THE BLOG
11/19/2014 12:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Torn Between Two Bosses, Not Feeling Like a Fool

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

Question: What to do when you have two bosses who hate each other so much they automatically disagree about everything and speak to each other only through you?

Answer: You learn to play them like violins -- or, in the case of Record World co-owners Sid Parnes and Bob Austin, like a klezmer and a kazoo.

It's fashionable nowadays to say you're "not judgmental," to "let go" of your anger, to forgive even the most heinous offenses. Mortal enemies claim, "I don't hate anyone." But when I say that Sid and Bob hated each other, I mean they hated each other. They refused to occupy the same room, even if it was the rest room shared by everyone on our floor; our receptionist was under strict instructions to inform one whenever the other was making his way to the facilities. They rarely mentioned each other's name -- to me at least -- and when they did, their faces turned a similar shade of red. Each made it clear to me -- in words and body language -- that he felt the other was a rotten person who, left to his devices, would ruin the magazine.

I don't know why their feelings ran so deep. By all accounts the two men were friendly enough when they bought the jukebox magazine Music Vendor and launched Record Worldin 1964 -- with the gregarious Bob as the quintessential Mr. Outside and the more reticent Sid as the business-like Mr. Inside.

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Bob (left) and Sid (right) in happier times

I do know that by the time I arrived they had zero respect for one another -- Sid saw Bob as a buffoon and Bob saw Sid as a hopeless drunk. Perhaps it was the plain fact that they were equal partners -- that each could, and did, reflexively reject whatever the other proposed -- that alchemized run-of-the-mill resentment into white-hot rage.

Whatever the reason, there was no common ground, no "let's all sit down and work this out." To survive, and perhaps for the magazine to survive, I had to learn when to listen to them, when to ignore them and how to play them.

Sid

Sidmore Parnes was a smart, cosmopolitan New Yorker in his early fifties who had edited Cash Box and then made a lot of money as a music publisher ("Never on Sunday" et al) before co-founding RW. He lived extravagantly in a richly-appointed penthouse apartment with a spectacular terrace at 419 W. 57th Street that he purchased from producer/songwriter/publisher Al Nevins. There, he and his significant other Dr. David Schneider, a therapist, entertained the likes of actress Jane Powell, actor Robert Clary, singers Kaye Ballard and Sylvia Syms and TV producer James Komack.

When he was sober, Sid could be the menschiest guy in the room. We never talked about each other's personal lives -- he never hid the fact that he was gay, for instance, but in ten years of working together in the same office, we never discussed it -- but something about the way I handled myself gave him confidence I could put out a magazine he'd be proud of.

I had to accept Sid's premise that as a trade publication we were more music biz cheerleaders than muckrakers. He'd say, "We're not Rolling Stone or The Village Voice. If something bad happens, we'll cover it; but we don't go looking for it." That was okay with me. I read every word of Rolling Stone" and The Village Voice, but I didn't want to be them.

My utterly pragmatic perspective might have been genealogical. My dad, Carl Sigman, had seen writing songs as a job, a craft, not an art. That's how I looked at my gig. I didn't aspire to publish literature -- though David McGee, Robert Palmer, Vince Aletti and other RW writers were as talented as just about anyone you could find in the pages of Stone, Creem or Crawdaddy. Besides, I loved all kinds of music -- from MOR to show tunes to, well, klezmers and kazoos -- not just the hipper-than-thou stuff championed by some know-it-all rock critics.

The counterpoint to our flexibility in editorial coverage was the toughness of our charts, where we were anything but cheerleaders. Sid was initially nervous about Lenny's chart revolution, which alienated at least one or two major advertisers every week. But once we'd taken the leap of faith, he understood that standing by our chart numbers, even when it cost us short-term ad dollars, wasn't just the right thing to do. It cemented our credibility, and that would be good, very good for long-term business.

Getting Sid's financial support -- convincing him to invest in Record World's growth -- was far harder than securing his intellectual and moral support. We were hardly flush with cash in the early '70s, and most of what we did take in was injected intravenously into Sid's increasingly lavish lifestyle, which included upkeep on a fancy country getaway in tony Wilton, Connecticut with a large pool and magnificent grounds. Even when we started making real money, Sid, it seemed, would rather put another expensive painting on his wall than hire another writer.

Bob

Bob, a decade or so older than Sid, lived on Sutton Place with his wife, Min. He had a grown son, about whom he never spoke, and a grown daughter, Karen, an aspiring singer who worked for a while at Polydor Records. I knew next to nothing about Bob's home life, but if Sid spent money he didn't have, it was said that Bob still had the first dollar he ever earned.

He was rarely around, preferring to promote the magazine by visiting our offices in Europe and hobnobbing with industry honchos at confabs in Cannes (MIDEM), Tokyo (Tokyo Music Festival) and other far-flung locales. When Bob was in town, he had little interaction with the editorial staff, preferring to hole up in his spacious office dictating to his secretary and talking on the phone.

After returning from a two or three week trip, though, Bob often felt the need to share his editorial wisdom, which ranged from the anachronistic to the surreal.

