Elektra founder Jac Holzman: A Coversation with…..

By Christopher Barrett 8/23/10 Music Week

Still exhibiting a fierce drive and independent spirit, Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman offers his 10-point plan to running a successful record label..

“I am probably the oldest guy still living who remembers how to do all this stuff or remembers what he did do. And I am still thrilled by it,” says Jac Holzman with a warm smile.

Sitting in a boardroom at Warner’s London office, the 79-year-old founder of Elektra Records oozes charm and vitality in equal measure while also demonstrating an unnerving ability to recall even the finest detail from his impressive and extensive career. Yet, far from being content to dine out on past glories, Holzman clearly balances his cognitive energies as much on the possibilities of the present as on the lessons of the past.

Holzman still very much has his finger on the pulse of the ever-evolving music industry and as his ninth decade approaches he currently holds the position of senior advisor to Warner Music Group chairman and CEO Edgar Bronfman.

Back in October 1950, when Holzman was aged just 19, he demonstrated a fierce drive and independent spirit, which would remain present throughout his career, when he scraped together enough Bar Mitzvah money to launch Elektra. From the outset his intention was to break new ground.

“The thought of ever having to take a job working for somebody else was poison. I wanted to work for myself,” reflects Holzman, whose early experimental records included a sound effects disc, a “sound system alignment” record, which became the industry standard, and even an album containing a morse-code course.

“I couldn’t find a course I liked so I created one,” explains Holzman with a smile. “We would sell 400 or 500 a month and there were no artists’ royalties, no copyright. Over the first five years we sold close to 1m copies and that put the company on a very solid financial footing from which we could try anything.”

In the decades that followed, Elektra would expand from focusing on folk to become one of the hippest and most influential labels in the music business, with a packed roster of influential artists including Love, Tim Buckley and Iggy Pop & The Stooges.

Aside from having an ear for music that enabled him to see the potential in acts such as The Doors (left), while others failed, Holzman’s interest in technological advancement has been apparent from his earliest days in the business. Indeed it was the launch of the LP format that first stirred him to create Elektra in his college dorm room.

“I loved music and the technical aspects of music,” says Holzman. “The Audio Engineering Society had just formed when I started Elektra. Their first issues were out in 1949 and I was devouring everything I could learn. The year before, in 1948, there had been a big bang which consisted primarily of the development of the long-playing record by Columbia. That was so important because it was an unbreakable record; it was light and could be shipped over long distances without ending up being smashed to pieces like shellac.

“At that time high-quality tape recorders were now affordable, as were microphones like the German U47,” he adds. “The FM band had finally settled down after being shifted in America due to the needs of over-the-air television. Those of us who saw those changes sensed an opportunity and recognised that the grip of the major labels could be broken, because they were going to have to do things that they were not familiar with”.

During his entire career, whether it was as a director of Pioneer electronics or on the board of Atari, Holzman continued to be an influential figure at the forefront of technological change, involved as he was with the introduction of home video, cable TV, video games and the compact disc.

More recently, drawing on his love of both technology and music, Holzman has clearly relished the opportunity to devise a groundbreaking website, Elektra60.com, in conjunction with Cisco Media Solutions. Using the company’s Cisco Eos media platform, the website provides the user with numerous interactive elements and a broad insight into the annals of Elektra’s output.

Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the label, Elektra60.com contains a wealth of material including video, audio, text and imagery featuring 100 Elektra artists ranging from Bob Dylan and The Incredible String Band to MC5 and Motley Crue, Sabicas and Charlotte Gainsbourg. It is a remarkable site and one that Holzman is understandably proud of.

“Firstly, I want to provide a historical foundation for the new Elektra, secondly it is a celebration of independent record making,” says Holzman of the new site. “If one person is inspired to launch a label as a result, then the whole project has been worthwhile,” he says.

“I come from a well-worn and particular point of view,” he explains. “Remember that Atlantic, Elektra and Warner were independent labels run by big personalities and we came together because of the problems we saw facing indie music making, namely our ability to control and maximise our distribution in an environment dominated by major labels.

“I never mentally left my indie record status and think indie all the time,” he continues. “Being entrepreneurial by nature I respect the qualities an indie needs to survive in a world made up of larger labels with more money.”

Here the veteran executive, who has remained for so long at the forefront of technological progress and the art of making music, trawls his many decades of experience to provide a compelling and insightful masterclass.

“This piece has an indie focus, because that is my root experience. No matter what company I am at or in, I am a committed to the swift, decisive style of the indie record maker,” says Holzman.

Nobody knows anything

In screenwriter William Goldman’s book Adventures In The Screen Trade, Goldman made a broad-stroke statement meant to address the smart ass, know-it-all people in the movie business. “Nobody knows anything,” he said and that’s true in the context of record making, too. Trust your own instincts. Make it up as you go along. If you believe in what you’re doing, others will, too. Will you make mistakes? Absolutely! But you will make interesting ones.

