Deborah Newman is a former record label executive who spent 20+ years at CBS Records, Columbia Records and Sony Music from the early 70s to early 90s. She played a pivotal role in building out their music and long-form video division during the height of MTV and home video sales, having worked with everyone from Billy Joel to Public Enemy. I reached out to Deborah on social media and she was kind enough to jump on a call to talk about her career, which you can read about below.
– Hi Deborah. Nice to be talking to you. I’ve heard you went to Brandeis University for a Bachelors in Music? Is that true?
That’s right. I studied classical piano at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. They had a good music department but the program emphasized theory and composition over performance, so playing an instrument didn’t earn me any credits. As a result, I took piano lessons from a teacher at New England Conservatory in Boston and I’d always be torn between practicing and doing academic work when I came back to campus.
– What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
In spite of my college education, I didn’t listen to much classical music; I preferred contemporary pop and rock & roll. I also grew up around radio since my mother was a well-established music critic and radio announcer in Palm Beach, Florida; she had a show doing classic music commentary. I later got my start in radio as the Music Director and DJ at WBRS FM, the Brandeis station. One of my friends would drive me to the various label offices in Boston to pick up new records each Friday, and I’d make all the Brandeis DJs listen to them so they knew what to play.
– After graduating Brandeis, I believe you joined CBS Records in 1973 to work in their college department. Can you talk about that?
Sure, but prior to that, I was a college rep for United Artists Records while still at Brandeis. They didn’t have a big roster like CBS did, but I worked with some great acts like Townes Van Zandt and drove them around to college radio stations for interviews. United Artists was also where I met my first female radio promoter in 1972 named Billie Lee Horn; she handled commercial radio promo for the entire label.
After graduating from Brandeis, I was hired by CBS Records as a college rep in 1973. I ended up taking over the college department, which I ran together with my Product Manager, Larry Stessel. I later moved to New York to work as the Manager of the College Department, and eventually replaced my boss to become Director of the College Department. I rehired Larry to work alongside me, and my team turned the college department into something important at CBS.
– I read an old newspaper clip that mentioned you were working on the West Coast in April 1977. How did you transition away from New York?
I was transferred to LA to become the Manager of Artist Development, which was a new department at the time. Part of my job was to work with new artists on their touring, wardrobing, securing them opening slots on shows, etc – anything to help a new artist get on stage and deliver. So I’d negotiate with the label to get advances for things like equipment purchases, van rentals, etc. This was in the early days of the touring business when new acts went on the road as an artist development experiment that typically wouldn’t make much money. In many cases, it actually cost us money to put them on the road.
– How did you progress up the ladder after that? Were you promoted again?
Yes, I was. I eventually replaced my boss and became Director of Artist Development and Video. CBS threw in “video” because no-one knew what to make of it at the time, and I was one of the few people who had experience with it. Cable TV didn’t exist in LA because the cable companies were still battling over which territories to install underground cables in, and they’d later have to tear up the streets in places like Beverly Hills just to put them in the ground.
A key part of my work entailed booking CBS artists to appear on TV shows like The Midnight Special, Rock Concert, American Bandstand and Solid Gold. I also had great relationships with hosts like Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore. Their shows were popular with women all over the country, so I’d call them up and say, “I’ve got a new artist who I think would be great for you “. Fridays and Saturday Night Live were the two most important shows, so the competition for those was quite strong, but my team and I developed good relationships with most of the shows in LA and their talent coordinators.
– You ended up back in New York after nearly a decade in LA. How did that happen?
I was eventually brought back to New York after eight years to run CBS’ long-form TV and home-video division as Head of Marketing, Advertising and Sales. My background wasn’t in the production world at all, but I somehow became the music video person at CBS and produced lots of concerts and documentaries with my four-man team. Journey was one of the first artists we did multiple videos with; I remember shooting three of them in five days during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Their manager at the time was Herbie Herbert, a legend in the business and a brilliant manager. All of that lasted for ten years at CBS Music Video Enterprises, which later became Sony Music Video Enterprises.
– How did CBS respond to the rising cost of music videos in the 80s once the format became popular?
