Words and Images by Jerry Heller
Illustration by Patrick Martinez
Jerry Heller lives in LA and works in the music business. With over five decades in the industry, he has seen it all, and had his share of ups and downs. Along the way he helped to build the careers of numerous artists, including Marvin Gaye, Average White Band, WAR, Bobby Jimmy and the Critters, Elton John and Pink Floyd. He also played a pivotal role in creating the West Coast Gangster Rap movement. As the co-founder of Ruthless Records with Eazy-E, Heller was key to making NWA one of the biggest selling Hip Hop acts of all time. Heller sat down with Frank151 to share his thoughts on the current state of the music industry, and give his advice to aspiring musicians who are grinding along the ever elusive road to super stardom.
The music business right now, as we’ve known it in the past, is basically over. I think it’s at one of the worst stages that I’ve ever seen it at. It’s been almost this bad once before. It’s ironic that the album that paved the way for the downfall of rock & roll, is one of the greatest albums of the second half of the 20th century–Sgt. Pepper’s.
The Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was so good and set the bar so high, it was impossible for other rock & rollers to achieve that standard of excellence. People started spending so much money on albums, trying to achieve this Sgt. Pepper/Beatles kind of excellence that the standard in the music business changed from loving music, to being committed to projects just because they cost a lot of money. People started spending more money on records than had ever been spent before. And what it did was disrupt the economic integrity of the music business.
The music business is intrinsically a win/win business. The only business I’ve ever seen where the more the artist makes, the more everyone else makes. In every other business, the more one person makes, the less someone else makes.
The music business in the early ’80s was sort of floundering, and then in 1985 I heard about this little pressing plant on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood called Macola Records. For $1000 you could press up 500 records, do the artwork, and this guy would distribute to other regional distributors in other cities. They would basically charge you 15% for this service. Pressing at Macola in those days was the LA Dream Team, JJ Fad, the Egyptian Lover, Rodney O and Joe Cooley, the Timex Social Club, Bobby Jimmy and the Critters, a group called CIA with Ice Cube, World Class Wreckin’ Cru with Dre and Yella, Ice T was pressing there. Even MC Hammer pressed some early records there. Macola Records was re-establishing the balance of economic integrity of the music business. Now records were costing less to produce than the tape used to record them. The economic integrity was coming back in the business, and it was something that appealed to me.
I was doing very well managing World Class Wreckin’ Cru, CIA, LA Dream Team, JJ Fad, and Egyptian Lover. A friend of mine named Alonzo Williams, who was pressing with Macola, had a company called Kru-Cut Records, and he was a member of the World Class Wreckin’ Crew. He told me about this guy who wanted to meet me named Eric Wright. After a couple of months of badgering me to meet him, I finally agreed, and he paid Alonzo $750 for the introduction.
On March 3, 1987, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright pulled up, reached down into his sock and handed Alonzo a roll of money. I asked Eric if he had something to play for me, because in the final analysis, all that matters is the music. Nothing else matters. Eazy was willing to let the music do the talking. He played me “Boyz in the Hood.” That same day we decided to launch Ruthless Records. The next day I called a meeting of all my clients. I told them I couldn’t represent them anymore because I was going into business with Eazy-E.
Today, the music business has once again regressed. Right back to where we were after Sgt. Pepper. Only now it is the other, second greatest album of the second half of the 20th century that did it, and that’s NWA’s Straight Outta Compton.
The big corporations like Universal, Sony BMG, EMI, and Warner Brothers would like to tell you that the whole problem is downloading. Well, I don’t believe that. I think that once again they’ve disrupted the economic balance of the business. The problems of the music business now are a function of price and content.
When we did Straight Outta Compton for $12,000 and Eazy-Duz-It for $8,000, that’s what the music business is supposed to be. Now we have a Snoop Dogg record costing as much as a Whitney Houston record. We have videos that cost more than Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda spent on the entire movie Easy Rider. The economic integrity is such, with radio and promotion, it’s so expensive to promote records, that a major now says you got to sell 1.5 million units just for the artist to recoup. That’s not what the music business is supposed to be about.
Trying to sell records for $18.99 when you have a 12-year-old kid, who has a $5 per week allowance, I think it’s beyond sensible to think he is going to save up for weeks to buy an album. Now, if it was a good album, that would be one thing. But today, the technology has allowed these record companies to put 19 to 22 cuts on a CD. Record labels force their artists to put that many cuts on a record to justify the high purchase price. What they should be doing is taking the price back down to $10, and have nine, 10 or 11 outstanding cuts, and then people would be interested in buying records again, instead of downloading. Nobody is going to pay $18.99 for a record that has only has three good cuts on it. The business is once again in one of those paradoxes: the majors are just working counter-intuitively to the goals they want to achieve, trying to justify the high purchase price. They aren’t in the music business anymore, they’re in the market share business, in the “keeping their stockholders happy business.” Not the music for music’s sake business.
I think we need to go back to re-establish the economic integrity of the business. The areas where those kinds of numbers still exist are Latino hip hop, spoken word poetry, ghetto metal, and positive message music. Today those areas are still accessible to re-establish the economic integrity of the business. If we don’t do that, the business as we know it is doomed.
Jerry Heller’s Keys to Success:
- Work harder than anyone else. That’s a crucial rule; most people really don’t understand the value of hard work anymore.
- Emphasize your strengths. Strengthen your weaknesses.
- Take every “no” personally. Refuse to accept it, and use it as a starting point to a yes.
- Be imaginative, don’t be discouraged if people react negatively to your ideas.
- Look for artists that are trendsetters, unique, and the very best at what they do. If you listen to a Bob Dylan record you don’t say, “I wonder who that is,” you know who that is.
- Be scrupulously honest, above reproach.
- Always be “Ruthless” on behalf of your clients. Don’t hesitate to go all the way on their behalf.
- Remember, you both like what they do. Sometimes that may be all that you have in common with your artist. Look at Eazy-E and I. I was tall, he was short, I was white, he was black. He was from the west coast, I was from the Midwest. He was young, I was old. There couldn’t be two people that would be more unlikely to build a successful empire together. So just remember that you both like what they do, and sometimes that may be all that you have in common with your artist. But that’s enough. Eazy and I proved that.
- Read my book. Apply my experiences to your own quest for success.
- Remember to turn out the lights before you go to bed.