By Laurie Jakobsen
I was recently asked what my most-recommended music industry books were, and thought I would also share them here. I’ll admit upfront I’ve had a personal connection to a few of these authors, but hopefully that does not make their work less brilliant:
The Mansion on the Hill and Fortune’s Fool by Fred Goodman acheive both page-turning readability with serious industry cred. This two-book series – the first chronicling the rise of the modern commercial record business through the careers of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and David Geffen, and the latter using the trajectory of Edgar Bronfman, Jr. to show how the industry floundered into the era of digital. Meaty stories with serious insider detail from a master journalist.
If you want more in the spirit of Mansion, then also check out Hit Men by Fredric Dannen, which was considered a major industry expose in 1990, and also The Label (History of Columbia Records) by Gary Mamorstein, and Exploding (History of Warner Music) by Stan Cornyn. While these label history books can start to feel like that part in the Bible that lists everyone who begat everyone else, they remind us that the music industry is a game of relationships, above all else. The story of Columbia essentially parallels the entire history of recorded music, and the Warner tale brings more of the development – and then conglomeration – of the independent labels.
If the current era is more your speed, get your hands on Free Ride, by Robert Levine. Perhaps the most cogent story of the various media industries’ collisions over copyright in the digital age, covering music, books, and film wittily and succinctly. I’ll also put Anita Elberse’s new book Blockbusters on the list – I have not read it all
yet, but it so far it appears to be a quality discourse on current industry economics from the Harvard Business Review author, which in other hands could be dull but is briskly told with examples from Lady Gaga to the Marquee nightclub.
There are the classic reference titles that should be in your library, but are more intense reads: This Business of Music by Krasilovsky and company, the brothers Brabec’s Music Money and Success, and Passman’s All You Need to Know About the Music Business. I also have a particular soft spot for American Popular Music and Its Business – The First Four Hundred Years by Russell Sanjek. This is a quirky three volume set by the late BMI legend that is out of print, but worth scouring around for used copies. It’s not the best organized read, but it has info you won’t read anywhere else, especially about the publishing side of the business. Just to tell you how deep this goes: You don’t get to 1900 until volume III, and that only goes up to 1984.
And I have two favorites from musicians. So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star, by Jacob Slichter, the drummer from Semisonic (remember “Closing Time”?) details the life behind being a one-hit wonder, with a surprising amount of detail about the music industry. It’s an easy entry point and a quick read.
The other is Tracey Thorn’s autobiography Bedsit Disco Queen. Thorn, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl, also details grappling with success, but deals more with issues around the reconciliation of her punk rock roots and feminist ethics with the life of being a pop star with her long-time partner Ben Watt.
Feel free to add your personal required reading!