MUSIC INDUSTRY: The Jersey Handshake

I caught "The Jersey Boys" on Broadway last week.

It lived up to its excellent reviews. Being Italian, a Jersey boy myself (Hoboken) and being in the radio industry the story resonated with me.

First, I can't remember being in the same place with so many baby boomers since my college graduation.

These boomers (usually called "aging baby boomers" by the press) had a grand old time reliving the career of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.

I am with the next generation so much in my teaching at USC I've gotten to know them in a way I never intended. They are just like the X'ers and boomers and yet they are so different. Many openly embrace hip-hop. Some lament its present sorry state. Others hang on to alternative. All anxiously await the next new thing (attention record labels: wake up!).

These great young people are so much more eclectic in their musical tastes than I remember being or remember my friends being. They really do appreciate more types of music than we did back in the day. Some of my students have expressed to me serious concern about the fate of their generation and their music going forward. I'm less worried because they will have their "oldies" soon enough.

What got me to thinking about the music industry, the media business and frankly, a lot of personal things, was the substance of the content in "The Jersey Boys".

Frankie Valli and musical partner Bob Gaudio sealing a life-long relationship with a "Jersey handshake" -- a contract more iron-clad than any lawyer could have prepared -- no matter how many pages. In the generation before Valli and Gaudio, Jimmy Durante and his manager shook on their relationship and it, too, lasted a lifetime. It's an Italian thing but it's not limited to Italians. People used to give their word and live by it.

Fast-forward to today.

Entertainment law is a big business.

These lawyers sue everybody moving. The RIAA sues its customers. Howard Stern gets sued by CBS even after he gives one-year's notice to CBS and then another group of lawyers turn around and win a settlement in return for the CBS Radio Howard Stern archive. You don't really need me to tell you that the entertainment industry has been taken over by lawyers and damaged by their litigiousness, do you?

The point: the best, lasting contract is the "Jersey Handshake" -- it requires goodwill, perseverance and honor -- three words missing from our media industry today.

The Four Seasons is one of the few groups or individual artists to span multiple decades with hits and this comes from talent, luck and the ability to resist bad advice from the record labels.

When Bob Gaudio tried to sell a song deemed to be awful by a label exec the best Gaudio could do was to secure the promise that the label would release the record to him -- personally -- so that at his expense he could work it. When the audience heard the song, they broke into applause -- "you're just too good to be true, can't take my eyes off of you...").

Lesson: with few exceptions record labels were always awful at picking hits and managing talent. They still are.

What do record labels do anyway?

Not much.

In the past, they were manufacturers. They had a group of characters called promo men who "pushed" the records for radio airplay, but make no mistake about it -- the record business was and is about manufacturing which is why they are clinging to the CD even though the marketplace has moved on to digital.

They pressed vinyl (later CDs), had warehouses, shipped to retailers. They moved product. Marketing was an accident.

They were and still are the Dr. Kevorkians of managing careers.

For some reasons they were either so stupid or so vain (or both) not to understand that "one hit wonder" was a reflection more on them than the artist who never had another hit.

This brings me to today when label executives are no match for their potent competitors -- not new conglomerates, no -- but a generation of cagey adolescents who, armed with the Internet, piracy and social networks are kicking their butts.

The labels are still more of the problem than the solution. If this statement was incorrect I don't think you'd see so many people predicting the demise of the record industry as we know it.

When acts get big enough they can defy the labels -- and thank goodness for that -- or their careers would be in jeopardy.

Out of the remaining big four I am still hoping that at least one major will seize the opportunity to break with the past and get into the business of finding, creating, enabling and marketing talent.

What a business concept.

And how about doing it with a modified "Jersey Handshake" -- only one ream of paper and a firm hand clasp.

Now that would be progress.