A while back, RCA Records decided to “retire” the Arista and Jive labels. As Tom Corson of RCA said in a 2011 Hollywood Reporter interview, “There may be a reason down the line to bring them back, but it’s a clean slate here. The concept is that there is value in branding RCA and not having it confused or diluted by other labels.” I wish Corson and his colleague Peter Edge well, and it’s foolish to be attached to a name standing on its own with no singular identity or structure behind it — do we mourn that there are no longer, oh, Liberty or RSO Records? — but it was a little like someone telling me that New York City was retiring “The Bronx” and “Queens” as “brands,” and it’s all going to be called “NYC” from now on. Like The Bronx, Arista is a place where I grew up, and I know it hasn’t really existed in a long time, and I left there more than two decades ago, but it’s strange to think that it simply isn’t there anymore. I walked into the doors of Arista in the summer of 1977, a freelance writer on music and movies, not long out of graduate school, and I know I’ve said this a lot, but I really did think I was going to work in one of the coolest joints in town, the label that released Patti Smith’s Horses, was bringing back The Kinks and The Grateful Dead, signing artists like Gil Scott-Heron, Dwight Twilley and General Johnson. Lou Reed was on Arista, and Rick Danko from The Band, and Eric Carmen from Raspberries (I still had faith that “All By Myself” was an aberration). Arista owned the catalog of Savoy Records, and released Taxi Driver, Monty Python and Saturday Night Live albums. Where else would I want to be?
OK, Horses was kind of, well, a Trojan horse, as it turned out. At my first Arista Records product presentation, Clive Davis played a lot of music that made me squirm (Gino Vannelli, maybe? Don McLean? tracks from the forthcoming new album by the label’s biggest male pop star?), but that didn’t matter so much by that point: I was a copywriter at a record company, was soon able to sublet my first Manhattan apartment, and the next decade and a half was as eventful and adventurous as you’d want your first real job to be. The gig you get out of school, when you’re in your twenties and single and, if you’re in the music business, getting all kinds of perks (and this was the late ‘70s, when there were perks to be had, as I assume we’ll see in the upcoming HBO series Vinyl), that’s going to leave an imprint on you forever. I remember nights at CB’s, Hurrah and Trax, seeing Graham Parker and The Rumour at the Palladium when Arista was chasing them down. And the only time I ever set foot in Studio 54 was for Arista’s gala 3rd Anniversary bash.
And then there were the Whitney Years, when the company was making so much fucking money that the company could splurge on Caribbean cruises for the entire staff with stops for A&R lunches with Clive on St. Bart’s, and a party on the private island of Yost Van Dyke. Even the calamities, like an event at Stringfellow’s where members of the media were held hostage while being subjected to the music of “supergroup” GTR, were fun. Get Arista people together, and it’s not the names on the marquee that get talked about, it’s things like Irving and The Twins, Titiyo, Dreams So Real (one of my many A&R stumbles), The KBC Band (a disastrous Jefferson Airplane/Starship spin-off). So what if we had to sit, freezing, in the conference room and listen to multiple tracks by Jermaine Jackson, or try to determine whether the song we were hearing by Kenny G was in any way different than the previous song we heard by Kenny G? Or that we had to watch Taylor Dayne videos? It was a small price to pay.
The Arista catalog is part of RCA now, which is part of Sony, and the Arista logo isn’t on any more music. I’m not sure that’s something to be sentimental about; there are a dozens — hundreds, maybe — of record labels that used to mean something and don’t exist anymore, and some that shouldn’t exist (when is Sony going to decide it doesn’t need Columbia and Epic?). That’s how things go, and I’m sure that if I worked at A&M or Chrysalis, I’d look at the erasure of Arista (and Jive) and shrug. Besides, in a world of streaming, do people even know what label is releasing what music? It’s not as though they’re looking at the logo, so for RCA to talk about the “concept” of “value” in “branding RCA” is kind of adorable and old-school. I sort of follow these things, and I don’t know, most of the time, what division of which of the three major music companies is putting out what. But the thing about Arista, apart from it being the company that took a chance on me and gave me my career and lifelong friends and all that stuff, was that out of the scrappy little pop label that was Bell Records, Clive Davis built brick-by-brick a pop empire. A little plaque at 6 West 57th Street would be nice.