A Conversation with Jac Holzman
Mike Ragogna: Jac, it's an honor to interview you. You and your label Elektra were behind the signings and careers of recording artists and songwriters that meant a lot to me when I was growing up, folks like Harry Chapin, Carly Simon, The Doors, Queen, Judy Collins, The Stooges, Tim Buckley, Tom Rush, Love, Bread, et cetera. Before we start, I just wanted to thank you.
Jac Holzman: Well I appreciate it! You're talking about the second generation of singer-songwriters. In the first generation, the songs were really like "folk songs" and the people who wrote them "violated" one of the canons of professional folklorists--the belief that the author of the song should be unknown. But the minute Lead Belly or Woody Guthrie were recorded, there was license for other people to begin writing and recording.
I issued an album called The Folk Box fifty years ago, and a professor from the University of Tennessee contacted me and said, "You know, you ought re-release it in a 50th anniversary edition so I arranged for him to be involved. In writing the notes, I remember saying that all of the large folk acts like Peter, Paul & Mary, The Kingston Trio, all of them, had really run through the folk songbook, which was about five- to eight-hundred songs and we needed new songs. That's how the early singer-songwriters came about. There was a second breadth of singer-songwriters that came later who were much more stylistic songwriters. Harry Chapin was very much in keeping with the storyteller-songwriter tradition that goes back seven hundred years. That's fascinating stuff and I loved doing it. I loved working with the artists
Have you read Follow The Music?
MR: Yes, it's an awesome trip.
JH: The new eBook edition has lots of colorful photography, which the original does not. I was re-reading it the other day because I'm going to begin another book soon and I loved it. I'm very proud of that book.
MR: To this day, I'm still not only very fond of the music Harry left behind but also his philanthropic efforts. The Harry Chapin story is beautiful and sad, just like one of his songs.
JH: I guess you know the story of my Harry Chapin chase. He was supposed to be signed to Columbia. I thought I had him, and then suddenly, like a U.S. submarine off the coast of North Korea, he went silent. Harry went silent on me and I did not understand what the hell was happening until we met in an airport lounge as I was on my way to California.
Harry told me he had been meeting with Clive Davis and he was signing to Columbia. Clive had showed him some sales figures and that his sales would be around those of Paul Simon or Dylan and Harry was convinced. But I couldn't let it go. I just could not let it go. I had to go to California but I got an actual CBS sales run from a friendly source though I never used it. I knew that the numbers that had been given Harry were overblown but I didn't want to embarrass Clive Davis. But it made me mad. I got on an airplane at midnight, a red eye, got off the airplane, went straight to his house and banged on the door. I got in there and I sat down and said, "I'm not leaving here until I have a commitment from you to record for Elektra and here's why you should be doing it with us and nobody else." I wore him down but not taking "no" for an answer engaged his sense of whimsy.
MR: Thank you for wearing him out. Those are the kind of stories I love hearing because I haven't seen that kind of dedication, loyalty and romancing of artists in the music business for so many years.
JH: You're right, and the reason is simple. People look upon it, first as a business, not a calling. A calling--if you want to keep doing it--you don't make stupid mistakes, you don't spend outlandishly, you don't waste any money, you don't take a big salary. The money stays in the company to build it over time. I always thought record making was almost a religious vocation for me.
When you talk to artists, they look at your catalog. The Doors, for instance, had the idea that we were a solid label looking to grow. We had already done the Butterfield Blues Band and we had recorded Love and The Doors would have been happy to be as successful as Love. The first Love album had done well; I wouldn't call it a big hit, but we sold about a hundred fifty thousand, which back then, was a lot of albums. In fact, if you sell a hundred fifty thousand today, it's still a lot of albums. But The Doors were intrigued by the artists we already had on the label--Joseph Spence, The Bulgarian Women's Chorus, Sabicas, and above all Koerner, Ray & Glover.
Often, when someone who would later become famous signed with Elektra, they cited Koerner, Ray & Glover. The Beatles did that to me as well. I wanted to do an album called The Baroque Beatles Book that was sort of a Nonesuch Baroque treatment of Beatles songs, but I knew they were fussy about their music catalog and how it was used, so I flew to London. I visited their publisher and he took me over to see The Beatles who were recording at Abbey Road. It was really interesting because George said, "Elektra...you did Koerner, Ray & Glover." "Well if you did Koerner, Ray & Glover, you're okay with us," John offered. "Sounds like fun, go ahead," and that was the end of it.
