Business Lessons I Learned From Rock Stars

When I Was Building Up Rhino Records, the Insights Came From Unexpected Sources

In the mid-1970s, my business partner Richard Foos and I were two recent college graduates with little more than a passion for music and a record store on Westwood Boulevard in L.A. How did we get the know-how to launch a record label, Rhino, and make it into a major entertainment company? There was no wise mentor peeking over our shoulders, and neither of us had been to business school. While we got advice from many people, some of the most important tips didn’t come from business executives. They came from a less common source: rock stars and their producers.

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One crucial, early lesson came from Mike Chapman, one of the hottest record producers of the ’70s, with hits by Blondie, the Knack, Exile, and others. “I could have been anything I wanted to be,” he told me one evening, when I was visiting him in a recording studio. “I could have been a doctor or a lawyer, but I chose to be a record producer.”

I had never thought of my career choices in that way. But why not? If I wanted to be the head of a record company, then I could. (Not that it mattered to the Brown Employment Agency, where I first went to seek out employment after graduation. Its questionnaire asked me to write down my ideal job. I put “Record Company President.” They sent me out on interviews to be a loan officer.)

I looked for work at the major record companies but got nowhere. Then I got a job as a writer for one of the industry’s trade publications but was fired after two weeks. As it was explained to me, “the articles are only to fill the space between the ads.” My quest for quality was bothering people. That’s when I thought back to something I’d learned in an interview with British pop star Peter Asher, who was now a successful producer and manager. He told me it was common in the record business to be fired for no reason. Having experienced the truth of this firsthand, I now realized the only way to avoid being fired was to be the person in charge. I resolved to start my own company.

Not all of the counsel I got over the years was solicited. Herman’s Hermits’ lead singer, Peter Noone, told me, “Marry a Jewish girl. She’ll save you money in the long run.” It didn’t change my dating patterns. But I did notice how Noone and his wife, Mireille, interacted: how attentive he was to her, and how they enjoyed each other’s company. That was an important lesson, too, even if it wasn’t about business.

Good ideas can come from anyone. That was a tip I got from Marc Bolan of T. Rex, (their biggest hit was “Bang A Gong (Get it On)” in the U.S.). Bolan said that if a taxi driver happened to visit the recording studio and make a good suggestion, he would adopt it. Years later, when I was producing a movie about 1950s teen star Frankie Lymon and his group the Teenagers, a parking attendant at a New Jersey restaurant told me that “Out in the Cold Again” was a great song. Since it wasn’t a hit, I hadn’t considering including it in the soundtrack, but when I got home, I listened to it again. The parking lot attendant was right. I included the song. (By contrast, when I went to Terry Gilliam with musical suggestions for the Rhino film he was directing, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he was uninterested. The movie tanked.)

I also learned from the missteps of singers. In October 1984, Rhino released a five-song EP by comedian and singer Julie Brown. Right away, radio broadcaster Dr. Demento jumped on one of her songs, “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun,” and then KROQ and other stations followed suit. By February, we had gotten enough airplay and sales to make the Billboard album chart. Warner Brothers Pictures even signed Brown to develop another of the songs, “Earth Girls Are Easy,” into a feature film.

Rhino was promoting these songs heavily—with 57,000 copies sold, it was our biggest-selling record to date—but Brown feared it would overexpose other songs on the record, rendering them old by the time they were featured in the film. We didn’t want to stand in the way of Brown’s career moves, so we cooperated and let Warner Brothers buy us out of our deal with her. After that, though, the momentum we’d helped create for Brown’s record totally dissipated. Warner Brothers wound up passing on the movie and transferring the project to another company. Late in 1987, Warner affiliate Sire Records released Julie’s album, Trapped in the Body of a White Girl, to disappointing sales. The Earth Girls Are Easy movie, which debuted in theaters in May 1989, also bombed.

What was the lesson? Frankly, we should not have been so accommodating toward Julie Brown’s wishes. It reminded me of what record producer Mickie Most told me in an interview I’d done years earlier for Rolling Stone. “Artists are crazy—when you’re winning, you keep going.” he said. “It’s like throwing dice. When you’re winning, you don’t stop.”

And that’s one of the most important rules of all. You can never guarantee that the next thing you do will be successful, so when you have a shot at a hit—in music or in anything else—you should do all you can to make it happen. Never put the brakes on success.

Harold Bronson is the co-founder of the Rhino Records label and the author of the newly released memoir The Rhino Records Story: The Revenge of the Music Nerds.

Buy the Book: Skylight, Amazon, Powell’s.

Thinking L.A. is a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.
Primary Editor: T.A. Frank. Secondary Editor: Kathryn Bowers.
*Photo courtesy of Adam Penney.
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