It is safe to say that there will never be another record company quite like Warner Bros Records. Not because it’s unlikely that in our world of digitally streamed music there will be another “record” company; nor in the sense of a business that successfully signs and promotes acts; but rather in terms of an enterprise that so inhabits the culture of the moment, introducing a mass audience to the cream of current innovation and becoming both a commercial and artistic titan.
From James Taylor and Joni Mitchell to Black Sabbath and the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Fleetwood Mac to Madonna and Prince — Warner and its various subsidiaries incorporated several eras in music history. Its distinction went beyond the marquee names on its expansive roster of talents. Even in an industry given to unusual business practices, Warner stood out with its counterintuitive approach to acquisition, marketing and management.
As label manager Mo Ostin once put it, rather than set out to make hit records, Warner should adopt a different strategy: “Let’s just make good records, and we’ll turn those into hits.” It was a stance that chimed with the countercultural ethos of the 1960s, when Warner built its reputation, but also one that carried on into later decades when the label was home to the likes of REM and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
It’s curious then that it all began, according to Peter Ames Carlin in Sonic Boom, his account of Warner’s glory years, with a record by an artist who didn’t exist: Ira Ironstrings. In 1958, Warner Bros, spurred by some film-music successes, decided to expand out from its home base in movies. Purchasing an album’s worth of sessions by guitarist Alvino Rey, Warner then needed a title for it. A recent hire named Stan Cornyn dubbed it Ira Ironstrings Plays Music For People With $3.98 (Plus Tax, If Any). Why? Who knows? Perhaps not even Cornyn, whose accompanying liner notes concluded: “By the way, who the heck is Ira Ironstrings?”
Record-buyers seemed equally bemused by such an eccentric debut, which duly flopped. The company’s first successes were also an unusual combination: a Grammy-winning comedy album (The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart); and the arrival of entertainment royalty in the form of Frank Sinatra with his own label, Reprise Records, headed up by Ostin. A 1962 comedy parody record (My Son, the Folk Singer) provided an unexpected stepping stone to the emerging counterculture. Looking for “real” folk music, Warner vice-president Mike Maitland approached Bob Dylan’s manager to see what else he had and ended up signing Peter, Paul and Mary, an engaging trio who captured the hearts of young record buyers. The Warner Bros label was on its way.
Yet rock was to be where its strength and fortunes lay. Sensing a gold rush in San Francisco, Warner bought Autumn Records, headed by disc jockey Tom Donahue. He alerted them to the Warlocks, a band who were doing something totally different. By the time Warner caught their act, they’d changed their name to the Grateful Dead and ushered in the golden and distinctive period of Warner.
Using wacky, Cornyn-crafted ads in the burgeoning underground press, Warner embraced novel ways to promote records and to sell the “unsellable” to the world. They’d send you a bag of Laurel Canyon dirt to promote Joni Mitchell, or sell you two-LP samplers of assorted Warner artists for $2 in the hopes you’d buy their full-length ones for the regular price. The label underwrote the hefty tour expenses for their signees, stuck with them, and bolstered them with memorable promo lines. “Once you get used to it, his voice is really something” is how Randy Newman was sold to listeners.
There were also mistakes, some of which Carlin neglects to mention. In the wake of the Woodstock festival, Donahue convinced Warner to mount and film the Great Medicine Ball Caravan, a fleet of buses containing bands that toured the American heartland — where they were soundly ignored. Warner initially lost eye-watering amounts of money on the Grateful Dead, yet the band came good with a pair of albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, that finally sold. And the label’s foray into punk was uncharacteristically timid, even if it ended as the US label for the Sex Pistols’ album.
Eventually, the bottom line was fattened up by labels Warner acquired: Elektra, an old folky standby that in turn acquired David Geffen’s Asylum Records, home to Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne; Sire, Seymour Stein’s blues label on which fading British band Fleetwood Mac found a rebirth, and which was later home to Madonna.
Glory days never last, and with the advent of the digital market and the loss of several star executives, Warner Bros lost its central position in pop culture. Shuffled around between various owners in a series of mergers and acquisitions over the decades, it is now owned by Soviet-born billionaire Leonard Blavatnik.
Sonic Boom does justice to the label’s accomplishments and Carlin’s business reporting is sound. Still, one wishes he had understood the cultural context in which Warner flourished a bit more. After all, it’s not easy to sell a culture — especially one rooted in the 1960s DIY counterculture — back to those who created it. Future generations may read Sonic Boom and wonder what the big deal was. I suggest they acquire some of the records, and marvel.
Sonic Boom: The Impossible Rise of Warner Bros. Records, from Hendrix to Fleetwood Mac to Madonna to Prince, by Peter Ames Carlin, Henry Holt & Co., RRP$29.99, 288 pages
Ed Ward is the author of ‘The History of Rock & Roll’ (Flatiron Books)
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