deadline. I knew that was an understatement and felt awful about it, but instead of apologizing, I played the victim. The pressure had been on me, I said, and everyone should get off my case.
I recalled that that my anger had found another undeserving target when, late the previous week, a publicist called to say she was coming over to deliver a press release. I screamed, "Who Cares?" and fantasized about naming the special Who Cares?
The Who issue wasn't just a turning point for Record World. It was a turning point for me. I began to be more assertive in "managing up" -- insisting, for instance, that Sid agree to more reasonable ad deadlines for future specials. I was more mindful about not taking my frustrations out on others, especially the amazing people who worked for me. And I vowed to be more open to criticism, a vow I would forget from time to time in the heady, stress-filled years to come.
Next Time: More specials -- adventures with Elton John, The Bee Gees, Barry White et al.