Behind the Music – A former record label executive shares his story in the roller coaster industry
Every iconic musician or group has its story, its rise to the top, its breakthrough song. Along the way, each decision, voice and influence counts. Every moment adds up to write one amazing story of fame, art and human experience. As a former executive for some of the world’s biggest record labels, Art Jaeger was there to bare witness.
Bonnie Raitt. U2. MC Hammer. Radiohead. Nirvana. In some way, Art was there for their success, their flops, their struggle to climb the charts – he is part of their story.
“Those were the glory days,” Art said, laughing at the memory.
It all seemed like a different life now. Throughout his career, Art watched the music industry change from the inside out – from a robust industry of creative energy and innovation to a bureaucratic system that struggles to combat illegal music downloads and reach the next generation of listeners.
The music industry was a roller coaster then, as record labels were cropping up and dropping away as fast as the acts themselves. Upper management was constantly changing, evolving. Half the battle was just keeping up.
Straight out of college, Art was working as an auditor for a large accounting firm. It wasn’t his dream job, but he hoped he could use it as a stepping stone.
“In public accounting, there are two ways you can go,” Art said, “the partner track or, hopefully, a client hires you and gives you the job you really want.”
Art went the second way. Through one of his international media clients, he crossed paths with Arista Records, a major American record label, and saved them a bunch of money, millions even. They liked that – a lot. And they invited Art to the closing.
“When I walked into the signing room, they had documents up and down a 40-foot table,” he recalled. “While Clive Davis was signing his new agreement, they pulled me aside and said: ‘We’d love for you to work with us. We don’t know what you’ll do yet, but you’re a smart boy.’”
They tripled Art’s salary and brought him on board as their No. 2 guy in finance. He worked for six months at the headquarters in Munich, Germany before he was transferred to the New York office and eventually promoted to CFO for their London headquarters.
“I always describe myself as a guy slightly left of center, and I fit in better in music than I did in banking,” Art said. “And it was a great time to be in London.”
Young and at the start of his career, Art lived in 80s London, perched atop a revolving door of musical fame. The greats walked in and out, and Art handled the numbers.
“I helped negotiate their contracts and acquisition agreements, and I was really the only guy who knew how the deals worked,” he said.
But Art was good at it. He made his company a lot of money in purchase agreements, licensing deals and distribution deals.
“Eventually I became more involved with the artists and marketing side of things because we were a smaller company,” he said. “I had already branched off from financials into business affairs, and I was getting a taste of the promotion aspect and, to a smaller extent, A&R.”
Too soon for Art’s taste, the fluid character of the music business caused a shakeup at Arista Records, and they brought in some new guys.
“I was paid for my time in such a way that my tax rate was low. It was all legal, but I was being paid in U.S. dollars, when the dollar was very strong,” he said. “I was the third-highest paid person in Europe, and the new guys didn’t like that.”
Before long, Art was looking for the next opportunity when Island Records founder Chris Blackwell offered Art a position.
“He’s this incredible individual, a really creative soul,” Art described. “He cared a lot about bringing reggae to the masses and didn’t limit himself to opportunities in just one industry.”
Art helped with U2’s Joshua Tree album and acquired the mogul’s first hotels in South Beach, Florida, working with him for five years. Eventually, the hours and constant traveling became exhausting, and Art had just started a family. It was time to get back to the music.
His next gig was a big one. Art signed on as an executive for MCA Music Entertainment Group.
“I wanted the experience of working for a Fortune 500 company,” Art said, “and I wanted to be exposed to people like Lew Wasserman. I saw interesting things – like how much of a visionary Lew really was. But I also learned pretty quickly how bureaucratic those Fortune 500s are.”
During his time with MCA, Art worked on the acquisition of Motown Records and pushed for changes that would help MCA keep up with a rapidly changing industry.
“But you had to protect yourself. You couldn’t let anyone get too far ahead or too far behind,” he said. “Innovation, creativity and truthfulness were not necessarily the attributes they wanted. And the bureaucracy didn’t fit this little left-of-center guy.”
Next, Art made the move to become Executive Vice President of Capitol Records.
“Those were the great days,” he said. “We worked with Megadeth, Beastie Boys, Bob Seger, Paul McCartney, Blind Melon. Radiohead broke their first album, Pablo Honey, with us.”
Art jumped around a couple more times, working with Nirvana at Gold Mountain Entertainment and Ice Cube at Priority Records, before he left the music game for good.
“I had ideas, but no one wanted to see the long term view; they didn’t want to deal with new technology and media,” Art said.
After dabbling in a couple startups and building a nightclub, Art decided to launch his own business and found laundromats to be a very lucrative business. Today, he owns several, and the Santa Clarita Laundry Center is located in the Canyon Shopping Center.
But those memories linger like a song stuck in his head.
“Sitting behind Bonnie Raitt when she won five Grammys was absolutely brilliant. Watching MC Hammer sell 10 million records on the way to becoming an overnight phenomenon,” Art recalled of his favorite moments in the business. “Bringing Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’ back for a second run and seeing it become the monster hit it always deserved to be. Sitting in a London office and hearing the Thompson Twins’ ‘Hold Me Now’ for the first time, knowing instantly it would be a worldwide hit. I can still remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck.”
photo by Joie de Vivre Photographie
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