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    Jac Holzman featured on Süddeutsche Zeitung Music Blog
    Posted by    |   
    November 01, 2010

    Brush up on your German and take a look at this exclusive interview Jac Holzman granted to Johannes Waechter, writer of the respected German music blog, Süddeutsche Zeitung! They discuss everything from Elektra’s birth when Jac was 19 and the roster of renowned artists, to the changes in technology that have shaped and distinguished the label. For those of you who prefer English, read on for a full translation of the interview.

    He discovered The Doors, was instrumental in helping folk music break through into the mainstream, and founded one of the most influential record labels in the history of modern music: Jac Holzman, the legendary boss of Elektra, granted us an extensive interview.
    By Johannes Waechter

    In early October, the Elektra Records company celebrated its 60th birthday. This was a good occasion for a chat with Jac Holzman, who as a student and music enthusiast founded Elektra in 1950 at the age of 19. At first, Elektra published primarily folk records, but in the ‘60s Holzman saw the signs of the times: with the help of The Doors he led his company into the rock era. In 1970, Elektra, Warner and Atlantic merged to a new, gigantic music major, WEA; three years later, Holzman left the record business and moved on to other projects.

    He is one of the last music patriarchs of the old school, full of anecdotes of a time when contracts were still sealed with a handshake and LPs were recorded in one four hour session. At the same time there is hardly anyone else who knows more about the changes that have taken place in the music industry, which means that, at 79, Holzman is still a business guru and, in the meantime, back at Warner Music. He tells me that he is at his desk at 6:30 a.m. and stays there for a good 10 hours, non-stop.

    Mr Holzman, your record company, Elektra, is celebrating its 60th birthday. Does that bring back memories of the early days?

    Bob Dylan once said something that stuck in my mind: Nostalgia is death. But that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t remember. Every chess grand master remembers all the games he’s ever played, and develops his current game based on those experiences. The same thing applies to anyone who has worked for a long time in the same trade.

    You managed Elektra Records until 1973, but then you worked in other areas of the entertainment industry.

    That’s right, I did a lot of things that had nothing to do with records. In the last few decades, music has, from a technological point of view, changed more than any other area of home entertainment. I also always worked with the technical side of music reproduction and with the interfaces between music and technical innovations.

    OK, so while we’re talking about technical innovations: could it be said that a new technology – the LP – was decisive in 1950 for the start of Elektra?

    Yes, it was only the LP that enabled people like me to make a business out of their passion for music. As compared to shellac records, LPs were very quiet in reproduction, you could put more music on them, and you could ship them over long distances without them breaking. Another thing that was important was that you could make an LP much faster than an album of shellac records. The pressing plants, which previously had only made shellac records, were now, all of a sudden, working below capacity, but could also not simply let people go because of their trade union agreements. So they needed new customers – the independent labels. In addition, at the same time, that is in the late ‘40s, Ampex and Magnacord brought out the first good quality tape recorders: now we didn’t need expensive studios any more – rather, the artists could also make their recordings at home.

    But all the same it must have been a big step for you to start a record label at age 19. Were you crazy or just very brave?

    In any event, my Dad had already given up hope. I was not an intellectual like he was. I was a loner and wanted to live according to my own standards. I had talent and certain skills, I knew about electronics, loudspeakers and hi-fi systems. It was certainly a bold decision, but at the same time I was pretty sure that with music I could be happy for the rest of my life. In the ‘50s, Elektra made primarily folk records. But you didn’t sell a great deal of them. We were constantly living hand-to-mouth. I had a record store and built hi-fi equipment, and financed the label like that.

    Which Elektra artist was the first to be successful?
    Jean Ritchie was somewhat successful, she was an authentic folk singer from Viper, Kentucky. Another very important artist was the blues singer Josh White. He had already made some records, but then didn’t get any more contracts because he was blacklisted because of his political opinions. I knew his other records, but when I heard him sing live I realised that until then nobody had recorded him properly. I signed him, and we produced his first album in a deconsecrated church. I knew where I had to place the microphones, and even the first take was great. The whole record had a fantastic sound! But of course I also had an excellent mastering engineer: Peter Bartok, the son of composer Belá Bartok.

