Music Industry Vets Take Issue with How HBO's 'Vinyl' Depicts the Business

Vinyl HBO
Macall B. Polay/HBO

A scene from HBO's "Vinyl."

Vinyl, the new HBO series from Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger which depicts the record business in 1973, may be a hit with the critics and HBO brass -- who have already renewed it for a second season -- but record industry veterans who viewed its premiere on Sunday night say it is, at best, a "turntable hit." That's an old music business term for a song whose life doesn't extend beyond radio to unit sales.

Some music industry veterans were more willing than others to take its depiction of early-'70s music business in New York with a grain of salt -- it is television, after all.

“The series is meant to entertain, so a lot of liberties are going to be taken,” reads an e-mail from Dan Beck, former head of the now-defunct, much-respected label V2, and before that a senior executive at Epic Records. “I suspect that many of us will never see the music business portrayed on film with either the breadth or intimacy in which we experienced it. It’s more about Scorsese than about the music business I know and knew. [It's] Goodfellas with music.”

Jerry Greenberg, named president of Atlantic in 1974, one year after the 1973 era that the Vinyl series purports to chronicle and who will have a documentary on his life in the business out later this year, concurs. “The show, with all the great actors and actresses, has all the earmarks for a great series that people will enjoy… The combination of Jagger doing the music, Terence Winter the story, and Martin Scorsese's directing makes for an interesting look at the music business in the '70s.” However, "as someone who was there in those days, this was obviously made for television... I don't remember any record company being quite like that.”

Other veterans of the industry were less conciliatory. “Bullshit,” says Ron Alexenburg, former president of Epic. “I love the record business and I don’t like the way it was depicted.Vinyl was overrated and overdone. There was too much violence and drugs.”

Even an industry character like Nick Maria, Atlantic's former head of sales, found the excess portrayed in the show as over-the-top. “They depicted the business like all we did was drugs and drink,” says Maria. “As you know, we worked very hard to make records a hit.”

Some executives won't even watch the show out of fear that it's just “another Oliver Stone-ish, trashy exploitation piece,” as former Mercury Records president and Sony Music/CBS marketing executive Bob Sherwood writes in an e-mail. ”With everybody doing blow, [having] triple Martini lunches, having sex standing/sitting/lying down/over-under/flying and screwing the artists... I have no patience for it.”

Were there “sleazebags in the business who stole from their artists and openly operated in the fashion that’s described in Vinyl and elsewhere,” Sherwood asks. “Of course. But I’m tired of having the whole industry -- of which I was proud being in -- painted by that same brush.”

Indeed, the radio industry was treated even harsher than the label side of the business in Vinyl. Character Frank “Buck” Rodgers -- portrayed by Andrew Dice Clay as a petulant, drug-crazed bully and owner of a small chain of radio stations -- gets his head smashed in by an indie promo rep as the show's anti-hero, American Century label owner and president Richie Finestra, looks on. Despite -- or maybe because -- of that over-the-top treatment, radio industry executives were forgiving towards Scorsese's newest project.

Denis McNamara, a former radio DJ and program director for the influential WLIR, said in an e-mail that “in 1973 I was program director of WNYU, so what I saw of the business was mostly positive and optimistic. However, I do believe the less one knows about the music business the better off they will be watching this series. Also, there were no murders on my watch -- but that will drive the story tremendously.”

Former radio DJ, radio consultant and XM Radio co-founder Lee Abrams says the industry shown "was clearly ‘made for TV’ and was a bit over-the-top with some inaccuracies, but entertaining... and no shortage of depictions of real characters that brought back some strong memories. I'm still trying to figure out who that radio station owner they depicted was supposed to be, though other [characters] were pretty obvious.”

Guessing who is being portrayed on the screen is one of the most entertaining parts of watching the series for those with deep ties to the '70s industry. Whichever radio station owner Frank "Buck" Rogers might be modeled on, he also appears to morph into Phil Spector, pulling out a gun and holding two characters hostage for a few minutes, something that once reportedly happened with The Ramones.

Richie’s label, American Century, at first seems like it might be the former Atlantic Records, sold to Steve Ross and the Time Warner conglomerate he would build; but it most closely resembles Mercury Records, bought in 1972 by PolyGram, a company formed earlier that year by the merger of Dutch and German electronics companies. As the series progresses, industry insiders are betting that the label will start to resemble Neil Bogart’s Casablanca, which also was eventually owned by PolyGram.

The name American Century, which is said to have the nickname of American Cemetery, also makes a passing salute to an unkind monicker sometimes assigned to MCA -- the Music Cemetery of America.

Finally, there are real characters actually named, including The New York Dolls who, in an over-the-top scene, blow the roof off of the Mercer Arts Center. And there is also a scene that quotes Led Zeppelin’s Song Remains the Same, where Ian Hart portrays Peter Grant going after the MSG building manager for allowing bootleg Zeppelin t-shirts being sold at the concert. While backstage at the concert, Richie engages Robert Plant in a conversation, asking why Zeppelin won’t jump to American Century. The next day, after Grant finds out, he shows up at the label’s office to give Richie hell. The label executives who knew the late legendary manager say the actor nailed Grant. (The actor playing Plant doesn’t get similar kudos.)

One other issue has emerged about the show -- the poetic timeline used by the series. Certainly, punk didn’t begin happening as portrayed by the fictional band Nasty Bits for another two or three years. Even more out of place, cocaine wouldn’t become the drug of choice of record executives until the late '70s. On the other hand, some label executives say they accurately portray the industry’s excesses, even if the show does go too far.

But some also see similarities with Vinyl and the early days of the industry.

Vinyl is liberal with its timeframe, as this seemed more like the music business I'd heard about in the late fifties and early sixties,” Beck says. “By 1973 the music business was largely in the hands of the majors, geared to the mass market and largely sanitized. The punk scene didn't arrive until the late seventies. However, that's just creative license. There certainly were lines and some character portraits that resonated.”

Finally, there were some moments obviously directed towards industry insiders. Richie blasts his A&R staff for not hearing within three bars that Abba will be soon selling out arenas, in the same breadth chastising his staff for not having yet signed The Good Rats, a band whose albums have sold 32,000 units in the U.S. since the advent of Nielsen Music in 1991. “People in the business had to enjoy the reference to The Good Rats from Long Island,” Beck says.

Others enjoyed the reference to Hy Weiss, the founder of Old Town Records, which he ran from the mid-'50s through the mid-'60s. In the show, a character refers to “Hyman Weiss, who created the $100 handshake.” That's double the original -- it was a $50 handshake that Hy Weiss was said to have invented.

Barry Weiss, former Jive Records chairman and CEO who has launched a joint venture for SONGS Music Publishing called RECORDS, says that, while he hasn’t seen the show, he likes that his father was quoted. “My father was a pioneer in the industry,” Weiss says. “For better or worse, [paying DJs] was part of the game then and he was just one of many that were using it. It speaks to the fact that my father was a true, great record man.”