Deconstructing Pop Culture

Deconstructing Pop Culture header image

The Travails of Marc Cohn

December 10th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

Marc Cohn is a performing artist. Let me start off by saying it is not my intention to be disrespectful to him. He has had plenty of travails in his life, including being shot in the head. However he is a perfect illustration of what happened as the record business migrated from its former template, to the one now prevailing. His example is so salient that I cannot help but recalling it with certainty.

Mr. Cohn had released three records on Atlantic Records. He had a moderate hit in 1991, “Walking in Memphis.”  That year he also was awarded a Grammy citation for “Best New Artist.”  There came a time, though, when he was dropped by Atlantic. No doubt he was massively unrecouped. This means the amount of money Atlantic had advanced to Mr. Cohn for recording costs, tour support, music videos etc. was far less than the amount of royalties Mr. Cohn would have earned at whatever royalty rate was specified in his contract. There was also regime change at Atlantic after the Doug Morris – Mel Lewinter – Danny Goldberg axis got fired, and new management came in.

To a large extent this process is inevitable and adversely affects many recording artists. The first thing new management of a record (or film) company does is triage its artist roster, dropping everyone whose commercial prospects are dim, or even just uncertain. According to record company accounting principles, the record company then can write off the entire unrecouped balance as a capital loss in the year the artist is dropped, rather than continuing to amortize it into the future. Needless to say the record company also gets to stop spending money supporting the artist. This frees up economic resources for the new regime to market and promote the few remaining artists it has retained on the label, and the new artists it acquires that correspond more to its tastes and preferences.

This is where I got involved, circa 2000. Mr. Cohn’s representatives approached a label I was consulting – Gold Circle Records – with a proposal to enter into a new recording contract. Mr. Cohn was introduced by David Crosby, who also had released (or was about to release) a record on Gold Circle under the auspices of his new band, CPR. I went to showcase at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles featuring Crosby/CPR, with Cohn opening. It was a great performance and Mr. Cohn undoubtedly had/has considerable talent.

The problem was he wanted a $600,000 advance. He probably already had recorded masters for a new album. It is not hard to create a scenario (in the ancient world of record companies long ago) that he actually had expended this amount doing so. If they had not already been recorded, perhaps this was the imaginary budget to do so, or they were in some intermediate state of being recorded but not yet finished. Possibly Atlantic also was seeking contribution for its unrecouped balance, on the theory it had invested significantly in Mr. Cohn’s name, image and reputation, thus his prospects in the marketplace.

I thought this was hilarious. There was no conceivable way Mr. Cohn’s new masters would support an advance of this magnitude. I am not sure they would have supported any advance at all under the circumstances. This particularly was so given the massive structural changes record companies were starting to undergo, mainly precipitated by the ascendancy of the Internet and the corresponding demise of the CD.

I don’t know what happened after that. Evidently the masters were abandoned, as Mr. Cohn’s next record was a “live” record self-released in 2005 on his own label. This means no record company – be it major or independent – wanted the masters in question. In short the market had changed completely and Mr. Cohn had been left behind. In 2007 he released a record on Decca Records, which is a subsidiary of the Universal Music Group (perhaps not-so-coincidentally headed by Doug Morris). That record seems to have sunk without a trace.

Weird scenes inside the goldmine, indeed.


Marc Cohn