    Interesting that you should mention that. I recently bought the Josh-White Chain Gang Songs LP and was impressed with the amazing sound quality. Why do so many records from the ‘50s sound so good?

    Because we worked with a great deal of care and attention. We made the records with a lot of feeling and did not add any special effects. I knew that we could not compete with the big record companies on marketing. But we could compete on quality! I read every single issue of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, I wanted to know everything about this trade. Making records is a mix of craft and art.

    Some hi-fi fans think that the sound quality went down the creek as soon as we got not just four, but multiple tracks.

    That’s a control issue. I always tried not to use more tracks than necessary. Think of the fantastic quality of the Beatles recordings – they were all made on four tracks. What’s important is where you set up the microphones, there mustn’t be any phase shifts, you have to pay attention to the tiniest details. Digital recording is child’s play, analog recordings are very difficult. But if I were to make another album today, I would record in analog all the same.

    When did you first get the idea that folk music would sell?

    I was never interested in the market. I’m a very strange bird. I do what I like. I have published all kinds of weird stuff: A record with the Morse alphabet, sound effects, guitar courses. When the Folk boom started, I naturally noticed that Elektra was selling more records than before. But I had not set out to do it that way.

    One of your first successful artists was the folk singer Judy Collins.

    At first she sounded a bit like Joan Baez, but from her third album onwards she did some stuff that Joan had not done. For example, she was the first to record songs by Joni Mitchell. I was always looking for bold, imaginative artists. Then I encouraged them: don’t give me the same record twice! At the time of the Whales And Nightingales album she said: if I were to tell Jac that I would like to make a record on top of Mount Everest he would somehow get it arranged. And that was right.

    Another Elektra artist was folk singer Phil Ochs. What kind of person was he?

    A very intense person. And very interested in his record sales. He came into the office every week to find out how they were doing. Of all the singer-songwriters in the Village, he was the one that suffered the most under the genius of Bob Dylan. In my opinion, the fact that Dylan had overtaken him artistically contributed to his depression and suicide. It was very simple: Dylan was the best. But he pulled everyone else along, because everyone worked harder because of him.

    You must be a bit annoyed that you didn’t sign Dylan yourself.

    Let’s put it like this: I was annoyed that I had missed that opportunity. When Dylan came to New York, I was living in California. At that time, I thought that New York was passé. If I had been there, I believe I would have been intelligent enough to offer him a contract. I was little disappointed in his first album, but it was clear that he had soaked up the Anthology Of American Folk Music. It was the foundation for his repertoire.

    The Anthology – and Woody Guthrie. Dylan had probably also heard the box with Woody Guthrie’s Library Of Congress recordings that had been brought out by Elektra.

    I had personally supervised this reissue. The original recordings had been made by Alan Lomax in the late 1930s in the Library of Congress in Washington. To overplay them was a technical challenge, as at the time Lomax had used some hundred styli with different diameters. You had to measure the groove width of the acetate records under the microscope and then select the right stylus. The original records also had quite a bit of background noise. I edited it all out by hand, altogether it took more than 1000 cuts.

    In the ‘60s, the Blues and psychedelic Rock took the place of Folk. What did this evolution mean to you?

    John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful said something very true one evening: We’d better start to write a few new folk tunes, because we’re running out of songs. He was completely right. The folk repertoire consisted of around 700 songs, and everybody played the same ones. That couldn’t last forever. I encouraged the singer-songwriters to write about their life and the things that were important for them. Everything continued to develop, so it was inevitable that at some point in time there was a transition from the acoustic to the electric guitar.

    Did you, personally, also like this new sound?

    Of course, it was full of life. The sound had what in geometry they call the “vector”: speed and direction. But I also signed stuff that I didn’t understand. At first I didn’t understand The Stooges. Thank Goodness, Danny Fields persuaded me.

