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An Interview with Former CBS Head Walter Yetnikoff - Full Session


One of the most storied – and controversial – executives in the history of the record industry, Walter Yetnikoff was head of CBS Records from 1975 to 1990. Over the course of his career at CBS, he oversaw an explosive growth in record sales (both by his label group and the industry at large), became embroiled in numerous feuds with artists and rival executives, and presided over the sale of the CBS label group to Sony in 1988. Along the way, he made the careers of a who’s who of modern rock and pop music – Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Billy Joel among them. Today, Yetnikoff runs a small boutique label and is an in-demand public speaker. His memoir, Howling at the Moon: Confessions of a Music Mogul in an Age of Excess, was published in 2004.
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Walter Yetnikoff, the legendary former head of CBS Records, speaks frankly and on the record at a meeting of the American Bar Association in 2008 about his opinion of author Fred Dannen and his book Hit Men, why major labels today are failing to capitalize on the new artists they sign, and why the record industry has thus far completely missed out on the internet music revolution.



Shoot Date:
October 2007
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You want the truth?

Interviewer: I really do.

I think Fred Dannen is a plagiarist and full of shit. How's that. He's not going to like this and he can sue me if he wants but that's not gonna... (points at the camera somewhat dismissively and looks as if he's considering the likelihood that anybody will ever really watch his interview) I don't really care. But one, it was very narrow. It had to do with Dick Asher getting up and mumbling something about payola; that we decided that we're not going to pay off the independent promoters. No one has ever nailed an independent promoter for payola by the way. That I know of. The last payola conviction was like 1958 with Alan Freed.

You skip 50 years and you come to Dony Ienner who writes memos "pay people off". If you're gonna write memos write "don't pay people off". Dannen focused on one particular narrow thing. I don't even think payola exists the way people assume it does. I don't really know. No one was ever going to show it to me if it did exist.

But he focused on one thing because Dick Asher got all upset and said "No, no I wanted to cut off the managers." That's actually not what happened. We all sorta got scared because Clive Davis said he's not going along with this industry boycott and all of the sudden he was having all the hits. Because the Indies were the gatekeepers not necessarily the payoff people but they were the gatekeepers. So I had my radio stations. So we all sort of loosened it up. We'd give the managers money. It was all... I don't know what it was really.

So the book is very narrow on its focus. It's not only one sided, it's very narrow. It's taking one, you know, sorta, slice from really, Dick Asher getting all excited and whatever. Also, when I wrote together with a guy named Ritz. David Ritz, who is very prolific.

David wrote the lyrics to "Sexual Healing" and is the co-writer of my book. He wrote the "Brother Ray" story. The Ray Charles thing that was made into a movie. He's written this thing. He wrote the Marvin Gaye story. He's written a lot of stuff. He's very prolific and he's very good. We did some research because I wanted to put stuff about Goddard Lieberson who was before me. He was a very unique character. Clive's predecessor.

We did some research and we found a record (holds up hands to indicate a vinyl record), it wasn't written down by Charles Kuralt. Remember the newscaster? It was a eulogy for Goddard Lieberson. He was a very unusual guy Goddard. What Karalt was saying was true. One day you would find him in a Paris brothel and the next day you would find him conducting an economic summit meeting. He was sort of very ubiquitous in that sense. So it was the whole eulogy by Charles Kuralt. And if you look in "Hit Men" you will see that eulogy word from beginning to end with no attribution and no thing that he stole it from somewhere else. And that's called plagiarism.

And he also wrote that I am dripping with gold jewelry. Do you see any? A couple of rings but nothing serious. And he also wrote that I always lived in one story houses. I always lived in two story houses at the time he wrote the book. Well if you can't get right then what makes you think he got any of the rest of it?

There are good artists house there but there names aren't going to mean anything at this point because record companies, they don't give the artists a chance to marinate; to develop their skills.

