The Tommy Mottola Nobody Knows – Part II
New York – July 28, 2001
How did you know Donny?
I knew his brother Jimmy for years and knew he had a little brother who’d begun doing promotion for him at Millennium Records. Millennium was being distributed through RCA, and I had my acts through RCA. Then he got a job at Arista as a promotion man. The way I really got to know him was I had Carly Simon, and we had a good plan together to re-establish her, and he had Hall & Oates at Arista, too.
Donny kept saying to me, “Why don’t we start a management company together?” Because Donny was always fascinated by management-he still is today. I’d look at him and say, “Are you nuts? I want to get out of this.” One day, I remember having a meeting with him on the street, and I said, “Donny, I’m going to take over CBS Records, and I want you to come with me.” He looked at me like I was crazy. I had already locked up Dave Glew, and my idea was to have Dave run Epic and Donny go to Columbia. Donny got excited and said yes, but no sooner did he commit than Clive Davis went to him and guilted him beyond belief.
So I got Donny in a room and locked the door and said, “OK, you signed a new Arista contract?” He said, “Yeah. For five years.” I said, “So when are you going to come?” He said, “What do you mean?” And I worked on him for two hours. By the end, he said, “Let me see if I can get out by December, because Clive has always said, `If you really want to leave, you have a handshake with me and you can.’ ” But, of course, Clive changed that a little bit and made us pay. [laughs] I was relentless, because if I didn’t have somebody with Donny’s perseverance and persistence, I knew I was going to fail.
All along the way, my greatest teacher ever in the area of the business operations and people skills was Mel Ilberman. Because in running a big company, I didn’t know my ass from my elbow. I only had my perceptions from the outside. He has been a guiding factor for me through this whole process at the company.
He’s my rabbi, my godfather, my guru. Mel and I had a relationship that started with Hall & Oates, back at RCA, when he was, like, chief financial officer. At that time, I didn’t really like him, because when I would go in and ask for more money and bigger budgets, Mel was always cutting them back-the same thing he does now. And he was always like this surly prick. [Laughs] But I gained respect for him, and he liked me. Then he left for a short time and went to the CBS publishing company for about a year, then jumped to PolyGram to run the company with Dick Asher.
But he and Dave Glew were the first people I called-knowing I would get that wealth of experience with marketing and distribution from WEA-and then Mel, with his experience with all the business operations that he had had over the years, and Donny, being the pit bull I knew he was at Arista, coming in to help change this aging monolith into a new, young, barking dog.
Next, you unified Sony Music.
In 1995, when I got more responsibility [as chief of Sony's worldwide music division], the first thing I did was break all the walls down, and I said that everybody in this company would work together. And that has made a huge difference in the success of a Celine or a Mariah. Or Lauryn Hill: Hip-hop had never broken anywhere outside America, and we sold 15 million [copies of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1998]. With Celine, we collectively sold 70 million on her last big studio album and the Titanic soundtrack. That’s, like, $800 million in sales on two albums– bigger than the gross national product of some countries.
So being able to create huge global identities for these artists that would be ongoing-even if one territory began to wane-became a tremendous advantage for us. Long before there was a Latin explosion, we broke Gloria Estefan and Julio Iglesias as two of the biggest stars in the world, and basically they started as Latin acts, signed through our Latin company. We’ve been No. 1 in Latin music for 20 years now.
Growing up in the streets of the Bronx and hearing the local Latin stations and the music coming out of the walls, the beats and the rhythms inspired me to get involved when I came to this company. I really felt that the Latin group of companies that we had were going to be the next reservoir of talent to break global popular music superstars.
We put a lot effort into finding the talent, making sure they had a Latin base first, and selling millions of units with their core audience before we thought of crossing them over, whether it’s Ricky [Martin] or Gloria or Julio. Then we did the reverse crossover by taking New York kids who happen to both be Puerto Rican as well-Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez-and doing pop and Spanish albums at the same time. And Shakira, who’s from Colombia-if you put them all together, they were the nucleus.
But I think the whole “Latin explosion” term is bullshit, because many of the people who broke were not even from Latin America. The wonderful thing about it is that it has brought the pure genre to the forefront of popular music in general. In and of itself, Spanish music is going to be big for the next 50 years. How do I know that? I read the demo polls, so a moron would know that.
Tell me about meeting your wife, Thalia, who’s Mexican.
One of my closest friends, Emilio Estefan, kept talking to me about this girl he knew that he’d worked with as a producer. But this was during a really rough time in my life when I’d just gone through a divorce [from Mariah Carey, finalized in 1998 after a 1997 separation]. He said, “The girl’s name is Thalia, she’s a singer and has all these big records, and she’s an actress, too.” I had heard of her, but I said, “Emilio, I really don’t think I want to meet another singer right now.” Little did I know that she didn’t think she wanted to meet me, either.
About three years ago , we both agreed to have a drink one night at a little restaurant called Scallinatella on East 61st Street. The drink turns into dinner, and we spend a few hours together; then she had to run to a wrap party because she had just finished a movie. Then she said she had to go home tomorrow because she was starting this soap opera-little did I know she was the queen of soap operas in Latin America and one of the biggest female stars. I said, “When will I see you again?” She said it would be six or nine months.
Thalia & Tommy Mottola at New York’s Men Fashion Week,
Lot 61 – Tommy Hilfiger Show: July 28, 1998
So I go away to the Caribbean for Christmas, and she sent me a pair of sunglasses and a terry-cloth bathrobe for Christmas with a note that said, “Keep yourself warm when you get out of the sea at St. Bart’s, and put these on so you don’t hurt your eyes.” I thought it was so nice. I spoke to her briefly on the phone afterward, and we agreed to get together in Miami in February .
