The Arista Book

“Looking for the Magic: New York City, the ’70s and the Rise of Arista Records”:


I wasn’t interested. Another testimonial to self-aggrandizing Clive Davis.

But that’s not what it is.

Bob Merlis sent the hype and at first I ignored it, but then I said “what the hell” and asked him to send a copy. Got to say Merlis doesn’t bug me if I don’t write about what he sends, but I don’t want him to send that which I’ll never partake of, and Felice is constantly complaining about the overflowing towers of books in the garage. I tell her it’s a garage! As long as she can get the car in… Most of these books will never see print again, they will be forgotten. But I have them.

So I opened the paperback when it came, and was stunned to find out it’s not about the Arista Records everybody talks about, the house that Whitney built, but what happened before. The book ENDS with the first Whitney Houston album. What came before?

Larry Uttal. Bell Records. That’s the best part of the book, the delineation of the trials and tribulations of an indie label back in the sixties. You see the record business hadn’t been formalized, it wasn’t mature, it was still being figured out. And don’t forget, in the mid to late sixties the business completely flipped, from singles to albums. And then came consolidation. Which wasn’t really complete…well, until very recently. There are only four producers of baby formula? Well there are only three major labels. And I’d say that’s heinous, and it is on one level, primarily that they own their catalogs of the greatest music in history, essentially all the music in recorded history, and they wield undue power as a result, but the truth is the barrier to entry is nearly nonexistent. And…

I was thinking about how technology changed the business. In the sixties it was FM radio. Eighties MTV. Today?

Don’t think the internet hasn’t changed the sound we hear. Hip-hop is dominant on the hit parade because it embraced the internet. I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, one of the reasons rock is dying is because the bands keep labeling Spotify and streaming the devil. Which is like bitching about electric cars, after they dominate, which they will. You can’t fight lost battles. Not that the artists know what battle they are fighting. Do they really want to go back to the pre-internet era, when most acts couldn’t get a deal, when the barrier to entry, to making a record and getting it distributed, was so high? I don’t think so, but…

Ultimately we’re in a fertile era. And it’s about software as opposed to hardware. I.e. the music as opposed to distribution. Then again, we now have TikTok crossover stars. Which is good, it takes the power away from the major labels. The majors don’t control TikTok, they have so much less power over ByteDance’s platform than they do Spotify, Apple, Amazon, Deezer, Tidal…although too many acts jump into the majors’ hands after establishing a beachhead. I’m going to tell you what you should already know. The label doesn’t care about you, not whatsoever, it only cares about itself. And when you’re done producing revenue you’re kicked to the curb, so you’d better be prepared, even better don’t take the major label bait, unless you can write the deal on your terms.

But that’s today. We’re in the midst of change.

Like we were in the sixties.


So Larry Uttal had a unique philosophy, rather than employ A&R people (I should say men, that’s reinforced in the book, how all the label employees were men), Uttal made deals with producers, and then did his best to blow up the records they delivered. And he worked with names and they produced hits and if you lived through the era you know them all. But it is a bygone era. Akin to the first twenty years of the internet, if that, when it was all about renegade individuals, when the landscape was still fluid, before the ascension of the FAANG companies…Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google. You don’t want to play anywhere near their lane, because you’re going to hit a roadblock…they’ll either compete with you or buy you, and it will be on their terms.

In other words, the sixties was the era of independents. And that era faded out over the ensuing decades, there was a renaissance in the indie rock world in the nineties, but Nirvana signed to a major and…

There used to be independent distribution. Young ‘uns have got no idea of that, just like they’ve got no idea of a dial phone. The fact that you were dependent upon regional outfits to sell your records… Branch ruled starting in the early seventies, when WEA was formed, and at the end of the decade, even A&M went branch, with RCA, and then Arista followed in the eighties. The business was on the road to consolidation.

Then again, there was a ton of dough being generated, more than ever before. But really the business remained the same, you threw it up against the wall and saw if it stuck, and usually it didn’t.

Most of Arista’s albums didn’t make it. Not that any other label was much better. It was one stiff after another, you couldn’t truly predict what would hit, at least not on a regular basis. The press still had power, but even positive reviews couldn’t push an act over the line, otherwise Willie Nile would be a household name. I bought that album, based on the hype.

But times were changing, Bell couldn’t conquer the albums market, Clive Davis got fired by CBS, and ultimately Columbia Pictures, which had acquired Bell, replaced Uttal with Davis, not that Uttal was done, he formed Private Stock and signed Blondie and… If you have more than one hit, you know how to do it, the faces change but the business remains the same. Although most people never ever have a hit, on either side of the fence, artistic or business. If you make it and sustain you’re somebody in the music business, and there aren’t that many somebodies. You may have dreams, you may make it to the big top for a short while… Staying in? Uber-difficult. As a matter of fact, almost everybody in this book is done, then again, some of them are dead, and all of them are old.


