Ahmet Ertegun, the Man Who Made Bieber, and Other Crazy Stories From the Music Business

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Oct. 6 2013 8:15 AM

The Longform Guide to the Music Industry

Featuring the man who made Bieber, how Nickelback cashes in, and the incredible story of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

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Did you know that Nickelback's Chad Kroeger helped introduce
Carly Rae Jepsen to the world? Yup.

Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

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Rian Malan • Rolling Stone • May 2000

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How legends of the American music industry made millions off the work of Solomon Linda, a Zulu tribesman who wrote “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and died a pauper.

R.E.M. did it, as did the Nylons and They Might Be Giants. Manu Dibango did a twist version. Some Germans turned it into heavy metal. A sample cropped up on a rap epic titled “Mash up da Nation.” Disney used the song in The Lion King, and then it got into the smash-hit theatrical production of the same title, currently playing to packed houses in six cities around the world. It’s on the original Broadway cast recording, on dozens of kiddie CDs with cuddly lions on their covers and on an infinite variety of nostalgia compilations. It’s more than sixty years old, and still it’s everywhere.
What might all this represent in songwriter royalties and associated revenues? I put the question to lawyers around the world, and they scratched their heads. Around 160 recordings of three versions? Thirteen movies? Half a dozen TV commercials and a hit play? Number Seven on Val Pak’s semi-authoritative ranking of the most-beloved golden oldies, and ceaseless radio airplay in every corner of the planet? It was impossible to accurately calculate, to be sure, but no one blanched at $15 million. Some said 10, some said 20, but most felt that $15 million was in the ballpark.
Which raises an even more interesting question: What happened to all that loot?

Eclectic, Reminiscent, Amused, Fickle, Perverse
George W.S. Trow • The New Yorker • May 1978
[Part I | Part II]

A profile of Ahmet Ertegun: son of the Turkish ambassador, teenage collector of “race” music, producer and pseudonymous songwriter for records by Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner, founder of Atlantic Records, confidante to Mick Jagger, impeccable dresser.

In April of 1971, Ahmet M. Ertegun, jaunty, well dressed, bald, forty-seven years old, and the president of Atlantic Records, went by plane to Cannes to celebrate a new conjunction (exquisitely negotiated) between his company and the Rolling Stones, a musical group that was by then generally considered to be the Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band in the World. The celebration in Cannes did not capture the popular imagination, but in the music business (where manipulators of the popular imagination were ranged in novel hierarchies sensitive to movement and to intimations of aristocracy) the convergence of Ahmet Ertegun and the Rolling Stones had its resonance. This was not entirely due to the eminence of the Rolling Stones. By 1971, the Rolling Stones had recorded eighteen albums; they had introduced Threat, Excess, and Androgyny into popular music; they had been at the center of a metaphoric event at Altamont, in California—where a member of the audience was stabbed to death; and for nearly a decade they had made the most powerful mock-black music of their times. But Ahmet Ertegun, informed men knew, had done at least as much. He had founded a small record company; he had turned a small record company into a major record company; he had superintended the careers of celebrated people and had superintended for himself a success of unrivalled longevity; he had owned a Rolls-Royce for more than five years; he had dressed extremely well; and he had, at one or two important moments, applied his own aesthetic to the talents of certain singers and musicians in a way that had influenced the whole of the music. In a business in which entrepreneurs and executives, however successful, were overshadowed, as they saw it, by hippies, druggies, spies, spades, transvestites, and Englishmen, Ahmet Ertegun was an exception. He had the stature in his line of work that Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer had had in theirs. By 1971, Ahmet Ertegun (jaunty, well dressed, bald, forty-seven years old, and of very recent Turkish extraction) was the Greatest Rock-and-Roll Mogul in the World, and the men in the business—promoters, producers, corporate functionaries, managers, P.R. people—who were often cynical about the eminence of performers, were fascinated and sometimes moved by the eminence they saw in him.

Genius: The Nickelback Story
Ben Paynter • Businessweek • November 2012

How a loathsome band makes gobs of money.

In addition to masterminding Nickelback’s ascent, Kroeger, 37, has found ways for his band to make money onstage and off, through licensing, merchandising, and product-placement agreements. He’s also helped groom many other acts, including some that the haters might even like. He co-owns the record company that released Carly Rae Jepsen’s ubiquitous summer smash, Call Me Maybe. He co-writes songs for other major artists and helps to promote them. As of May 2011, the rock-star-cum-business-mogul was earning $9.7 million a year from his various ventures, according to court records filed with the Supreme Court of British Columbia. He has a vacation home with friends in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, a 20-acre farm with stables in British Columbia, and his own home recording studio. Chad Kroeger is not just a drunken rock god: He’s a kingmaker.
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