When the videos started getting too expensive, the label decided they wouldn’t cover 100% of the costs anymore. If an artist really wanted extra money to work with a particular director like Godly & Creme, it would come as an advance that was paid back from their royalties. This meant artists had a vested interest in making the videos as good as possible, but to be honest, most of them never saw any royalties because they never recouped anyway.
When we first started doing videos, they were pretty cheap; they cost around $30,000 until MTV came around. Then it became a much bigger production and you couldn’t be cheap about it. Sixteen millimeter film was no longer enough – now you needed 35 millimeters like a feature film, which cost extra money.
– How challenging was it to get music videos played prior to the rise of MTV?
It was hard to get music videos on television in the 70s because there were hardly any avenues for it. With the right connections, you could get your video played during commercial breaks for shows like Soul Train, or you could convince a cable company to play it in-between programs at 2am. But that only worked in certain markets where cable infrastructure existed, like St. Louis. There wasn’t a national cable market in those days, and since LA was a car town, it took forever for cable to get laid there, which made video mediums very competitive until MTV came along.
Once MTV launched, it marked the first time music videos had a powerful impact. All of a sudden, radio promoters were pissed because they weren’t the only ones who had influence over what got air-play (laughs).
– Is it true that MTV had to pay a licensing fee to the major labels in order to play their videos?
Yes it is. MTV needed our videos in order to be successful, so it was inevitable. Columbia did a big deal with MTV and we got a lot of money from it. Most music videos never recouped their costs, so MTV was the first opportunity for the label to make back their expenses and split the remaining amount with the artist.
– Was there any kind of wrangling you had to do with MTV if they didn’t want to play your videos?
Getting videos on MTV was an interesting job. Nobody else had their level of penetration, so if they didn’t play your video, nobody saw it. You had to have good relationships with their staff, and when Gale Sparrow went from Epic Records to being one of the early MTV employees, she was the one I reached out to with my videos.
Other than having the right contacts, you also had to offer videos that MTV wanted to play. Aside from Michael Jackson, that usually meant white artists, which was a source of controversy at the time. MTV also wanted to know that if they played a new video, labels would spend money on advertising and promo to ensure that other channels and radio stations were playing it too.
– Why do you think Michael Jackson was able to overcome MTV’s color barrier to get so much play for his videos?
To get on MTV in those days, you either had to be a crossover act or be so big they just couldn’t say no, and Michael was both. For whatever reason, the world became colorblind when it came to his music. He made his videos at great expense, largely with a combination of his own money and advances that were backed by future royalties. Nobody had seen videos like that before.
– Did you have anything to do with Michael’s video projects, since Epic was a sub-label of Columbia?
– Do you have any memorable experiences from the artists you worked with?
I have many. I was with Marvin Gaye on the day he was shot and killed by his father. We were at Soul Train in West Hollywood for the taping of “Sexual Healing”, and I hung around for a while with Marvin and his entourage afterwards. After I went home, my phone rang and it was the CBS radio station KNXT, which is now KCBS-TV. A lady called asking for comments on what happened to Marvin. I didn’t know what she was talking about because I’d just left him, but it turned out he got into a fight with his father and was killed. Someone had named me as the label exec, so the TV station called in search of a comment from CBS. It was a surreal experience.
I also remember driving around with George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley from Wham!, along with two of their backup singers, of which one was Dee C Lee. I think we had to sneak the girls into the country because they didn’t have visas (laughs). I drove them around to tapings of shows like American Bandstand, and when we stopped at a coffee shop, I learned that neither George nor Michael had ever tasted freshly squeezed orange juice – they’d only had processed variety from London supermarkets. That was a fun experience.
I also went to Russia for two weeks with Billy Joel. We filmed his concerts in Moscow and Leningrad for a box-set called “Billy Joel: A Matter of Trust” and “Live from Leningrad“. That was probably the highlight of my last ten years at the label.
– I believe you eventually became VP of Product Programming and Sales at CBS Music Video Enterprises (CMV), but wasn’t Jerry Durkin in charge of that division?
