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From Studio to the Board Room : Lenny Waronker's low-key, laissez faire style pays off at Warner Bros.

June 11, 1989|BUD SCOPPA | Scoppa is the editor of Cash Box magazine

On a sun-dappled spring afternoon, employees and guests gather on the patio of the Warner Bros. Records building in Burbank to watch a private performance by Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. It's a joint welcoming gift from the two celebrated artists, who have come to Warners after long stints at CBS Records.

Between songs, an ebullient Costello expresses his gratitude to the Warner Bros. staff. "Spike," his musically complex label debut, has sold more than a half-million copies since its release in January, and he has a potential hit single in "Veronica." Fittingly, Costello climaxes his mini-set with an emotionally charged rendering of the song.

Unnoticed in the crowd is a slight, unremarkable-looking man in a crew-neck sweater and blue jeans. When the show is over, he climbs the steps to the second floor, where Costello is receiving visitors, and goes to the end of a long line of well-wishers.

"Lenny!" says the cult star when the little man's turn comes. Costello's display of affection seems to make Lenny Waronker both happy and slightly ill at ease. Bidding Costello goodby, he walks through a foyer into a large office and takes a seat behind the desk. He has to get back to running the biggest little record company in the world. . . .

"To say that I run it makes me uncomfortable, but I guess I run it in some ways," the president of Warner Bros. Records said on the eve of the patio performance. Shy and thoughtful, Waronker tends to speak with a hand over his mouth, two fingers scissoring the tip of his nose.

"I'm not your typical record executive," he continued. "I'm not much of a boss in the traditional sense. Every time I try to do it, it feels weird. It's a team here, and there's a lot of freedom for talented people to do their stuff. I think that's one of the reasons it works."

And work it does. In 1988, Warner Bros. and its in-house labels--Reprise and Sire--had their most profitable year ever, pacing the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic (WEA) family of labels, which collectively far outdistanced once-dominant CBS Records, WEA's closest competitor. Last year, the WEA labels notched an astounding 29 platinum and multi-platinum albums. Warner Bros. contributed nine of those million-plus sellers. CBS as a whole had but 11.

Early 1989 has been even better for WEA in general and Warner Bros. in particular. Recording Industry Assn. of America figures show nine platinum and multi-platinum albums for Warners through May 16, a figure equal to the company's entire '88 performance.

According to figures compiled from Billboard magazine by WEA's parent organization Warner Communications Inc., WEA's 1989 first-quarter market share was a staggering 56.5%, compared to second-place CBS' 12.7%. It's worth noting that three other red-hot WEA labels--Elektra, Geffen and Virgin--are led by former Warners executives Bob Krasnow, Eddie Rosenblatt and Jeff Ayeroff, respectively. Each is operating his label in the A&R-driven manner pioneered by WB.

In no small measure, Warners' impressive performance can be attributed to the dual leadership of chairman Mo Ostin, who created the company's non-authoritarian structure, and the perspicacious Waronker, who works more closely with artists than any other major-label head in the business.

In a field run more and more by accountants and attorneys, Waronker is a rarity: a president who came right from the studio.

When Waronker took over 6 1/2 years ago, Warner Bros.--along with the rest of the industry--was in a deep slump. After a traumatic first few months, during which Waronker was forced to jettison a number of acts, among them Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt and T Bone Burnett, Warners began its turnaround under the new president's artist-oriented leadership.

It wasn't long before the company was scoring dramatic breakthroughs with all kinds of acts--cult bands like Talking Heads, retreads like ZZ Top and new artists like Madonna. The hits have kept coming for six straight years, each of them bigger than the last.

There's no question the Warner Bros. hierarchy is doing something right. According to Waronker, "Mo somehow has been able to depoliticize this place--not that there aren't politics here, but they exist in a normal, fairly reasonable way."

Explains Stephen Baker, the company's vice president of product management and Waronker's right-hand man, "Mo set the style for Warner Bros., and Lenny's been successful working within that style. The two of them make one whole."

"If they have a game that they play there, it's about taste--and they have exquisite taste," observes Virgin Records co-chairman Jeff Ayeroff, a former Warner Bros. executive. "They make a lot of money, and they can hold their heads up high. And that's because of Lenny and Mo. They've proved that size does not belie intimacy and understanding of music."

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