So Clive takes over Bell, renames it Arista, signs Patti Smith, but…when Columbia Pictures ultimately unloads the label to Ariola in ’79, the movie company says it’s a wash, the debts were just that high, Clive Davis was never known for making money, he always spent, and if any came in he’d blow it on parties and other image promotion, not only of the acts, but himself too. That’s Clive’s greatest production, his greatest artist development, himself. Then again, he won’t be remembered. But how many of the lightweight Milli Vanilli, Ace of Base songs will either? Larry Uttal’s sixties Bell output supersedes that of Clive, but no one has a sense of history.

That’s plain wrong. Those who grew up when music blew up are into this stuff. Ergo this book. Published by the Trouser Press, whose magazine we all got back in the day. And if you didn’t, you probably won’t find this book interesting.

It’s deep history.

So Arista was New York-centric. It signed New York acts. And when it ventured out to the coast, signing the Pop, which I also bought, it failed. Arista had three towers…pop, rock and jazz. Pop was Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester and Dionne Warwick. Rock was Patti Smith, Lou Reed, the Outlaws and the Grateful Dead, and jazz…that’s the most interesting story in the book.

All the credit goes to Steve Backer. I knew Backer, he unfortunately passed in 2014, I don’t know if this is a rewrite of history, but he is credited here with forming and running the jazz operation (along with Michael Cuscuna), which was first class when most of the other stuff on the label was not. This was old school record business… Don’t try for a hit, make the albums on a budget, knowing how many they would sell to the ready, eager audience. This business has been completely superseded by the hits business, but this was the essence of the record business way back when. And then it evolved into the throw it against the wall paradigm, and now it’s about winnowing chances, choosing priorities and promoting the hell out of them. So your odds of getting lucky if you’re not one of those priorities? Close to nil.

So if you were around back then you’ll know almost every name in the book. Because we used to know everybody and everything, when the business was still small enough to achieve that. Today a record goes to number one and you’ve never heard of it, never mind heard it. The trades focus on employees you don’t know and don’t need to. Touring has replaced the labels as the driver of the business. That’s where the money is. The promoters are the banks the labels used to be.

I mean this was a long time ago. Nearly fifty years! Clive Davis himself is ninety, and if it weren’t for his Grammy party, his name would never be mentioned. As it is, he has no power, but few ninety year olds do.


So should you read this book?

It’s really well-written and really good. I don’t understand the economics whatsoever, it’s a labor of love. If the advance broke into five figures, it wasn’t by much. And what is the market for this book, who wants to know this information?

Certainly not youngsters. It’s all these aged city denizens…David Forman (another album I bought on the hype), does anybody care about him today? Not even those who were aware back then care. And maybe not even Eric Carmen, who created one of Arista’s first hits.

You see at first Arista was cool and hip. You wanted to go with a boutique run by a professional with a track record. But then Lou Reed went back to RCA, word got out that Clive wanted to mess with your music, tell you what to record, pick singles, and then he had his big breakthrough with Whitney and nobody with any credibility or who wanted credibility would sign with Arista, it ended up all pop all the time, and the word on pop used to be there were no legs, it didn’t last.

But today nothing lasts. Everything’s momentary.

So what I’m going to say is I decided to read a bit to tell Merlis I had, if he asked, but then I got hooked, I went down the rabbit hole, this was my life, there’s a good chance it was your life too. Addicted to the radio and the record store, looking for more information. And this book provides it, closes some loops you always wondered about and puts it all in order.

And illustrates that if you think these labels and their employees know what they are doing, you’re wrong.

I mean there are skilled marketing and promotion people, mostly the latter, but the landscape keeps changing, the type of music that hits and how it’s promoted, and the label has to adjust, by the seat of its pants. From the outside it all looks linear. Inside, it’s akin to chaos.

So this book goes deep into the New York scene. Not the Seymour Stein scene, not the alternative scene, but New York nonetheless. Seymour was on the cutting edge, he found what needed to be exposed and then did. He took chances. Society benefited. Clive’s skill was ultimately A&R, the old school way, matching songs to acts, in an era where any act worth its salt only wanted to do its own material, and the material it chose. Clive had the pop world to himself. It wasn’t cool. But then Donnie Ienner left Arista, promoted Mariah Carey at Columbia and pop was everything. Still is, well, it’s the scraps left over from hip-hop, and sometimes the two merge. But back in the sixties and seventies it was about surprising us. The acts weren’t me-too, in many cases they were sui generis. And if you wanted to know which way the wind blew, you listened to a record.

You’ll feel the breeze reading “Looking for the Magic.” You know if you want it, and if you do you won’t be disappointed.

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