Vinyl Meltdown


The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and

Hustlers of the Warner Music Group

By Stan Cornyn with Paul Scanlon

HarperCollins 470pp -- $39.95

For all the tumult in the media industry these days, no business faces more soul-searching than music. The fall in sales resulting from MP3 file-sharing and CD burning has more than a few record executives wondering where it all went wrong--and how to fix it. That's why Stan Cornyn's Exploding, co-written with Rolling Stone editor Paul Scanlon, makes for a fascinating and timely read. Now retired, Cornyn shares dozens of behind-the-scenes takes from his three decades at the Warner Music Group, now part of AOL Time Warner Inc. In the same vein as Frederic Dannen's Hit Men, and Fred Goodman's The Mansion on the Hill. Exploding chronicles the evolution of the "record business" into the "music industry," where shareholder returns and getting your artist a Pepsi commercial are the new priorities.

The authors start with the genesis of Warner's music business under--who else--movie mogul Jack Warner. But Exploding doesn't get its mojo workin' until it arrives at the sex, drugs, and rock `n' roll of the 1960s. In that decade, Cornyn began his career writing liner notes, and Warner came into its own, with artists like Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Jimi Hendrix.

If debauchery is your thing, Exploding serves up plentiful helpings. It explains why Rod Stewart's band, The Faces, was banned from the entire Holiday Inn chain. And the authors describe Elektra's late-1970s New Orleans blow-out organized to promote Queen's Fat Bottom Girls single. That all-night bacchanalia featured hermaphrodite strippers and topless waitresses bandying trays of condoms and K-Y Jelly.

But for readers who take a more sober interest in the music industry, the book also chronicles the transformation of the executives behind the bands from "ears" to number-crunchers. The authors describe one 1979 budget presentation to Warner Communications Inc. Chairman Steven J. Ross, during which executive Mo Ostin attempted to avoid the issue of disappointing earnings. Tapping his IBM printout, Ross let him have it: "The name of the game, Mo, is performance." Then there was the bloodbath of the mid-1990s, when Warner Music, then part of Gerald Levin's Time Warner Inc., fired a line of top executives including Ostin, Doug Morris, Robert Morgado, and Michael Fuchs. The infighting left Warner in a funk that it's still reeling from today. Unfortunately, Cornyn doesn't delve deeply enough into this pivotal period in music history.

Wrapping up, Cornyn concludes: "What we had accomplished in '69 we had forgotten by '99. When money changed from being a wondrous shower and became ruler over all, everything suffered. Swarms of suits had, in the end, endorsed greed over boogie." But he offers no prescriptions for the business that he was part of for 33 years. And that's a real disappointment.

By Tom Lowry

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