Often, it's those little records that you make for yourself because you don't know how many people are going to be out there listening, although that record did surprisingly well. When that happens, and it keeps your heart well motivated.
MR: Jac, with Elektra and later, Nonesuch, you made an impact on not just the music scene but culture in general.
JH: I wanted people to trust the label, because you didn't have listening booths and FM had not really taken up rock music or the emerging rock scene. In the 60s and early 70s no two groups sounded like each other. Today, it's more like a recipe out of The Joy Of Cooking Up Music. Today, there are fewer "artists," and the artists who are out there and unique, are sometimes made unique by the pomp and circumstance of their performance, not necessarily by the music.
MR: There's a new Doors app which you produced. Since you signed The Doors, this must be a pretty fulfilling venture, especially since you've also worked behind the scenes with technology over the years. What is your history there?
JH: Well, My heart has always lived at the intersection of new technology and music or various art forms. I have a solid, self taught, technical background. I was Chairman of Panavision for Warner Communications and Chairman of Cinema Products, which made the Steadicam. I was a director of Pioneer Electronics in Japan, I worked on QUBE, the first interactive cable TV service, which was a Warner Communications experiment in Columbus, Ohio. So I've always been out-there.
MR: And you also released the first commercial sound effects library that was ever available to the public.
JH: Yes, the first stereo sound effects available to the public in the early 60s. I also did a playback system calibration record for serious audiophiles, a Morse code record, which you could play at 33, 45 and 78. I've done all that stuff, and I did it for fun. There was no rule that the long playing record should just be about music.
The Doors App was inspired by the box set. I was always amused by the box set, because often the best thing for me about the box set was generally the box. You had all of the creative ingredients within: the music, video , photos and text, but they weren't tastefully organized to effectively tell the story of that artist. The video was on DVDs, the music on a CD and the text and photos in an accompanying booklet.
MR: Have you worked with The Doors app?
MR: Yes, a bit, though there was so much content, I haven't had time to fully explore it.
JH: Well, if you're planning a trip to Europe, you might finish it by the end of the flight. There are 1600 items in this app. When asked recently to describe it in one sentence I said, "It's a 1600 piece, 3-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, elegantly pre-assembled."
MR: [laughs] It's a lot. And this app treats the concept and use of an app differently than what we're used to. For instance, I've never seen an app attempt to present so much content, especially when it came to The Doors' history. Why the app over an expanded website?
JH: It could have been done as a website but I was looking for something that was more portable, that you could play with and not require a keyboard. I was an original director of Atari and I learned something about the concept of "game play." and that is why I thought it should be an app. A screen that you could touch and wander through without moving a mouse around which I find counter-intuitive.
And I wanted to do it with and for the Doors. They trust me which means that they weren't going to look over my shoulder. Financially, we had certainly done well by each other but this wasn't about money. This was about how The Doors changed the trajectory of Elektra and when that happened, changed my life and gave me a wider horizon.
I also believed that I was best suited to the task. I'd produce it with the same kind of maniacal zeal that I produce records. I put together a team of my own, many of them family members who had expertise in specific areas. Key to the mix was my co-producer, Robin Hurley. We devoted sixteen months of seven-day weeks, but there was so much to do and so much writing that needed to be created, edited, honed, shaped. It needed everything.
How would we handle the critical Miami Incident which loomed large in The Doors career, mostly because they had all their performing dates cut off simultaneously. Miami was a problem because we had no images. In The Doors archive, we did find an audio cassette of the concert, so I decided to do it as a graphic novel because then we could design it and show it in a looser and slightly more romanticized way. And Jim's actual voice, and the words he said, is integrated with the images.
MR: That's a pretty unique way to deal with that kind of situation, excellent
JH: It was a wonderful solution. It balanced off all of fascinating paperwork that comes with The Doors' Dossier, which includes documents from the trial, J. Edgar Hoover's letters to people... It's a broad collection of choice bits, but we had to do a lot of work to dig this stuff up. We just recently found Jim's bail bond application--that's in the update just released
JH: After Miami my suggestion was, "Okay, guys, you've got your first vacation, so let go back into the studio." They went back to roots and recorded Morrison Hotel and then Paul Rothchild, who had produced all the records up through Morrison Hotel, looked at me and said he didn't want to do it anymore, he didn't like the songs they had worked out for LA Woman, so he quit and we let Bruce Botnick produce the album with the group, who were very recording savvy by that time.
