'Anything For A Hit' Author Dorothy Carvello on #MeToo and Music: 'Men Are Not the Enemy'

Dorothy Carvello photographed on July 26, 2018 at home in New York.
Mackenzie Stroh

Dorothy Carvello photographed on July 26, 2018 at home in New York.

While working at Atlantic Records from 1987-1990, when, she says, she was fired for complaining about the misogynistic treatment she suffered at the hands of the virtually all-male executive staff there, Dorothy Carvello realized that the diaries she had been keeping could make a good book. Her subsequent experiences at RCA, Columbia, Epic and other labels only confirmed that notion, and 18 years after leaving that world, the Brooklyn native is set to publish her frank and funny memoir, Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story of Surviving the Music Industry, on Sept. 4. Carvello, 56, who still works in the industry as an independent publicist, spoke about her unvarnished depiction of her vaunted former boss, Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun (who died in 2006), the industry’s treatment of women then and now, and what the CEOs of music businesses need to do to achieve equality on the workfront. 

When did you start to write this book? 
I  had the idea to start writing it in 1996 based on diaries I kept from Atlantic Records. Everything that Ahmet did blew my mind, and any time I got in a fight with him, I would threaten, “I’m going to write a book.” And he would say, “Go ahead, no one would believe it.” He was the first person to tell me nothing was going to happen for me because I am a woman.  But I did not want to believe him.  And that was a mistake. That’s why I felt it was always important to write everything down and keep a record. From 1987, when my career started, to 1996 was so tumultuous, I realized that I was in a unique position to tell the story of a woman in the music business.

What would Ahmet think of this book?
Ahmet loved it when I told him I was writing the book. He loved when you created a stir.  He liked disruptors.

Ertegun is lionized in the music business. Do you expect any blowback from this book?
I’ve already had a bit of backlash regarding Ahmet -- how could I do this -- but I really don’t care. Ahmet knew I was writing the book, and everything in the book is true. If people want to believe he was a warm, fuzzy guy that didn't step over people to make his vast wealth, that’s their fantasy. It’s not mine. I spent 12 hours a day with him. Those upset by the book shouldn't buy it. I hope it helps other women facing abuse.

To give people an idea of what you experienced at Atlantic, can you recount the story you tell in the book about Ahmet fracturing your arm in a fit of anger?
We were at the Cat Club to see Skid Row, a band that I was involved in signing. I sat across from Ahmet and he brought the cleaning woman as a date -- which was age appropriate for once. When the band started playing, they were out of tune, everything was wrong. We had just gone through this big rigamarole of signing them, and he started cursing at me and saying that he couldn’t believe that he’d spent his money on them. Then he grabbed my right arm by the wrist.  He was a very strong guy. I was telling him, “Let go of me,” and he raised my arm and slammed it to the table. I remember being in a lot of pain and being afraid. I got up and went backstage, probably holding back tears because I never let those men see me cry. That would be a sign of weakness.

You could not show weakness.
Right. With these guys, everything was about a mind fuck. Gaslighting was their biggest technique. When I left Atlantic, I watched the movie Gaslight like 10 times. It clicked that I was gaslit about my firing at Atlantic -- that it was my fault for writing a memo about men’s behavior there. These were not warm, cuddly people. They were scary men. They had no mercy. I remember vividly at different times in my career begging either the president or the chairman of a company for a second chance and it would not be afforded. I was just deleted and had to start all over again, which was the story of my career.  Yet the men always got a second chance.

And yet, despite your experiences there, you admit in the book that you bought into the testosterone-fueled culture at Atlantic.
I was a product of Catholic school, which teaches you that anything that’s fun is not allowed. Ahmet Ertegun was a permission slip to be bad. Watching men behave freely is very attractive when you’re a repressed young woman. I thought that by running with them and enabling them to behave in a disrespectful fashion, I was one of them -- but I wasn't. I didn't want to admit I was being paid less. I didn't want to admit I was being passed over for promotions because that would have deflated my dream of being an executive in the music business.

