Depicted: A recording studio. Photo Credit: Marc Fanelli-Isla.
The music business has a long and controversial history. The way the music industry behaves in today's digital age often goes all the way back to the inventions of the radio and the phonograph.
These ten books--listed in no particular order--are some of my favorite for figuring out how record labels have grown and evolved over the past few decades.
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Godfather of the Music Business: Morris Levy
This is a biography of music entrepreneur Morris Levy by Richard Carlin. Morris Levy worked his way up from being a nightclub hatcheck boy to being the co-owner of the legendary Birdland nightclub on Broadway in Manhattan. From there, he started the record label Roulette Records and numerous other record labels and publishing companies.
Levy was famous for his underhanded business practices and his deep connections to the Gambino crime family. Levy was infamous for stealing royalties from artists and hiding tax revenue from the government. To many people, Levy was everything wrong with the music business, but to others, he was a tough business owner running independent music operations as the rest of the industry became increasingly corporate, risk-averse, and rules-driven.
The musician Tommy James signed to Roulette Records early in his career, and he described what it was like being beholden to Levy in James's book titled Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells.
Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business
Hit Men is a classic exposé of the music business and its reliance on independent promoter and payola. The book describes how nearly the entire recorded music industry found themselves dependent on independent promoters that pushed specific songs onto record label playlists via bribery.
The independent promoters--occasionally mixed up with organized crime--gained increasing influence both with the record labels and the radio stations until the labels began to fight back and the US Government started to take an interest in the business practices of the music industry.
The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood
David Geffen is one of the most financially-successful businessmen in the music industry and Hollywood. The Operator is an unbelievably-detailed look at his life. The book starts at the beginning of his life, through his work as a talent agent, to his starting of Asylum Records and Geffen Records, and then ending with Geffen cofounding DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
The book also goes into Geffen's long and complicated love life; he was a gay man in the closet for much of his life, preferring to date gay men but nearly marrying the musician Cher. Later on, the guru Marianne Williamson almost agrees to have David Geffen's baby, as he was concerned on how he could have a successor to his family as a gay man..Geffen eventually came out at an AIDS charity event in the early 1990s in effort to destigmatize homosexuality during the AIDS crisis.
If you don't want to read the entire book, you can read my article summarizing David Geffen's most famous business moves.
The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun
This book covers the history of legendary record label executive Ahmet Ertegun and how he cofounded Atlantic Records.
Ahmet Ertegun was born in Turkey in 1923, and his father became the Turkish Ambassador to the United States. Ahmet grew up surrounded by immense privilege--being familiar with fancy clothes, dark limousines, and family friends from elite backgrounds. Despite not having much experience in the music industry, Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson cofounded Atlantic Records--one of the most successful record labels in history.
Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman's Story of Surviving the Music Industry
This is the tell-all autobiography of former music industry A&R executive Dorothy Carvello. Most importantly, in the book she reveals that Ahmet Ertegun--then her boss at Atlantic Records--sexually assaulted her and broke her arm. The book traces her career through multiple record labels in the industry, exposing sexism and harassment wherever she goes.
Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Excess
Howling at the Moon is the fantasy-laden autobiography of CBS Records CEO Walter Yetnikoff. In the story, Yetnikoff describes his role in convincing CBS to sell their record label division to Sony, then making him CEO of Sony Music Entertainment. Yetnikoff describes his long history of alcohol and drug abuse, and also describing both real and imagined sexual encounters with women.
Yetnikoff describes his connections with Mob-connected Morris Levy, the Brian Ross expose of independent promoters, and he accuses his protege Tommy Mottola of having a hand in Yetnikoff being pushed out of Sony Music Entertainment.
Hitmaker: The Man and His Music
Hitmaker is the memoir of Tommy Mottola--Walter Yetnikoff's protege and successor as CEO of Sony Music Entertainment. In the book, Mottola opens up about his rleationship with Mariah Carey--how he discovered her at a party, grew her career, and married her, only for it all to end in a bitter divorce.
Mottola opens up that his own therapist warned him against a relationship with Mariah Carey, but he describes finding love again. Mottola is currently marreid to
The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop
The music journalist Dan Charnas has covered the music industry for decades, and has lived through some of the most pivotal moments in hip-hop. In The Big Payback, Charnas tells the entire history of hip-hop--from the early moments of the Sugar Hill Gang to 50 Cent's lucrative VitaminWater deal.
Throughout the story, Charnas focuses on the unstoppable rise of Def Jam Recordings, taking a clue look at Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons, and Def Jam Recordings. Charnas frames the rise of Def Jam as the moment from when hip-hop went from only being a cultural phenomenon to also being a business.
The Art & Science of Respect: A Memoir
This is the autobiography of the legendary record label founder J Prince. In the book, Prince describes his humble upbringings in Houston's Fifth Ward and his rise to power.
Prince describes building the label Rap-A-Lot Records, managing boxers Andre Ward and Floyd Mayweather Jr, and even playing a role in discovering Drake before he became a superstar. In the book, he also addresses his long history of legal troubles--Prince and Rap-A-Lot Records were investigation from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for years. Eventually, Congresswoman Maxine Water and then-Vice President Al Gore tapped the brakes on the investigation after Congressional hearings on the matter.
Prince also mentions his enormous respect for Lyor Cohen, and Prince also tells the story of how he went from learning from David Geffen to challenging him when Geffen Records pulled the controversial LP made by the Geto Boys.
Liberation Through Hearing
Liberation Through Hearing is the autobiography of producer and record label CEO Richard Russell. He is one of the most prominent music businesspeople in the United Kingdom. The book describes the past three decades of XL Recordings, the independent British record label where Russell joined as an A&R scout and eventually beceame the CEO and co-owner.