The Hot Seat: Danny Goldberg

Published in The Music Network

Danny Goldberg is a household name in the music business, and with good reason. During a stellar 40-year career, the executive has led some of America’s biggest and most influential record labels, Atlantic, Warner Bros. and Mercury. And he has guided the careers of some of the biggest alternative rock bands on the planet, Nirvana, the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth among them. The one-time Artemis Records CEO and sometime film-maker (he co-directed 1980 rock documentary film No Nukes) is now president of Gold Village Entertainment, which manages the likes of Steve Earle, the Hives and Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine. Goldberg will deliver a keynote speech at the August 9-11 Big Sound music industry summit in Brisbane.

Danny, in this business of music, what haven’t you done?

Oh God, there’s so much I can’t do. I don’t play any instruments, I don’t know how to record, I’ve never been a tour manager, I’m not an accountant or a lawyer. I’m acutely aware of all the things I don’t know how to do and haven’t done. I started as a journalist but wasn’t a very good one. I became, I think, a very good publicist. And I’ve been a decent manager and record executive, depending on which year and which month.

How is the role of the manager changing?

So much more has fallen on managers as the record companies financially weaken. I like to quote (R.E.M. manager) Bertis Downs, who once said ‘You have to do twice as many things to make less money.’ It’s not always true. There are some artists who are doing extraordinary well because the concerts side of the business in general. In terms of the marketing, it’s more fragmented. There was a time in ‘90s when if you had a video getting good rotation on MTV, it was total security that you were reaching most of your audience. Now you have to deal with maybe 10 different points of connection to reach the same audience you used to be able to by having a video on MTV.

What do you make of ad-supported digital music models where the music is effectively given away without money changing hands?

It’s impossible to turn back the hands of time. We’re not going to go back to a world where you can charge for every album. Technology makes it impossible to enforce the laws that are on the books and the political power of computer companies can weaken the law anyway. You have to deal with the real world, and this is a digital world. To the extent that these services can help to market people’s songwriting career, touring career, merchandising career, then I’m in favour of it. I expect less and less from my clients in the way of revenue from recordings, and focus more on how to maximise what they make on tour and through licensing as songwriters. Itunes is not perfect. At least we have a way of monetizing something which previous to iTunes was 100% free. Ad-supported services might throw off money eventually. We have to focus more on making money in other ways.

What was the experience like running the show at a major record company?

It was a fantasy of mine to some day become a record company president. I managed to do that for six years at Warner Music, Atlantic and Mercury. I got that out of the system, but I’m very grateful for the money they paid me, and to see life through that lens was really interesting. I spent less time with the artist and more time dealing with budgets and numbers. Although the prestige of the job and the conversation was great, it wasn’t as much fun as managing artists. And there was a certain competition that developed between the executives that I got sucked into myself. It brought out a side of myself that I didn’t like that much.

And what did you learn from (current Universal Music Group CEO) Doug Morris and (the late Atlantic founder) Ahmet Ertegun?

Ahmet was a magical figure. He embodied the essence of the people who created the modern record business in the 50s and 60s, and he had amazing stories. He was a wise man, a diplomat. He was a significant force until the day he died. Doug Morris was really running the company. I learned from Doug how to be a boss, how to be an executive, how to run a corporation.

You’ve described in the past a “Mars and Venus” disparity between the agenda of big corporations and their artists. Is that still the case?

The differences are more pronounced today than they were 15 to 20 years ago, because there’s less money for the artists from record sales and there are other incomes which will make them more money. It takes more thought to create a set of incentives and expectations that works for the artist and the company. It’s different with the indie labels who don’t have the public to reporting to do and can build longer term assets. It’s the pop artists who tend to need a major label to maximise what they do. Worrying about third and fourth quarter earnings is totally appropriate for corporate executives. That’s their job. They have to serve the needs of the corporation.


Click here for Lars Brandle’s interview with Danny Goldberg.