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Musician Is Front Man at Geffen

With Chairman Ron Fair, the label bucks an industry trend of having business-world leaders and renews debate over which resume is best.

August 14, 2006|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

Ron Fair, the new chairman of Geffen Records, is the rarest type of music chief: a musician.

The son of an opera singer, Fair has taught himself to play multiple instruments. He tried his hand as a wedding singer, jingle writer and pianist before eventually rising to prominence as the executive behind such acts as Christina Aguilera, the Black Eyed Peas and the Pussycat Dolls.

Now, as head of one of Universal Music Group's most prominent labels, Fair has rekindled the debate over who should run the music industry: business executives or people with experience creating music.

On one side are people such as Fair's boss, Jimmy Iovine, the chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M Records.

"I'd always rather teach a music guy how to sell a record than try to teach a business guy how to make one," Iovine said. "Ron knows what a star looks like, and he knows how to produce a hit. The rest of the business is easy compared to that."

Others, however, say it's more complicated.

"We need executives who think about groups as brands, not just musical acts," said Andy Gould, manager of such Geffen acts as Rob Zombie. "There are very few execs who know what to do beyond send a song to KROQ and pray it gets played. I think Ron is up for the challenge, but it's going to be tough if he's mostly in the studio."

The contemporary music industry was founded largely by executives who straddled both worlds -- people such as Sam Phillips, whom many credit with discovering and producing Elvis Presley, and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun.

But in the 1980s, when publicly traded companies began gobbling up labels, businessmen with little or no musical experience started running the show.

Results have been mixed. Industry leader Warner Music Group stumbled badly in the mid-1990s, when a parade of tone deaf chieftains forced out musicians-turned-executives, including Doug Morris, a onetime songwriter who today heads Universal Music, the world's largest record seller.

"The corporate bosses used to buy a music company and then make the lawyer the CEO because he was the only one who spoke Wall Street's language," said Peter Paterno, an attorney who once headed Walt Disney Co.'s Hollywood Records. "But those are the guys who destroyed the industry."

Yet musicians also have had spotty records as bosses. For instance, Matchbox Twenty producer and Virgin Records Chairman Matt Serletic was shown the door in October after three disappointing years.

"It's hard to make the transition from the studio to the boardroom," said Iovine, who produced albums by Dire Straits and U2 before ascending to the executive suite. "A good producer has tunnel vision and wants to control everything. A manager has to learn how to delegate. Not a lot of guys can make the change. But it's always better to have someone who understands music calling the shots."

Fair clearly knows more about musical scores than organizational charts.

After singer Macy Gray wrote a batch of new songs this year, Fair decided some of the hip-hop tunes needed a classical tilt. He hand-wrote a score for 27 violinists, cellists and other musicians, booked a studio and conducted the orchestra in recording what became the background sounds for the forthcoming album.

It is such attention to detail that propelled A&M, under Fair's leadership since 2001, to release bestselling albums by Sheryl Crow, the Black Eyed Peas and Keyshia Cole.

Iovine was so impressed with Fair's accomplishments that he expanded Fair's role in March to include A&M's much bigger sister label, Geffen Records. At Geffen, Fair replaced two executives -- Jordan Schur and Polly Anthony -- who made their names selling records rather than writing tunes. Under Schur and Anthony, Geffen was wracked by internal tensions, according to people who work there.

At the moment, Universal Music is faring better than most record firms. During a year that has seen almost no big breakout hits and a huge drop-off in sales among the best-selling albums, Universal's revenue was up 5.3% in the first half of 2006.

But Geffen has struggled: It didn't have one album among last year's top 20 sellers. Only one Geffen record -- Nelly Furtado's "Loose" -- was on last week's list of top 50 albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Fair says he will shift Geffen's focus from a mishmash of genres to singer-driven albums and the most commercial of genres: pop.

"To succeed today you have to get the biggest exposure possible, and that means pop," said Fair, 50. "Pop music dominates radio, it dominates television, it dominates commercials and the Internet."

Fair's model is the Black Eyed Peas, the pop sensation also on A&M's roster. When Fair started working with the band in 2003, the group appealed to white, slacker college students. To broaden the band's draw, Fair found the group a pop-friendly female singer named Fergie and gave Will.I.Am, the band's primary songwriter, some advice.

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