I'd like the lobster dinner, but substitute the vegetables with strawberries," requested the showbiz-gossip columnist. Her food combination didn't seem unusual—not any more than ordering one of each item on the dessert tray did. If we had completely eaten all five sweets (profiteroles, tiramisu, and other assorted confections) instead of taking only a bite of each, now that would've been excessive.
Plaza Hotel, New York City, the '70s: I was toiling for a major label, the gossip doyenne was covering a blue-eyed soul band—and the label was picking up the bill, so she didn't bat a fake eyelash. Conspicuous consumption was a sign of the times in the music business during those bad ol' days. Parties were lavish, exorbitant press junkets were commonplace, and record companies held conventions in exotic locales. It was the era of satin jackets for everybody and limos everywhere. Each act had a billboard on Sunset Boulevard and some, like the Eagles, could demand it as part of their contract.
The Me Decade's excess is by now legendary: drugs in silver bowls; poodles, sharks, and groupies; the nefarious Who tale of tossing TVs and couches out of hotel rooms into pools. In the music business, the era was marked by sudden money and plenty of it—a dangerous thing in the hands of libido-driven youth. By the '80s, the novelty of decadence had waned, but bragging about it wasn't yet pass鮠In the '90s, understatement is the fashion, and executives no longer wear their expense accounts on their sleeves.
"The accountants would kibosh it all today," says Larry Harris, cofounder (with Neil Bogart) of Casablanca Records, which was known for its extravagant image, thematically (over)decorated offices, record-breaking salaries, and sensational success with a roster of acts including Donna Summer, the Village People, and Parliament-Funkadelic.
Harris recalls those days with a mixture of amazement over the intemperance and jubilance at the high jinx. Now consulting for the industry from his Bellevue office, Harris first landed a job in the business through his Aunt Ruthie, Bogart's mother.
His story was typical of the times. After waiting for hours in the purple-painted lobby of Buddha Records, Harris lucked out: "It just so happened they had fired the local promotion guy—and this is a good indication of the '70s—for being caught on the office couch screwing the program director of WNBC Radio. Normally, he'd have been given a raise." Unfortunately, a straight suit from the corporate leg of the company had stopped by and witnessed the debacle.
The creative people had more power back then, Harris believes, accounting for the lack of budgetary controls. "For the most part, it's more corporate today," he notes. "When you're throwing out hundreds of pieces of product and only a few are going to make it, you have to gamble. Some of the people in the past were much bigger gamblers."
Harris remembers Casablanca's extravagance when Summers' single "Love to Love You Baby" was breaking. "We sent one of our people on a plane first-class to a Boston radio station with two extra seats—for a life-size cake of Donna."
"Neil came into my office one day and told me, 'You're not doing your job,'" Harris recalls. "I turned green. He said, 'You can't do your job unless you're spending money, and according to your expense report, you're not.' So I learned how to spend money—very easily. He always believed in 'painting your building'—a new coat means you're doing well and people want to do business with you. We were going broke and we bought a building. It worked. A lot of it was luck and a lot was tenacity. We kept pushing. Never made a profit but just kept spending."
After one charity function the label was involved with, Harris got a bill for 30 limos and "nobody flinched." After all, the label had a fleet of leased Mercedes. For Genesis' first show in America, the label flew in every radio program director possible. "One DJ left town with a case of Dom P鲩gnon put on the room tab. . . . You'd invite a music director to lunch and 40 people from the station would arrive," he says.
KISS was another act that received royal marketing treatment. "They cost us a fortune," Harris says. "The show was very expensive. We had no money and we were trying to break this group. I made a deal with a DJ in Detroit—Casablanca would pay for a concert and if the audience was blown away, they had to play the record like it was the next coming." The bill also included Ted Nugent, Bob Seger, and Aerosmith.
"We went a little overboard with KISS," Harris admits. "We had the most expensive T-shirts ever in the music business—KISS rhinestone-studded tees."
Labels felt compelled to kowtow to bands' sometimes outrageous demands just to keep them on the roster. Of course, these demands came back to haunt both the labels and the acts. "KISS's contract called for half a million dollars an album for recording and another half million to advertise," Harris says. "They had us in a corner and forced us to put out four solo albums. None of them sold."
The flamboyant appearance of wealth may have been a sign of the times, but there were limits. At one point, Bob Dylan approached Casablanca about starting his own imprint, but the execs questioned his ability to produce records. (Harris kicks himself in hindsight: "After all, it was Dylan!") These days, subsidiary record labels are handed out to artists as bonuses.
It's all part of the music industry's new respectable image. Records receive above-board play-for-pay instead of benefiting from payola. Dough is diverted into real estate and pieces of the pie are invested in sensible financial portfolios. Although waste occurs (think of all those million-dollar videos with helicopters, rent-a-yachts, and effects galore), it's hipper to hide fortunes. But perhaps not as much fun.
"It came easy," Harris says of his '70s success. "We went for it first-class," he adds with relish, "and it was an incredible ride."
The Music Biz, Then and Now
Gerald Ford for President
Betty Ford for Rehab
Bowie on the cover of Circus magazine
Bowie's home on the cover of Architectural Digest
A bottle of Southern Comfort
A case of Evian
Don Kirshner's Rock Concert
MTV's Real World
14-minute songs with drum solos
14-minute sets with corporate sponsors
The Plaster Casters
Bodyguards against stalkers
The Hustle and sex on Studio 54's balcony
The swing revival and condoms
Quaaludes and cocaine
Microbrews and St. John's Wort