Music insider, Danny Goldberg, spills the beans on the real world of
commercial rock 'n' roll
Dec 13, 2008
special to the star
Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business
by Danny Goldberg
320 pages, $28.50
Cambridge University historian David Fowler recently claimed that
late Beatle John Lennon and Rolling Stone lip Mick Jagger were only
in their professions for the money.
According to music industry insider Danny Goldberg, you can add a
couple more names to the list – Bruce Springsteen and Nirvana front
man Kurt Cobain.
Goldberg, an artist manager who now oversees the careers of Steve
Earle and his wife, Allison Moorer, among others, has held a wide
array of executive positions throughout his 40 years in the record
industry. He's been Atlantic Records president and PR flack; artist
manager and radio station vice-chairman.
Considering his first PR client was Led Zeppelin, it's not difficult
to appreciate why he's named his new memoir Bumping Into Geniuses: My
Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business. The man has been involved
with some of the most influential contemporary icons in pop music history.
He co-produced and co-directed Springsteen in No Nukes, the nuclear
power protest rock concert documentary that featured future clients
Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and others.
Goldberg reveals that Springsteen once lamented his failure to score
a Top 40 single, and that a talk with radio tip sheet guru Kal Rudman
led him to redirect his writing to appeal to women.
"Kal explained to me," said Springsteen in his urgent, hoarse drawl,
"that Top 40 radio is mainly listened to by girls and that my female
demographic was low. And I thought about the songs on Darkness and I
realized that the lyrics were mostly for and about guys," he said,
shaking his head ruefully. "So this new album I'm working on – there
are some songs for girls."
The album, The River, yielded Springsteen's breakthrough hit, "Hungry
Heart," earning him the female admirers he sought.
Nirvana was a management client. Calling Cobain "the greatest artist
I would ever work with," Goldberg intimates that the troubled singer
and songwriter – who would end his life by suicide on April 5, 1994 –
had little trouble, initially at least, with the concept of fame or money.
"Unlike many indie bands who would flirt with the more established
rock business, Nirvana had no such ambivalence," writes Goldberg.
"They had retained Alan Mintz of the big-time L.A. law firm Ziffren,
Brittenham and Branca, and he set up meetings with managers."
In 1993, Wal-Mart threatened to refuse shipments of Nirvana's In
Utero unless the controversial Cobain-designed album cover art was
switched for something a little more palatable. Cobain complied
immediately, more concerned about his public's accessibility to
buying his music.
It's such unblinking candour that makes Geniuses such a compelling
read. He offers some wonderful insight into the music industry;
discloses some real figures (Nirvana received a $300,000 advance for
its Geffen deal, a 15 per cent royalty and a 3 per cent designation
to former label Sub Pop to, in Goldberg's words, "get out of the
way;" and a $200,000 music publishing advance) as well as lay
explanations of how the business works.
But he's also humble enough to realize that much of his career
success was based on fortuitous timing and lucky breaks.
Goldberg's love of music exploded with the Beatles, Stones, Phil Ochs
and Dylan. At age 18, he landed at Billboard as copy editor, getting
a byline for a Woodstock review that paved the way as a contributing
rock critic for Creem, Record World and Rolling Stone.
Goldberg jumped into the PR world in 1973, becoming publicist for Led
Zeppelin, at the time the biggest-selling rock act in the world. He
recalls one battle of egos where drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham felt the
spotlight wasn't on him enough during the show, and Goldberg was
tasked with rectifying the problem. When the crew refused to adjust
the spotlights off singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page
during a concert, Goldberg realized the supposed lighting change was
a ruse to placate Bonham. The drummer forgot about his request the
next day and acted as if nothing was askew.
Goldberg's book is filled with several such anecdotes, filled with
insight into a world where the word "money" is anything but evil.
Nick Krewen is a Toronto freelance writer and editor.