I liked this book a lot. If you've ever been possessed by an audacious idea that won't go away, you'll probably like this book, too. Harold Bronson and his partner Richard Foos acted on their idea. It was crazy: "Let's start a record company!" Kind of like "Hey kids, let's put on a show!" * And like Mickey Rooney, they succeeded.
The late great Rhino Records store on Westwood Boulevard in L.A. offered comfort and shelter. No incomprehensible industry hype, just music you liked or didn't like. Music you could like because it was cool, or because it was uncool. You could have passionate arguments with staff and customers about whether the Bonzo Dog Band was brilliant or unlistenable. And whatever your position, you would be right.
It all flowed from proprietors Bronson and Foos, who championed what they liked. They grew up enamored of novelty records like "Purple People Eater," and loved underdogs. They had an ear for talent, whether it was recognized or not. They would buy any used record, even if for only five cents. They got attention with quirky and funny promotions (Hassle the Salesman Contest for only offering you five cents; Deface the Glen Campbell Poster). Celebrities (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and famous musicians (Bryan Ferry) frequented the store and future famous musicians (Nels Cline, jazz department, now with Wilco) worked there. They bought independent releases by unknown artists because they liked them -- they sold 400 copies of Devo's first two singles, more than any other store.
So when Bronson and Foos started a record label, it reflected their iconoclastic sensibilities. Fittingly, their first album release was by Wild Man Fisher, an annoying street musician who was persona non grata at most local stores but celebrated at Rhino Records. With the release of "Wildmania" in 1978, the label became a formal entity. Their encyclopedic musical knowledge and fan's enthusiasm helped find new life for dozens of artists, from Frankie Lymon and Tommy James to The Knack, The Monkees, and The Turtles. They later branched into home video, and even produced a movie -- "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."
How they translated their irreverent approach to an actual corporation is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book. The challenges were immense, as if they were a punk band finding a mainstream audience. They wrestled to maintain their core, through a distribution deal with Capitol and a joint venture with Atlantic. They continued to champion music they liked, using unorthodox marketing lessons from retail, giving new life to Atlantic catalog titles from John Prine (242,000 copies of "The John Prine Anthology") and Aretha Franklin (100,000 copies of "Queen of Soul"). Ultimately, Rhino was acquired by Warner Music Group.
It was crazy, and they succeeded. As someone who has tilted at a few windmills, I found the story of how they did it inspiring.
* For you sticklers, Mickey Rooney never actually said "Hey kids, let's put on a show" in "Babes in Arms," more like "I'm gonna write a show for us and put it on right here in Seaport." But that kind of takes the fun away, doesn't it? And I prefer to remember Humphrey Bogart saying, "Play it again, Sam."