HOLLYWOOD - As the turbulence of that phenomenal entity called rock and roll continues with facilities closing, heroes dying and a general resistance from many factors, one person who continually comes out on top is David Geffen - one of the most influential individuals in rock and probably the most consistently successful agent and manager in its history.
Often called the "greatest negotiator in the business," it was rumored that once he made a deal with Johnny Rivers on some publishing contracts and that his percentage for the contract was Rivers' mansion in Trousdale in Beverly Hills. Geffen flunked out of three colleges and then became an usher at CBS. From there he went to the mail room at William Morris in New York and remained there for six months in 1964 before moving up as a secretary, then a junior agent and finally a full agent. He was responsible for the beginnings of such groups as the Youngbloods and the Association. When he became very hot he quit William Morris to head the music department for Ashley Famous and also quit that to have his own management firm handling Laura Nyro, David Crosby, Steve Stills, Graham Nash and (later) Neil Young.
Growing tired of management he turned the business over to his partner and long-time friend Elliot Roberts and went to CMA as a Senior Vice President. About six months ago he decided to finally realize his ultimate wish: to have his own record company which is now called Asylum Records.
The following is a recent interview with Geffen.
Record World: How did Asylum Records get started?
Geffen: I made a deal with Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic. He's not only the most soulful cat in the music business but he's a terrific record person. Having dealt with every label as either an agent or manager there was no other company I could even consider going to.
Record World: Why did you choose the name Asylum?
Geffen: We felt the music business is an insane asylum. It also means a refuge and a sanctuary. We'd like to feel that that's what our company is to the people we're involved with.
Record World: How is the company set up distribution-wise?
Geffen: Atlantic distributes us in the United States and Canada. We will be the fourth label in the group of Atlantic, Atco, Cotillion and Asylum. We will run our company independently and they will distribute our records. We are responsible for the signing, recording, promotion and advertising of our people.
Record World: How many acts do you have?
Geffen: We don't have any limits or numbers. We expect to record whoever we come across who is talented. We certainly can't compete with Atlantic or Columbia or those kinds of companies. We don't pay large advances. As a matter of fact we pay very small advances.
Record World: It has been said that you pay no advances.
Geffen: Well, we help support all the people involved. If they need money we give it to them. We don't pay them to sign with us but we also don't let them starve. We're a family. We exist for each other and hopefully we'll all be together for a long time.
Record World: How will this new company affect Laura Nyro? Will she record for you?
Geffen: Laura's contract with Columbia is over. She is signed with us and her first album on Asylum, "Gonna Take a Miracle," will be out Sept. 1. Joni Mitchell is also going to record for us.
Record World: Many people seem to be skeptical about someone like Jackson Browne who hasn't gone anywhere so far. Now that he is firmly with you, what direction do you forsee [sic] for him? What's going to happen with him?
Geffen: Jackson Browne is a genius. When his record comes out, he will be a star. The reason that he hasn't made a record in all this time is because we put no pressure on our people. I have a great deal of money invested in him and I've supported him for a long time. We are not in the business of paying out a lot of money and then forcing someone to make a record so we can recoup it. If it took Jackson two or three years to make a record then I would sit here patiently because I believe in him as I do in Laura or Joni and always have from the very first day I met them which was also before either of them had made it.
Everybody in the business likes to second-guess and after you've made it they say, "Well, of course, how could you miss with Joni Mitchell or Laura Nyro?" But Laura Nyro was a total failure as a performer and as a writer when I became involved with her. Joni had been around for many years. David Crosby was thrown out of the Byrds and Columbia thought so little of him they gave him a release. The Buffalo Springfield were never really very successful. Graham Nash was unknown. The Hollies were not the most significant group in America and Graham was one of seven people. Jackson Browne is like them. He is one of the most talented people in the world. As far as I'm concerned he is up there with everyone else we represent and you'll see how great he is when his record comes out in September.
Record World: Is that the first Asylum record?
Geffen: No. I can't say what the first Asylum record is at the moment but it will probably be out in August.
Record World: Is it a one-record set?
Geffen: No. I just can't announce the artist at this moment.
Record World: Who's producing Jackson's album?
Geffen: Jackson and Richard Sanford who is an engineer.
Record World: Who's doing the promotion for you?