You know, Bruce Springsteen, who I've turned off of these days because he's too money hungry. He'll say "It's my manager. It's my lawyer." You're 57 years old. You can't say "it's my manager, it's my lawyer." And you take whatever... 10 million dollars, 50 million, 100, whatever... I don't know what the number is because it's all over the place. And you know that you're not selling those kinds of records anymore.

At one time he used to say "pay me what I'm worth" which is a lot. Today, pay him what he's worth is not those kind of numbers. You take all that money, look who's paying for that. The new artists, you know. That money is taken directly out of them. He doesn't need the money. What is he doing? So he can say it's John Landau or Alan Gruder (we could be wrong about the last name – Ed.) but I don't think you can get away with (crosses his arms in front of his face) "I'm the artist, I don't know" when you've been at it for 30 years. So I'm down on him.

There are some artists, without their names it's not going to mean anything. Billy Joel, for example, had "Piano Man" and then sort of had a record which didn't do too well called "Turnstiles". You may not remember it because it didn't do very well and it looked like his career was over with. In the old days he would have been, I mean, in today's world, not the old days, he would have been dropped. You know. He sold something like 180,000 which was nothing back then. "Turnstiles" and then the next record was "The Stranger" which sold zillions of records. He might have been dropped, you know, at that point.

Also, growing back to Springsteen. He had a record called "Nebraska" which I called "Omaha". In it, he didn't have a rock n' roll band. It was sorta him by himself. The songs were very good, I thought. And it was a maturation process. He said, "I need to go through this as a songwriter". And he did. And we said, "That's fine. We're not going to sell, you know, like a rock n' roll record. There was no Van Zandt on it or whatever but you know what? Go through it and we'll sell 800 to a million something like that. And he said "fine". And that's what we did.

I don't think that would happen today. They want an immediate return. Boom. So everybody copies everybody else. Everybody wants to sound... do you like popular music today? Tell me the truth. (asks interviewer) It's kinda boring dontcha think?

Interviewer: I was actually listening to "Nebraska" earlier.

No no. Popular music today! I don't want to start naming names but I heard the latest Bon Jovi thinking, "Aw, come on." You know? And this is a good artist! It's like "EEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee" or something like that. I mean, some of the stuff today... I'm back on Springsteen. The last three records he's done to me are really bad. I mean, "The Rising" people say is an exaltation to rise. To me it's like, wimpy! "Nah, nah, nah the ri-sing." This is not an exaltation to anything. Writers write what they wanna write.

And then he's doing something with Pete Seeger? What the hell does he got to do with Pete Seeger? And then in the middle he had some other kind of record "Ashes and Dust" or something like that. That's three sort of pretty shitty records in my opinion. But that's alright! He's allowed to do that kind of thing but you don't pay him 100 million dollars for that.

I don't think record companies often will give an artists a shot today. There is a lot of young talent. It didn't all disappear. In fact there's probably more people in it today. There just not being given the chance to come up because you have to spend some money on it and it may not happen on the first record. We were fine. If it doesn't happen, we think you're great. We're gonna continue. Today, it doesn't happen. We think you're great you're gonna get dropped, I think. Because the economic pressure is so great. And also, I'm almost finished.

Also, I think the record industry has abdicated its responsibilities in terms of, you know, technology. For years technology was in favor of record growth. You had FM radio. Big deal! You know it was very important to have the stereo thing. Then you had MTV. It was a big deal! I mean, it really did the whole visual impact of the thing. And then you had the CD so people got rid of the big old records and tapes and started to have CDs. So everything was for growth. And now, all of the sudden you have the Internet.

And all of the old farts at the record company don't know what to do with the Internet. Because people your age know a little more what to do with the Internet. Six year olds know what to do with the Internet but those don't know what to do with it.

How is it that you had iPod developed by someone outside the record business? Shouldn't that have been Sony? Don't you think? Who came up with the solution to that? So Sony is an also-ran. They came out with something recently. Some nano-microphone-camera. Did you ever hear of it again? It came out, three days later it was gone. And you had Apple take away the record industry thunder and I think the reason is that you have a bunch of old farts.