    How was it with The Doors? Did you like them right away?
    That’s a unique story. I had Love under contract, and their boss, Arthur Lee, said I should take a look at their opening band: The Doors. Arthur held them in high esteem. I found them interesting, but not stunning; the great songs had not surfaced yet. But what fascinated me straight away was that the band did not have a bass player – their structure was Bauhaus-clean and yet very adaptable. Then, on the fourth night I understood their potential. Because then they played “Alabama Song”. How they radically transformed something I knew so well knocked my socks off.

    And you pulled a contract out of your pocket straight away.
    The Doors said they were not ready yet. What I didn’t know was that they had just got the sack from Columbia and had a fairly reserved attitude towards the music industry. I got into a higher gear and literally stalked them, but without bothering them, of course. I tried to find out what they really wanted. What could I offer them that others didn’t? The answer was: a contract for three records. At the time, nobody would have done that with an unknown band. Before I did, I worked out the worst case scenario: say we make three records with them, each of which costs 10,000 – 15,000 dollars, and nothing happens. Not even that would have harmed us, because at the time we were swimming in money. But I was sure that something would happen with The Doors at the latest by the third album. But then everything happened much faster.

    In the ‘70s, the rock bands suddenly started selling incredible numbers of records and the music business became a gold mine. But exactly then, when the cash registers started ringing overtime, you left Elektra. Why?

    Very simple: At the time there was a bad element coming into the music business, that is the new managers and lawyers. All of a sudden, there was so much money around that everybody wanted a piece of the pie. The managers told the artists ”you don’t need to negotiate with the labels any more, we’ll take care of that for you”. That was no longer the way I wanted to do business.

    So then you changed over into the technical side.

    I was one of the few people in the record industry who knew the technology, and that enabled me to have an amazing career after Elektra. I managed Panavision, I was the Senior Technical boss at Time Warner, I did the laserdisc, I was in on the beginnings of MTV– it was all fantastic.

    The music business has changed a lot in the last few years.  If you were 19 again – would you start a label again in today’s environment?

    Yes. Even in the digital age, an independent label is a good partner for artists looking for someone to take their music to the customer. However, my new label would certainly be different from Elektra.

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on Mon, 2010-11-01 11:54

Brush up on your German and take a look at this exclusive interview Jac Holzman granted to Johannes Waechter, writer of the respected German music blog, Süddeutsche Zeitung! They discuss everything from Elektra’s birth when Jac was 19 and the roster of renowned artists, to the changes in technology that have shaped and distinguished the label. For those of you who prefer English, read on for a full translation of the interview.

He discovered The Doors, was instrumental in helping folk music break through into the mainstream, and founded one of the most influential record labels in the history of modern music: Jac Holzman, the legendary boss of Elektra, granted us an extensive interview.
By Johannes Waechter

In early October, the Elektra Records company celebrated its 60th birthday. This was a good occasion for a chat with Jac Holzman, who as a student and music enthusiast founded Elektra in 1950 at the age of 19. At first, Elektra published primarily folk records, but in the ‘60s Holzman saw the signs of the times: with the help of The Doors he led his company into the rock era. In 1970, Elektra, Warner and Atlantic merged to a new, gigantic music major, WEA; three years later, Holzman left the record business and moved on to other projects.

He is one of the last music patriarchs of the old school, full of anecdotes of a time when contracts were still sealed with a handshake and LPs were recorded in one four hour session. At the same time there is hardly anyone else who knows more about the changes that have taken place in the music industry, which means that, at 79, Holzman is still a business guru and, in the meantime, back at Warner Music. He tells me that he is at his desk at 6:30 a.m. and stays there for a good 10 hours, non-stop.

Mr Holzman, your record company, Elektra, is celebrating its 60th birthday. Does that bring back memories of the early days?

Bob Dylan once said something that stuck in my mind: Nostalgia is death. But that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t remember. Every chess grand master remembers all the games he’s ever played, and develops his current game based on those experiences. The same thing applies to anyone who has worked for a long time in the same trade.

You managed Elektra Records until 1973, but then you worked in other areas of the entertainment industry.

