Seymour Stein: "Music replaced every other thing that was important to me"

Seymour Stein:

After more than four decades at Warner Music Group, Seymour Stein has decided to move on and plans to return to his "indie roots". The legendary exec launched the Sire label 50 years ago and signed artists including Ramones, Madonna, The Cure, The Smiths and Talking Heads. As he exits the major, here's a chance to revisit Music Week's 2016 interview with one of the greats...

Listen to the legendary Seymour Stein, and he’ll try to convince you there’s no gift to what he does. He can’t sing, he can’t write; he’s just a music fan who lucked out and somehow ended up in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. 

“I have no talent. Other than my ears in picking some good music,” he tells Music Week. “But I can tell you that I’ve picked as many bad ones as good ones.”

Of course, when the “good ones” include Madonna, The Smiths, The Ramones, The Pretenders, Depeche Mode, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure and Talking Heads, among others, it’s a little easier to forgive the odd lapse of judgement. 

The entrepreneur’s genius for spotting star quality is beyond dispute after an incredible 50+ years in the business; the aforementioned acts representing a mere smattering of the life-changing performers taken under his wing at Sire Records, the seminal label he co-founded in 1966. 

“It’s not a secret, but I think one of the reasons for my success is that I never waited very long to try to sign a band,” reflects Stein. “If I liked it, I jumped right in.” A snapshot of this decisiveness is provided by the famous story of Stein signing Madonna from his hospital bed while recovering from a heart infection. “When you see an artist that you know is going to work harder than anyone else in the room, you sign them, and that’s what I did,” he says.

“I looked for everything but most of all it’s the songs. When people look back on their memories and when something good happened, when something bad happened, they drift back to the songs that were playing on the radio or playing in their own houses during that time. It’s that sort of association; I think it all begins with the song. 

“If you’ve got somebody with a beautiful voice like Adele, that is super, super special, and there were people like that and there are others right now who are very similar, but it’s the songs. The song helps you bring back memories.”

Now 73, Stein’s journey began in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York. “I started listening to music very early on, this was even pre-rock ‘n’ roll," he explains. "Music replaced every other thing that was important to me.”

At the age of 13 he carried out charts research at Billboard, where staff took a shine to him. At the behest of the magazine’s legendary music editor Paul Ackerman, Stein was invited into sessions where they selected the best singles of the moment. “If a record got an excellent review in Billboard it would mean anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 sales by jukebox operators,” explains Stein. 

The experience brought Stein into contact with such execs as Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler from Atlantic, Leonard Chess from Chess and Syd Nathan from King Records. “These guys were geniuses to me and I was in awe of them,” beams Stein. “There were others as well and without them I don’t think I would’ve amounted to what I have thus far. Taste is your own, but learning about the music and the business is very important and it’s always good to find somebody that’s willing to take the time to teach a bit.

“Syd took to me the most and when I graduated high school I had the opportunity of going to study journalism, but Billboard offered me a full time job so I decided to take it. Syd said to me, Billboard is great but you’re not really a participant, you’re watching. If you really want to be in the music business, come and work for me in Cincinnati. He brought me out for the summer; I was working with James Brown, Hank Ballard and country artists… I just loved it.” 

After two years at King, Stein was offered a job by Atlantic Records co-founder Herb Abramson. “Syd told me, The reason [Abramson’s] out here seeing me is because he has no money and he wants me to distribute his records, you’ll be out of a job in six months. He was wrong - I was out of a job in three months. 

“I was really struggling, but managing to keep afloat. Then this record guy that I had known from the Billboard sessions, George Goldner, was starting a label with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who I idolised - they were the greatest songwriters in rock ‘n’ roll - and George needed an assistant. It was Red Bird Records and it took off like a bullet.

“I was on the 9th floor and I met this guy who had an office on the 10th floor, Richard Gottehrer, of FGG Productions, and we became very good friends. It was a great time for me, but George was not getting along with Leiber and Stoller and vice versa and I saw that was ending. Richard wasn’t getting on with his two partners any more that well and we decided to start a little something. That’s how Sire Records was born.” 

London Records distributed Sire’s early releases, followed by Polydor, Famous Records and ABC Records, before switching to Warner Bros in 1977. Upon its creation, Stein wanted Sire to be “open to music from all over the world”. “The British invasion was fabulous, but it made it difficult for anywhere but the English speaking world to really make it,” he suggests. “After putting out all these records from England, all the EMI companies in Europe said, Hey, we’ve got great stuff too, and through that I found Jan Akkerman, who started a band called Focus. On a whim, I flew over to Holland and saw them and signed them. That was our first million selling album and our first million selling single.

“About seven years in, Richard left the company. He wanted to go back to producing. We’re still best friends.”

The UK remains very close to Stein’s heart, not just because of the plethora of legendary acts he picked up from the territory, but also due to the friendships built with the likes of Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, Beggars Group’s Martin Mills, Mute Records’ Daniel Miller and Chris Wright and Terry Ellis of Chrysalis. 

“I formed a bond with England very early on,” says Stein. “We probably signed more successful British bands than just about anybody else because the Americans were not paying attention the way they should have. You think they would because The Beatles changed everything in ’64 when they broke wide open in the States. I was quite lucky that I spent so much time in England when there were very few Americans and when so much was going on.

“I used to be here 12 times a year. Now, it’s maybe half that, but it’s still a great place for me, and a great place for music.”

Stein was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2005, under the lifetime achievement category. “I never thought it would happen to me in a million years, even after I was successful,” he admits. 

Perhaps surprisingly, he has nothing but good things to say about streaming. “I actually prefer streaming to most of the other means of getting music. It’s particularly good for older people like me, who had a record collection and for whatever reason may have gotten rid of it and want to get back those great old songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s and even go back into the ‘50s and get it, it gives you an opportunity to get everything. 

“You can use it 24 hours a day to record and it’s a better value and it puts people back in touch with not only the music they grew up with, but today’s music.”

And what about its impact on today’s acts?  “There’s a lot more [music] available and that’s good, but it’s also bad in that you’re expected to make it a little quicker,” notes Stein. “Some artists need more time to develop than others, but once they do, they can be bigger than all the rest.

“The music business has been going down almost every year constantly since the turn of the century and I think this past year was a little bit of an improvement in some areas. I guess you’ve got to thank Adele for that.”

Stein acknowledges that it is considerably more difficult to break into the music industry than it was for him more than 50 years ago, but stresses: “I would advise anybody, if this is what you really love doing, continue to do it because there will always be a music business, there always was a music business. It is not something that is 65 years old like television or 90 years old like radio. Music has always been around. It’s been a business for over 500 years. Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, they were all the rock stars of their era and they didn’t sell records, but their music lives on. 

“There’s no such thing as classical music, their music was pop music when it was first released. It was the equivalent of rock music today. The reason it’s called classical music is because it’s lived on and on. I certainly think a lot of the music I grew up with, whether it be Hank Williams from country, or Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, will all live on and itself will turn into classical music.”

Stein is still president of Sire Records, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary year and was acquired by Warner Bros Records in 1977. He is also VP of Warner Bros. “I’d like to say I’m a genius, but believe me; I’m far from it,” he laughs. “I was in the right place, at the right time. I built up relationships with all these people I’m still friendly with today and I’m treasured to know them.”

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