THE FOOL ON THE HILL
This last weekend was brutally hot on the US east coast, certainly too hot to be jogging or bicycling or even grocery shopping. So I spent the weekend on the couch reading Fred Goodman’s new book, ‘Fortune’s Fool: Edgar Bronfman, Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis’.
I had previously written that, based on a teaser from publisher Simon & Schuster, I was worried that the book may be a love letter to Junior. I later spoke to someone who had read the galleys and was given a different picture. He was right.
Instead of a kiss-ass paean to Junior, Fred does a top-notch reporting job that gives a fair and balanced picture of the Seagram scion, warts and all, that lets the reader form his own opinion as to how big a putz Junior really is. Edgar is obviously a smart guy, but the magnitude of some of his bone-headed moves still boggles the mind.
Junior at times seems like the naïve dilettante pawn of Hollywood moguls and incredibly greedy music business executives. He appears to be desperate to create his own legacy as an entertainment media mogul instead of being just another boring M&A billionaire managing the family trust. He’s certainly not the first rich guy, nor the last, to be bitten by the show business bug.
The writing is superb. Goodman gives the reader an accurate, nuanced and concise history of the music industry over the last dozen or so years, brilliantly weaving the Bronfman family saga into the narrative. He gives texture, simplicity and clarity to complex deals and Machiavellian plots without talking down to the reader.
What particularly stands out is the flagrant greed and ego that drives music industry executives, specifically the machinations of Doug Morris, Lyor Cohen and their coteries to constantly up the ante for personal gain. I certainly don’t blame people for wanting to get rich, but ‘Fortune’s Fool’ begs the question, “when is enough enough?”
WMG does a lot of chest pounding, specifically the claim that they are the most progressive and aggressive digital player in the music business. It’s kind of like saying you’re the best buggy whip maker in the buggy whip business. The reality is that WMG is probably the slowest moving label to make digital deals, most notably the only label that is rumoured to be holding up the launch of Spotify in the US. All they care about is besting whatever they think that UMG gets in a deal, and most of the time UMG isn’t getting what Warner thinks they’re getting.
But I digress. The story ends with Junior announcing at a company pep rally that he had just raised $1 billion in a bond issue, thus proving that he has redeemed his battered reputation on Wall Street. Is it that Junior has done a good job of running the company, or is it that the Wall Street guys are just dummies? Or was Junior being rewarded for merely treading water in a down business?
All in all I walked away with a more complete portrait of an oft-ridiculed boy billionaire. It certainly left me with the feeling that I’d rather be lucky than smart.
Putz that he is, would I trade places with Junior though? You bet. Read the book.
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