Five Crucial Lessons From Jac Holzman, Who Founded Elektra Records and Signed The Doors
12th October 2020

They don’t make ’em like Jac Holzman anymore. Maybe they never did.

While music executives are keen to brand their firms “technology companies” these days, Holzman, 89, is already several laps ahead. After co-founding Elektra Records in his dorm room in 1950 then bringing the label into Kinney National (now Warner Music Group) in a $10 million deal in 1970 — and signing and developing acts including The Doors, Love, Judy Collins, Tim Buckley, and The Stooges on the way — Holzman began spearheading Warner’s experiments in the tech world.

He helped launch both the CD format and home video, and sat on the board of Atari, which revolutionized home entertainment in 1977 with the Atari 2600 game console. He also set up the pilot program that became MTV, and held executive roles at Pioneer Electronics and Panavision.

This month marks 70 years since Holzman started Elektra. As the veteran industry maven, who rarely gives interviews, gears up for a host of anniversary celebrations, I caught up with him about the best lessons he’s learned throughout his career.

1. If you can’t do what you love, don’t settle. Do something else to get there

The first album released on Elektra in 1950 was New Songs by the folk artist John Gruen. Holzman pressed up 500 copies of the LP, but sold less than a quarter of this number.

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“It was a mess, and I was very discouraged,” Holzman says. “The repertoire wasn’t right, and I didn’t know how to connect it with people.”

By 1957, Elektra had racked up a debt of $90,000 (worth around $830,000 in today’s dollars). The label clawed its way out of that situation with its first major successes including a pair of albums from Theodore Bikel, but by the early 1960s, Holzman found himself getting tired of the folk scene, hankering after something new.

Determined not to sign an artist he wasn’t passionate about, but also determined to keep Elektra afloat, in 1964 Holzman launched the “Authentic Sound Effects” series. A 13-volume collection of albums, the LPs contained a plethora of made-for-broadcast sounds including Car Skid, Tractor, and Train Through Tunnel. The records were a huge hit with radio networks and generated nearly $1.5 million for Elektra all told.

“We needed to stay alive, but also not record what we didn’t believe in,” Holzman says. “We were waiting for the next thing, and I was scratching my head as to what to do in the meantime. One day, I came home from the office and there on the television there was a car crash. It hit me: Let’s do sound effects.”

After years of uncertainty, the “Authentic Sound Effects” albums rendered Elektra financially secure: “It meant I could do what I always wanted to do: be very, very particular about the artists I signed.”

2. Be patient with people, but don’t bother with those who want you dead

A burgeoning singer-songwriter scene erupted in the 1960s, leading to Elektra signing the likes of Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs and, in 1970, Carly Simon. “I would say to artists, I’m not signing you to do one record and throw you away,” recalls Holzman. “We’ll do up to three albums, and see where we are… I wanted my artists to feel comfortable. I wanted them to tell me if they disagreed with me about something.”

There are, though, limits. Holzman says Delaney Bramlett of duo Delaney & Bonnie once legitimately threatened to kill him when Bramlett’s father couldn’t locate the singer-songwriter’s new album in a retail store near his Texas home.

“I said, you don’t have to bother,” recalls Holzman. “I’m releasing you as of now.” He adds: “That’s how you handle that situation. [Bramlett] made a wonderful album. But you just don’t want those people on the label because they will ruin it for everybody. We wanted to have nothing but a friendly atmosphere.”

Many of Holzman’s artists evidently appreciated that atmosphere. Judy Collins, the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter who helped discover Leonard Cohen, says of Holzman today: “Jac supported artists in a way that would give them comfort and affirmation, and over time Elektra would become a haven to dozens of gifted and talented people.”

3. Forget the mid-life crisis. Aim for mid-life retirement instead

When Holzman merged Elektra into Warner in 1970, personally banking around half of the $10 million deal (before tax), he had escape on his mind.

“When I was 19 years old, I saw a movie called Holiday with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn,” he says. “It was the story of a guy who came from the other side of the tracks, but got lucky in a financial transaction, and decided [he] would take a vacation in midlife. That stuck with me as a good idea: to have your retirement in your late 30s, early 40s, when you can still move around, and do what you want to do.”

He adds: “I had found Hawaii and decided I wanted to live there. But I needed to get a home for Elektra, and the natural place was with Warner and Atlantic.”

Holzman did indeed retire to his self-built house in Hawaii in 1973 — but then returned to Warner as Chief Technologist under boss Steve Ross. “I did very little music listening while I was in Hawaii,” he admits. “I don’t know why that was. I spent more time reading.”

He returned to Warner refreshed. Today, Holzman remains a trusted advisor to Warner’s senior leadership, just as he has in each of the past four decades.

4. The minute you leave, you relinquish control

“Now you’re going to hear the sound of a man crying,” Holzman says, when I raise a personal point of confusion — why Elektra signed Queen in the early 1970s but doesn’t seem to hold the band’s masters anymore.

Holzman says Bob Krasnow, who ran Elektra under Warner very successfully from 1983 to 1994, was never a fan of Queen, and felt them to be unworthy of Holzman’s storied label. In the mid-Eighties, Krasnow agreed a deal with the band’s manager, John Reid, to sell Queen back their Elektra rights. The way Holzman tells it, the band paid Elektra $1 million, but Reid had already quietly lined up a $10 million deal for the catalog with Hollywood Records — immediately profiting to the tune of $9 million.

Today, in the wake of the Bohemian Rhapsody movie, Queen are by far the biggest artist from the 1970s and 1980s on global streaming services. According to the IFPI, Queen were the world’s fifth biggest artist in terms of global recorded music revenues last year.

Krasnow “thought Elektra was just great,” says Holzman, “and he was very good at Elektra — he picked good artists.” But the Queen kerfuffle was such a mistake that “I could never talk to him again,” Holzman says.

Krasnow died in 2016, dubbed the “revitalizer of Elektra Records” by the New York Times.

5. You are what you fake

Above all else, is there one thing — one golden commandment — that Holzman would give himself if he shot back 70 years and spoke to the young man setting up Elektra in his dorm?

“Be sure of yourself,” Holzman says. “And, even when you’re not, pretend you’re right and move forward.”

Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis, and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for Rolling Stone.

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