arista records, r.i.p.

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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.

4 responses to “arista records, r.i.p.

  1. Nice.
    very nice.

    🙂

  2. Time to say goodbye to another former employer’s identity. Just as Universal foolishly dumped the Motown brand before “relaunching” it in 2011, RCA is betting that no one cares about the House That Clive Built. Here’s a great article by Mitchell Cohen about why Arista matters.
    While the Arista legacy is defined by the superstars – Whitney, Aretha, Air Supply, Brad Paisley, Manilow, etc. – there’s another side to the label that was always given the support and respect often missing at other labels.
    Our little team at Arista had our own slogan: ”The World Revolves at 33 RPM.” Our mission: Fuck Top 40: We’re going to make hits and establish careers based on talent, hustle and live performance, with a little help from our AOR friends. There were still radio stations willing to take a chance, just like Clive did, so we resuscitated the careers of the Kinks, the Dead, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed after they had worn out their welcomes elsewhere.
    We broke new artists – Alan Parsons, Graham Parker, Patti Smith, and so many others, even handing off occasional hit singles to the pop promo department. We gave regional stars a chance: Michael Stanley out of Cleveland, The Good Rats out of New York.
    And Clive (then synonymous with Arista) supported jazz, rescuing the classic Savoy catalog for a series of award-winning reissues; promoting commercial jazz with the Brecker Brothers, Foreplay and, yes, Kenny freakin’ G. But he also supported the adventurous and the avant-garde: John Scofield, Stanley Jordan, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, etc.
    There probably won’t be any more labels like Arista. The concept of having some huge pop stars subsidize the chances taken on the 85% that won’t break even seems to be a quaint business model that died before the labels that did it best.

  3. Hey, Mitchell, I think I’ve long since erected “a little plaque” to Arista in my head. In the fall of 1975, when Creem was starting to publish my reviews monthly, Lester Bangs mailed me a list of all the U.S. record companies and the promo person at each to contact to see if I could get on their mailing lists. I duly sent off my tearsheets to everybody, and by early 1976, I was receiving regular shipments of LP’s from Warner-Reprise, Columbia-Epic, MCA, Polydor, Casablanca, Capricorn, and scrappy newcomer Arista. Capitol magnanimously agreed to send me no records, but rather LISTS of their releases, from which I could then order a la carte, while the silence from Elvisoid RCA was deafening. I managed to get on the mailing lists of Atlantic and Mercury a bit later, but then the “Rock Recession” of 1979 knocked me off all the product chutes I’ve noted EXCEPT for giants Warners and CBS, and that little Arista that could. In fact, I remained on the Arista mailing list nonstop until the late ’80s, around the time Creem itself became defunct. Arista kept me in vinyl even after hard-hearted RCA absorbed them sometime in the early ’80s, which surprised me at the time (if you had anything to do with that, Mitchell, thanks!)

    I was a sucker for Arista from the start, as blue has always been my favorite color, and that was the glowing hue of their labels and album-shipping envelopes. And being on Arista seemed to help artists musically too; the Kinks got better, Iggy Pop got out from under Bowie, Lou Reed got at least more coherent (all three refugees from RCA, of course.) And then, in 1979-80, I loved to the max the Arista recordings of both Graham Parker and Australia’s Sports, and said so repeatedly in Creem. I was always happy to find Arista product in my mailbox in those days, and if Barry Manilow’s success made the U.S. release of The Sports possible, I’d pull a Pope Francis and say, “Who am I to judge?” Ah, youth.

    At this great remove, Graham Parker remains one of my very favorite pop musicians ever, and I believe his Arista albums (all of them) are the best he ever did. Just a few days ago, before seeing your post, I was playing and enjoying my 1987 compilation LP of The Vagrants’ ’60s sides, and thinking how I had Arista to thank once again. You guys were the best.

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