Industry Vets on How HBO's 'Vinyl' Depicts the Business: 'The Characters Are Dead On'

HBO's Vinyl
Courtesy of HBO

Mackenzie Meehan, Emily Tremaine, Jack Quaid, Juno Temple, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, J.C. Mackenzie, Max Casella, Griffin Newman, P.J. Byrne of HBO's Vinyl.

Industry veterans give the HBO series created by Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter high marks for telling it like it was.

The Martin Scorsese-directed pilot for Vinyl begins with American Century Records chief Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) about to sell out to Big Business in the form of PolyGram Records -- until he’s literally struck by the light. The two-hour movie, which premiered Feb. 14, ­climaxes when the Mercer Arts Center in ­downtown Manhattan collapses around Finestra during a revelatory ­performance by The New York Dolls. Emerging Lazarus-like from beneath the venue’s chandelier, the reawakened record man (spoiler alert!) goes on to kill the deal, choosing the ­transformative power of rock’n’roll over a big payday.

The past always has been romanticized in the music industry, but, at a moment when chart hits are often determined by algorithms and metadata, Vinyl, which was conceived by Mick Jagger, celebrates a particularly fertile, unbridled -- and human -- era: 1970s New York, where rock’n’roll co-existed and intermarried with disco, punk and early hip-hop -- and sex and drugs flourished in a crime-ridden, near-bankrupt city.

Like Scorsese and showrunner Terence Winter’s previous HBO series, Boardwalk Empire, Vinyl melds fact and fiction (the Mercer Arts Center did collapse in 1973 but not during a Dolls show) and is close to pitch perfect in its knowing yet affectionate re-creation of the industry, which, like the culture, was undergoing a ­seismic shift. RCA, long a dominant major, had been eclipsed by CBS, while Warner Communications’ new three-headed monster -- Warner, Elektra and Atlantic -- and independent mavericks like David Geffen were coming into their own.

“The characters are done dead-on, and the use of music is brilliant,” says Jerry Brandt, who, as a William Morris agent, represented The Rolling Stones in the ’60s and opened landmark New York music clubs Electric Circus and The Ritz.

In substance, Finestra evokes late Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart, who signed Donna Summer and Kiss; in appearance, Cannavale resembles Ray Caviano, the disco promotion whiz who crashed Warner-backed RFC Records before his coke habit landed him in jail for burglary.

It’s in the details of the record company hustle -- the clothes, the conversations, the partying, the office politics, the creative accounting and the piratical style of executives who simultaneously revered and abused artists -- that Vinyl succeeds most ­emphatically, and that’s not by accident. Journalist and series co-creator Rich Cohen, who co-wrote, with Scorsese, Jagger and Winter, the story for the pilot, says he began ­researching the ­project in 1997. “For two years I just interviewed people,” he says, including old-school indie record men Julie Rifkin and Hy Weiss, former Elektra and Capitol chairman Joe Smith and ­manager-producer Peter Asher. A group of ­industry veterans ­including former label heads Nigel Grainge (brother of Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge) and Danny Goldberg, publicist Kate Hyman and ­promotion man Johnny Barbis also vetted the script and set designs.

“People in the business were leery of the ­project,” says Grainge, fearful that Vinyl would traffic in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll cliches. But he was pleasantly surprised to discover the show’s creators were focused on authenticity. In that regard, Vinyl is a feast of name-checks for beloved acts that never broke big, like The Good Rats, as well as popular artists perhaps best ­forgotten. MPL Communications executive Nancy Jeffries, who began her career in the ’70s and held A&R jobs at RCA and A&M, liked how Puerto Rican pop singer Jose Feliciano is used as a symbol of how out of step American Century is with the times. “When I was at RCA, the label had Jose and they were still talking about him in A&R meetings, while the rest of the world was going crazy.”

Dramatic tension tied to the sale of American Century resonated with Ron Shapiro. Now an ­artist manager who represents Melanie Martinez, Shapiro entered the biz in the ’80s through corporate press at MCA Records and held a variety of jobs including co-president of Atlantic. “At Atlantic, I went through the ­divestment of Time-Warner and the sale to Edgar Bronfman Jr.,” he says. “The ­pressure to make your books look good for a sale was ­overwhelming. And the things that come with it -- the gossip, the endless worries that people have about losing their jobs -- a lot of good work gets compromised.”

The business’ overt sexism is explored through the character of Jamie Vine (Juno Temple), an A&R assistant, who, in the pilot, functions as a secretary and drug procurer for the men in power. “It was simply a given,” says Jeffries, who, like Temple’s character, entered the A&R world as a secretary -- though she insists drugs never entered into the equation -- but not necessarily an obstacle. “A guy couldn’t get [a secretary] job. I went into RCA that way and made it work.”

When Vinyl does jump the groove (based on four episodes’ worth of viewing), it’s due to melodramatic plot twists, such as the murder of a radio-station owner, but other depictions of ­lawlessness, whether through payola or ­bilking ­artists out of royalties, is not only accurate; it’s familiar. The misdeeds of Vinyl’s characters aren’t that different from the penny-stock scammers in Scorsese and Winter’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street. The big difference: The Richie Finestras of the world left behind some enduring music. 

This article was first published in the Feb. 27 issue of Billboard.