Yes, he was. He’d been at Columbia for a long time and had a background in A&R administration, so he knew where all the bones were buried in terms of company finances and how much artists were earning. He also knew everything about our deals and how much money we recouped. I didn’t really care about that stuff because I was busy making the actual videos, so I’d tell him how much a project would cost and we’d negotiate on the final amount. We had offices next to each other and he let me do whatever I wanted, from traveling to choosing projects. Our business model was based on making videos that we licensed to companies like HBO, Showtime and PBS, as well as using the CBS Records’ sales team and distribution pipeline to sell home videos to retailers. Our four-man division looked like heroes for all we were able to accomplish, and it was so sad when Jerry passed away in 2015.
– Did you get any commissions on the video sales?
I don’t think I ever had a contract in all my time at CBS or Sony. I got paid well and I received bonuses when the time came for that, but I didn’t have profit participation or ownership in anything. But I was glad to have a job that paid well and I was the only one who did what I did. No-one tried to compete with me, so I didn’t feel the pressure of having to climb a ladder.
– CMV eventually became Sony Music Video Enterprises (SMV) when CBS Records was acquired by Sony. What did your work revolve around at Sony Music?
A large part of my job was coming up with new videos that our sales team could sell to retailers, and the primary concern was to avoid intermittent releases. That problem didn’t exist with music CDs because new records dropped every other Tuesday, and we wanted the video business to run similarly with a constant flow of product. Ideally, we’d release our videos on the same day as the album so the VHS tapes would be on the shelf alongside the CD, but you couldn’t start making a video until the music had been recorded, which created a challenge for us. But we still had to meet our release dates in order to achieve our revenue targets, so it was always a dance that required us to work closely with the artist’s Product Managers. If you released the video months after the album, it wouldn’t get much attention from the retailers because the CD had already come off the shelf. But if we were successful in matching the two, we’d be able to split the cost of producing merchandise with the retailer. We also tried to get the videos featured in local promotions, but since the promoters didn’t make any commissions from playing our videos, that was a challenge too.
By the time CBS became Sony Music, the long-form video division had become a profit center. If we decided to make an expensive video, we hoped that our costs would be covered by licensing the video to a TV channel, after which we made our profits from home video sales that included a split for the artists.
– Who were your biggest competitors in the video space? Other major labels?
Warner Music was our only competitor when it came to long-form video, and their division was run by Jo Bergman. A lot of people looked up to her because she was the first label executive put in charge of a music video division, and she became a sort of godmother for the rest of us.
– It seems like the first long-form videos came out in the mid 80s as concert films for bands like REO Speedwagon and compilations titled “Best Of…”. What do you remember about that?
The “Best Of..” were compilations assembled from short-form MTV videos, occasionally with interviews in-between. In the absence of concert films, we had to come up with a way to keep products flowing into the marketplace so retailers would devote shelf space to VHS tapes. So we committed to putting out two videos every two weeks to show that CBS was supporting the format. That’s why there were so many “Best Of…” tapes.
– In a Chicago Tribune article from 1991, you said “My personal wish is that the LaserDisc would become the equivalent of the CD business. VHS is not a good format for anyone who wants to experience the best audio and video quality “. Why didn’t LaserDisc take off, even though it was superior technology?
First of all, it was big and bulky, which made it hard to fit into CD-sized packaging at a time when retailers preferred stocking CDs. It also meant we incurred heavy shipping costs when moving it around, plus there weren’t a lot of LaserDisc machines out in the marketplace. It was similar to the battle between VHS and Betamax; they were developed by Matsushita and Sony respectively, and even though VHS came out on top, we still had to release videos on Betamax because the Japanese division of Sony would pressure us to do so. Then DVD’s came out in the mid-90s, which made the Betamax thing meaningless (laughs).
– Do you remember which of your video projects were the most challenging to complete?
