Jeff Fenster At ITC


Unlike U.S. conventions, everybody at In The City goes to the panels.  I learned this last year when I was wandering around the halls of the hotel wondering where everybody WAS!  And then I peeked into a meeting room looking for Richard and found it PACKED!

So this year I planned.  I scoped the schedule.  I started out at the "MPod The New iPod" panel.

For such an exciting sphere it’s amazing how boring the people who work in it are.  They’re not much different from those selling industrial products.  There’s no PASSION!

Oh, the moderator, Steve Mayall, said some interesting things.  Like how in the hell do we expect music to take off on mobiles when everybody HATES their provider!  They don’t want to give the providers MORE money, they want to give them LESS!

And I was going to hang around for Ralph Simon’s speech, but there was a break, so I sauntered downstairs for Jeff Fenster’s presentation.

It was supposed to have started half an hour before, but the room was empty.

So I dropped in on the urban managers panel, even though I’m the whitest guy on the planet.

But, when that finished, the moderator said to drop in on Jeff’s panel, so I gave it one more shot.  I went down to the Alexandra Suite.  And Jeff was there.

Being interviewed by this guy who was affable, but seemed only barely familiar with Jeff’s work.  And, in MOMENTS I wanted the questioner to shut up, I didn’t want him to interrupt Jeff, for he was spewing GOLD!

We’re just white Jewish boys from the suburbs.  Who got hooked on records.  Who lived our lives at the record store, who needed to be CLOSER!

And it’s oh so hard to get close.

Jeff started out as a lawyer.  At least that’s what I garnered, after all, I missed the first few moments.

But then Tom Zutaut offered him a job as an A&R man.  And David Geffen approved.

Oh, to the minimal audience in attendance, it sounded rote.  But you could tell by the gleam in Jeff’s eye, the way he chuckled almost sotto voce, this was the turning point in his life, when the velvet rope dropped and he was allowed to pass to the other side.  He was let into the CLUB!

That’s where we all want to be.  Not for the money, not for the fame, but to be closer to the MUSIC!

Things went topsy-turvy in the Tommy Mottola era.  The press reported on all these fucks making bucks.  As if THEY were the artists.  Make no mistake, the people on the OTHER side of the mic, THEY’RE the artists.  And it’s THEM that we want to know about.

Jeff was a vessel.  Through which I could hear the stories, of what happened on the INSIDE!

He found Jermaine Dupri when the producer was fifteen.  Geffen could have had his publishing for $75,000, but they would only go to fifty.  In a year EMI ponied up a mil, and it was STILL a bargain.  Jeff realized then, sometimes you’ve got to be entrepreneurial, sometimes you’ve got to cough up the dough YOURSELF!

And when David Geffen decided he didn’t want to be in the urban business, which ultimately killed Geffen Records, albeit after he had sold it to MCA, Jeff jumped ship.  To the place where A Tribe Called Quest ended up, after Jeff let them go after their development deal with Geffen.  Yes, Jeff went to JIVE!

Home of Billy Ocean.  Home of CLIVE CALDER!

Why does nobody talk about THIS Clive anymore.  The greatest businessman in the history of the music business.  Makes David Geffen look like a rube.  A guy who ran his company to the top and executed a buyout clause that allowed him to pocket in excess of $2 billion.  Hell, he could have bought WARNER BROTHERS for what he got for his little company of hit artists.

Oh, they might have had A Tribe Called Quest.  But then they had the Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync and Britney.  God, looked so easy at the time, like they were the New York Yankees, paying their way to a monopoly on the championship, but that’s not how it happened AT ALL!

As head of A&R Jeff flew to Cleveland to hear the Backstreet Boys at a MADD dinner.  He got tipped by a guy he’d tried to hire from another label.  The guy wouldn’t leave his old home, for the company was going to sign an act that was going to be MONSTROUS!

But after a month, that company passed.  And this guy tipped Jeff.

The publishing guy who went with Jeff to Ohio told Clive there was nothing there.  But these teenagers with pure voices, dancing in front of a seven piece band, Jeff felt they had something.

God, to think that Lou Pearlman invested all that money on a HUNCH!  THAT’S the music business I love.

And a guy in the Jive office suggested hooking them up with Max Martin.  And the rest is history.

And then came Britney.

Jeff got a cassette from a lawyer, along with a composite photo card.

The cassette was of Britney singing to a track written for Toni Braxton.  It was in the wrong key.  But Jeff HEARD something.

And one of the pictures on the composite card.  Of Britney sitting on a blanket stroking a dog.  Jeff suddenly knew her innocence would appeal to young girls and OLD MEN!

He flew her to New York.

He’d never seen anything like it before.  The sheer AMBITION!  This wasn’t a mother pushing her daughter, this kid WANTED IT!

So he put her together with Max Martin.  To check the fit.  He left them in his office while he went out to lunch, and when he came back, hours later, the two were STILL AT IT!

They made a deal.

At first a development deal.

But when Max cut the demo with Britney, they inked an album contract.

You see Max had this song he’d written for TLC.  But Dallas Austin controlled TLC, he didn’t want to use it.  Dallas’ people said to let the producer use the track for ANOTHER of his projects.  But Max said NO!  It was for TLC and TLC-only.  The composition sat on the shelf for over a year.  Until he met Britney.

When Jeff heard the demo of "…Baby One More Time", he knew he had a hit record.

But it wasn’t until he saw the rough cut of the video that he knew he was going to sell MILLIONS of records.

One video director pitched an idea with Transformers.

This was against Jeff’s policy.  The first video should represent the ARTIST!

And then Britney piped up.  She had this idea.  Of wearing a Catholic girl’s school uniform.  Of being impatient to get out of class and when the bell rings getting up and dancing in the HALL!

Oh, I could see it.  You remember.  Britney in the hall SHAKING HER TITS!  I was palpitating just hearing the story.

These are the stories we want to hear.  About the artists, the music.  We don’t want to know what clubs they were at, but how the music was made, how they became STARS!

And that’s what Jeff’s looking for.  Songs and stars.

Didn’t used to be this way.  I’m sure when Warner Brothers signed Randy Newman, Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt thirty five years ago they didn’t project they’d be stars.  Rather, the company was signing MUSICIANS!

Jeff and his brethren are dinosaurs.  Combing the earth looking for that rare specimen they can blow up!  Take into the stratosphere.

That business will always exist.  But it will be a sliver of the landscape, not the whole enchilada.  It will be expensive and derided.  We’re going to an era of thousands of cult acts, all with their followings.

But listening to Jeff today I realized it all came down to the music.  All this talk about distribution models.  All these words about Warner’s stock price.  They’re almost irrelevant, they pale in comparison to the music.  Clive Calder proved it.  With a tight fist he went on to control the world and exit at the top of his game.  Jeff Fenster was privileged to be there for the ascension, to participate.  Today I was lucky enough to hear about it.  Made this jaded old fuck a believer once again.

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