Empty Exaltations

2/19/1993

I knew it would be a bad trip when the plane to San Francisco was delayed an hour, but tickets had been purchased, hotel rooms booked, meetings planned and besides, I had no choice.

So, with much trepidation, I boarded. I sought solace from the hour-long trip, hoping to use the time alone to compose my thoughts and plan my actions for the weekend, but it was not to be. I was loaded and strapped in between two MCA employees who proceeded to bitch and moan about the state of the business and their employer in particular. They spouted noble notions and shared visionary ideas about the future of their company, replete with comments such as “All should do this” and “Rich should know better.” As neither was old enough to order cocktails, I wondered what had come over my friends, Misters Teller and Palmese, to trust their careers to the likes of these? I finally bit my tongue and asked the cretin on my left what he did for MCA. When he replied that he was in charge of calling 500 retail stores each week to compile data, I realized that the hype of the convention had begun already. I immediately ordered another drink and sought refuge in the back of the plane, knowing most “industry types” avoid this section because it is beneath their station. I fell between two gentlemen who resembled Teller and Palmese and began drinking heavily.

As planned, I arrived too late for the KSJO party (didn’t everybody?), but just in time to join in the “training sessions” that would prepare one for the suite parties the following night. Drinks abounded and although I saw many familiar faces and shared more than a couple of nods, the mood was different. I quickly passed it off, thinking it was me and continued into the wee hours.

The next morning broke with a flurry of furious phone calls. I showed quickly and got ready to brave the registration process. I even had enough time to practice my “whenjagitin” line in front of the mirror for several minutes. Satisfied that I had it down, I moved carefully out of my hotel and down to the St. Francis.

Years in the business usually add up to nothing more than old men with older stories, but the experience pays big dividends in certain situations, like getting registration badges without standing in line with the salmon who don’t know better and were actually looking forward to the process. I managed my first confrontation with the masses without a scene.

Being a member of the working press and not a P-1 reporter who could turn his nose up at such triviality, I ventured into the meeting rooms for the first time in years. Long ago I had given up on the panels as endless hype about the size of one’s penis (I mean ego). The non-stop posturing by the peacocks with their preening and shrieking usually goes unnoticed by the members of the audience. This year provided no exceptions. All of the panels I attended were more boring than usual, with most participants expostulating on the company line. No fireworks were set off and except for two rap groups threatening to hold Ron Fell hostage for more badges, nothing out of the ordinary occurred.

Thursday night began the free-for-alls. Every record company has a party at the same time, each competing for the limited number of important radio people and settling for what they get. Sony Music commandeered the third floor of the Pan Pacific with Burt Baumgartner and Polly Anthony holding court. Everyone flowed smoothly through their glow during the night. PLG lit up the Great American Music Hall. The joint was packed, possibly due to the outstanding hospitality of Rick Dobbis, Johnny Barbis and Joe Riccitelli, but more likely from its location next door to the every-popular Mitchell Brothers’ Theatre. Interscope cornered the market wit the best food at the Corona Bar and Grill. It’s always fun to watch Bill Brill direct and Mark Benesch act gracious. Afterwards, it was hanging in dimly lit bars waiting for the ballerinas to free up.

Friday hit with gale force. Those who weren’t in, were, and hype-a-cane warnings were posted along the perimeters. The lobby of the St. Francis Hotel was to be avoided at all costs. The mood of the convention was somber. There was not the usual tomfoolery and gaiety as in past years. Perhaps it was the state of the industry. Most likely, a state of mind.

I was mulling this and other thoughts over when I came out of my coma and realized I had taken a wrong turn. What an amateurish mistake! Quickly, I fought back the momentary surge of panic and headed back. I was out of luck. Streaming down the stairs was a group of wannabe’s who had just finished attending a session how to be. I spun around and headed for the hallway, but it was blocked by the same rapper and posse who had kidnapped their limo driver the night before and had just been released from jail. The bile was building in the back of my throat as I realized I had no choice. I had to walk the gauntlet through the lobby.

I took a deep breath, vowed to be brave, dropped my head to avoid eye contact and began pushing through. I was in the belly of the beast and only luck would get me out unscathed.

That’s when I knew the mood had really shifted. In past years, the lobby was a drowning pool, watched over by the bottom feeders searching for the sharks. When they spotted the approach of anyone pretending to be important, they went into a feeding frenzy. It was an ugly scene. Blood and pulp flowed freely. But this year, the hounds were penned. Oh, there were several groups of coyotes who hid in the corners, but they were content merely with barking and snarling among themselves rather than forcing a frontal attack. The attitude was wait-and-see, though few knew who they were waiting for and most were blind.

The lobby, sans wolves and whales, was, as in previous years, full of those with no jobs looking for any job and those with bad jobs looking for better ones. And as in previous years, no one found what they were looking for. Except for me. I found the front doors.

Friday night began with the infamous cocktail party, known for the lack of cocktails and party atmosphere, followed by showcases in various suites. For the most part, security wasn’t needed and the masses were able to visit as they pleased. Veterans, of course, stayed away. Saturday, with the exception of the exceptional Paul Drew presentation, the beast began its death throes. It belched out some awards. Among the winners: Burt Baumgartner, Jerry Blair, David Glew, Ed Nefuer, Gene Johnson and Greg Lee as well as MCA and Arista as record companies. On the radio dial, Shakes and Albie D., McCartnery and London, Newman, Thomas and Scot and Mr. Ed and Lauren with accolades to stations KISS 108, WXPL, WZEE and KDON. The first annual Bill gavin Heritage Award was presented to the dapper-hatted Paul Drew and that about did it.