I remember a project we started with Barbra Streisand that never got released. She was a nightmare to work with, but she had a lot of power at Columbia Records and was close to Walter Yetnikoff, so you couldn’t mess with her. She was working on a documentary about her life, and we’d used footage from her movies to create a rough cut for a two hour program. We sent it to her, but it came back with fourteen pages of notes to make changes. That went on for a few years and the project never got released. She was difficult to say the least, though I never dealt with her face to face.
– You mentioned Walter Yetnikoff, who was your boss and a notable figure at the time that ran CBS Records. What were your thoughts on him?
Walter wasn’t exactly my boss, but he was technically everyone’s boss. His office was still being refurbished when we moved to the CBS building, so he worked in the conference room down the hall from me. He used to walk past my office several times a day and would stop in the doorway to make muscle poses to show that he was working out, which I thought was funny. He was a controversial figure, but we had a great relationship, though I didn’t deal with him on a daily basis. But to be honest, he didn’t really understand what I did in the video division. I remember his son wanted to create a long-form video, so he made us all have lunch, but neither of them had any clue of how video production worked (laughs).
– I believe you left Sony Music in 1994. What did you do after that?
I got plugged into the early dot com world and worked as either a consultant or marketing executive for companies like Deja.com, one of the first Internet news syndicators, and Pressplay, an early music subscription service.
– Pressplay was jointly owned by Universal and Sony, and you were their Senior VP of Marketing. What was that job like?
Pressplay was a disaster, and it never launched when I was there. Fortunately, I was paid more than I’d ever made previously, but it was a badly managed joint venture. They were one of the first subscription services that let you pay $10 a month to access their music, but things became tricky when it came to the technology. Pressplay offered its library of music as a “tethered download”, which is a download that’s conditional on your subscription, meaning it eventually becomes unplayable if you stop your monthly payments. But Sony and Universal couldn’t decide if the file should delete itself from your computer or just lock itself up until you resumed paying. So that issue kept us in limbo and we couldn’t launch. I never ended up doing much work there and had tons of free time on my hands.
– I believe Full Audio was the next company you worked at, correct?
Yes. Full Audio was a small boutique company run by Chris Gladwyn in Chicago. They were trying to be an early innovator in the music subscription space, which was challenging because there wasn’t a market for it. Convincing people to pay $10 a month to get access to digital music files was hard, but I moved to Chicago for that, and it was fun working there as Head of Marketing.
– I’ve heard you decided to go to law school in 2001. What led to that?
That’s right. Because of my time at Pressplay, I realized that rights issues were the stumbling block to getting new services off the ground. So I decided to apply to law school in my 50s. I would’ve liked to go to Cardozo, but I didn’t get in, so I went to New York Law School instead. I’d commute from the Upper East Side to Tribeca every day with a wheelie bag in one arm and my cane in the other, and I was the oldest person in the class. The program lasted three years, and I worked hard to pass the bar, which wasn’t easy. That said, I’m not a practicing lawyer – my interest was only in learning copyright law, so that’s as far as I went.
– And you set up MusicStrat as a consulting company after that?
Yes, MusicStrat is my consulting business that I set up in 2008. I had some good projects come my way and was able to work with clients like Danger Mouse, as well as speak at some conferences. But now I’m 70 years old and not really working anymore. I’m not sure what comes next; I have some expertise in interesting areas, so I might take on consulting work if the right offer comes around, but I’m not looking to redo things I’ve already done, so my focus these days is mostly on staying fit and spending time with my boyfriend.
– Thanks for talking to me Deborah. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Do you have any plans for the future, or are you 100% retired?
I’m in semi-retirement mode at the moment, in part due to my disability. I was a longtime scuba diver who did hundreds of dives all over the world, but I had a freak accident in 2002 in the Caribbean when a bubble got trapped in the middle of my spine, depriving it of oxygen and causing paralysis in my whole lower body. I had to be carried off the boat with a stretcher and received treatment in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber for twelve days. I eventually recovered most of my movement, but I still have incomplete paraplegia and walk with a cane because my right leg is weaker than my left. So like I said, I’ll see if the right project comes along for me to work on. I’m still engaged in the newest developments in the music business, especially if it involves copyright and digital, and I’m still going to conferences and remain an active member of the Copyright Society.