The music man

It seems now like a moment that never really existed, like a fantasy conjured by men and women who can only dream of such a time and place as Warner Bros. Records in the late 1960s and 1970s. Might as well have been forever ago, when Joni Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix and Randy Newman and Neil Young and Van Morrison and Rickie Lee Jones and Van Dyke Parks and Ry Cooder and even James Taylor walked through the same hallways to visit the record-label executives they loved as though they were family. It was such an ebullient place back then, artists and businessmen converging in what appeared to be a ski lodge dropped ass-backwards into the slopes of Burbank to make art. Hits? Not important. They would come later, maybe. If not, at least they could be proud of what they had done--their little vinyl monuments.

Perhaps that moment seems so far away because the record business no longer fosters artists, no longer celebrates its geniuses, no longer cares about craft. Nowadays, it is a multibillion-dollar business somehow on the verge of collapse, with multinationals swallowing labels like Moby Dick on a rampage. In Los Angeles, the panic is almost palpable as label employees worry about car payments, rent, tomorrow's groceries; whispers of layoffs soon enough become screams, while millionaires and their accountants wielding axes walk through hallways looking for the next dozen servants to fire. And if you don't think this affects you, faithful music fan, guess again: Your favorite band may well be without a home tomorrow, forced to walk the streets in hopes that there's some other schmuck out there willing to give them money to make a little music.

Maybe those artists will wind up at the stoop of Lenny Waronker, one of the co-heads at DreamWorks Records. For 30 years, Waronker went to work each day at Warner Bros. Records and became rich believing there was no such thing as a hit record, only a good record--and hot damn if ever the twain shall meet. Waronker began as a junior A&R exec at the label in 1966 and eventually became its president, signing and/or producing no less than a roster that includes Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., James Taylor, Ry Cooder, Gordon Lightfoot, and Eric Clapton. To name but a very few. His name is not familiar to record buyers who don't read the fine print, but that is only because he has stood out of the way, in the shadows--over an artist's shoulder, but never in front of the microphone. As such, he has become something of a mythic figure in the industry--the rare record-label boss spoken of with reverence instead of mistrust or disdain.

"It's always about the artist's work," he says even now, sitting in a plush suite at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. "Always. And especially at Warner Bros. You know, ultimately there was this thing about making a Warner Bros. record. There was this kind of record we made--eclectic records, records that went all over the place. There was this sort of unspoken sphere that existed in the late '60s, early '70s. It was really a form of rebellion. It became so indulgent. Being a part of that was just a fantastic thing. You go in the studio, and the idea was not about the hit. The idea was how do you scare the shit out of them or turn on your peers. How do you get Brian Wilson to pay attention? The hit was too far-fetched, too hard. The easier, more fun, challenging part was, 'Let's do something that's real, that really is meaningful.'"

Yet despite his success at Warners, Waronker up and left his longtime home in 1995, following out the door his old friend and mentor Mo Ostin, the man who was instrumental behind the signings of Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, Madonna, and Green Day, among so many others. Waronker, Ostin, and Mo's son Michael left when Time Warner, the label's parent company, decided they wanted to run the show. Paradise was being overrun by the savages. It was time for them to go.

In October of that year, the three resurfaced as the co-heads of DreamWorks Records, the label formed by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and former Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg as the music arm of their multimedia monster, which also includes a movie studio and a television production company. They claimed that DreamWorks Records would be a label "that was about quality," Waronker said at the time, "not totally profit-driven." In other words, it would be to the 1990s what their beloved Warner Bros. Records was to the 1960 and '70s. Three years later, Waronker and the Ostins have made good on their word. For better or worse.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky