Who Destroyed Epic Records?
It started outlike any label showcase at October's CMJ, the five-night music conference that's been held every year since 1980, drawing hundreds of industry professionals, influencers, fans and upstart bands to New York City's clubs, all looking to find -- or become -- the next big thing. A few dozen T-shirt-and-jeans-clad college reps gathered on the Bowery, next to the space that used to house legendary punk club CBGB, and Augustana, the latest pop-rock priority on Epic Records, prepared to take the stage. Guitar techs finished tuning, the sound guy prepped the board, and band members mingled then made their way toward the front -- excited if not a little anxious.
The San Diego-based five-piece, which had achieved a modicum of success with its 2008 album Can't Love, Can't Hurt (its first single, "Sweet and Low," reached No. 34 on the Billboard Hot Adult Top 40 chart), had a lot riding on this performance -- and so did the label. Epic has had declining sales and a dearth of hits at a moment when the entire industry is struggling to adapt to a new model -- one in which monetizing physical product is secondary to marketing and branding. The 57-year-old label was fighting for its life. It was a long way from the Sony-owned company's heyday in the '80s and '90s, when such artists as Michael Jackson, George Michael, Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine were racking up combined sales in the hundreds of millions worlwide.
Epic's current roster still features a superstar or two (namely Shakira), but they're far outnumbered by developing acts like Augustana, who knew this performance was crucial as an opportunity to motivate the people who would be representing their new music to radio, retail, press and the online world. One song in, singer Dan Layus' microphone experienced some feedback -- a technical glitch about as common as a guitarist breaking a string. But what happened next was anything but.
According to eyewitnesses in the crowd, Epic Records president Amanda Ghost, 36, a career songwriter who had held the top spot at the label for 20 months, stepped onto the stage, grabbed the microphone and, with her native North London accent, spoke her mind. Among a string of expletives, says a source: "She was screaming: 'Who booked this fucking place? It sounds like shit! We don't treat our artists this way at Epic. I'm not letting them play another minute!' " -- and pulled the plug on the show. "The room just got silent."
Six days later, a memo issued by Sony Music Label Group chairman Rob Stringer -- brother of Howard, CEO of Sony Entertainment -- announced that Ghost would be leaving the company at year's end. "Amanda has been an important creative force at Epic in the past two years," it read. "In returning to the natural focus of her artistic career, I look forward to us working together in the future."
For a woman who had a penchant for profanity and a reputation for unpredictable, sometimes violent outbursts, it was a surprisingly quiet firing -- and with it, the latest trial in unconventional management was over. The result? Sad and seemingly conclusive: that Epic Records most likely will become an imprint of Sony Music's flagship label Columbia, its departments forced to merge, its artist roster cut by two-thirds along with the president position. At least that's what staffers are predicting, even as Stringer puts on a brave, hopeful face.
"I owe the people at Epic, some who've worked for me for many years, to get it right," he says. "I have a responsibility to balance the ship, so we're going to sit down, not make any rash decisions, shore up the roster and hopefully make some progress in the next six months. ... It would be wonderful to start again, but I have a responsibility to the artists to do the right thing, and I'm really going to try."
It was a huge leap to think Amanda Ghost could have done it. Compared to her more seasoned peers -- like Universal Motown's Sylvia Rhone, a 35-year veteran who excels at the delicate dance that is artist relations; chart rulers Monte and Avery Lipman of Universal Republic; and Atlantic president Julie Greenwald, who's famous for meeting her numbers -- Ghost seemed completely out of her league. Indeed, says a confidante: "She never should have taken that job. It was a no-win situation."
Ghost was hardly the first creative type to run a label. Jimmy Iovine was a producer before he started Interscope; same for Rick Rubin, current co-president of Columbia Records, and Rob Cavallo, recently named chairman of Warner Bros. Records. And, of course, there is Jay-Z's successful three-year stint as president of Def Jam. But in these shaky economic times, handing a portfolio of more than $50 million, along with the responsibility of overseeing no fewer than six departments -- marketing, A&R, publicity, retail, promotions and new media -- to someone with zero management experience made the decision to hire Ghost an even riskier gamble. Even Stringer acknowledges that. "I'm the first to admit that I made an experimental judgment that possibly wasn't fair on Amanda," he says. "She struck me as a tour de force and a creative whirlwind -- which the industry needs more of -- and she was very keen to do the job and super-excited and confident about it. But in the last few weeks, we both agreed it was too big a mountain to climb."
In a way, the writing was on the wall. As the music business continues to collectively downsize -- the RIAA estimates the value of the industry as a whole has diminished by nearly 50% during the past decade, from $14.3 billion in 2000 to $7.7 billion in 2009 -- Epic's place in the label hierarchy has become increasingly marginalized. Founded in 1953 as a home for jazz and classical music, it expanded its scope during the 1960s and '70s to include such influential rock acts as the Yardbirds, the Clash and Cheap Trick. By the mid-'80s, Epic was just hitting its stride, releasing massive worldwide successes like Michael Jackson's 1982 album Thriller (28 million sold and counting) and George Michael's Faith, which moved 7 million copies in 1988 alone -- a year after Sony inherited the label when it bought CBS. But its best days were yet to come: the 1990s brought game-changing bands like Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine to the roster, and they, too, sold in the millions.