That’s right, I did a lot of things that had nothing to do with records. In the last few decades, music has, from a technological point of view, changed more than any other area of home entertainment. I also always worked with the technical side of music reproduction and with the interfaces between music and technical innovations.

OK, so while we’re talking about technical innovations: could it be said that a new technology – the LP – was decisive in 1950 for the start of Elektra?

Yes, it was only the LP that enabled people like me to make a business out of their passion for music. As compared to shellac records, LPs were very quiet in reproduction, you could put more music on them, and you could ship them over long distances without them breaking. Another thing that was important was that you could make an LP much faster than an album of shellac records. The pressing plants, which previously had only made shellac records, were now, all of a sudden, working below capacity, but could also not simply let people go because of their trade union agreements. So they needed new customers – the independent labels. In addition, at the same time, that is in the late ‘40s, Ampex and Magnacord brought out the first good quality tape recorders: now we didn’t need expensive studios any more – rather, the artists could also make their recordings at home.

But all the same it must have been a big step for you to start a record label at age 19. Were you crazy or just very brave?

In any event, my Dad had already given up hope. I was not an intellectual like he was. I was a loner and wanted to live according to my own standards. I had talent and certain skills, I knew about electronics, loudspeakers and hi-fi systems. It was certainly a bold decision, but at the same time I was pretty sure that with music I could be happy for the rest of my life. In the ‘50s, Elektra made primarily folk records. But you didn’t sell a great deal of them. We were constantly living hand-to-mouth. I had a record store and built hi-fi equipment, and financed the label like that.

Which Elektra artist was the first to be successful?
Jean Ritchie was somewhat successful, she was an authentic folk singer from Viper, Kentucky. Another very important artist was the blues singer Josh White. He had already made some records, but then didn’t get any more contracts because he was blacklisted because of his political opinions. I knew his other records, but when I heard him sing live I realised that until then nobody had recorded him properly. I signed him, and we produced his first album in a deconsecrated church. I knew where I had to place the microphones, and even the first take was great. The whole record had a fantastic sound! But of course I also had an excellent mastering engineer: Peter Bartok, the son of composer Belá Bartok.

Interesting that you should mention that. I recently bought the Josh-White Chain Gang Songs LP and was impressed with the amazing sound quality. Why do so many records from the ‘50s sound so good?

Because we worked with a great deal of care and attention. We made the records with a lot of feeling and did not add any special effects. I knew that we could not compete with the big record companies on marketing. But we could compete on quality! I read every single issue of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, I wanted to know everything about this trade. Making records is a mix of craft and art.

Some hi-fi fans think that the sound quality went down the creek as soon as we got not just four, but multiple tracks.

That’s a control issue. I always tried not to use more tracks than necessary. Think of the fantastic quality of the Beatles recordings – they were all made on four tracks. What’s important is where you set up the microphones, there mustn’t be any phase shifts, you have to pay attention to the tiniest details. Digital recording is child’s play, analog recordings are very difficult. But if I were to make another album today, I would record in analog all the same.

When did you first get the idea that folk music would sell?

I was never interested in the market. I’m a very strange bird. I do what I like. I have published all kinds of weird stuff: A record with the Morse alphabet, sound effects, guitar courses. When the Folk boom started, I naturally noticed that Elektra was selling more records than before. But I had not set out to do it that way.

One of your first successful artists was the folk singer Judy Collins.

At first she sounded a bit like Joan Baez, but from her third album onwards she did some stuff that Joan had not done. For example, she was the first to record songs by Joni Mitchell. I was always looking for bold, imaginative artists. Then I encouraged them: don’t give me the same record twice! At the time of the Whales And Nightingales album she said: if I were to tell Jac that I would like to make a record on top of Mount Everest he would somehow get it arranged. And that was right.

Another Elektra artist was folk singer Phil Ochs. What kind of person was he?

