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Russ Bach – Personality Sketch

January 13th, 2011 by David Kronemyer · 2 Comments

Here are some personal reflections about working with Russ Bach, President of CEMA Distribution (the distribution arm of Capitol-EMI Music in the U.S.) from around August 1987 to around March 1999. As set forth in various books and articles about their history, the activities and operations of publicly-traded record companies, such as EMI Music, are a matter of public interest – not only to the artists under contract to those companies, the people employed by them, and the consumers who bought their records – but also to their shareholders. That being so, the matters set forth herein are my personal opinion and interpretation of the facts on the ground.

Dennis White had been Capitol’s head of sales since around 1975, reporting to Don Zimmermann. He became CEMA’s first president. Joe Smith became head of Capitol-EMI in August 1987. Here is a copy of the press release:

Dennis White Press Release

I guess Smith didn’t get along with White, because he fired him shortly thereafter. I thought White was a great, old-school record executive, and I was sorry to see him go. By the same token, I was a big fan of Smith, so I stayed as far away from the controversy as I could.

To replace White, Smith hired Bach. For a number of years Bach had been in the upper management hierarchy at WEA. He recently had lost out to Dave Mount in the succession battle to succeed Henry Droz. Smith knew Bach from his own former tenure at Elektra Records. I once asked Smith about his history with Bach, and he candidly told me he viewed him as a plausible alternative to White, mainly because he came from WEA. “If he’s from WEA, then he must be good.”

My policy always has been to try and make friends fast, so I made a point of hitting it off with Bach as soon as he arrived. Bach tinkered with the organization structure to suit his preferences, firing people here and hiring people there. He redesigned the company’s logo. Bach’s name actually is Brumbach; why he shortened it, we’ll never know (nor will we know why he didn’t pick “Brum” instead of “Bach”). This struck me as evidence of a superficial personality trait. He was proud of an MBA he had received from an evening program at Pepperdine University – a talisman he seemingly believed made him smarter than most other people in the company. Much of his best work, in my view, consisted of doing nothing. Joe Mansfield was VP of Marketing, and Joe McFadden was VP of Sales. Mark Jackson (formerly VP Finance for the EMI Group, based in New York) became CEMA’s CFO in June 1991. True record men, all three of them. Bach wisely left them alone.

Whenever Bach took the initiative, he was prone (again in my personal opinion) to make management errors of varying degrees of culpability. He hired one of his colleagues from the Pepperdine program (who will go nameless) as VP of Human Resources – then, as now, a fancy name for the personnel department. This person specialized primarily in the new-age psycho-babble then fashionable. He embarked on a quixotic crusade against retailers who also sold used CDs, alienating several key customers and precipitating various lawsuits and governmental investigations. He spent several hundred thousand dollars on a research study by a “management consulting” firm (which also shall go nameless), resulting in nothing but a regurgitated version of the information we presented to it. While wasteful, this in and of itself was not particularly disturbing; what made it so was Bach’s belief that the management consultants actually had something useful to say. Behind his avuncular disposition, Bach didn’t have the specialized skills necessary to be a record executive. He wasn’t passionate about music; he just as easily could have been doing the same thing for an insurance or manufacturing company.

Most seriously (again in my personal opinion), Bach never grasped the dynamic of dealing with the various labels comprising the Capitol-EMI group, particularly as the Koppelman regime took over in New York, Virgin Records became ascendant, and the company sank into more-or-less perpetual turmoil. He let the corporate group push him around, rather than taking a stance that was in CEMA’s own best interests. From a corporate standpoint, a division chief has to do more than “watch his back and save his skin,” he(she) actually has to worry about maintaining the operational integrity of the company and looking out for its people, rather than simply bending to the prevailing winds. Bach did not do this, which, in my view, is the worst sin a division head can commit. One might argue this predicament is endemic to the politics of a large corporate organization, and to some extent it is. What distinguishes a great manager from a mediocre one, though, is his (her) ability to navigate these shoals successfully.

Aside from such matters, I segued into an odd role with Bach. For one thing, he looked to me to set policy with him. We would have long meetings, where he would solicit my opinion about various issues, I would express it, and then he would adopt it. I was in the uncomfortable position of having to develop an increasingly refined repertoire of expressions, to agree with Bach that what I proposed really was his idea all along. He also had me do most of his writing for him, particularly corporate presentations, magazine articles, press releases and even speeches. Here are a few examples:

Notes from various CEMA branch meetings

Article about record prices

I left the firm in March 1993. Amazingly, even thereafter, Bach continued to turn to me, having me perform various (uncompensated) tasks relating to CEMA, as well as personal matters. It amused me to play along with Bach’s concept that I actually enjoyed doing these things for him. Bach managed to hang on as CEMA’s President until Ken Berry fired him in March 1999. He then went to work for Disney Records, where he lasted until he was fired in June 2001.

Unfortunately, it appears Bach (evidently) still is refractory to understanding these issues. On September 8, 2010, in response to yet another management shake-up at EMI, he circulated an e-mail regarding the departure of Ronn Were, EMI’s head of North American operations. “I only hope the guy got my kind of package!” Bach wrote, most likely referring to a large severance payment he received after Berry fired him. I would like to suggest that remarks like these demonstrate lack of sensitivity to the dozens of people whose careers Bach was complicit in derailing. It’s not as though Bach deliberately eschewed being sensitive; rather, as his e-mail tends to demonstrate, he simply doesn’t know what this means.