Abbey Konowitch
Interviewed by Michael Laskow
part one  |   part two

Most personal achievement gurus recommend "modeling" yourself after successful people in order to be successful yourself. There aren't many places where one can learn the real, behind-the-scenes scenarios that illuminate the pathway to success as a music industry executive—that is, until now.

Normally this column focuses on the how-to of getting yourself a record or publishing deal. When I interviewed Abbey Konowitch I was fascinated by his career path and thought it might serve as one hell of a road map for people who would like to know how to climb the ladder of success in the music industry.

For that reason, Abbey will appear in the Insider this month and next. This month will mostly focus on his years with Arista Records, MTV, Maverick Records (Madonna's Company), and Abbey's recent arrival at MCA Records. Next month's edition will give you a great inside look at how the music industry finds new artists and then builds careers for them.

Where did you grow up?

Philadelphia.

When did you first realize that you wanted to be in the music business?

Some time in the '60s. Like everybody else, I was attracted to music mostly as a consumer. When I was in college, I became enamored with radio. I was looking for something to do besides taking up air and space in the college library, so I got into college radio.

Was that your first "official" music business job?

My first job where I actually got paid was when I was a DJ in college at the local commercial radio station, WQWK. I worked there six days a week while I went to college at Penn State.

How did you get the gig at the commercial station?

One day I got a phone call and someone said, "Do you want to come work for us at the radio station?" I said, "That would be great. I'd love to do that." They said, "Terrific. We'll see you at one o'clock in the morning on Saturday night." I worked from one until six in the morning, and I learned what the graveyard shift was. So I did that all through college.

I was also the social chairman, as they called the people who brought concerts to college. I got them to give me some pay to cover my tuition. So I was getting paid by the school to book concerts, and I was getting paid to be on the radio. I was pretty lucky. I was quite consumed by the music business, but not the record business. I was getting all the new records from all of the record companies. I was listening to all the new music. This was in the free-form days of radio, so I was programming my own radio show every night. I was booking what I thought were the coolest new bands at my college. I booked Bruce Springsteen before anybody knew who he was. I booked the Allman Brothers, the Eagles, Crosby Stills & Nash, America. I was really quite involved with it. It wasn't like this was going to be my career, because there was no career that I could see. The thing that I was really doing was radio. The concert thing was fun, but I was never going to be an agent—at least I didn't think.

But fortunately, I did become friends with two or three agents. I became friends with them for two reasons. One was because I really got into it. The other was I was somewhere they could reach me every night—the radio station. Sounds odd, but these guys have unusual lifestyles and they were looking for people to call late at night. So there I was. They would call me, and I became friends with a few of them. When it was time to leave college, I had to decide one of two things. One was either to go into radio, for which I probably wasn't even close to good enough—although I thought I was happening. Also, I didn't really want to live in ten cities in ten weeks, which is really what it comes down to. So I had a choice of either going to work in New York at a company called College Entertainment for $125 a week, or a choice to go to Boston and work for an agency for $100 a week. I, being the true negotiator that I am, went to Boston for the $100 a week. I was a little intimidated by living in New York with no money. I moved to Boston and became an agent. I was dealing with all of the other major agencies. I booked for a lot of big groups. I was "happening."

And you got these offers just because you knew these other agents who could reach you late at night?

I got the offers because I became one of "those" guys. There is a long list of us, including guys like Jay Boberg—who is my boss now (and President of MCA Records—Ed.)—and who was the concert chairman at UCLA. I would say 80% of the guys who became agents or promoters started out as college promoters.

How long did you have that gig? Where did you go after Boston?

I was an agent in Boston for about two years. It was a good two years, but I really wasn't making any money at all. There was no future. I would have some great weeks where I would make $200. [laughs] Who would complain but me? [laughs again] So I kind of decided to retire. My father was in the auto parts business in Philadelphia and I thought, you know, it's not really my passion, but I have a wife and kid and I have to make a living. I'm going to go do it.

So, did you go back to Philly?

No, one night I got a phone call from an agent at what was then IFA, which later became ICM, saying they were talking about me that morning and asked if would I be interested in moving to New York. I was afraid of New York. I said that I was actually thinking of retiring. It wasn't like a negotiating ploy. I wasn't kidding. A week later I got a call from another big-time agent who heard I was "retiring," and he said, "We would like you to come work for us. We'll pay you $35,000 a year." I was speechless. So I moved to New York with my wife and my kid and I went at work at ICM.

