Jac Holzman: Founder of Elektra Records, and Many Other Things
A story I wrote for the International Herald Tribune about Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, who signed The Doors, Tim Buckley, Love and Many others.
Watching Jac Holzman dart about his hotel room on a recent business trip to Europe, bouncing from his prepared notes to the minibar and talking rapid-fire about his latest venture, one could easily mistake him for a hungry young entrepreneur rather than an elder statesman of his industry.
“A really great album is context, content and a trace of magic fairy dust,” said Holzman, tall and trim at 75, tossing back another sparkling water. “You know it when you hear it, and when you hear it, that’s the excitement.”
Holzman may indeed be onto the next big thing. If so, it will be one more breakout in a remarkable career in and around the music business that spans more than half a century and includes founding the record labels Elektra and Nonesuch, discovering The Doors and Judy Collins, and moving record companies into the era of the compact disc.
Two years ago, Edgar Bronfman Jr., chairman of Warner Music Group, brought Holzman out of quasi-retirement to help revitalize his company, which like all the music majors had been rocked by the growth of online stores like iTunes and by free file-sharing services like Kazaa.
It was not an obvious choice to turn to experience to figure out the ever- shifting desires of youth culture. But experience is what Bronfman was after. “Jac is a critical part of music’s history, and we are thrilled to have him,” he wrote in an e-mail. “His talent, expertise and entrepreneurial spirit are an inspiration to everyone at the company.”
Holzman has his own explanation of why Bronfman came calling. “I think we’re at a period not unlike the period that the independent labels were at in 1950,” he said. “I’m the only guy still practicing who remembers the lessons that we learned back then.”
In 1950, when Holzman was 19 and a student at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, he saw that recording equipment was cheap and record-making was taking off. Sensing an opportunity to continue his move away from the “respectable” world that awaited him – his father was a Harvard-educated doctor – Holzman raided his bar mitzvah bank account, put up $300 and asked a classmate if he would match it with his veteran’s bonus money.
He called his label Elektra, after a figure from Greek mythology he recalled from his studies. Trolling the clubs in New York and Los Angeles, Holzman discovered and nurtured a Who’s Who of rock and folk acts, including The Doors, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, Phil Ochs and Iggy Pop.
Underpinning Holzman’s work was a love of the marriage of technology, business and music, and a respect for the artists and his staff. The feeling was often mutual. Recalling their first meeting, at Whisky-a-Go-Go in Los Angeles in 1966, Ray Manzarek, keyboardist for The Doors, has said that Holzman “talked in this very officious and very correct manner and we thought, ‘This guy is not only hip, he’s smart, too.’ I thought, ‘This is going to be real, real good.’”
Billy James, who worked at Columbia Records in the early 1960s before joining Elektra and running its West Coast operations, said Holzman “had the instinct for choosing the right and smart and clever thing to do, as well as inspiring a dedicated staff.”
In 1970, realizing that worldwide distribution was essential, Holzman sold Elektra and Nonesuch, a classical and ethnic music label, for $10 million to Kinney National, a conglomerate that, under the chairmanship of the late Steve Ross, became Warner Communications, incorporating Warner Music Group.
Holzman continued to run Elektra until 1973, when he was appointed senior vice president and chief technologist for Warner. Holzman ushered the company into home video and the first interactive cable system. He was a director at Pioneer Electronics through the 1970s, helping that company, and Warner, adopt the compact disc. He also worked on product planning as a member of the board of Atari, one of the first videogame companies, which Warner bought in 1976.
After Bronfman and a group of investors bought Warner Music Group from Time Warner in 2004 for $2.6 billion, Holzman, who had not worked at Warner since 2000, sent him a congratulatory e-mail message. Bronfman responded 20 minutes later, saying that he was a fan of Holzman’s autobiography, “Follow the Music,” published in 1998.
They met and Bronfman hired him to do at Warner Music what he did at Elektra – “to give as much good music a shot as possible,” Holzman said, and to make profits to plow back into the business.
Although Holzman’s work at Warner Music covers a range from mentoring executives to brokering deals, his main project has been the creation of an electronic-only label, Cordless Recordings, which was introduced in November (www.cordless.com). Its role is to bring out new bands that Warner is interested in but is not certain are worth the nearly half-million dollars to cut an album.
As a further hedge of Warner’s bets, Holzman developed the concept of clusters: Rather than an album, the label releases three or four songs every few months, for which the artist is paid a minimal fee but keeps the rights. If the band clicks, Cordless will nurture it to a contract with a Warner label; if it doesn’t, Cordless drops the artist, who is free to take the music elsewhere.
“The number of artists who have made it on their very first album that are memorable in the last three or four years are very few,” Holzman said. With the cluster method, he said, “you’re not in for a lot of money, and you have an opportunity to work with the artist very closely on all of the songs.”
The label has bands like Humanwine, an eclectic rock band from Boston; Roger Joseph Manning Jr., keyboardist for Beck and his own band, Jellyfish; and Jerry Casale, formerly of Devo, who now has his own blues band.
The songs are sold on the Cordless site, and on iTunes, MySpace Music and elsewhere. Dangerous Muse, a dance band, shot to No. 2 for 12 days on iTunes last November.
Holzman lamented that in today’s sped-up world a band no longer had time to develop its music. But he added that once in a great while a band comes along that doesn’t need it. The Doors’ first album, released in 1967, “was close to perfect,” he said. “I would listen to it every night.
“It’s the reason we do this stuff.”