Perfect Sound Forever

Danny Goldberg

Photo from Gold Village

Interview by Randy Patterson
(February 2010)

I study people, especially people who are successful in areas that interest me. Two areas that interest me greatly are business and music and legendary artist manager and former record company executive, Danny Goldberg, has been incredibly successful in the business end of music. Goldberg took to heart a quote from the late, legendary Ahmet Ertegun, and has reaped the benefits from heeding those wise words. The quote is goes something like this: 'the way to get rich is to keep walking around until you bump into a genius and, when you do, hold on and don't let go.'

Danny Goldberg's latest book, Bumping Into Geniuses, is an incredible telling of his continual "bumping in to geniuses," and he's managed to bump in to quite a few. His resume reads like my bucket list: handled the PR for the likes of KISS and Led Zeppelin (it could stop right there and I'd be completely impressed) and went on to head record companies like Warner Bros. Records, Atlantic Records and Mercury Records.

Goldberg is also responsible for launching the solo career of Stevie Nicks and managed Nirvana. He's worked with icons from the Baby Boomer age such as Jackson Browne and the Moody Blues. He is still on the cutting edge of the music business, managing classic and contemporary talent such as Rickie Lee Jones, Ian Hunter, Steve Earle, The Hives, Ben Lee, the Old 97's, The Grates, David Broza, and the Cranberries, to name a short list of a few.

I recently chatted by phone with Mr. Goldberg while he was at the offices of his successful artist management company, Gold Village Entertainment. Being the business dweeb that I am, I first ask Danny Goldberg how, Bumping Into Geniuses has been received, both in sales and by the music business community. "You know, I don't know exactly how it's been. It's sold well enough that they've just published it in paperback. It's done OK. It didn't make any bestseller lists but, you know, I know that they had at least one reprinting of the hard back and friends of mine have seen it in stores. I get very nice notes from people. So, I think it did okay and I'm really happy with it." He then humbly adds, "It's certainly not a blockbuster." I'm really fighting the urge to drill into the nuances of the business end of Gold Village Entertainment so I ask him to tell me about the company.

"It's a management company. We manage about a dozen clients or so. Steve Earle, Allison Moore, The Hives, The Old 97's as well as Rhett Miller's solo career. The Cranberries as well as Dolores O'Riordan's solo career; (Indie rock band), ‘Stars' as well as the solo career of Amy Millan and Torquil (Campbell); Ben Lee, David Broza, Ian Hunter, Rickie Lee Jones, The School of Seven Bells, Care Bears on Fire – a group of teenage girls from Brooklyn, Tom Morello and his band, Street Sweeper Social Club.

"That's what we do. We manage artist's careers. It's similar to what I've done in the past. Some of the artist like Steve Earle I've worked with for a long time. Some are new to me. We've got a staff of five people in addition to me here in New York, trying to do a decent job for them."

Listening to him name just some of the roster of talent that GVE manages, I recognized several names that my daughter has raved about, solidifying the fact that Goldberg is still in the thick of influential music. When the conversation turns towards comparisons of 60's and 70's music to today's playlists, I ask Goldberg if he thinks that our music had more meat and substance than the music being produced today. He responds quickly and decisively.

"No! Well, I mean, first of all, I think that it undoubtedly has more meat and substance to you and me because I think we are at different times in our life than we were when we were teenagers. So, music is not only about who's making music but also who's listening to it. I think that it has particular meaning to people when they're in their teenage years.

"As much as we may love music, when we get older, we'll never be at that time in our life again. Having two teenagers of my own, at least I get to see their passion for music and how much Kid Cudi means to my son right now and how much Pink meant ,when her first album came out, to my daughter. You know, Pink is, generally, an artist I really admire a lot. I've never met her or worked with her but she's four or five albums in. I think her lyrics are brilliant. She synthesizes different forms of music and figures out a way to stay popular, the same that I would say about a lot of artists that are clearly going to stand the test of time.

"I'll just start with people I don't work with just so that it doesn't seem self serving. Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes. In the rock area, look at the endurance of a group like Pearl Jam. I don't come from the Hip Hop generation but Hip Hip's an art form that's transformed the cultural world as much as rock and roll did.

"Look at Dr. Dre or Kanye West. These are people who, really, over the years, - in the instance of Doc Dre, 15 years – clearly they're making music that's continuing to inspire their audiences. Some of them are very sophisticated. Not all of them do I feel the same way I do about Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Again, as you get older, it's less frequent that you're going to connect with a new artist.

"If you look at the vitality of these festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo – the kids are going to those festivals and they're going to remember that music for the rest of their lives. I remember the music of people like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and there's no question in my mind about it."