When Bob's assignments were factually challenged, they were easy enough to handle. When he assigned me, with Ted Baxter-ish gravitas in his voice, to "get the story on the Strawberries" -- a conflation of the actual bands the Strawbs and the Raspberries -- I pointed out that no such band existed. Bob retreated; in a Baxter-ish huff, yes, but he retreated.

When the matter at hand was more subjective, going rogue was sometimes called for. One time Bob summoned me to his office and asked me to bring a list of future cover subjects. He took a quick look at that list, shook his head disapprovingly and strode off to lunch, mumbling about "changing the way we do things around here."

I feared Bob would return from lunch in his all-too-familiar Mr. Prosecutor mood, where it wouldn't matter what I said because by definition he was right and I was wrong. Here, the way to avoid a one-sided trial was to dispose of the evidence. While Bob was at lunch, I sneaked into his office and purloined the list. Bob never mentioned it again.

Once in a while, avuncular Bob would call me in to his office and wax nostalgic about the '40s. He'd recall fond chats with my mom at Louis Prima's office when he was selling ads for Billboard and she was Louis' Gal Friday. He'd reminisce about drinks with Carl and other bizzers at Lindy's back when, as Bob put it with a whiff of condescension, "Dad was a top songwriter." More than once he reminded me, "I did Dad a favor by hiring you."

What came through in these encounters was Bob's ability to manufacture warmth, the kind of warmth that made him a beloved figure to many in the industry -- the kind of warmth the powers-that-were at the Performing Arts Division of the Anti-Defamation League recognized when they honored him with their 1974 Human Relations Award.

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(Or maybe they just thought he'd bring in the heftiest donations.)

I never said much during those sessions with Bob, but they were rare opportunities for friendly interactions with a man who rarely said good morning and never had a positive word for my job performance.

There was, of course, a twist to Bob's sepia-toned remembrances: On the planet Earth, my parents barely knew Bob. And he didn't get me the job; I met him only after I started at Record World, after Jubilee Records president Jerry Blaine, a real friend of my dad's, suggested I contact Sid.

Sid

I loved Sid despite his flaws. In my experience, he was a fundamentally honest person -- even about his drinking -- and our dealings were generally straightforward. But I can't deny that I sometimes took advantage of his tendency to say "white" when Bob said "black."

My first confrontation with Sid was about my compensation. My mishandling of that interaction gave birth to the "If Bob is against it, you should be for it" gambit.

When I was promoted in the fall of '72, my 12K per year salary was, even in early '70s dollars, pathetically low for the editor of a major trade publication. Not only was this unfair to me, but it effectively put a cap on everyone else's wages -- I couldn't very well pay my number-two editor more than I was earning.

The exception to this sharecropper system was West Coast ad director Spence Berland, who was making more than five times as much as I.

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Spence Berland, John Lennon

I was so incensed when I discovered this, I confronted Sid on the spot. I stood over his desk -- I was standing and he was sitting -- and, letting my anger and self-righteousness do the talking, proceeded to write the metaphorical book on how not to negotiate.

I said the disparity between Spence's pay and mine was outrageous -- I was working around the clock and making less than secretaries at record companies. I said Spence was a phenomenal salesman but without me and my team he wouldn't have anything to sell. I said we'd lose good people -- and we couldn't hope to compete with Billboard-- unless we paid writers, editors and designers a decent wage.

By claiming the moral high ground, I put Sid on the defensive. By comparing my pay to someone else's I took the focus off my intrinsic value. By implying that I was one of the "good people" we'd lose, I invited Sid to call my bluff. And it was a 100 percent bluff -- I believed I had the best job in the world and I wasn't going anywhere.

Sid rejected the comparison with Spence, who, he argued, worked on pure commission and was therefore contributing directly to the bottom line. He said I was only 23 and was just starting my career. He said, "Mike, I don't respond well to threats" -- a line I've used a million times since then. He said he'd pay me more when the magazine made more, period.

I was losing the argument and it was my own fault. I sensed that Sid needed to feel it was in his interest as well as mine to compensate me fairly. But how could I make that happen? Everything felt scrambled. That's when a mischievous teen spirit somehow took over my body and I stumbled into the "Bob's against it so you must be for it" routine.

I laid it on thick, telling Sid that Bob was so relentlessly down on of me, he'd never agree to pay me more. I said I couldn't believe Sid would go along with that.

I could feel the emotional balance shift. Sid got quiet. He still seemed angry, but now it wasn't directed at me. I hoped he was seething inwardly at Bob's lack of generosity, which Sid well knew could border on cruelty. He said he'd think about the money.

The next day Sid came back with a $100 a week raise. 17K per year was hardly a princely sum, but it was a significant percentage increase and an important act of good faith.

There was, of course, a twist -- one proviso to the bump in salary: Bob, who signed all paychecks, must never know. To keep him in the dark, Sid had an inelegant solution: Bob would sign two checks, each representing half my salary. It seemed unlikely that Bob would fall for this, but he did, mindlessly signing two checks in my name every pay period for nearly a decade. My real compensation would be filed in the same evidence locker as that list of cover subjects...

Next time: How Sid faced down one of the industry's most revered and powerful players at a critical moment.

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Me (right) with another 23 year-old guy, a good Catholic boy from New Jersey. I had the best job in the world.