A book is doing pretty well when it can induce readers to race to the end even though everybody knows the ending already. In the case of Fred Goodman’s Fortune’s Fool: Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music, And An Industry In Crisis, it’s an ending everyone’s still living out. Goodman has been in this territory before: His previous book on the music business was 1996’s Mansion On The Hill, a sprawling account of the rise of the rock industry in the ’70s, seen through multiple prisms (Bruce Springsteen, David Geffen, Neil Young). This time around, the moneymen are the stars, as they have been in the music business for so long.
Bronfman was the scion of the Seagram’s fortune. His grandfather, father, and uncles were liquor magnates whose dual U.S.-Canada citizenship afforded them endless tax breaks, which along with shrewd long-term investing, gave the family a perpetual place on the Fortune 500. Bronfman was an eager beaver, industrious where most heirs might be indolent (he famously doesn’t take days off), but his judgment, first as an aspiring songwriter and later as a theatrical and film producer, was basically sentimental, and only occasionally in step with the public. (Bronfman’s one “discovery” is James Blunt.) Bronfman wasn’t seen as a serious player either on Wall Street (which largely disdained entertainment companies) or in the music biz, whose players mocked his tin ear. In 2004, when Bronfman’s post-Seagram’s company took over Atlantic Records, label founder Ahmet Ertegun griped “I can’t believe the company is being sold to that snot-nosed kid who used to knock on my door in the Hamptons with bad demos saying, ‘I want to be a songwriter.’”
Bronfman made many early missteps—his joint venture with Vivendi Universal, an attempt to create an entertainment multinational, was a notorious bomb, thanks to the French president’s prodigious Internet-bubble overspending. But his stewardship of Warner Music has been in many ways exemplary. In a shrinking music-biz economy, Warner’s numbers have been steady, and it has aggressively pursued digital efforts at a pace that outdoes its rivals, at least in this telling. Goodman’s big gripe is with the “360 deals” Warner offers artists, which gives the label a cut of concert and merch proceeds as well as recording sales. Goodman is against them, arguing that they’re shortsighted and screw artists out of hard-earned money for things the label isn’t responsible for. Still, the book’s sympathies are largely with Bronfman, fortune’s fool for finally coming into his own at a point in history when it was too late to fully capitalize.
Goodman does a terrific job of keeping all this information not just straight, but engrossing. That’s especially true of the hip-hop chapters, in particular his account of how Warner bigwig Lyor Cohen rose through the path-finding rap label Def Jam, and the imbroglio between Ice-T and Warner Bros. over “Cop Killer.” Not to mention the one between Death Row Records honcho Suge Knight and the combined forces of anti-rap activist C. Delores Tucker and vocalist Dionne Warwick, who invited Knight to a confab where they planned to convince him to launch a profanity- and violence-free hip-hop label. When Knight opted to go to a deli with a colleague instead, Warwick was livid and asked why. “You’re supposed to be the fucking psychic,” he replied. “You tell me.”