How long were you there?

I started in 1975 and stayed until 1978. I started out as a junior agent there handling anything they threw my way. One day they fired a guy who was a big agent there, and they gave me the gig. Two weeks later I was Hall & Oates' agent with their young manager Tommy Mottola (who is now CEO of Sony Music). I was booking Loggins and Messina. I was booking The Band. I was booking Linda Ronstadt. It was a great job. And I was still a kid. The interesting thing about being an agent though, is it's not a particularly creative job. As an agent, you have no direct relationship with the consumer, and you have no direct relationship with the artist. So you're really just an agent.

I decided that the business I wanted to get into was the record business. I went to work for Arista Records for Clive Davis as Director of Product Management, and I learned the record business.

Did this happen by magic, or did you actually hand somebody a resume?

Just coincidentally, the guy who called me up and told me that they were talking about me at ICM was then working at Arista and he called me up again. I went in and had a meeting, and they were looking for somebody like me. The hard part of looking for a job is you can be a great guy, but if they're not looking for you it's tough. It's not how good you are, which sounds terrible, but there has to be a job. If they're looking for somebody, and you're looking, then it's easier. It doesn't mean you're the guy, but if you are the guy, you can get the job. Those were my circumstances. They were looking, and I was there. So that's how I got into the record business. It was a great run. I learned the record business with and from a lot of people I worked with at Arista.

During the ten years I was there, it went from the camouflage and sabotage of promotion and sales hating each other to a moderately successful pop label, to a very successful Whitney Houston, Kenny G, Grateful Dead time, to when I left in 1988, a very exciting, very successful record label. We had an amazing team of people there. It was great. We had a really good thing happening. But from 1980 to 1988, I was really enamored with MTV.

Eight years is a long time to be enamored with anything. What happened next?

Although I wasn't part of the "staff," I was one of the "intimates" from the beginning. I was good friends with a lot of the people who put it together, so I was around MTV a lot. I was involved in the early stages of making videos and producing them and all of that. When John Sykes (the original President of MTV) left, they were talking to a lot of people about coming to work there. I wanted to do that. One night I got a phone call at home. It was from a friend of mine who worked there who said, "How come you're not talking to them about this job?" I said, "You've got it completely wrong. Why aren't they talking to me about it?"

We did end up talking. We talked for about two months as a matter of fact. I went to work at MTV in 1988 as Vice President of Programming. It was a very exciting time. I had three great years out of the four-year time I was there. I had an amazing time. We had a great team of people there, and we accomplished a lot of wonderful things.

Why did you leave? What happened in the fourth year that made you want to leave?

It became clear to me that music was still my passion. No matter how much that the first letter of MTV stands for music, it was still a television network. My career path wasn't to work at NBC or CBS. It wasn't to work in television. It was to work in music. I realized after a great run, and unfortunately—and I mean this part as sincere as I can be—that there was an unfortunate perception that I was much more powerful than I was. I became "the most powerful person in the music business." I was #26 in the first year of Entertainment Weekly's "Top-100 People." It was very, very bad for me, and it was very bad for MTV. We (the network) were being perceived as being the make-it-or-break-it for bands.

But if you were the Vice President of programming, isn't it only natural that people would think you had such power?

I was the face. The same way that I said the Arista team was a team, the MTV team was truly a team of ten people. We sat in a room, and we decided what we wanted to play and what we didn't want to play. Rarely, if ever, would I actually overrule our group.

I think one of the important things about what we do today is we don t know anymore the way we used to know. So you have to surround yourself with people that do know. If you're dealing with dance music, you need to know people who live the life. The same with rap or alternative music—people that live the life. You may be able to glean from them, from the sparkle in their eyes, more than they know they know. So you need those people around you.

I learned that at MTV more than I ever learned it in my life. The secretaries in the hall, the young producers in the studio—they knew what was happening. We had them in our meetings, and that's the way decisions were made. The decision to play "O.P.P." by Naughty By Nature didn't come from me. The decision to put "Yo! MTV Raps" on didn't come from me. The decision to play Guns 'N Roses didn't come from me. These were some of our biggest breakthroughs.

