Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b '43, raised in Brooklyn) Label boss, one of a new breed of businessmen who took over the pop- rock business '70s when the money involved reached telephone numbers. Not suited for anything in particular, Geffen began by fibbing on his employment application to get a job at the William Morris booking agency; the agency was a good place to learn how to be a shark but was losing touch (he didn't stay long) and within 30 years he became a show-business billionaire.

Geffen was enchanted with Laura Nyro, who had flopped at a Monterey Pop Festival; he kept her out of big venues until she had a following, then sold out Carnegie Hall twice. Her first album on Verve had flopped; he took her to Columbia where she had chart albums; they were partners, her songs were successful and Geffen became a millionaire at age 27, renegotiating Nyro's contract at Columbia. He signed Crosby, Stills and Nash to Atlantic, then formed Asylum Records with Elliott Roberts because Nesuhi Ertegun wouldn't sign Jackson Browne, and Asylum captured the era's West Coast scene. There were hit singles (e.g. Jo Jo Gunne) but album sales began '72-- 3 with Browne, Joni Mitchell (took her away from Reprise), Linda Ronstadt (from Capitol) and a bunch of their friends: Geffen wouldn't let Glenn Frye, Don Henley and the others record until they were ready, and the Eagles became the biggest draw in the world. But Geffen was the label boss, part of the management company and handling the publishing; it all came a bit unstuck when he sold Asylum to WEA for $7m. The Eagles made more money being managed by Irving Azoff and got their publishing back from WB, while albums by Ronstadt and the Eagles more than paid for Asylum's purchase price: Geffen had uncharacteristically undervalued his own artists.

Meanwhile Geffen had a job at Warner Brothers, who had bought Jac Holzman's Elektra label; Asylum was taken from Atlantic and combined with Elektra for Geffen to run. He scored a coup '74 by coaxing Bob Dylan away from CBS for two LPs (but Dylan went back to Columbia for a much higher royalty rate than previously); he signed Andrew Gold, Tom Waits and the re-formed Byrds. But he was bored; he dabbled in LA club management, was unsuccessful in the WB film division and left Warner's when his contract ran out. Strange rumours later surfaced that he had been diagnosed with cancer, a false alarm. He came back as a consultant and formed his own Geffen label '80 with Warner Brothers' money; he brought John Lennon out of five-year seclusion for Double Fantasy; Geffen Records handled Elton John and Peter Gabriel in USA, had Donna Summer, Mitchell, Asia, Don Henley and Neil Young on the roster, new acts such as Was (Not Was), Greg Copeland, Lone Justice. But neither John nor Summer was at a peak and the Geffen period was Young's weakest; it took the label a while to turn the corner, while Geffen invested well in Broadway shows (Dreamgirls '81, Lloyd Webber's Cats) and became a successful film producer (e.g. Risky Business '83 with Tom Cruise, Beetlejuice '88). Warner Communications boss Steve Ross gave Geffen his eponymous company '84 in exchange for the distribution rights for five years; it was not all that profitable and Geffen kept pestering Ross for advances. Then Geffen pulled it off, selling 13m copies of one Guns N' Roses album alone; Geffen tried to sell it back to Ross and was refused. In '90 Thorn-EMI was negotiating to buy Geffen Records for a reported $750m, but Geffen sold it to MCA for about $530m worth of shares, which made him MCA's largest shareholder; MCA and Geffen together had more albums in Billboard in '89 than any other company. Geffen virtually became a billionaire when MCA was sold to Matsushita '91, and continued successful with no. 1 albums by Nirvana, a revived Aerosmith etc. He formed Dreamworks SKG Music '95 with Steven Spielberg, Mo Ostin (left Warners to become head of Dreamworks Records) and ex-Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg: the new company's first deal was rescuing George Michael from his Sony contract, but it remained to be seen how well Dreamworks would do; the first projects did not excite. See Frederic Dannen's Hit Men '90 and Fred Goodman's The Mansion On The Hill '97 for record industry machinations: sharks are not good for music, but Geffen was not the worst of the breed.