Copyright 1999 Entertainment Weekly, Inc.
LENGTH: 1,345 words
DATE: July 23, 1999
BYLINE: Andrew Essex
HEADLINE: A WILD WILD MESS
Following the largest music merger in history, artists such as BECK, SHERYL CROW, and STING struggle to find their place in a new pop landscape
Along with white-boy rappers and Latin sensations, there's a new type of artist making the scene: the musically homeless. In their ranks you'll find cult faves (Morrissey), faded pop stars (Paula Abdul), and the neo-country elite (Cowboy Junkies)--all of whom have lost their record deals.
Seven months after the sale of PolyGram to Seagram's Universal for $10.4 billion, the biggest merger in music history hasn't just created the world's largest record company (the Universal Music Group), it's thrust some major names--including Sting, Hole, and Sheryl Crow--into a dizzying game of musical chairs.
Though the dust is still settling, PolyGram, whose holdings included Island, Mercury, and Def Jam, has been melded with the UMG properties MCA, Geffen, and Interscope. This new mega-company now consists of two primary divisions: the Los Angeles-based Interscope Geffen A&M Records, home to acts like No Doubt and Garbage; and Island Def Jam, headquartered in New York and boasting talents like Method Man and Hanson.
To illustrate the mind-blowing jumble that is now UMG, consider the following: Satan-worshiping Marilyn Manson (an Interscope act) is label mates with God-loving Amy Grant (an A&M artist). And all that was sacrificed in the creation of this unholy alliance were the jobs of some 1,200 rank-and-file employees (so far!) and a few high-powered gurus like Mercury president Danny Goldberg and A&M chief Al Cafaro.
But while fired staffers receive severance and unemployment and execs have their golden parachutes, dropped acts are getting nothing but a boot print. According to a Universal spokesman, 187 groups--characterized mostly as baby bands and other unfamiliar combos--have been cut from the rosters of Island and Def Jam alone. Walking papers have also been issued to hipsters like the Geffen-based Boss Hog and Polydor's R.E.M.-flavored Buffalo Tom. "They didn't do a mass drop," says Scott Ambrose Reilly, manager of God Street Wine, a jam-happy Deadhead-inspired band now in limbo with Mercury. "That way, they didn't have a bloodbath in the press." Adds one major rock star now with UMG: "There are bands that don't even know if they're dropped yet because nobody will call and tell them."
Among the most publicized dropees has been ex-'Til Tuesday singer Aimee Mann, who's become the martyred poster child for axed artists. Last January, the critically admired Geffen singer played her third solo album to her new bosses. (The record includes tracks that may be featured in Paul Thomas Anderson's December movie, Magnolia.) "At first they told us they liked [it]," says Mann's manager, Michael Hausman. "But later we found out they didn't like it so much. I met with Jimmy [Iovine, former Interscope cohead-turned-Interscope Geffen A&M cochair], and he was like, 'You'll have to excuse me, it's so crazy here--we're merging bathrooms.' I've got an artist who spent two years making a record, and this guy's telling me about bathrooms." In early May, Mann received official word she'd been let go. Adding insult to penury, to take her unreleased record elsewhere, she must first buy back the master tapes from UMG, which could run into several hundred thousand dollars. (UMG would not comment on the status of these negotiations.)
Of course, the music business has a long history of dropping bands that don't ka-ching. (Holding on to masters is standard company policy.) Industry mogul Chris Blackwell, who founded and later sold Island Records to PolyGram, believes the system will eventually right those who've been wronged: "Artists get dropped--but if they're good, they'll get reemployed."
Besides, the changes have helped Doug Morris, named chairman and chief executive by UMG CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr., live up to his merger's mandate: creating what Morris called "a lean, flexible organization." According to the Los Angeles Times, Universal currently lays claim to a market share of 27.1 percent--nearly 10 percent more than current No. 2 conglomerate BMG. Surmises Michael J. Wolf, an entertainment analyst with Booz, Allen & Hamilton: "The music business is about artists and distribution. Universal made itself biggest in both. I honestly don't see a downside--as long as they don't alienate the talent."
But there is distinct evidence that the retained talent is feeling alienated. At February's Grammy Awards, Sheryl Crow publicly decried the demise of her former label, which signed her in 1991 and nurtured her to stardom. "A&M is now no longer," she said. UMG insists that Crow is "wrong. Sheryl's albums will be on A&M." But even if the label on Crow's disc says A&M, most of the individuals who helped her grow are no longer there. Ditto for A&M-turned-Interscope Geffen A&M singer Bryan Adams, who's also found the loss of former colleagues "extremely difficult," says Bruce Allen, Adams' manager. "We had a team that was with us for 20 years. They understood what Bryan wanted to accomplish. We're now the proverbial bastard child dropped on the door of the wealthy family in town." Beck is another disgruntled employee: On May 10, he filed suit against Geffen in Los Angeles, claiming UMG "forced to the streets...talented and beloved executives...critically important to Geffen's relationship with Beck [who were] replaced by persons unknown." The singer is suing for copyright infringement.
Interscope Geffen A&M president Tom Whalley, a former Interscope prez who signed the Wallflowers, believes it's just a matter of "relationship building--getting to know the artists and building a sense of trust." But asking cynical musicians to believe that the world's biggest record company won't take the concept of corporate rock to new, unforgiving levels won't be easy. "This is about Edgar [Bronfman Jr.] deciding he's going to play his hand out on our turf," insists one major Interscope Geffen A&M rock star, who asked to remain anonymous. "They're really into things that are big scores. They've got a bit of a style-over-substance issue. [But] you can't produce us like you produce wine f---ing coolers."
A UMG spokesperson calls this opinion "grossly incorrect," but it's easy to understand how musicians might see things this way: UMG is the latest and largest company in a biz that has grown more mindful of the bottom line. Massive record groups like Sony (Epic, Columbia), BMG (Arista, RCA), and Warner Music (Elektra, Atlantic) may not "wine-cooler" artists, but they're also not as famously nurturing as Geffen and A&M were in their heydays. "Everyone wants a platinum album right out of the box," Hausman says. "It's so much easier than to break a new artist who might--at the end of a two- or three-year project--sell 100,000 copies."
To quell criticism of the new UMG, Interscope's management team (Iovine, Whalley, and Ted Field) were put in charge of West Coast operations. The execs have a proven track record for breaking bands, including music's newest dough boys, Limp Bizkit. "Everyone wants to believe this is a huge corporate environment that doesn't understand music," Whalley says. "[They think] it's all going to just be about hit records with no sense of artistry. [But] we're known for breaking new artists."
Even if UMG aggressively develops new voices, some suggest its huge bureaucracy will inevitably overlook diamonds in the rough. That may leave room for a new breed of savvy, smaller independent music labels that will co-opt nontraditional means of distribution, like MP3, to compete with the big boys. Already, former Master of the Universe Danny Goldberg has started a new boutique outfit called Artemis Records, devoted to developing quality rock, pop, and R&B records for the long haul with a strong emphasis on breaking artists via the Internet.
Not that these start-ups will immediately rescue all the acts left standing once the music stopped. "A lot of artists who had promising careers will have to restart their lives," says Hausman. "And a lot of great people and organizations have been torn apart. That's very sad."
(Additional reporting by Laura Morgan)