Botnick was a known quantity. He was--and is--a great engineer, but he was also the guy who suggested we use David Angel as the orchestrator for Love's Forever Changes, which is a classically great rock album. I trusted them. The first Doors album was rehearsed for two weeks so they were in really good shape and everything was planned out. We took them up to about eighty percent of concert pitch before letting them loose in the studio.
JH: When we released the app on May 7th of 2013, there were 13.1 million Doors Facebook friends. There are 14.5 million now. 1.4 million have been added in eight months. That's incredible.
That band is dynamic and living and Jim comes alive for people today. It was really the perfect group. They had a lot of story, they were extraordinarily intelligent, and their management over the years bought in about eight thousand photographs. Even though we had to buy a number of other hotographs, there was already a large number to choose and share with fans.
Every Doors album is fully explored and there are lots of stories and sidebars and pieces by Francis Ford Coppola, Patti Smith, Hunter Thompson... It's chockfull of every good thing we could find that was applicable to this story The app is a great storytelling mechanism and the fact that it is never obsolete really speaks to my desire to keep improving the breed.
When Ray [Manzarek] died we were able to create an entirely new section on him and incorporate it into the app and people who had already purchased the app received this update at no charge.
MR: How has the app been proliferating with fans and the curious?
MR: This app includes a chronology, a gallery of endless photos, "Ray Remembered," "Jim Forever Risin'," and much more. Plus all this Doors info and material can be downloaded onto a very portable iPad, differentiating it from a less facile website. I think our approach enhances the personal connection that people have with The Doors.
JH: You are exactly right!
When you go into any chapter and you see those little music players in there, I personally edited all of those audio snippets. The Doors gave us the rights to use their copyrights however I saw fit, but I just wanted to remind people what the song was, not necessarily give them the whole song. If you have Doors songs in your iTunes libraries and you have Apple's "scan and match," you can hear the whole song.
I've watched people over the years and how they take in information. Some people are primarily visual. For them, we have the scrapbooks, the tape boxes, tech nuggets, the galleries and photographs. For those who mostly get it through their ears, we have the music room and the embedded snippets and other things. The visual people will also have the video and photos. If you are kinesthetic all of these modalities sort of feed off each other. For me, music albums have always been the best blend of content and context, sometimes one defining the other. I took that concept of content and context, each defining the other, and bred it on a much larger scale into The Doors app.
For the team who built it, this was great fun and a magnificent learning experience -- and to also show what the app as "medium" is capable of.
MR: How do you make an app for a new artist who hasn't a long history yet?
JH: With new artists, there is the problem of no prior connection or information. But there are also opportunities.
I could see new apps for artists being dynamic if the artist can keep it going on their own. That is if they can upload fan fotos, a new song, a list of coming appearance, etc. And fans will automatically get each updated iteration
There'd be room for their videos any personal messages they have, moments from a session, all kinds of stuff to bring the artist and their audience closer together. It would have to be a free app and I think those things would be very, very helpful in terms of maintaining proximity between the artist and their fanbase -- to shorten the distance between the artist and their audience.
MR: What challenges were there while working on The Doors app?
JH: I used to always say I follow the music, but here, I followed the group. When you go to each of the albums, we follow the same color combinations as existed on the original album. We made them dynamic, separate chapters that were defined by the music, defined by the writing, defined by all of the things we could put in there. We have lots of Jim's handwriting and his notes and stuff. I was not happy with the navigation and I vowed to do something better. Now all of the features you can access are visible at one time, without having to go back to a master story button, which is what you had to do before. We kept it simple, we kept it logical. We try to keep it intuitive.
MR: I would add that over the years, Elektra, as a label, was pretty innovative.
JH: There are so many things that we did at Elektra. We did we put billboards up on Sunset Strip? Nobody had ever done that before. I tell that story in the app.