Because Danny mentions his teenage kids, I ask him if they're fans of classic rock like many of their peers are.

"My son more so than my daughter. It's sporadic. It depends. They've discovered different things at different times. My daughter's really been into discovering older music like Mississippi John Hurt and Memphis Minnie. She's nineteen now. My son, certainly when he was younger, was very into Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers. I think these video games like Guitar Hero and some of the movies like School of Rock have kept that music alive and its great music! The same way I think that Robert Johnson is great music. I appreciated (Robert Johnson) as a teenager even though, obviously, he was dead before I was alive.

"So, the fact that I admire a lot of the music today doesn't mean any lack of enthusiasm for the great music from when I was growing up. That was a renaissance time and rock and roll was an explosion. The rock music business coincided with a generation that was involved with a lot of social issues and it coincided with the emergence of the album as the real central art form of music which gave artist a bigger canvas to paint on than the singles had. It varies, you know? Certainly, my kids like The Clash a lot. They're in between. They're 20 years ago not 40 years ago but certainly a band that's endured. I meet a lot of young people who love Nirvana even though they weren't really born when that was happening. Certain artists from the '60's, in particular Jimi Hendrix, clearly transcends time. He's such a genius that it sounds brand new to people hearing it the first time and sounds new to me hearing it for the thousandth time."

Because Danny Goldberg has had his finger on the pulse of popular music for over thirty years, I ask him what the most positive changes to the industry he's witnessed.

"Well, lately, it's not been a great time in the business. I think it's been a great time in the culture. The business has been damaged by the ability of people to get free recordings – either legally or illegally. I don't think it's been damaged by people getting it legally but the traumatic drop in record sales obviously has to be attributed to people getting it (music) without paying for it. Because, those same audiences go to concerts and buy t-shirts plus what's on the web and on the radio and so on.

"I think the best positive development in the last decade is also technologically related and that is the drop in the cost of recording. An artist can make a really competitive sounding contemporary album for 1/100th of what it would've cost when I was first starting. And that just allows so much more opportunity, you know? "And, similarly, with videos, as well. The ability to edit on computers and shoot things on hi-def camcorders has meant that people can create visual material. So, I think THAT's a positive thing. It allows people to be creative in a competitive way for much less money.

"The bad news is that it's much harder to monetize recordings, in general. The business has gone through a transition where it's really damaged right now. If you're an established brand name star like Radiohead or Eagles, it's the best time ever to monetize that fame. But for the artists – the middle or up and coming – it's a much rockier path than it was 15 or 20 years ago. It's just the way it goes, these cycles. The decline of the record business has hurt and the marketing and banking elements of the record business have not been replaced by other things yet."

He had mentioned Woodstock earlier in our conversation so I asked him if he attended the recent 40th Anniversary Festival commemorating the landmark event. He chuckles as he responds.

"No, no, I did not. I am so grateful that I was at the original Woodstock. I was 19. I was able to go as a journalist in a very comfortable way. I went up in a limo with press agents at the festival and another journalist. I had a hotel room. At the same time, I identified with the crowd. As I said, I was 19 and really, I saw myself as much as a hippie as much as a journalist. It was just really a privilege to be there. I'm not someone who thinks the anniversaries, necessarily, are as meaningful. If people want to go to an anniversary, god bless ‘em. If they want to use their name for something else, god bless ‘em. But, to me, it was particular moment in time that I'm grateful to have been a part of. I thought the movie captured it very, very well. That's sort of the extent of my interest."

While we discussed the various artists who performed there, we go off on a tangent about two artists we both highly admire but whose performance at Woodstock was not captured on film: The Winter Brothers, Johnny and Edgar.

Regarding Johnny Winter, he says, "He wasn't in the movie but he was fantastic. That's one of my best memories of it, musically, was Johnny Winter. He was, I think, somewhat under-rated by history because his records are not as memorable as Creem or Hendrix. But his live performances WERE as memorable." Commenting on Johnny's brother, Edgar, Goldberg states, "...he only had that one hit album, which I reviewed for Rolling Stone. I will say, They Only Come Out At Night, was the first time anyone gave me a gold album. Steve Paul was Edgar's manager at the time when it went gold, and he gave me a gold album since I'd wrote the Rolling Stone review of that record. I also was always a big fan of Edgar but as a live artist, and as a recording artist, Edgar is better than Johnny and he's a more original writer. But as a live performer, I've rarely seen anyone, including Edgar, who could touch Johnny."

Later on in our chat, I ask Danny Goldberg to comment about one of my favorite female solo artists, Stevie Nicks.

