Seymour Stein On His New Autobiography & Why the Music Industry Should Pay More Tribute to Its Past

David Byrne, Seymour Stein & Madonna

Stein (center) with the Talking Heads’ David Byrne and Madonna in 1996. 

The scion of Sire Records has a new book, 'Siren Song: My Life in Music,' in stores now

In the purest sense of the term, Seymour Stein is a record man, someone who has made his living by discovering, signing and nurturing some of the greatest rock ’n’ roll ever released. From the Ramones and the Talking Heads to the Pretenders and Madonna -- with Depeche Mode, the Cult and Echo & The Bunnymen thrown in for good measure -- each artist has at least one thing in common: Stein signed them to his Sire Records.

Although Stein, 76, rode to his place in music business history during the 1970s and 1980s, his music career harkens back to 1956, when he first started invading Billboard’s New York offices to study the charts. Soon, he had a part-time after-school job at the publication, and in 1958, as the assistant to Tommy Noonan, the head of Billboard’s chart department, helped pull together all the ingredients of what is now known as the Billboard Hot 100. While at Billboard, Stein met his other mentors, Paul Ackerman and Syd Nathan, the latter of whom would bring him into the record business by giving him a job at his King Records in Cincinnati, where Stein got to work with James Brown, among other recording artists.

Before long, Stein was back in New York working at Red Bird Records, founded by iconic songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, which was then run by legendary record man George Goldner. In 1966, he and a friend who also worked in the Brill Building, Richard Gottehrer -- the songwriter, record producer and one-hit wonder as a member of the Strangeloves -- started Sire Records, first as a production house then as a full-blown record label. Gottehrer eventually left to follow a different career path, but Stein stayed on, signing bands from the U.K. and Europe like Focus, the Climax Blues Band and Renaissance, before stumbling onto the downtown New York punk scene of the 1970s. The rest, as they say, is history.

In a new autobiography, Siren Song: My Life in Music, co-written with Gareth Murphy and released June 12, Stein -- who currently serves as chairman of Sire; VP of Warner Bros. Records; and as a consultant at ADA -- talks about his love affair with music from the early days of the record business, through the punk explosion and up through today. Besides the good times in the music industry, Stein’s book also chronicles his marriage to wife Linda, whom he divorced in the 1970s and who met an untimely and tragic death when she was murdered in 2007; his personal evolution from bisexual to gay; his dalliances with cocaine; and his friendship with some of the biggest recording artists of our time. Prior to the book's publication, Stein sat down with Billboard to reflect on his life in the music business.

Billboard: Why did you want to write this book?

Seymour Stein: I am not writing this to self-aggrandize myself, although I do hope it sells enough copies to make the publisher happy. I feel very lucky to have had the success I have had in the music business. I started in the business at Billboard when I was 15. I am trying to reach young readers. It wasn’t easy, but I believed that what I tried to bring out as much as possible for young readers is to start a career as early and as young as you can. I want to see the music business continue. It's been through some rough periods and it's getting better now, but the industry needs to attract young bright people to come into it to keep the industry strong. Nowadays, there are many other possibilities for them, like Silicon Valley.

How did you know you wanted to be in the music business at 15?

I am not a songwriter, singer, musician, nor a producer and the good thing about it is I realize it and have known it from the start. It's my ears that got me through. When I hear great music -- even now -- it brings a smile to my face. I am really glad that I have that ability still left in me, even though I am not the same person I was 30 or 40 years ago. But I still have the passion for discovering new music. So to the young readers, I say start young and have passion for what you want to do in life above everything else.

I know how much you revere CBGBs and its founder Hilly Kristal, but how did punk play with the rest of the record industry when you first started signing bands from that scene?

Miles Copeland threatened to take his acts -- the Climax Blues Band and Renaissance -- off of Sire because of the Ramones. He was really serious. Later he changed his opinion, but he was a little late in embracing the music. Clive Davis also didn’t get the Ramones. But Clive is a great music man and a great music business man. He is also a wonderful father. I wish I could have been as good a father as he is. But because of the attitude toward punk I had very few competitors down there. Still, I worried about the competition. It took a 11-and-a-half months of anxiety to finally get the Talking Heads to sign a contract. From the beginning I thought they were so fantastic and I was so worried that someone else would come along and offer them a lot of money.