But you're almost in that same position now—maybe not quite as visible because MTV is so singular—but being at a major record company, to some degree...

There are 22 record companies—maybe there are 24 now. We're all fighting for the same piece of turf really hard. I'm part of a big team. When we win, we all win. When we all loose, it's all my fault. [laughs] It's that kind of thing. But you hope that we're all going to win. I knew that I didn't want to be at MTV for the rest of my life. That was a decision I made. Therefore, I wanted to get back into the record business. I wanted to get back in the music business as a full-time job.

Any regrets about leaving MTV?

I'll admit I had a tear in my heart watching all my colleagues at President Clinton's inauguration. I wish I'd been there for that.

Didn't you go to work at Maverick with Madonna and Freddy DeMann after leaving MTV?

Yes. When I saw what Madonna and Freddy were doing, that was the job I wanted. I knew Freddy really well. I knew Madonna pretty well. When they were putting together Maverick, what I loved about it was that they had a vision to put together the elements that I had been touching. They wanted to have a record company. They also wanted a television company, and they wanted to do movies. They were in publishing already. And I've always been intoxicated, if you will, with management. I've always been involved with artists and involved with their careers, and I've never been accountable—maybe by choice. Here was another opportunity to do that. It was the perfect job choice.

Management is a lot of work for a very long shot.

Sure. So the reason I had never done it before was because I knew that it was a lot of work for a long shot. But there I was, working for Freddy DeMann who managed Michael Jackson and Madonna. It wasn't so bad. If I was going to learn management, I was going to learn it from one of the best. If I was going to learn how to deal with artists on a very different level than I ever had, I was going to learn it from the best. And I wanted to get back in the record business. I felt very comfortable with working at Maverick.

We signed the two artists that no one else really wanted (Alanis Morrisette and Candlebox), and they went on to become giants. We had a great time. It was the time when Warner Brothers and Reprise had just broken into two labels. The way that Freddy had structured the deal was we had our own marketing control. So I was a kid in a candy store. I could do all of the things that I ever wanted to do that I had, frankly, seen other people do. Whether I knew how to do anything or not, I had just finished working with Ed Rosenblatt and Don Ienner and Tommy Mottola, Dave Glew and Polly Anthony (all of whom are very heavy-hitters in the biz—Ed.) . I had just worked with these people for the last four years as they masterminded their campaigns. So I stepped into it, literally.

So, we had a great time at Maverick. Freddy had a vision and confidence in me. Guy Oseary (Sr. V.P. of A&R) had the youth. He lived the life of rock and hip-hop. When he first got there, he lived the life of alternative. It became easier for us to then go to Warner Brothers and say, "We have a vision. We understand our artists. Go with it." And they did. We were lucky that Candlebox sold 3.5 million. I think the success of Alanis goes way beyond that (currently at 14 million—Ed.). There was never a question from the first time Guy played "Perfect" and "Hand In My Pocket" that she was a big act.

So, if you were having such a great time at Maverick, why did you go to work for MCA?

Two reasons. I think the most important reason is I found a chemistry with Jay Boberg that was special. I found someone who thinks like I think—maybe more successful on many levels and with different kinds of experience at other labels—who was looking for a partner, and so was I. I wasn't looking to be the president of such-and such record company. I thought I could do a good job, but I didn't think I was ready.

Doug Morris (CEO of MCA)) was doing some pretty exciting things with MCA and MCA Music Publishing, so it seemed like it was the perfect place for me. The other thing that attracted me here was that it is a young company—just like any other start-up company. Every key executive is new to the company. They are all new to each other. Yet we have a catalog that brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars, so we have the resources to take risks. We have the business stability of a major, but we have the hunger and the innocence, if you will, of a new company. That is very exciting to me.

Having worked at Maverick, if we didn't sell records, we didn't sell records. Same story with Interscope, if you didn't sell records, you didn't sell records. Columbia Records could be cold as ice for six months and do big business. Capitol Records could have nothing new, and still have its biggest year. So it's pretty great to be able to have Jimi Hendrix, and B.B. King, and the Chess catalog, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in our catalogue. I never had that before. At Arista, we had no catalog either. So that's why I came to MCA.


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