Why did we shoot a video back in 1966 for "Break On Through?" We wanted to get to the bandstand shows without sending the band out. We needed them close by in case something broke, so I could send them wherever it was breaking. It was a carefully orchestrated effort with the boys, and they were very, very reasonable.
In January of 1967 we released no other record that month. We focused totally on The Doors. Slowly, it began to gain traction and FM radio made the single because I needed FM radio to convince the AM stations that "Light My Fire" was something. Elektra was album oriented and we had never been blessed with a hot single. We put out "Break On Through" and it may have gotten to sixty on the charts...barely made it. Nothing meaningful. But that was a planned sacrifice. We were learning how to do singles, and by the time we were ready with "Light My Fire," we had figured out much of what needed to be done and FM radio had made it such a hit that AM radio could not resist. That's how we brought it in.
Once we had a number one hit, people would listen to us. All the DJs, especially in California, thought our getting into Top 40 Radio was a bit strange, but they were also dedicated Elektra/Nonesuch fans, so they were willing to give us the benefit of the doubt. All of that worked well. It's amazing, the stuff that you do at one time that you don't think anybody recognizes but comes back to benefit you years and years later. We took it seriously, yet with good humor.
I wanted to have a gigantic hit with a band simply because it would make my life easier when I signed other artists, to be able to show them what we were able to do with this one. Of course, that wouldn't have happened without the boys and magic and Jim Morrison, but we got it right. Later when we had other artists like Harry Chapin, Carly Simon, Bread, it was a totally different thing. Nobody expected us to release Bread or The Stooges or Queen, but it was easier once we had The Doors' hits.
MR: Looking back at the contributions that your artists and Elektra and Nonesuch have made to pop culture, what do you think when you look at pop music now?
JH: I think about them totally separately. When I look back on what we did, it's not any one record that stands out, although there are many standout records. It's the consistent high level of quality we invested in everything. Nothing was let go. The butterfly's angle in juxtaposition against the square block Elektra "E"...we were fastidious. Everybody in the company picked up on that. "We're a small company, we've got to get it right. We don't release anything until we know its ready."
Producers in recording studios would want to know how it would sound on radio, so they had these little speakers emulating what AM or FM radio would sound like. We did it differently. We actually had an FM transmitter, and late at night, we would broadcast and we'd all jump into our cars and listen to the sog. We'd play it two or three times and then we'd get off the air. We never were caught. And, by now, the statute of limitations has run out.
MR: [laughs] Your label genuinely was dedicated.
JH: We just tackled everything head on. Sometimes we'd pick ourselves up off the floor, but everybody in the company cared deeply about what we were doing, and nobody was neglectful of attention to detail.
MR: And I love how you literally started this from your St. John's College dorm room. You couldn't have imagined in your wildest dreams that this would become such a success and a cultural contributor.
JH: I wasn't living in the future, I was living in the present; I had to get it right. The trick is to stay alive. One of the things I knew was that I had to build a catalog fairly quickly. No company can survive without the financial support of a catalog. After about six or seven years, Elektra had a good catalog of folk music, which was our basic purview at the beginning. Folk music does not age like pop songs age, so I picked exactly the right genre. I made all my own records, generally. I put up a tape recorder and some microphones and candles and blankets and I'd go to people's homes and record right there. I rarely recorded in the studio until much later.
When I could afford it, I built my own studios and they were exactly what I wanted. They were my personal spaceship and we made incredible, great records there. I loved the studio space. In Follow The Music, there is a passionate page I had written about what the studio meant to me. I added it to the book at the last moment because it was a love affair; I had a love affair with my labor and my artists and the technolgy and it was, and felt, mutual. Elektra was never sued, we rarely had a problem with an artist. Well, we did once, but we handled it by giving them back their contract and asking them to leave, peacefully.
MR: Jac, what is your advice for new artists?
JH: Don't try to take it public until you've got it right privately. Go out there and woodshed and woodshed and woodshed. Don't worry about the record contracts or how it looks being a star, just get the music right. And that takes time. You and the music have to have a singularity, a unity. Otherwise, your credibility is nil.
The artists who sell millions of records are generally the artists who are able to communicate emotionally to audiences in such a way that they become your allies in the exploration of the songs. Leonard Cohen connects in an incredible way because of who he is and because of the quality of the songs. Dylan aside Leonard may be, pound-for-pound, the best songwriter I have ever run into.
