Crash and burn and survive to tell the tale

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I took a job with a BMG Classics.  This is one of my favorite stories from that job and my career.

It all started in 1998.  I was looking for a job and sent my resume to every person I had ever met.  I received a call from an acquaintance in New York who wanted to know if I would be interested in doing PR for a record label.  “Sure, why not?” said I and off I went to NYC to interview.  I had no confidence that this was going to pan out — had NO record company or music experience AT ALL. The upside of this was that I could not have been more relaxed.  It just seemed like an adventure.

Several weeks later, my phone rang again.  I hadn’t even gotten around to sending a thank you letter, card or email but the woman who interviewed me wanted to get information about my knowledge of jazz, which was about as much as my record label knowledge.  I was honest about it and told her I like jazz but could never find the time to look into it, what with all the work I was doing.  She offered me the job.  Two weeks later I started work as the Press and Promotions Manager for RCA Victor and Distributed Labels.  That’s a long title that really just means “publicist.”

How little did I know about the music industry?  I had never heard of A & R or liner notes.  “A & R” stands for artists and repertoire.  You probably knew that.

My roster included jazz and world music bands and artists such as the Chieftains, Andy Summers and Ravi Coltrane.  I was essentially the QB of the PR team.  I oversaw publicity for CD releases, tours, proper radio play, etc.  I learned early that my knowledge deficit could be used as an asset.  I called journalists and asked their opinion.  I am new at this but you are the expert, what do you think about …?  It was not unusual for me to be on the phone for HOURS with the same journalist, they love to talk about their opinion.  It was a win-win-win.  They got to pontificate on their favorite topic, I learned a lot and we ended up friends.  I think they found my honesty refreshing, too.  There were months when we weren’t releasing anything great and I would tell them that.  I don’t mean our new releases but RCA Victor has a pretty large repertoire and it was not uncommon to release compilations of older stuff.  One joke a colleague used to tell was that we were going to put a sticker on that read Never before released in this order.

One other thing about the industry that I did not know was how cut throat it is.  About three weeks after I started, most of my department was fired.  The woman who hired me? Gone.  The person above her? Ditto.  The structure went from being: me — my boss — her boss — the president of the company to being: me — president of the company.  And he couldn’t help me because he was new to the business, too — his background was in wine.

For the next six months, I had no real supervision.  That doesn’t mean my projects suffered.  Ravi Coltrane was in a piece in Rolling Stone (a first for my department).  Others did interviews with AP, Washington Post, New York Times, CBS/ABC & NBC News, NPR and others.  I kept the artists happy with updates about their coverage.  I planned record release parties, interviews, photo shoots, tour coverage, etc.  I worked my butt off.

After six months, they hired a new person who would become my boss.  When he started, he seemed nice enough.  He met with everyone in the department to ask what we did and assess our performance.  About a month later, he conducted reviews.  I remember thinking, as I walked in, that I had no reason to be nervous, I had performed well.  My job performance should speak for itself, I thought.  I did tell them — from the start — that I had no prior experience in music.

Famous. Last. Words.

The review started with This is going to be hard on you.  That was the bright spot of the meeting.  Truthfully, the only analogy that pops out from that was that it felt like that sentence was a diving board.  I leapt from that into a pool of hellishness.  The new boss, in keeping with the grand tradition of new bosses, wanted to bring his own people in. He didn’t want to fire me, he wanted me to quit.  I walked to my office, shut the door and spent easily a half hour putting my face back together after the monster cry I had.  My morning that day was spent working on a Hillary Clinton trip to NYC and my afternoon was spent being told that everything that had ever gone wrong at RCA Victor was caused by my time there.

Once home, I thought about the year I had and the work I had done.  I took the next day off to really sort through my thoughts.  By the time I got back, I was resolved to stay.  I had done a good job.  My boss wasn’t thrilled by this.  He said we had to go to human resources and work out how we could monitor my work better.  During our first meeting I told them both, Look, you hired me to be a passing QB, if you want me to run the ball, I will but you cannot change the rules without telling me and expect me to know.  I am not clairvoyant. Surprisingly, my boss agreed.  He thought I was going to fail.  I didn’t.

We had meetings with HR for the next few months.  Every week, he told us that he was impressed with my work ethic, the results I was getting and asked How are you so nice to me when I was so bad to you?  I didn’t admit that I used a Kids in the Hall trick — whenever I saw him from behind in the hallway, I would pinch my fingers together and say I crush your head, crush, crush!  I just told him I am a professional.

Funny side story:  On more than one occasion, he tried to sabotage me.  One staff meeting turned into the “Alyson Show” and I went through the status of all my projects — without notes — I knew what I was working on.  Another time we went out to dinner with two key journalists, he thought they would eat me alive.  They loved me.  We all went to the Village Vanguard after and in a stroke of awesomeness — Diana Krall, the president of the company and our group arrived at the same time.  I pulled the president aside and said “You know Diana, right?” (I had spent time with her in Canada that year).  When I looked over at my boss, the glare on his face almost melted my contact lenses.  It. Was. Amazing.

Eventually, I left RCA Victor.  When I did, I sent the following email to my coworkers, I had always heard Istanbul was an exciting place.  When I got the chance to go, I did and met great, fun and wonderful people, experienced new things and learned a ton.  But at the end of the day, I am not fron Istanbul and it is time for me to go home.  Thank you for everything.

The record industry did teach me a lot.  The lesson that my belief in myself should trump whatever others think has been a challenge sometimes but well worth it and has shaped how I view myself ever since.

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