My all-time favorite music business story involves a conversation between Walter Yetnikoff and David Geffen. It is a story that is both hysterically funny and, in its own way, appalling. I had considered it to be apocryphal but there it is, confirmed not once but twice, in HOWLING AT THE MOON, Walter Yetnikoff's autobiography.
Yetnikoff joined CBS Records Group as legal counsel in 1961 when its primary label imprints were Columbia and Epic. If you rummage through your record collection you undoubtedly have discs bearing Columbia's red label (Johnny Mathis, Mitch Miller, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, Dylan, Dylan, Dylan) and Epic's yellow one (The Dave Clark Five, The Yardbirds). He was by 1975 President of the CBS Record Group, having transformed it into one of the most successful record labels in music history. The deal Yetnikoff brokered between CBS Records and a Japanese company named Sony continues to influence the music industry for good and for ill to this very day. It also, in part, contributed to Yetnikoff's downfall. HOWLING AT THE MOON is the story of Yetnikoff's meteoric rise and fall, and personal resurrection. It doesn't matter if you have never cared a whit about how records are made or rarely get to the shelves of your favorite retailer --- this book is an absolute joy to read on every conceivable level.
Yetnikoff brought about the success of CBS Records with a combination of brilliance and belligerence, uniting vision and business sense with a single-minded, obsessive pursuit of success. HOWLING AT THE MOON traces Yetnikoff's life, from his humble beginnings --- his family was what would now be called "working poor" --- to his ultimate, dazzling success. During the course of his first legal employment at a traditional law firm, he met a Harvard Law School graduate named Clive Davis, who chafed at the limitations that the firm imposed on him. Davis soon moved to Columbia Records and recruited Yetnikoff shortly there