So many people worry about what it looks like--"How am I going to dress," "How am I going to do that?" "What's my record contract going to be like?" Everybody who thinks that the record contract is the crux of their career is making a huge mistake. Getting it right in live performance is critical.
Recording an album that works is an important part of your career, but it's not all of your career.
Do take a close look at independent record companies who have proven track records and who are financially in good shape because they will probably do more for you--or do less for you!
Sometimes you shouldn't do anything. Let your art find its own equilibrium. But it takes years of experience to be able to see that. Carly Simon did not get tons and tons of promotion and marketing. We picked a long single with a tongue twister of a title -- "That's The Way I Always Heard It Should Be." That's most of what we did initially, find the song that best expressed the essence of her art and just release it carefully. She found the audience, the audience found her and it happened organically. Those are the best kind of hits to have because they just grow and grow and grow and the artist has a level of stature which they have to live up to. Now the ante is up for the artist and it's a constant thing. There's a line from an e. e. cummings poem, "poetry is being, not doing." The music and the "being" should be of a piece. I know it sounds like it's a mantra from the sixties, but in my experience, it's the truth.
MR: What are you working on right now?
JH: I'm working on a digital project suggested to me by what happened as I was doing the app.
I'm also interested in improving quality in digital versions of records, so I'm advising people on that. Warners has various investments in high quality presentations of historic and current music, and of course, the quality of the sound has always been a big deal with me.
MR: Yeah, when everything got squished into MP3s, and even boom boxes, it seems like we kind of dumbed down the public in terms of quality recordings.
JH: You're right. That has a lot to do with it. It's not just a matter of sampling frequency and word depth--although I think word depth is more important than sampling frequency--but there are other approaches to doing this without having a numbers game that goes from 96 to 192 to 384 Mbps and on up. That's a dumb way to go about addressing these problems. There are other ways of achieving it. SACD was a good technology, but the industry did not universally adopt it and as a result, all surround sound pretty much stopped, and that's a shame because the surround experience, if it's balanced a tad forward, really gives you a good sense of the musical stage, and I think that's important.
MR: Jac, you were the guy who helped Mike Nesmith convince Warner's to put together a videoclip show.
JH: Absolutely. I had run across French Scopitone movie devices in bars and clubs. I had seen them in France in the fifties and sixties, showing sixteen millimeter films of performances, mostly in black and white. I always thought that was kind of neat, and the perfect thing for a band, but I knew cable was the right home for it.
I was a Chief of Technologist for Warner's starting in 1973, and Michael Nesmith showed me this film he made called "Rio," which knocked me out because it was an interpretation of the story done in a whimsical and musical way. I showed it to a couple of people who said, "Yeah, that looks interesting. What are you going to do with it?" So I took it to John Lack at Nickelodeon and he decided to do a series called PopClips on Nickelodeon. Very quickly, John Lack, to his eternal credit, knew it was a channel all to itself. He said the magic words to Steve Ross, Warner's Chairman. "We rely exclusively on radio, radio can throttle us, let's create an alternative that we have a significant interest in." And that's it. A lot of stuff became hits that really weren't all that great quality, but the videos were attractive and enticing.
MR: Is there still some big frontier you haven't conquered yet?
JH: My biggest frontier is writing another book while I'm still on the planet. I've been planning it for years. Basically, it's a book about what I've learned about music, about business, about success, and how one can function ethically and have a great deal of fun and leave something behind that's worthy. For years, I've been making little notes, I've had these "great insights," and I'd scribble them on a piece of paper and throw them into my piano bench. After 40 years of note taking, the piano bench doesn't close anymore, so I took all the papers out and now I'm sorting through them to see if there's enough there. It should be a fun challenge.
MR: Jac, I so appreciate your time. Again, you were the force behind a lot of music I care about and partly why I got into the music business. By the way, I was almost signed to Elektra in 1980!
JH: That's when Joe Smith was running it. And a bit later Bob Krasnow took over the label. He was a great record man.
MR: And Elektra seems to have been as great as the people behind it. Thanks for everything, Jac.
JH: It was a pleasure. I hope our paths cross again.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
And here is the link that can be activated from an iPad or computer: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/the-doors/id609344635?mt=8