Geffen: We will have an independent promotion staff plus Atlantic's promotion team which is the best in the world, I think. But ultimately it's the music that sells and not the people selling it.
Record World: Do you believe that every record is a hit?
Geffen: I believe that every record I put out will be a good record. I don't care if they're all hits or not. Not every artist is a hit artist but that doesn't mean they're not talented. We're recording David Blue and we are very proud to record him. He's never sold a record with two other labels. But I think his album will be successful and if it isn't I'll be real happy that I recorded it.
Record World: What about budgets for albums?
Geffen: Whatever it costs to make the best album then that's what they get. We try and have as few restrictions as possible. I don't want artists to release anything they are not totally happy with. That's the only restriction I have.
Record World: Having been a successful agent and manager, do you entertain the possibility that maybe it just isn't there for you as a record person?
Still Productive, Creative
Geffen: That's entirely possible. Anything is possible. What has made me a successful agent and manager is that I've always found talented people and protected them and helped them build and maintain their careers. Everyone I've handled is still around being productive and creative. They haven't come and gone. Those are the kinds of people I'm going to record of [sic] they want to record for me. I mean Jo Jo Gunne (recently signed to Asylum) are going to be a big group. They've been knocking people out all over town and they took less from us than anyone else because thats who they wanted to be with. They were offered more by every other label but they went with us. They'll never have to hassle with us about putting out a single they don't want to put out or editing one of their songs or repackaging one of their albums. We just won't do that - ever. Record companies don't make artists. Artists make record companies. I didn't make Laura Nyro. If anything she made me. I feel that way about Joni and everybody else. I mean it's a team effort.
Record World: How did you help Laura Nyro? What do you feel you did?
Geffen: Laura is a totally unique, creative person. Without a hit record ever, and without any AM airplay ever, Laura is a star and a personality and a success and she's never had to do those things that people don't want to do because I've never asked her to. Laura's a talent and a talent always makes it not matter how long you have to wait. When you're dealing with The Iron Butterfly or Grand Funk Railroad, who knows how long it's going to last because you don't understand what made it in the first place. But a talent is forever.
Record World: Have you ever been wrong?
Geffen: I'm wrong every day; I've never been wrong, however, about people I've believed in.
Record World: In your trade ads it says at the bottom "Direction: Geffen Roberts Management." Is it more that now, a direction of sorts? What direction is planned for someone like Steve Stills?
Geffen: It's more to keep artists from making mistakes. With Steve we try to keep as much pressure from him so that he can create. You have to give an artist what they need. Everyone has different needs. In the case of Joni Mitchell she doesn't work, she hasn't done a concert in a couple of years and she makes one album a year and tries to maintain a private life and we try to help her do that. God knows she doesn't need us to tell her how to write the songs or how to sing them. None of our clients need that from us. However when they started out, nobody needed them and nobody wanted them. Clive Davis passed on Joni Mitchell four years ago.
Record World: What kind of mistakes do you think are made with artists?
Geffen: Well, I think someone like Elton John has been handled very poorly. He has too much product, too much over exposure, too much hype. I think that's hurt him. Artists have to be handled with a great deal of care.
Record World: What if he wants that for himself?
Geffen: Well, if he wants that then he's responsible. I don't think you can maintain like that.
Record World: Why are you going in to the record business?
Not for Money
Geffen: I want to create an atmosphere where the people we care about can do their art as comfortably as possible. For me, though, if the company doesn't make money, if it only breaks even then I'll be happy. I'm not starting it for the money. I have plenty of money. I took no advance from Atlantic to start this company. I don't want a pressured situation for myself or for the artists. If you get into a money trip you start from the first day with an enormous pressure. Who needs it?
Record World: What about the stories concerning you and the Rolling Stones?
Geffen: The Rolling Stones asked me to help them put together an American tour and I've helped them for this coming tour. We've done that as an accommodation for them. Mick asked me to do that. We don't manage them and we don't want to manage them, frankly. They live in the south of France and we live here. They manage themselves. There isn't a person in the world who can manage them.
Record World: Who do you respect most in the industry? I mean people that you aren't connected with in any way.
Geffen: I love Cat Stevens and Carole King. I have a great love for composers like Bob Dylan. When Albert Grossman was into it, he was the best manager in the world. He got tired of it and it's understandable because it's a real tough business.
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