Can t stop the music

Can t stop the musicSTAN CORNYN WAS a legendary executive for the Warner Music Group, famous for his soft-sell ad compaigns in the late 1960s and early '70s -- among his innovative strategies was to advertise how few copies some of his label's critically acclaimed releases sold, thereby making the purchase of a record an act of aesthetic resistance to mass taste.

One of the hippest suits of them all, Cornyn retired from the biz in 1992. He is now back with Exploding; The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group (HarperEntertainment), a behind-the-scenes memoir of the record company that dominated the American record industry for over two decades. By dishing about the changes over the past 40 years at the Warner labels, now part of the culture-industry behemoth AOL Time Warner, Cornyn delivers business journalism with a sense of fun. He casts before us, for instance, misty-colored memories of corporate parties in Miami at which crazed participants tossed everything from melons to pianos off balconies.

But he also sees himself as an eyewitness to something like tragedy. He decries, in that hoariest of showbiz cliches, that "the money became more important than music." That's Cornyn's yanked-out-of-his-ass "moral" tacked on to the story of why the Warner Music group has fallen on comparatively hard times. For much of the past four decades, Warner artists ranging from Fleetwood Mac to Prince to the Red Hot Chili Peppers dominated the pop music scene. But yearly revenue declined by $350 million from 1995 to 1999, domestic market share fell from 22 percent in '95 to 16 percent in 2001, and Warner's worldwide sales rank among the five major music conglomerates has slipped to fourth.

Exploding provides more interesting lessons about the interface between commerce and culture than Cornyn probably intended. Indeed, he unconsciously documents that, at least on the business side, the music has only been important precisely because it makes money. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it's hard to escape the feeling that this book is a final self-serving soft pitch by a master marketer.

The Warner Brothers label, linchpin of the Warner Music Group, got off to a slow, pathetic start in 1958 when it signed its first recording "artist," teen idol Tab Hunter, as a new way of generating cash for its parent film studio Jack Warner almost pulled the plug on the venture a year later, but then a last-minute signing of the already-hung Everly Brothers and the release of their 1960 mega-hit "Cathy's Clown" saved the fledgling label from history's cutout bin.

That was the start of something big. By the 1970s, the Warner label family (which grew to include the Reprise, Atlantic, Elektra, and Asylum imprints) was number one with a bullet. In 1976, they moved over $1 billion worth of records -- one out of every four records sold in the country.

Yet despite Cornyn's constant

gestures toward art pour l'art, Exploding makes in clear that the suits who kept Warner huge from the mid '60s through the mid' 90s didn't care about "the music" any more than did the banks holding on to the $16 billion in debt generated by the Time Warner merger.

When Warner began colonizing hippieland by signing the likes of the Grateful Dead, longtime Warner label chief Mo Ostin told Cornyn that he really prefers Andy Williams, Cornyn himself misses few chances to insult most of the rock music of the era he presided over, from punk to metal. Truth be told, he says, punk rock "felt to many of us like narrow streets in a Dickens novel, the kind with open sewers running down their middles."

Then there's hip-hop, the dominant pop style of the past decade. Cornyn admits that none of the Warner labels had any appreciation or understanding of the genre -- a good part of the reason why the Universal Music Group, which did, now dominates the industry. The only music Cornyn expresses genuine love for is old-school jazz.

The past year or so has been especially hard on music companies. Sales of blank CDs have finally exceeded sales of new, prerecorded CDs -- a trend that is widely taken to signal the end of the traditional industry as listeners arm themselves with cheap CD recorders and other copyright-busting technologies. Total music sales declined 3 percent in 2001 -- the first such decrease in the post-1991 SoundScan era of music sales tracking.

The Chicken Littles of today's music industry conveniently ignore history. That includes Cornyn, who memorably recounts the white-knuckle year of 1979, when industry losses totaled some $200 million. (Back then, cassette recorders, rather than CD burners, were seen as the culprit.) In his memorable telling, you can practically smell the coke and adrenaline-drenched sweat of industry weasels watching their fortunes dry up and blow away as new technologies and fickle fans threatened to put them out of work. But such history shows that a bad year or two does not the death of an industry make: For example, 1983 was the absolute worst year for the Warner Music Group, but 1987 was then their best. By 1989, a Dean Witter Reynolds analyst said of the newly merged Time Warner that "the record division is the engine of the whole company, and it's a huge cash generator."

Such reversals of fortune teach a valuable lesson. All the money that Warner--or any entertainment corporation--rakes in ultimately comes from selling a product that people want at a decent price. Given the key role the record division has played in keeping what is now AOL Time Warner afloat, it's sobering to realize that today's megacorporation might not exist if not for the trifling tune "Cathy's Clown."

Middlemen and execs--and the record labels that employ them--come and go, but performers will always make music and listeners will always want to hear it. Even--perhaps especially--in the freewheeling digital worlds of today and tomorrow, artists and audiences will find each other. Maybe middlemen such as Cornyn will end up losing out. But if they really care about the music, not the money, that shouldn't worry them a bit.