Awards generally accepted, but now officially acknowledged, were: Biggest Rumor: Keith Naftly as VP for both The Beat as well as KMEL; Biggest Mystery: What is Charlie Minor doing? Best Line: What do sperm and consultants have in common? One on 100,000 will become a human being. Good Timing Award: The banquet was over early so most New Yorkers caught red-eyes to the East Coast. The tailwind bonus cut the flight time to just over four hours for most.

No matter the particulars and my specific gripes, The Gavin Convention always comes off with a lot of class, something of which the English should, but probably won’t take note. My hat goes off to Dave Sholin, the Will Rogers of the Industry (he never heard a record he didn’t like). The only way it could have been better is if we had done it ourselves.

Maybe next year.

Viva La Revolution!

(1st Editorial To Appear In Network 40)

Long ago and far away, in a land of unlimited Hitbounds and Shotgun Jingles, all record companies were successful, most radio stations were number one and every record was a smash. Each year, massive bonuses were awarded to ever-expanding record companies, programmers garnered huge incentives every six months with the publishing of Arbitron ratings, several friendly trade magazines published weekly, and the hits just kept on coming every day.

Back then, promotion and radio people actually hung out…discussed music…spent time together. Record companies wanted to sell records and build acts. Trade magazines were interested in reporting news rather than making it. Information from any music radio station was openly courted and gladly accepted. Radio stations were concerned with staying one step ahead of their audiences’ tastes. It was the age of Aquarius, when peace ruled the planets and love steered the charts.

Right.

After a while, it turned ugly. The entertainment business became more business and less entertainment. Promotion people stopped hanging out and programmers started hanging up. Record companies made cutbacks and radio got monthly Arbitrends. The incentive was just keeping your job. The friendly trades became more cut-throat. Deregulation altered radio ownership from long-term investments to short-term financial windfalls. Budgets were slashed, priorities were switched almost as often as call letters, consultants were the rule and, as research became the buzzword, programmers were reduced to being music mixers.

Then it go mean. One trade magazine garnered power and became a “restraint of trade” publication as it renamed formats, demanded strict adherence to its tyrannical policies and turned into the “Big Brother” of the industry. Suddenly, “Breakers” were more important than sales. Field staffs were cut and independent contractors added. A little radio station in East Jesus, Nebraska…a town with no record stores…became famous overnight because of its reporting status…a status that was not earned, but anointed. And two airline companies added daily flights to East Jesus to answer the increased demand.

Formats have fragmented and Mainstream Top 40 is being squeezed, not just by the music, but by a system that demands playlist additions dictated by rules and regulations that have nothing to do with audience tastes. To make data simpler to process and easier to control, radio has been reduced to the lowest common denominator. Innovation, imagination, creativity and style, once characteristics most sought in our business, have been stifled because there’s no chart for them. We can’t make them a “Breaker.”

We’ve all, in one way or another, become victims of this archaic process.

This must end.

Record companies must discontinue the practice of rewarding chart adds and focus instead on actual airplay and sales. Paying bonuses for paper adds is like an oil company compensating a contractor for drilling a well that hits water. In the long run, they’re all wet. So, too, could be some relationships. Private conversations with individuals close to the Federal Communications Commission told The Network 40 that the promotional arrangements made between radio stations and some independent promoters will come under close scrutiny in the Clinton administration.

Programmers must begin making playlist decisions based on what’s right for their audiences (instead of promotional considerations) or suffer long-term damage. Sales executives have to find innovative ways to sell the younger demos. If radio just continues to follow the boomers up the demographic scale, in another 10 years, we’ll be hearing nothing but ads for Geritol and Depends. Commercials during the Super Bowl, which sold for $28,000 per second, focused almost exclusively on the young and young-at-heart, from Pepsi, Nike and McDonalds to the automobile manufacturers. To super serve the 25-54 demo, radio has lost the automotive, soft drink, beer and fast-food franchises to TV. If radio spent more time creating specialized campaigns for these advertisers to entice them back to radio, medium as a whole, and particularly Mainstream Top 40, would be healthy again. In the advertising world, where youth and sex are used to push almost every product, it’s amazing that Mainstream Top 40, which epitomizes these traits, consistently abandons its strengths in a vain attempt to be older and more mature. Mainstream Top 40 is the perfect vehicle for advertisers. We have to sell this fact.

And industry magazines must begin to report the news, not make it. We need to accept radio’s definitions, not force them to conform to ours. We are the product of the radio and record industries. We must serve their needs, not dictate our desires to them.

For years, the complaints have been mounting. Everyone is griping, but no one has done anything about it. Now, however, the mood is different. The climate is ripe for change. A new administration has taken over based on its promise to alter the status quo. It is time to find innovative and improved ways of accomplishing our goals.

With the mandate for change comes responsibility. It is one thing to sit on the sidelines and complain about the way the game is being played. It is another to become a player and influence the outcome. To affect change, you must participate in the process. You have only two choices: to be a part of the problem or a part of the solution.

We at The Network 40 are dedicated to affecting change. And we seek your help. We want to reposition our magazine within the framework of the radio and record industries according to your definitions. We need your input. Write or call toll free at (800) 443-4001 and tell us what you want and what you don’t want. Tell us what you like and what you don’t like. Our measure of success depends on you. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

In the coming weeks, you will watch the suggestions you make become a reality. We will become the industry magazine you design. Together, we can make a difference. The Network 40 makes this commitment to excellence…to supply, our readers, with accurate data and important information to enable you to do your jobs more effectively. We ask for your help and trust. In return, we promise to reflect your interests…not dictate our desires.

We will join those who want to be a part of the solution. Those who continue to perpetuate the problems need to know they belong to a minority that is quickly shrinking. The tide is turning. The time to act is now.

Viva La Revolution!