So she comes into Miami, and like every good Latin girl, she brings her mother-attached at the hip. [Laughs] Of course, the mother is her manager on top of it.
We had dinner, danced. The next night, we went out together again, and then she went home to Mexico. I thought, “There’s really something here.” After that, we were on the phone for three or four hours every night. This went on for a month or two, and then she came back from Miami, and it got serious. The distance created a lot more attention and understanding, and friendship happened. Come the summer , she finished the soap opera, and she got off the plane with eight or nine bags and her dog. We went to Sag Harbor to my house, and she never left. It’s one of the best things-if not the best thing-that’s ever happened to me. She stopped doing soap operas and now focuses on her records and films.
View a video where Thalia speaks about meeting Tommy Mottola in 1998: (view 1:50)
Back to music. Are there other global regions where you believe you will soon develop mass-appeal sales?
Certainly England, which has been dry for a while, but I think will go through another hot spell. When I first came to the company, most of the big hits that the whole CBS organization had were English. I walked into Terence Trent DArby, George Michael, Sade, Alison Moyet, and others. Our French company is signing a lot of talent; our Canadian company signed Lara Fabian. Asia is big, and we have a singer, Coco Lee from Taiwan, who sells millions of units in China. She sang a song on the Academy Awards this year, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Sweden is one of the biggest talent pools for pop music in the whole world. We’re working closely with producers and songwriters there and have some exclusive deals. By the way, Daryl and John are recording a new Hall & Oates album for Columbia right now. I was online this morning with Anders Baggy, who just produced two sides for them. He’s one of the hottest Swedish producers. I sent Daryl over there, and they wrote what I think is possibly a big hit record.
We have 12,000 people working for us worldwide, and now we’re putting together all our task forces and figuring out where our business is headed, so that we can reverse this erosion that is taking place. We’ve got an incredible diversity of great new and recently established artists like Destiny’s Child, Dixie Chicks, Macy Gray, Elvis Crespo, Lauryn Hill, Savage Garden, Will Smith, Jamiroquai, Maxwell, Pearl Jam, Train, Charlotte Church, Peter White.
I believe this business will be bigger than ever once we harness the digital media and figure out how we’re going to get the artists paid, ourselves paid, and how we can use it as a platform to broaden our business. We may lose manufacturing facilities or physical distribution facilities down the road, but it’s going to be a bigger business with wider audiences. For years, we’ve been like cavemen and traditionally promoted and marketed our products one way– through retail. It’s still a big part of our business, but we’ve got to think of every way possible to open up every area.
What’s the overall philosophy of Sony Music Entertainment?
More than any company, we have a lot of exclusive in-house producers and writers and then do the same thing internationally. It’s coming full-circle from the ’70s, when it ended and got into a more self-contained artist/writer thing.
The key to pop success these days is songs. The key to the whole business these days–no matter what genre-is songs. It’s a song-driven business, more than ever. The kids really want that song, more than the album. That’s the good and the bad of it. Of course, you’ve got to make better albums these days to get them into wanting to hear whole bodies of music.
This industry spent 50 years since Sinatra’s 1955 In the Wee Small Hours trying to make consumers care about whole albums. Some feel we once had it right and have since gone wrong, to where we must repackage disposable hits from a wide range of artists before fans think they’re getting good value in an album format.
We try not to put singles out at all except in isolated instances. We may put out a dozen a year or maybe more, but in a limited way.
Why has the industry put so much emphasis on songs and allowed the richer artistic and commercial idea of a full-length listening experience to dissipate, to the point where you’ve got the past and the present fighting each other?
You have the past and the present and those two elements you’ve just described-that’s real and that’s absolutely true. You have other components that have contributed to that, OK? You have MTV, which, in my opinion has helped force the issue, too, because it drives home individual things so much visually. You have the fragmentation of radio into genres, which cuts it up even more and makes it more hit-driven.
What we’ve been trying to do is much more imaging and better explaining to the consumer of what this is about, in order to draw them back into the emotion of the body of work. When we put an act on TV, we have them do at least two songs or else they don’t do it.
But as the trends shift-as they will-from a pop era back to another rock era, I think that’s going to help the whole process. This kind of pop music that’s selling more than anything right now in some ways doesn’t help the cause, because it’s totally about the song and not really about the whole artist. In rock, you get into it because you’re into the band.
Clearly, you think you can reintroduce a contemplative music experience.
That’s what I’m saying, yes. I think you can. We’re going to have to.
Because if you only feed people a steady diet of shallow impulses, they’ll eventually learn to live with that.
It is a problem-we’re all aware of it. Meanwhile, sales of hit records have never been bigger. Janet Jackson’s album [All for You] opened up at 606,000 [units sold] in one week, just in the U.S. That’s more than whole albums ever sold in their commercial lifetime when the album experience was first happening.
Yet most of those Jackson units were sold at traditional retail.
Yes, and we’re looking at what we can do to help change it back to a little bit more like the way it used to be, with the reality of what the consumer is like. But then you have all the fucking pirates and thieves out there trying to screw us and the artists, minute by minute, daily!
The bright side of things is we’re selling more now than ever on hit albums that are driven by hit songs. This isn’t Rome-it ain’t burning. But is there a match? Yes. Somebody could be trying to light a match right now.
Source: Billboard – Timothy White