It didn't last. In the post-Napster years, Epic's market share dipped dramatically, from slightly more than 3% in 1998 to 1.58% a decade later. It was a fraction of Sony Music's overall share of 28.3% (second only to Universal), and being an independent entity, Epic was doing little for Sony's bottom line. Bold changes were made to the rap-rock-heavy roster, and it went decidedly pop under the watch of veteran Columbia promotions man Charlie Walk when he took over in 2005. In his three years on the job, he acquired radio-ready acts the Script, Sean Kingston and Sara Bareilles. By the time he left, some of the label's functions, like promotion, had been integrated with its big brother, Columbia, signaling a possible future absorption. In fact, rumors of Epic folding had been swirling for about six years.
But in speaking to Epic employees past and present -- the staff has dwindled from 150 during the mid-'90s to slightly more than 60 today -- they blame Ghost, not the economy, for putting the nail in the coffin and bringing an end to an era in 20 months flat (though some point to Stringer as an accessory for hiring her).
When Ghost was tasked with running Epic in February 2009, she was a virtual unknown outside her native England. A former artist -- her debut album was released on Warner Bros. in 2000, after four years in limbo -- she had gotten her start in the mid-'90s writing with Ian Dench, the former frontman of EMF (1990's "Unbelievable"). Ten years later, the two scored a hit with Beyonce's "Beautiful Liar," which led to industrywide accolades and a Grammy nomination.
But Ghost's greatest claim to fame came by way of a career-defining credit as one of three writers on James Blunt's 2005 international smash "You're Beautiful," which garnered three Grammy noms, helped spur worldwide sales of 13 million for his Atlantic Records debut, Back to Bedlam, and made Ghost an instant millionaire. It was her shining moment after years of false starts, and it led directly to the Epic presidency.
"She found James Blunt, wrote with him and shopped him around," Ghost's attorney Michael Guido says. "Everyone passed except for [Atlantic's] Linda Perry. Once the song became a hit, Amanda got called by all the labels, and some didn't remember it was offered to them first. That's the music business for you." Her approach, says Guido, was to represent the other side of how the industry operates. "She understands what it's like to be treated badly as an artist -- to be thought of as a commodity one day and nothing the next."
" 'You guys have brought nothing good to the table, you ought to smoke pot and hear some better music.' It was a taste issue." During another meeting, a staffer recalls Ghost throwing a CD across the room to make a point. "She thought it was cool and edgy to do stuff like that. She'd say, 'This is shit; you know we can't put this out!' Amanda was a little manic. One minute, she's totally cool, the next she'd say something completely inappropriate then deny having said it. She was a real loose cannon." But Stringer sees conviction and confidence. "Calling her abrasive could mean she's not afraid of confrontation," he says.
Ghost has spun it that way herself. In 2009, she made a last-minute decision to add a track to Shakira's album She Wolf, after it already had been mastered and ready to ship -- pushing release back by nearly two months, despite key bookings she had locked in like a performance slot on Saturday Night Live. Ghost's explanation, via an interview for a Rolling Stone cover story on Shakira, "The music business is the Wild West right now, so I'm ripping up the rule book and starting again."
As a music-maker, Ghost was adventurous. One listen to the quirky title track and first single off Shakira's album, written by the Bravery's Sam Endicott and featuring a midsong howl by the Latin superstar -- a bit of caterwauling that Ghost championed despite the artist's skepticism -- is proof of that. But most of her gambles didn't pay off. To wit: She Wolf, which included a third single co-written by Ghost, failed to break the top 10, selling a disappointing (for an artist on Shakira's level) 379,000 copies in the U.S.
Ironically, Ghost's behavior -- which sources say included staying out until all hours of the night, smoking cigarettes in the strictly smoke-free Sony building at 550 Madison Ave. and regularly arriving to work at "around noon" -- looks a lot like a throwback to the industry's good old days that so many vets still pine for, back when albums consistently sold in the millions with just as many fans buying T-shirts and filling arenas from coast to coast.
But the looks of things, especially in the music business, can be deceiving. Guido insists that Ghost's twice-a-week morning absences actually were because of her 2-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes months after the family's arrival and required monitoring every two hours. In fact, he says Ghost would come home after work to take care of her daughter, then go out to see shows, which naturally went late. "We're talking about 15- to 16-hour days." For his part, Stringer says he "could speak to Amanda any time of the day about any issue. There was never a point when she wasn't lucid or sensible or that I couldn't have a dialogue."
Spend a couple of hours with a music industry old-timer, and the conversation inevitably comes around to the days when the artist -- not the music video or download or ringtone -- mattered. When executives shaped careers rather than massaged spreadsheets. It's the energy Stringer had hoped Ghost would bring to an aging brand. "The reason I made a radical decision with Amanda, rightly or wrongly, was that I wanted someone to try and inject that adrenaline back into the creative side of it," he says.
The challenge, according to Stringer, stems from a collective "hangover" that's unique to American record labels. He explains: "In the early '90s, Epic signed an incredible string of rock acts like Incubus, Korn, Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam. Incredible for that period of time, they sold catalog, they toured and put records out frequently, but it dried up: Rage broke up, Pearl Jam's options ran out, Korn sold fewer records, Incubus puts out a record every four years, and we've been fighting that hangover ever since." In fact, some contend that if Michael Jackson hadn't died, sparking brisk sales of his catalog, Ghost might have been out sooner.