Deconstructing Pop Culture

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What Is a “Record Man”?

March 14th, 2010 by David Kronemyer · 2 Comments

The term “record man” refers to a person who has an intuitive feel for the nuances and subtleties of the record business. I would insert the requisite gender disclaimer however the fact of the matter is there are few (if any) record women, at least none whom I’ve known personally. Harassment laws notwithstanding in my experience there are few women in the entertainment business – either artists or executives – who have not, at some point in their career, been required to compromise themselves sexually.

The opposite of the record man is an executive who is superficially attracted to the pacing and dynamics of the record business but in fact is clueless as to what’s actually going on. Most of the time these persons are imported from other areas of industry and commerce. Examples within my personal experience when I worked for Capitol-EMI are Joe Kiener, Terry Santisi and Steven Murphy. Kiener was a tennis-shoe executive who formerly worked for Adidas. He was head of Chrysalis Records in the U.S. from approximately March 1989 to April 1992. Santisi was an accountant. She and Charles Koppelman were head of SBK Records and then the EMI Records Group in New York from approximately January 1989 to March 1997. Murphy was a book-publishing executive. He was head of Angel Records, Capitol-EMI’s classical music label in the U.S., from approximately February 1991 to December 1998.

Kiener, Santisi and Murphy illustrate what I have come to call the “expertise fallacy.” The premise underlying the expertise fallacy is there are two separate knowledge bases. One pertains to the “industry” and the other pertains to a substantive field of endeavor, for example, “finance” or “marketing.” Companies delude themselves into believing the latter trumps the former and that people from other unrelated enterprises must know something they don’t. As adept as these three may have been in their respective fields none of these executives had the slightest idea of what they were doing in the record business.

The example of Kiener is particularly illustrative.  On May 8, 1989 I attended a Capitol-EMI record convention in Palm Springs.  I picked Kiener up at the airport.  At the time Chrysalis Records had a big hit with Sinead O’Connor’s cover of the Prince song “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Kiener and I were talking and he says, “I’m busy planning her 4th single” (i.e., the one that was to be the fourth one after “Nothing Compares 2 U”). I said, “Joe, shouldn’t you be worrying about her next single first?” I liked Kiener and thought he was a nice guy, but he didn’t understand a word of what I was saying. Shortly afterwards O’Connor shaved her head and started insulting Pope John Paul II, which was the end of her major label career. God knows how much marketing money Kiener spent on this quixotic notion.

The main problem with executives like Kiener is the phenomenology of expertise. As deconstructed by people who have given this a lot of thought such as Hubert Dreyfus, it is a series of steps to acclimatize oneself to the nuances and dynamics of a particular firm, how it is situated in the marketplace and the product handling characteristics of what it has for sale. Every industry has its own specialized and non-fungible set of customs, conventions and protocols. It is locked into its own web of relationships and precedents. Strategies that may work for consumer products companies such as Procter & Gamble have little in common with the nuances required to originate, market, promote and distribute records or movies. It only is coincidental these terms even are used interchangeably when in fact they have completely different meanings. I make this observation ecumenically. While I am not aware of specific examples, I am equally sure record or film industry executives would not be very good at selling underarm deodorant.

One of the main differences between consumer entertainment software (CDs, DVDs, video games, etc.) and other types of consumer products (tennis shoes, groceries, biscuits, etc.) is the economics of replication. Consumer entertainment software is inexpensive to duplicate (and has become even less so with the increasing obsolescence of physical goods). The only investment required is to originate it (e.g. recording costs for a record, the negative cost for a film). This cost in turn is amortizable over the number of units sold. As it is recouped its per-unit cost becomes increasingly small (and one of the key measures of a project’s success is the rate of this recoupment).

Consumer product companies on the other hand incur very little in the way of fixed cost. Their marginal per-unit cost always will be higher because they are selling a physical thing. This leads to completely different product life cycles, handling strategies and marketing campaigns. The ways in which these are structured will depend more on the particular industry than on some set of general theoretical principles.

To tie this back to Kiener I am sure the idea of formulating a marketing plan for Adidas tennis shoes three years out makes complete sense. However that is an incomprehensibly long time frame in the record business. Recording artists are temperamental and mercurial and deliver master sound recordings sporadically. One can’t predict consumer demand for records that have yet to be released. The business models are completely different.

Examples of true record men whom I have known or worked for are: Bhaskar Menon; Joe Smith; Dennis White; Joe Mansfield; Joe McFadden; Doug Morris; Mel Lewinter; Mike Curb; and Walter Lee.