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

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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

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.

Bryan Burrough • Vanity Fair • November 2007

Lou Pearlman, the guy responsible for the Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync, bilked his investors of $300 million and fled the country. But the boys say he was interested in more than just money.

Mooney says he left the house without further incident. He knew, however, that his days with Pearlman were numbered. Afterward, in an effort to protect himself, he says, he returned to Pearlman's office when Pearlman was out. He had perused Pearlman's private files in the past, curious to see what they contained. Now he removed three items he had seen before: a photo of a longtime Pearlman aide posing as a Chippendales dancer; a photo of Pearlman and one of the Backstreet Boys on a ski vacation, apparently alone; and a photo of a young singer naked in Pearlman's sauna, his hands covering his genitals. After making copies of the photos, Mooney says, he contacted the aide who posed as a dancer. "I went to [him] and showed it all to him," he says. "He's like, 'Listen, all you got to do is keep your mouth shut and you're in this company for life. That photo? I'd burn it.'" When Pearlman learned of the theft he confronted him. Mooney says he turned over the copies and resigned. Today he sells real estate in Orlando. "Nobody will talk about this stuff," Mooney says, "but plenty of guys were willing to go along to get what they wanted."

Lynn Hirschberg • New York Times Magazine • January 1996

A profile of Suge Knight, then 29 and CEO of Death Row Records, before the deaths of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.

Suge knows how to take care of business, from start to finish. "Everybody can have an ugly face," he explains. He smiles and cuts a piece of steak. He has arranged the trays around him and looks like a happy kid. "You can. I can. There are lots of slicksters out there. Beat me out of my money and I'll kick your drawers up your behind. Treat me fair and I'll treat you fair. I stand up for right. I'm always 12 o'clock straight up as long as you're straight up with me. But if you mess with me or my people, you've got a problem." Suge pauses and eats quietly. "If I wanted to," he says, "I could really scare the hell out of you."

Teen Titan
Lizzie Widdicombe • New Yorker • Aug 2012

A profile of Scooter Braun, the man who made Justin Bieber.

Braun recently bought a house in the Hollywood Hills. It is a large, modern bachelor pad with double-height ceilings and a wall of windows overlooking the city. To get to the front door, you walk on slate stepping stones through a koi pond. In the foyer are shelves displaying meaningful tokens: a signed copy of the basketball coach John Wooden’s “Pyramid to Success”; a sketch of Braun’s sports car, a hundred-thousand-dollar electric vehicle called the Fisker Karma (“I got one for me and one for Justin,” he said. “It makes you help the environment, but you also don’t have to feel like a pussy”); a poster commemorating Bieber’s performance at the White House, signed by President Obama. Braun told me that he was buying the house next door, to tear it down: “I’m putting in a basketball court.”
The home is the center of operations for Braun’s blossoming mini-moguldom—you could say that he’s halfway up the Geffen scale. In addition to tending his music projects, Braun is part of a cadre of entertainment types—others include Ashton Kutcher, Bono, and Will.i.am—who make regular trips to Silicon Valley to schmooze, attend conferences, and invest. (Will.i.am, who is an adviser to Intel, told me, “It’s our generation that understands the freakin’ code to the matrix.”) Braun has put money into ten start-ups, including the car company Uber, the social-networking service Stamped, and the music-sharing program Spotify. He said, “I’ve got an investment in a gold mine that does very well.”

California Schemin'
Decca Aitkenhead • Guardian • May 2008

How did a pair of young rappers from Scotland, laughed off the stage for their accents, land a deal with Sony and start partying with Madonna? They pretended to be American.

And the amazing thing was just how easy it was. "If you can convince one person, and then another person, eventually you have all these people believing in you, wanting something from you." As their social circle in London expanded, they would appropriate plot lines from TV shows and films, or stories they'd heard Americans tell, to flesh out their new identities. "We'd play around with different accents—we'd go, 'Fark off' and do loads of English accents, fooling around —and people were like, 'You should have your own TV show!' We did Billy Connolly and people were clean blown away by Americans doing such good Scottish accents."
But what had happened to their old identities? Back in Dundee, both had long-term girlfriends who weren't thrilled at being edited out. Bain's parents were supportive, but worried. "I was against it," his father says, "from the word go." But loyalty—and possibly the prize of vicarious fame and fortune—will persuade people to go to remarkable lengths. The girlfriends accepted that when they visited London they would be hidden away, and Bain's parents that their son would take their calls only if he was alone. Bain drew the line at talking in American to them—that seems to have been his moral threshold —but other than that he became adept at keeping his two lives apart. He did get a nasty shock one night, though. Out celebrating the birthday of Jamelia's manager, he glanced across the bar and saw, staring right at him, an old colleague from the skate shop in Dundee where he used to work. He spent the next half hour hiding in the toilets, sweating, until she had gone.

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Max Linsky is a founding editor of Longform.org.