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 executivethat is, until now.
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.
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?
When did you first realize that you wanted to be in the
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
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
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.
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 agentat
least I didn't think.
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 nightthe 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 enoughalthough 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 Bobergwho
is my boss now (and President of MCA RecordsEd.)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
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.
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
Did this happen by magic, or did you actually hand somebody
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.
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
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?"
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 unfortunatelyand
I mean this part as sincere as I can bethat 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.
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 musicpeople 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.
learned that at MTV more than I ever learned it in my life.
The secretaries in the hall, the young producers in the studiothey
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 nowmaybe not
quite as visible because MTV is so singularbut being at
a major record company, to some degree...
There are 22 record companiesmaybe 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
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
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 accountablemaybe by choice.
Here was another opportunity to do that. It was the perfect
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.
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 bizEd.) . I had just worked
with these people for the last four years as they masterminded
their campaigns. So I stepped into it, literally.
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 millionEd.).
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 thinkmaybe more successful on many levels
and with different kinds of experience at other labelswho
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.
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 companyjust 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.
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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