Now you can be an old fart and still have a young viewpoint... who are afraid of the Internet. They are inconsistent. "The Internet, it's great, it's great! Oh, we wish it would go away!" Ask record people today the truth. If you could push a button and the Internet would go away would you push that button? I think the answer is yeah, you'd push that button.

Also, to go sue consumers? You're gonna go get a bunch of college kids and you're gonna go sue them? I mean this is crazy! That's what they were doing though. They sued 500 college kids that's really wonderful. I mean, you're going to stop the whole thing because you sued 500 college kids, who are your future consumers. Right? Who go out and tell their friends, "well fuck them!" You know. It's crazy!

The Internet thing is like schizophrenic to the record companies. I don't think they know what to do with it. There is a solution. Or maybe more than one. I don't know it because I haven't really studied it but it's got to be there. It seems a company like Sony should really have a handle on what you do with the Internet that is consumer friendly, that is age friendly, and also you can make money on it. Steve Jobs came out with the best idea to date. A stranger to the business.

What you are now having is Russ Solomon closing down Tower Records. And you have nothing. At one time, the rack job at a place like Wal-Mart was very important. At the checkout counter, whatever. Brick and mortar seems to be going away. I mean, everything can be done online.

I used to like brick and mortar. You could go in and look at the old albums, feel them, touch them. You can't do that today. Not that I'm suggesting... Actually there is a business in old vinyl. People like it.

It was fun to shop for records, you know, at one time. And the clerks in record stores were very knowledgeable. They actually knew what you were talking about. They were into the artists. When you do this online you don't get that same kind of thing. But on the other hand you have a whole generation of people, your age, who are into online!

Someone should have harnessed that to better serve the interests of the record business. I don't have the answer to it.

The majors aren't... (laughs) I'm sorry to tell you but there don't seem to be any major labels around anymore. The only major label that you could think of is maybe Universal which isn't one label but a whole bunch of labels. They seem to be doing okay. Their margins are not okay. I mean, zillions of dollars worth of sales but I don't know what they did? 100 million dollars in profit? Something like that but it's not a lot.

You had an article recently that EMI and Warner Bros. are racing each other for the bottom. Okay, now you have EMI owned by some English guys and the guy who head of an English money fund is now gonna run EMI? Ooh. Crazy. They do have a big asset there as you know. The publishing company is a big asset.

And then you have Warner Bros. run by the older son of a very wealthy alcohol family. The Bronfman kid. And I saw him on television the other day and he was holding up some new kind of camera or something or other. He said, "this is the future". Well this is not the future. A hit record is the future! And the Warner Bros. thing. The guy who bought it and took it public, the guy from Texas. I think it's Texas. Tommy Lee? The money guy. He did fine! But I don't think the shareholders are doing so fine. So you don't have EMI.

You don't have Warner Bros. You have Sony and BMG. The Japanese and the Germans. It sounds like 1939 or the brink of World War II. I don't know what they're doing, I just have no idea and I don't care. And you have Universal. And that's sort of it.

Universal has a whole bunch of subsidiaries. You don't have major labels around today. I wouldn't work for a major label today.

We used to have fun. We really did have fun. We enjoyed it. We were fans in a way. Well like, "Gee, I can't do that" to the guy who's writing that song. I don't think you see that today.

I think someone told me at Sony they have champagne parties every Friday to commemorate the departure of Tommy Mottola, and Michelle Anthony and Dony Ienner. People said they cursed the company.

Who did I miss? Did I miss a company? So I don't know why you would want to work at a major company.

Now we used to have years ago, I don't want to sound like I'm reminiscing too much about the past - had a bunch of small labels. Cap Records and this one and that one and British Techa (not sure the label's actual name - Ed.). Tons of labels, I mean of significance! A lot of artists came up through that. Guys like Maurice Levy, Roulette, you know, you had people coming up through that. I don't think you have that today.

There is a solution but I'm not sure what it is.




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