Record making is about process and your joy in the process

If you have a hit record or breaking artist, it is a wondrous, euphoric yet fleeting series of moments. Tomorrow always comes. Process is a personal attitude and a series of protocols developed through your own experience which guide you daily and are the script by which you move forward. As Harry Chapin sang, “It’s the going not the getting there that’s good.” Trust your process, it is all you have for sure.

It always comes down to the singer and the song

Whether it be a band, solo artist or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir it is always about the quality of the singer and the song.

And when you are stumped about how you should present special music to willing ears; intense, repeated listening at higher than normal volume will eventually lead you to the answer. Trust me on this one.

Harness the power of a great album

I’ve never met an artist who didn’t want the tangibility of a physical album release – it’s a benchmark in their musical journey. But not every artist should or can create a magical album, something you want to hear all of, every time.

The Doors’ debut album was dangerous, tense, astonishing in its musicality and range, something never heard before. Would The Doors have happened if we had only released one song or possibly an EP? Single tracks tell you everything about the song but not much about the artist.

I’m not denigrating files. Files are a modern manifestation of a time when singles dominated and radio was king. But radio had the focused attention of a public who heard new music only on radio. The internet, because of its size and inclusiveness, has a very loud inherent noise level. Today it is the listener, via the connected community of the internet, that is king. I much prefer that it remains with the listener but with a “hark-back” to the first filters we trusted in the past, good DJs who pick their own music and friends with accepting ears who bless us with their discoveries.

You may sell a million files, and that’s wonderful, but what leaves a lasting impact beyond that one song or several? And if you were to gather all the single files into an album, they may not fit together. A thoughtful album that works is a construct of context and content with a smidge of added fairy dust. Albums are about mood, a space to go for warmth and comfort.

You build the album as you would a home: design, foundation and frame. Shape the space, lay it out, ornament it and pull it into a “oneness” by sensitive sequencing. You include the things of your life that matter to you and might matter to others. Amy Winehouse bravely built her Back To Black album from the bricks of her own life, a woman sharing herself right down to her soul. How can you not be touched by her courage?

Stunning sound quality cannot be “fixed in the mix” or added later

The whole world isn’t listening through iPods and white ear buds. Your masters are your treasury. Whatever new formats evolve, and they will, carefully recorded original masters are crucial to your longevity as a label. Even if music remains ear-buds-fixated, you can offer a better ear-bud experience. And go lightly on the limiting and compression. Please!

Don’t mail royalty statements containing big cheques

That’s not because I don’t trust the Royal Mail but a cheque is an event, a singular first moment in an artist’s career. Let it be a celebration of what the artist has accomplished and what you too have contributed. Invite the artist and their spouse to dinner. Make a ceremony of your mutual good fortune. I have had some of my best moments with artists when they have been presented with their first cheque; the smile, the joy, them sharing it with family.

Indies can win – over larger, more cumbersome labels

Be focused, passionate, decisive and offer what others can’t or won’t; simplicity, directness and speedy answers. Let the artist feel your belief in them. Always be accessible.Keep your artist roster and release schedule lean and your focus clear. Be biased toward action. Think issues through, weigh the variables, then act. Take care of the music and the music will take care of you. Record making is not a job – it’s a most wondrous and obsessive “calling”.

Understand the label’s responsibility to the artist and your responsibility to your label

No matter how earnest and honest the effort, understand that a majority of artists will get only one shot, while you as a label get many. Second acts are rare in music.

Elektra had some exceptional artists who made marvellous music over several recordings, and whom I wish had done better. They often didn’t get the chance, or did get a second chance and… nothing. The reason it didn’t work out was usually the same; the artist didn’t want it badly enough or didn’t have the energy or the will to pull it off.

Build a reputation as a label people can trust

Be fanatical about the quality of every aspect of the process. In fact be fanatical about everything; never release a recording until it is right and be prepared to stand behind that record after it is sold. We had a policy at Elektra – if the store won’t take it back, which most stores wouldn’t, you could return it to us for an exchange or a refund, no questions asked.

Change comes when you least expect it and it’s not easy to recognise

Technical change has altered recorded music more than any other commercial art form; player piano rolls, wax cylinders, flat 78rpm shellac discs, vinyl LPs, eight-track and cassettes, CDs, digital files… these changes always come from an unexpected direction and generally arrive without a trumpet fanfare. You have two choices; you can be a deer in the headlights hanging on to the comfort of the “way it was” or you can think your way forward. Look to those who love and listen to lots of music. They are often way ahead of some labels.

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