"I haven't seen her for many years, which saddens me. I would love to run into Stevie Nicks again. I mean, she was an incredibly good to me, personally, and inspiring to me as an artist. People teased me a little bit when the book came out – that I was SO, almost, like a fan about her. Uncritical. Gushing. But that's just how she was! She was incredibly creative and the work she did when I worked with her was great. Those first two solo albums were classic albums.

"On a personal level, she was one of the most generous, thoughtful artists I ever worked with. A lot fun to be around, also. I lack nuance when I speak about Stevie Nicks. I just think she's the greatest. You know, what happens in life, the people you were friends with in school or something, the years go by and you go on different paths. I haven't had the opportunity to see her in the last few years. I just would love to run in to her. I think she's really great, great rock talents of all time. There's no rock and roll hall of fame that she wouldn't be in."

Because of Goldberg's well documented association with Led Zeppelin, I asked him his thoughts as to why the band didn't tour after their immensely successful reunion concert held in London.

"Well, I have an opinion. I don't have any inside information. But my opinion is that Robert Plant hasn't wanted to do it. And I think the reason he hasn't wanted to do it is because he's had this incredibly successful period under his own name. With Allison Kraus, I mean, that album has actually won the Grammy for Album of the Year. This is a guy who's spent, oh God, the better part of the last 30 years as being the guy that used to be the lead singer for Led Zeppelin. And he's done very, very creative, compelling work as a solo artist. But to actually have the kind of recognition under his own name had to mean so much to him and have a creative vitality to it that was rooted in the here and now and not rooted in the past. So, I think it's totally understandable that he would be consumed with that and focused on that.

"My guess, and it's only a guess - again, I have no inside information - my guess is that sometime in the next five years, he'll call Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones and they'll do a tour. I just think it's just as valuable to the marketplace in 2011 as it would have been in 2009. It's still a billion dollar tour. It's still an extraordinary opportunity for Zeppelin fans. Those who saw them then and those who didn't' – I was at that show in London. It was fabulous. It was one of the best – of all of the reunion shows that I've seen, I think it's certainly one of the best. I think people will have high excitement about it but it's not something with a perishable shelf life. "Like I've said, as long as these guys are healthy, it's just as much of a draw a few years down the line as it is now. They can only kind of do it once and it's going to be when all of them, in terms of their personal lives and their other artistic aspirations and professional obligations, have time to do it. It's a very different thing, doing one show. You rehearse to do that one show as opposed to doing the whole tour cycle, which is certainly a year out of your life."

I finally ask Danny Goldberg what his outlook for the music business looks like.

"I don't have a crystal ball and I'm not an industry philosopher. I'm a manager and I look in terms of my own clients and what's important to them for the next year or two. So, I don't have any great insights about new technological breakthroughs or how Wall Street is going to do different things. But I do feel managers have more and more to do as labels do less and less. I don't say that pejoratively. I respect the dilemma of the people at record labels. They have to make money. It's part of a public company. They have to make a profit on a regular basis in order to keep their jobs and keep the companies healthy. And that requires focus on cost-cutting and narrower group of priorities. "

Still commenting on the pressures the major labels are under, Goldberg adds, "I think Indie labels are getting a lot of the really good artists who are now wanted at majors. A lot of our artists are at indie labels and they still are subject to the same stresses of volume of record sales and have to keep their costs and their staffing proportionate to a lower sales base. But the needs of artists have not fundamentally changed in terms of marketing and getting attention to what they do - keeping their name out there.

"And, so, a lot of those functions, certainly managing the websites, publicity, in particular, and other things, are more and more the province of managers. Managers have to, somehow, figure out a way to do more even though we're also affected by the record side but, at least, along with our clients, (we) make money from live appearances, which is, actually, a pretty healthy part of the business and more and more the economic center of the business.

"So, that's the only broad thing that I can say is that I think record companies are less important because they just don't generate as much money. They can't do as much. Therefore, managers have to take over a lot of those functions. Beyond that, I think sometime in the next 10 or 15 years, there'll be a sort of new orthodoxy in terms of the way people can get paid for creating music. I think the future is really bright. But I think the next few years, everybody is going to have to watch their pennies and dimes to make sure they don't spend more than they're making. It's not a boom period."

After our chat, I reflected Danny Goldberg's insights from his 30+ years in the music business as well as his ability to remain neck-deep in business, promoting new artists as well as established talent. I couldn't help but see his career as an analogy of how the lives of Baby Boomers can, and should, be the same way: benefiting from our past experiences, not forgetting the lessons learned from them while affecting these current times, remaining relevant.

If they way to getting rich is by "bumping in to geniuses and, when we do, hold on and don't let go," then I can truly say that I've bumped in to a genius in the person of Danny Goldberg. I feel a bit awkward holding on to his ankle but maybe we'll both get used to it.

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