Hitmen: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business
Written By: Frederic Dannen
Published By: Vintage Books
Reviewed by Justine Manzano
Throughout my time working and writing for this beloved site, G-POP.net, I have often singled books out for review that I was forced against my will to read for class. Let’s be honest – most people will not read the type of books one reads for school of their own free will. I, in all my literary expertise, am no different. I’d much rather read an Angel graphic novel than read the book I am reviewing today. However, there is something to be said for the knowledge one can gain from a book one is forced to read. This particular semester I am taking a class on the Music Industry in which I was asked to read a book called Hitmen: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business by Frederic Dannen in an attempt to teach us about the music industry in the pre-music download days. So, over the first half of the semester, I struggled to make my way through the 432 page book while reading several others. And here’s what it was like…
Following the adventures of CBS Records from in the 70’s and 80’s, Hitmen is a scathing review of the age of the industry, when music was a gigantic money maker. The book mainly operates as an expose about the dark underbelly of the music industry, but it also tells a story (or many stories with one theme) the main story following President of CBS Records, Walter Yetnikoff, and his deputy, Dick Asher. Yetnikoff had started out as a shy attorney with a strong work ethic and morals until he became the head of CBS Records and began to work to appear more like a part of the music industry. Turning himself into a fast talking, angry deal maker who always got his way in order to survive in the business, Yetnikoff did not appreciate Asher’s appointment as his deputy. Asher was a different kind of man. A quiet man of integrity and morality, Asher struggled with many of Yetnikoff’s practices. The greatest of which was the hiring of independent promoters for millions of dollars.
The group of Independent Promoters who were known as “The Network” were believed to have mob ties and would charge millions of dollars to record companies in order to promote songs to radio stations. Touted as the newest form of industry Payola, the industry spent hundreds of millions on this trend. When asked to cut costs for CBS Records, Asher took on Independent Promotion – and committed career suicide, crucified at the hands of Yetnikoff and other industry big wigs like him who were unwilling to change the status quo.
Following Yetnikoff, Asher, and other such industry bigwigs as Clive Davis and Morris Levy and revealing much through their relationships with famous musicians like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson, Hitmen delves into what it truly meant to be a part of the Music Industry at this time. As one reads, they are not only exposed to the dealings of CBS Records, but to those of all of the other large record companies. It quickly becomes clear that this is a roller coaster ride that very few individuals survive unscathed as the industry is sucked into doing whatever it can to obtain the largest payday.
Dannen uses a literary style that switches between history text, journalistic expose and the basic ideals of storytelling. He easily hooks the reader into the world of the wheeling and dealing involved in the industry, equally informing, astonishing and developing sympathy for the book’s White Knight, Asher, while developing contempt for the Dark Knights of the music business. Having had this book assigned to me for a class, I was surprised by how interesting this book was as a straight read, almost like reading a factual novel. So, who should read it? Well, the storytelling is very interesting, so I would recommend it to anyone, but most especially, if you are interested in a career in music or if you just love understanding how this sort of thing works, you will enjoy Hitmen.
Either way, you will quickly understand that nobody makes as much money in music as easily as you would think. There is a lot of cost involved, often-times that cost is tragic. And that might be the most important lesson learned.