Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Fred Goodman takes on Edgar Bronfman in 'Fortune's Fool'

By Emmanuel Legrand

For anyone in the music industry, a new book by Fred Goodman is a must-read book.

Fred Goodman
He is part of a small club of writers who have documented the evolution and changes in the modern music biz and portrayed with talent its powerbrokers. 

The senior member of the club is Fred Dannen whose ‘Hit Men: Powerbrokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business’ (Vintage), published in 1990, remains to this day the reference upon which all the other books about the music industry are judged. It combined impeccable research and amazing access to sources with a rare narrative talent. (BTW, how long will it take for Hollywood to turn ‘Hit Men’ into a TV series?)

Another brilliant piece of writing was Fred Goodman’s 1998 book ‘Mansion on the hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen and the Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce’ (Vintage), in which the American journalist described the rise and rise of a new generation of executives, managers and artists who would re-define the music industry in the 1960s and 1970s and turn what was a cottage business into a global, multi-billion dollars industry.

While Dannen has switched his interest to other industries (Hong Kong, the film industry and the triads!), Goodman has continued to cover the music business. And few people have better documented the transformations of the global music industry than him. With his extensive knowledge of the industry and his ability to access people “in the know”, he has been dissecting the global music industry woes and exposing in details its colourful characters.

He has just added a new chapter in the ongoing saga of this industry with ‘FORTUNE’S FOOL: Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis’ (Simon & Schuster). In his latest work, he turned his attention to the heir of the Seagram fortune who so desperately wanted to make it in the music and entertainment industry, first with Universal and later with Warner Music, and whose business acumen has been seriously questioned when he merged Universal with France’s conglomerate Vivendi.

Goodman had access to the main sources, including Bronfman himself. What he pictures is not only the life of a failed songwriter who could have spent his life playing golf while other would have managed his portfolio, but who instead decided to prove the world that he was a cutting-edge businessman and a money-maker. And while doing so, he fully dismantled the family business, built on booze, invested heavily in the entertainment biz by buying MCA and then PolyGram, and almost sank it by merging with Vivendi.

Bronfman’s reputation was in tatters after Vivendi Universal nearly collapsed, brought down by the ‘reves de grandeur’ of its CEO Jean-Marie Messier. To his credit, Bronfman was the one who contributed to oust Messier, but the damage was done.

Anyone going through such times would have probably retired on some Aventine Hill and played golf for the rest of his life. But not Bronfman, who chose to come back, once again, by investing his money and others in the music biz. He bought Warner Music Group in 2004 and since then has been busy re-building his reputation as an entrepreneur and manager.

The book starts with a great paragraph that grabs you: "Edgar Bronfman Jr. is famous for two things; one annoying and the other unforgivable. The annoying thing is that though he was born rich as Croesus, he has opted to work hard every day. The unforgivable thing is that he managed to lose $3 billion while doing so."

And that’s the main conundrum faced by Goodman – how to make this guy that we’d like to love to hate not so hateable. And in some ways he manages to do so because Bronfman does not come across as pretentious or up his arse with his money. But at the same time he does not come across as someone very interesting either (as many commentators and reviewers of the book said, the most interesting character in the Bronfman galaxy is Lyor Cohen, who runs Warner’s recorded music division, and could easily be a character from the Sopranos…).

There are some great moments in the book when Goodman describes behind the scenes battles for the control of MCA, Universal Vivendi or Warner. But there is always the question of why he does it.

It is hard to feel empathy for someone who, as stated by Goodman, not only has decided to work when he couldn’t, but on top is not the boss in his own house – Warner. There is a killer quote from one of his financial backers, stating, “The deal with Edgar is, he does a good job or someone else comes in to do a good job.” Not the warmest of all endorsements, and why, with all the billions on your bank account, do does he have to put up with these kind of comments?

In the end, the Bronfman described by Goodman remains a mystery – it is hard to understand what motivates him, and what is his goal in life. And as far as business is concerned, the verdict is still open. Warner manages to survive, but just about.

The book ends on a reference to Atlantic’s co-founder, the great Ahmet Ertegun, who exemplifies a world that has ceased to exist, but who played a vital part in building the Warner that Bronfman now runs. That same Ertegun once described Bronfman as “a snot-nosed kid who used to knock on my door in the Hamptons with bad demos saying, ‘I want to be a songwriter’.” 

Maybe that’s the answer to the mystery – Bronfman will never be a talented songwriter, and he probably knows it. Life’s a bitch, isn’t it?

PS: Do not miss Fred Goodman’s keynote Q&A session with your truly at Noordeslag in Groningen on Friday, 14 January 2011 at 1.30pm. Expect an hour full of revelations, provocative views and entertaining anecdotes with one of the music industry’s foremost chroniclers. A must-see session!

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