A very intense person. And very interested in his record sales. He came into the office every week to find out how they were doing. Of all the singer-songwriters in the Village, he was the one that suffered the most under the genius of Bob Dylan. In my opinion, the fact that Dylan had overtaken him artistically contributed to his depression and suicide. It was very simple: Dylan was the best. But he pulled everyone else along, because everyone worked harder because of him.

You must be a bit annoyed that you didn’t sign Dylan yourself.

Let’s put it like this: I was annoyed that I had missed that opportunity. When Dylan came to New York, I was living in California. At that time, I thought that New York was passé. If I had been there, I believe I would have been intelligent enough to offer him a contract. I was little disappointed in his first album, but it was clear that he had soaked up the Anthology Of American Folk Music. It was the foundation for his repertoire.

The Anthology – and Woody Guthrie. Dylan had probably also heard the box with Woody Guthrie’s Library Of Congress recordings that had been brought out by Elektra.

I had personally supervised this reissue. The original recordings had been made by Alan Lomax in the late 1930s in the Library of Congress in Washington. To overplay them was a technical challenge, as at the time Lomax had used some hundred styli with different diameters. You had to measure the groove width of the acetate records under the microscope and then select the right stylus. The original records also had quite a bit of background noise. I edited it all out by hand, altogether it took more than 1000 cuts.

In the ‘60s, the Blues and psychedelic Rock took the place of Folk. What did this evolution mean to you?

John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful said something very true one evening: We’d better start to write a few new folk tunes, because we’re running out of songs. He was completely right. The folk repertoire consisted of around 700 songs, and everybody played the same ones. That couldn’t last forever. I encouraged the singer-songwriters to write about their life and the things that were important for them. Everything continued to develop, so it was inevitable that at some point in time there was a transition from the acoustic to the electric guitar.

Did you, personally, also like this new sound?

Of course, it was full of life. The sound had what in geometry they call the “vector”: speed and direction. But I also signed stuff that I didn’t understand. At first I didn’t understand The Stooges. Thank Goodness, Danny Fields persuaded me.

How was it with The Doors? Did you like them right away?
That’s a unique story. I had Love under contract, and their boss, Arthur Lee, said I should take a look at their opening band: The Doors. Arthur held them in high esteem. I found them interesting, but not stunning; the great songs had not surfaced yet. But what fascinated me straight away was that the band did not have a bass player – their structure was Bauhaus-clean and yet very adaptable. Then, on the fourth night I understood their potential. Because then they played “Alabama Song”. How they radically transformed something I knew so well knocked my socks off.

And you pulled a contract out of your pocket straight away.
The Doors said they were not ready yet. What I didn’t know was that they had just got the sack from Columbia and had a fairly reserved attitude towards the music industry. I got into a higher gear and literally stalked them, but without bothering them, of course. I tried to find out what they really wanted. What could I offer them that others didn’t? The answer was: a contract for three records. At the time, nobody would have done that with an unknown band. Before I did, I worked out the worst case scenario: say we make three records with them, each of which costs 10,000 – 15,000 dollars, and nothing happens. Not even that would have harmed us, because at the time we were swimming in money. But I was sure that something would happen with The Doors at the latest by the third album. But then everything happened much faster.

In the ‘70s, the rock bands suddenly started selling incredible numbers of records and the music business became a gold mine. But exactly then, when the cash registers started ringing overtime, you left Elektra. Why?

Very simple: At the time there was a bad element coming into the music business, that is the new managers and lawyers. All of a sudden, there was so much money around that everybody wanted a piece of the pie. The managers told the artists ”you don’t need to negotiate with the labels any more, we’ll take care of that for you”. That was no longer the way I wanted to do business.

So then you changed over into the technical side.

I was one of the few people in the record industry who knew the technology, and that enabled me to have an amazing career after Elektra. I managed Panavision, I was the Senior Technical boss at Time Warner, I did the laserdisc, I was in on the beginnings of MTV– it was all fantastic.

The music business has changed a lot in the last few years.  If you were 19 again – would you start a label again in today’s environment?

Yes. Even in the digital age, an independent label is a good partner for artists looking for someone to take their music to the customer. However, my new label would certainly be different from Elektra.

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