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Important addition to the history of rock and pop music
on March 16, 2014
The single most-missed aspect in most articles, reviews and books about popular music, and particularly about the period of the 60's and 70's is the fact that it was a business. There are many excellent pieces written on the music and cultural changes of the era, but the details and even the existence of the business that underlay the entire thing gets barely a mention. Yet the business side of music controlled who was signed, how they were promoted, who got airplay and how it was distributed in a way that made it almost a co-creator of the whole phenomenon. In studying this vital period, it is as important to know the business history as it is any other aspect of it.
In a way, the "record business" was almost too successful, in that the songs seemed to appear before you out of nowhere, and just as miraculously, the record would be in the bins to be purchased; the work of hundreds of people, the big organizations, the payola, the agents and the deals all hidden away, unnoticed.
Stan Cornyn was uniquely positioned as one of the original employees of Warner Brothers Music from its founding in the Fifties, through its heyday as the world's biggest music label group in the Seventies and Eighties, to its later decline. Not only that, but he became a major executive within the company but was a creative, music person and not a 'Suit". I first noticed him as a writer of Frank Sinatra's liner notes (for which he won Grammy awards) and also of delightfully over-the-top notes for Petula Clark's LP's. He went on as head of Warner's advertising and promotion to be a major creator of a label whose atmosphere appealed to the new crowd of singer-songwriters and rock stars who wanted to sign with this label and not its stodgy competitors.
Warner-Atlantic and later Asylum and others of the group became so big largely because of this perceived hipness during a period when almost all the other labels were completely out to sea about what was going on in music and often survived only because of a lucky signing of a Bob Dylan (Columbia) or Beatles (Capitol). And Cornyn was there it the thick of it, observing everything from the days when it was smaller than some of the independents to the Time-Warner merger and beyond. This is what makes the book so vital; that he found himself in the middle of the most signifigant label of the era, and not some also ran like RCA or Capitol.
It's telling that the early part of the book is focused on artists and creative, music-involved executives like the Erteguns and Mo Ostin and that the later part reads like a history of the Borgias as corporate suits take over and launch plots and counter plots against each other. Throughout it all Cornyn presents a keenly observed story in a witty and enjoyable way.
Let's deal with the problem that readers like reviewer Terry Saundry had. If you're looking for a book about the lives of rock stars full of stories and interviews, this is not it. Nor is it a work of aesthetic criticism of the music or a cultural history of the rock revolution of the mid Twentieth Century. It is indeed, a business history, but an important and vital one if one is looking to understand that era and what happened to subsequently change it: like Sallust says of Rome, it got too big and rich for its own good, and then the money-men moved in.
It might have been advisable to include a mention of the business nature of the book in the title because Mr. Saundry's complaint is a valid one. Also, as one gets later on in the book when the cast of corporate characters are not exactly well known music-associated names like David Geffen, a glossary of names and who they were would have been helpful. As it was, I took notes to remember just who these names were. Otherwise we are very lucky that Mr. Cornyn was where he was for so long, and had the talent to produce such an excellent and necessary book.