The Rock Hall of Fame honors an indie label pioneer and rock patriarch
March 11, 2011
By Sam Sutherland
Each year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honors an industry figure who helped shape the music behind the scenes, an honor the Class of 2011 will confer on veteran executive Jac Holzman. As the founder and chairman of Elektra Records, the native New Yorker has a rap sheet crowned by rock icons including The Doors, Queen, Love, The Stooges and Carly Simon, yet Holzman himself wryly sees his influence on the shape of rock as a mid-career milestone.
"Although I understand from people who are board members I was considered earlier, I don't think anybody thought of me as a true rock 'n' roller," Holzman observes. "And it's true that I did not come, as Jerry Wexler did or Ahmet Ertegun or most people [identified with the Hall of Fame] from a rhythm & blues background. I came from a folk music and a singer-songwriter background."
Indeed, Holzman took Elektra into rock 15 years after 1950, when he founded the label in his dorm room at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., harnessing his ambitions to a rare combination of musical passion and technical aptitude. At 19, Holzman recognized the advent of the LP and analog tape recorders as leveling the playing field for would-be impresarios forces that likewise spurred a new wave of independent labels, launched from the late '40s onward, that would shape jazz, rhythm & blues, rock 'n' roll and folk music as vital genres in post-World War II musical culture.
From the outset, Holzman belied his youth by his methodical approach to forging a label identity. Technical production standards, art direction and his own hands-on engagement with artists qualified him as a classic entrepreneur. His label's formative years coincided with the rise of a modern folk movement that orbited around Greenwich Village and Boston, with Holzman himself drawn naturally to his hometown. By the early '60s, Elektra had emerged as a major standard bearer through Holzman's astute signings of marquee artists such as Judy Collins, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton.
Even as Elektra became a brand name for folk at its commercial apex, however, Holzman sensed deeper cultural crosscurrents. "We were running out of folk songs in the late '50s," he recalls, "so people had to start writing them, and then there was this big conversation about whether it's really a folk song. Who cares what the origin is? The mere fact that we could not identify 'Barbara Allen' doesn't make it any more or less a folk song." The rise of urban folk singers crafting their own modern ballads and broadsides was the organic next step.
Holzman confirms that "the ignition moment was 'Highway 61 Revisited' and Dylan at Newport in '65," a tipping point he witnessed first-hand. Backing Dylan that day, and providing much of the legendary din that outraged folk purists like a warning shot across the bows of the folk establishment, were members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, then newly signed to Elektra.
Holzman himself was impressed more by the immediacy of the reaction than the performance itself, but where some of his folk peers saw a threat, the Elektra chief saw a bridge: "I've used the phrase before: 'You could think and boogie at the same time.' And that's exactly how I felt about it. And that came to me in a crash at Newport. I thought Dylan doing 'Maggie's Farm' was just the best thing I had heard up until that time, not because it was that great a performance, because it wasn't, but the live performance and the booing that went on were both important to me. The live performance showed me where I wanted to go, as I didn't get that from the record, interestingly enough."
Folk's contribution of literary and topical depth were key drivers in Holzman's view. "There was a demonstration of really interesting writing married to rock, and I think that made all of the difference. It certainly makes all of the difference for people like Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield and the Beatles, eventually. They all came to the writing. The Beatles were definitely interested by Dylan, the Byrds were influenced by Dylan. Dylan is the pivot point upon which rock gets a second wind."
That wind was definitely blowing with increasing strength on the West Coast, where Holzman began spending time scouting for talent, establishing a satellite office. There, he signed Love, a groundbreaking multi-racial band that fused folk-rock jangle with pop and psychedelia, and then landed The Doors, who would bring Elektra its first breakthrough rock hit. The label also tapped into protean hard rock and punk with its controversial signings of Detroit's MC 5 and the Stooges, as well as swampy Southern rock through Delaney and Bonnie.
What might appear in hindsight as a strategic path from folk into rock was a more personal motivation, Holzman says today. Asked about how the expansion west reflected the label's growth, he bluntly responds, "It's not Elektra's evolution -- it's my evolution, for which I used my record company to expand the influence." As the label's founder and owner, he could follow a more personal path.
"The word 'indie' I think neglects one aspect of 'indies' [labels]," he continues. "Yes, indies were labels independent of the major labels, but they were also indie because they were individual. The 'indie' of individual I think has greater play. Unlike a large record company where you have to go through a whole level of decision making to get an answer, the advantage of indie record making and why every time I went up against a major I was able to get the artist, at a point where I could prove to the lawyers and the managers we could get a record out there, was that decisions were made quickly, they knew who to call, and I could modify my approach to an artist without anything that was cookie-cutter prepackaged."
Inroads into rock didn't signal Elektra's retreat from its earlier focus on gentler fare so much as diversity reflective of Holzman's own broad and eclectic tastes. During an earlier slump in sales, he had confounded major labels by plunging into classical music, breaking rules about repertoire, performers and price: Nonesuch Records virtually created the "budget" classical model by sourcing masters in Europe, which enabled the label to expose lesser-known works from less familiar periods, likewise anticipating the vogue for early music that would bloom later in the century.
Elektra likewise gravitated to the singer-songwriters that were the natural successors to Dylan, Ochs, Paxton and other '60s figures, and here too Holzman gained traction early. Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne were all introduced on Elektra albums by Tom Rush and Judy Collins, while Carly Simon and the late Harry Chapin both emerged as major Elektra artists in the '70s.
During the early '70s, Holzman was looking toward a next chapter, having sold Elektra to Warner Communications and established the WEA triumvirate of Warner, Elektra and Atlantic. His final signings were hardly afterthoughts: He pursued Queen, a savvy British quartet with arena-sized ambitions and a lush, pop-friendly spin on glam, snagging their U.S. rights.
Holzman's de facto retirement proved short-lived, and he soon returned as head of Panavision, the motion picture juggernaut he advised Warner to purchase in the mid-'70s. He also served as Chief Technologist to Warner's entertainment empire, leading them to investments in electronic gaming and digital technology. When Panavision was sold, Holzman came full circle, purchasing the catalog of Discovery Records, a defunct jazz indie. At a time when jazz itself was ceding market share and indie labels seemed imperiled by corporate consolidation, Holzman improbably weeded and pruned his new label, branched into other genres, and soon turned a profit before selling Discovery to Warner.
Today, Holzman at 79 remains active and bi-coastal, consulting to the Warner Music Group after Edgar Bronfman, Jr., and a team of investors bought the company from AOL Time Warner. Holzman pilots WMG's experimental Cordless Recordings project, focused on low-cost, digital-only artist development. He's also invested evident time and care in the rich Elektra60.com website created to honor his label's history.
Asked how he would start a label today, Holzman minces no words: "If I were doing it today, I would do it exactly the way I did it before: I'd follow my instincts, follow my gut, because there are so many different ways that you will be able to put your music out there. I would say that the thing I would need to learn more quickly is how to manage my rights. Rights management is where I think the major labels need to be, and for major labels to have publishing I think makes a lot of sense."
At the same time, he's focused on traversing music's next leap into the cloud while tackling his chief concern a landscape where a glut of releases, splintering of media, and changing business models loom as major challenges. He believes there's a need to reinvent gate keeping roles once performed by radio DJs and critics. "Trusted first filters is absolutely what we require to sort through on the Web," Holzman asserts. "Pandora doesn't do it. I'm not interested in algorithms choosing my music. We need first filters, and as we go into the cloud, first filters are going to be incredibly important. And I don't know how the cloud handles them."