What was the pay disparity then?
I tapped out at 60 grand, which was like the weekly [travel and expenses report] for the male executives, who were making well over six figures. After all, they had families to support. I heard that many times. I was also told by one of the men at Atlantic, “No babies [for you] on my watch.”

As you point out in 'Anything For A Hit', Ertegun was not the only label boss to make your life miserable.
At another label, I don’t want to say which one -- it’s in the book -- I had another boss who created a very hostile work environment for me. I was the only woman in the A&R department. He wasn’t interested in any band I signed or anything I had to say. So when I went to the president of the company to speak about it he had the biggest grin on his face. He was actually enjoying me begging him for my job. And then he fired me, but he didn’t just fire me. The night before I was let go, he took me to a Madonna concert, made me sit next to him for three hours, and then said goodnight to me knowing the whole time I would be fired the next day. It was devastating, unnecessary humiliation, and when I told Ahmet and some other men that were known sadists, they couldn’t believe how sadistic it was.

There have been media reports of executives trying to get their hands on your manuscript. Any good stories there?
There are two men -- kings of the music industry who, again,  I’m not going to name because I want the book to stand on its own -- that have been trying to get a hold of my book. The funny thing is, when I sent them emails asking them to talk to me about why they did what they did to me -- which I did with many of the people I wrote about in the book -- they refused.

You insisted that this interview be conducted by a man. Why?
Men control the music business, and now that women are starting to speak up about the abuse they’ve endured, we need men to stand for us and with us. Men are not the enemy. I felt that if you had a female journalist interview me, it would send the message that, “Oh, the women are ganging up on the men.” That’s not what I’m trying to say. As I wrote in the book, there were a few men who did stand up and help me, and I would take a bullet for any one of them.

The sexual misconduct scandals of the last year have made some men sensitive to how they interact with female colleagues.
I’m hearing from those men that they don’t want to close their doors when they meet with a woman. They’re afraid of women -- and that’s wrong. Thirty-one years after I started in this business, white males are still running things. We need to get women into power positions, and we can’t do that without the men.

Did you get many people to sit down with you for the book? 
Many people sat down. Many of the men in the book sat down. If the men were no longer here their managers and their lawyers talked to me. Many people welcomed the book. The book is humorous.

What effect do you think it will have on the industry?
I really don’t know. A lot of people are secretly cheering it on because I was not the only woman -- or man -- that went through a lot of shit, especially during the Time Warner years [Atlantic Records' parent company at the time]. The men who’ve read it who are running companies today -- their jaws drop. A lot of the men today would never even think of doing the shit that these guys did. A different set of morals existed 30 years ago.  

Are you surprised that so few women in the music industry have come forward about sexual misconduct they have experienced?
You mean because [the music business] hasn't had its big Harvey Weinstein #MeToo moment? That’s because Ahmet’s dead.  [Laughs.] The #MeToo movement is just beginning and, like any movement, it’s going to take time because the women have to feel safe enough to tell their stories. And that’s not for every woman. Not every woman could write this book or would even want to write it.

How has the treatment of women in the music industry changed over the last 30 years?
Things have improved in terms of men’s behavior toward women, but there still aren't enough men helping enough women get to the jobs where they’re in the room making decisions.

Has too much of burden of solving these equality issues been put on women?
Yes. Again, we need the men to step up. Avoidance is not a business plan. A company’s culture is changed from the top. I don’t want to hear about human resources. Human resources is there to protect the corporation from lawsuits. That’s why, when you have a complaint, you have to agree to arbitration where you’re going to get less on the dollar than by having a jury trial. I can’t tell you how many times I sat across from a human resources person who said, “You’re going to get nothing. Go on with your life.  Why are you doing this?”

If you were running a label, what would you do to achieve change?
The industry has to close down for a day, if not longer, and everyone from the receptionists to the CEOs should undergo  unconscious gender-bias training.

So the music industry should have a Starbucks moment?
Except we’re going to need more than an afternoon.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of Billboard.