I remember when the industry tried to make punk more palatable for the masses and started calling it “new wave” and then “power pop.”

It was hard to get punk on the radio, so I started calling the Talking Heads and other bands "new wave," although I can’t say I coined the term because I borrowed it from the film industry.

Who besides the Paley Brothers did you sign that didn't make it as big as you thought they would, but you nevertheless still think highly of their music?

Yes, the Paley Brothers were one of those bands, as was Barclay James Harvest. But others that stick out in my mind, I put out a record by Kevin Ayers, who I thought was great and would be a very big star. I also tried to go into country and signed Mandy Barnett. She is doing quite well now, although I don’t think she currently has a record deal. There are others, too, but I’ll get back to you.

Just like you were early in heading down to the Bowery, you have been going to China and India for a while and touting the opportunities in that area of the world, and now suddenly we have BTS. How far ahead of the curve are you in going there before one of those bands breaks big out of the other markets in that part of the world?

BTS is not my kind of music, but they were the band I enjoyed the most at the Billboard Music Awards. They were great. India’s day and China’s day will come, and Indonesia and the Philippines too. I have been ahead of the curve in going there, but the curve keeps curving. I will never give up on it. I just know it will happen. If I had real power, I would have our Australia company go out and be more active in Asia. 

Clearly in the book you show you were troubled by the role that longtime Warner Bros. Records president Mo Ostin played in your career.

Mo has no ears, but he worked with people like Joe Smith, who is a very good record man and who helped to sign most of Warner Bros. Records' early big acts. Mo also had Stan Cornyn, who I didn’t like that much, but boy did I respect him. Mo was a good businessman, but he never listened to anything. When I wanted to sign Madonna he was telling his staff that I was signing too many acts and he turned me down. I had to go to WEA International and ask Nesuhi Ertegun for the money to sign her. And then he tried to diminish Ahmet [Ertegun, Atlantic Records co-founder], who helped Mo get the job running Warner Bros., in the eyes of [Warner Music Group founder] Steve Ross. Ahmet was one of the greatest record men ever, along with Jerry Wexler and Leonard Chess and Syd Nathan.

In the book, you tell the story of how Mo forced you to taking underpayments when he was buying the second half of Sire and then your publishing company. Why didn’t you leave the Warner Music Group and shop yourself to another major? You certainly had the credentials to warrant their interest.

I got screwed on the publishing deal for sure, but when I sold them the first half of the label, I walked into that deal with my eyes wide open. I wanted the muscle of Warner for my artists. And I stayed there for my artists, too. I don’t regret selling the label; I did it because I knew without the help of big money I could never break these acts. I am not sorry I chose Warner Bros. They were the best at the time -- except for dealing with Mo.

I think you have another book in you, one for real music and music-business aficionados and those consumed by the history of music. I would have loved to have seen more stories about what it was like being on the road with James Brown, or the Shangri-Las, who you didn’t even mention.

The Shangri-Las were bad girls, but they were good bad girls. Maybe, I would like to see people like [Imperial Records founder] Lou Chudd, the Chess brothers and many others get the credit they deserve. A lot of people know who Mitch Miller is -- I have great respect for Mitch; what he did for Columbia was just amazing — but people like Ralph Peer, who I think is the greatest A&R man. The first person inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame under early influences was Jimmie Rodgers, who Ralph Peer signed. My mentor Syd Nathan of King Records was the greatest record man. I am so glad they recognize it and he is in the Hall of Fame. We shouldn’t get caught up in it, but the industry doesn’t pay enough tribute to our past.

Do you think that today’s industry leaders at the three major labels are aware of their own labels' heritage?

I think more importantly, the three heads of the major labels now are English, which is a very good thing, because Americans always believed that the music business was all about what was happening in America. English executives have a great international background, and that’s what the industry needs is to have a global outlook.