Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money in the Music Business
by Fredric Dannen Reviewed by Robert Gibbs
A few of the characters—Clive Davis, Tommy Mottola, and Allen Grubman—are household names in the entertainment industry. However, Dannen sets the tone of the book by leading with the inter-industry confrontation between the major record labels and a loosely knit group of independent promoters known as The Network. The Network had a stranglehold on radio and demanded large fees from the record labels for airplay. The players in this showdown included record executives like Dick Asher, an Ivy League-trained attorney; Fred Disipio, a Network member with alleged ties to the Gambino crime family; and the late Frankie Crooker, a well-known New York City radio personality and program director at WBLS. Complete with courtroom battles, physical altercations, a NBC expose, and clandestine "Mafia Meetings," the fight over "payola" had the makings of an Oscar-worthy cliffhanger. The climax of this in-fighting would reshape how radio promotion is carried out and financed to this day.
In subsequent chapters, Dannen paints vivid pictures of the real-life characters that guided the industry out of its infancy. He starts with Morris Levy, who started out in the '50s in the New York City Jazz scene as a nightclub owner and promoter for acts like Charlie Parker. He was a tough kid from the Bronx who by the '70s was a multi-millionaire, mostly by virtue of swindling recording artists like Frankie Lymon (famous for singing "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?") out of their copyright ownership. In the '80s, life caught up with Levy when he was convicted for extortion after many brushes with the law. A fictional character based on Levy has had a recurring role in the HBO series "The Sopranos."
Then, of course, there are the well-known music moguls like current J Records/RCA boss Clive Davis. Hit Men chronicles the rise and fall and rise again of the former lawyer from Brooklyn, turned flamboyant (if not arrogant) "Record Man." Davis started out as a Harvard Law-trained associate at Rosenman, Colin, Kaye, Petshek & Freund, now known as KMZ Rosenman. He initially entered the entertainment industry as an in-house attorney at CBS Records, the largest label in the country at the time, and later led them into the rock 'n' roll era by signing acts like Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin, and Santana. Dannen gives a blow-by-blow account from Davis' humble beginnings at CBS to his tumultuous firing to his re-coronation at Arista Records, where he was responsible for giving the world Whitney Houston.
Dannen goes on to tell the story of other movers and shakers who molded the industry. These include men such as Walter Yetnikoff, another Rosenman, Colin attorney handpicked by Davis, who later turned against his mentor; Tommy Mottola, the manager of Hall and Oates and former singer who ascended to the throne at Sony Music (after Sony purchased CBS); David Geffen, the current partner of Steven Speilberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks SKG and former executive at Warner/Electra/Asylum and Geffen Records; and Allen Grubman (father of infamous New York socialite Lizzie), the master dealmaker and arguably the most powerful entertainment attorney in the country who at one time represented 30% of CBS' acts.
Hit Men also covers aspects of the record business that are often overshadowed by all the glam and bling bling. There is the timeless practice of the record labels' ripping off recording artists, whether by giving an artist a couple thousand dollars and a rented Cadillac in lieu of his royalties or charging him for independent promotion as a recoupable expense. Then there was the excess and drug-fueled spending at Casablanca Records during the Disco Era that helped lead to the industry's crash in 1979.
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As Hit Men nears its conclusion, Dannen brings the reader back to the everyday reality that even the entertainment business is just that—a business. He traces the emergence of the compact disc format and the boom in profit margins that resulted from it. Moreover, he takes the reader through the ins and outs of the beginning of the consolidation movement in the industry.
Overall, Hit Men is a quick and exciting yet very informative read. Through candid interviews, firsthand descriptions, parallel chronologies and flashbacks, Dannen's account of the "ruthless glory" of the music business is very well written and at times so riveting as to make John Grisham envious.