Rob Stringer, Rick Rubin and the Real Story at Columbia Records


“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”.

Who can forget that famous George Bush quote from 2005 when George W. complimented FEMA Director Michael Brown on the fantastic job he was doing for the people of New Orleans in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster? It could just as easily be coming from the lips of my pick for November’s Fredo Award, Rob Stringer, to Rick Rubin. Maybe even from big bro Howard to Rob, for that matter.

I don’t mean to pick on Rick. After all he’s a man of great accomplishment, most notably of suckering Stringer into a sweetheart deal. But is that really such a tough thing to do?

I thought that it would be interesting to take a look back at Rubin’s output since joining Sony Music as co-chairman of Columbia Records. Who can forget the September 2007 New York Times Magazine cover story on Rick by Lynn Hirschberg in which she wrote, “Columbia [Records] didn’t want Rubin to punch a clock. It wanted him to save the company. And just maybe the record business.”

So I went to Wikipedia and dug into Rick’s discography since landing at Columbia. The results are interesting if not somewhat startling in many ways. Let’s begin by looking at the albums that Rick has produced or executive produced during his tenure at Sony.

As the Soundscan sales below will show, more than 84% of all of Rick Rubin’s records were sold by labels OTHER than Sony!

A few caveats and clarifications though. Eight of these 22 titles are records that Rubin produced for his own American Recordings in which he retains ownership of the masters. Those are indicated with an asterisk (*). Sony distributes all but two and consequently they have to share those profits with Rick. Also, he only contributed one cut on the 2007 Poison album, and that was a track he produced in 1987 taken from the soundtrack of Less Than Zero. Data for The (International) Noise Company was not available, though it would not materially affect the overall numbers. Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been) featuring Kanye West, Nas, KRS-One and Rakim, was a one-off single for Nike with insignificant sales that was only available via digital download and vinyl, so I’ll exclude that from my calculations.

Now let’s go to the numbers. Here’s how Rick’s sales break down among all labels he has released product for during this period.

Total 8,003,910

Very impressive.

However exactly 38% of the units Rick has sold for Sony are for his own American Recordings label. 55% of the remaining sales of Columbia-signed artists are for one title, Neil Diamond’s Home Before Dark, still not certified gold.

A few other interesting little factoids:

Since joining Columbia, Rubin has had no number one singles on the Billboard charts.

Since joining Columbia, Rick has produced one Billboard number 1 album for the label (Neil Diamond) and three for Warner Music (two Linkin Park and one Metallica.).

Since joining Columbia Records, Rubin has produced zero gold or platinum albums for Sony and 2 platinum and 1 gold for Warner.

Since joining the company, Rick has produced only 4 albums for Columbia Records-signed artists that have been actually released. A fifth is due early next year, the sophomore effort from Grammy winner Adele.

In all of 2010 Columbia Records has had 5 number one albums, 2 from Susan Boyle and 3 from the cast of Glee, none of which are products of the label’s A&R department. Two of the three Glee titles are discounted EP’s.

The numbers aren’t particularly impressive from a Sony perspective, but no one hits it out of the park every time they step up to the plate. And not every artist has fallen in love with Rick like Josh Groban apparently has. U2 rejected several tracks he produced for the band in 2008. Slipknot publicly voiced their displeasure with Rick’s “hands off” style and Velvet Revolver’s Scott Weiland told Launch Radio why they were not a good match. “If you’re gonna work with a producer, unless you’re gonna produce something yourselves, if you’re gonna pay a producer, get in the trenches with us and work with us,” he said. “The Rick thing didn’t work out, and, you know, he was working on a couple of other things, Metallica and U2, and so we kind of became very uninspired.” Similar story with Crosby, Stills & Nash, who recently fired him from their Columbia Records covers project. Sony Music insiders tell me that Stringer’s attempts to get Rick together with several of the label’s most prestigious legacy artists have fallen flat as well.

Sources also say that the Rubin regime has killed morale in the company. Rick doesn’t like to fly and consequently doesn’t have any presence at the New York headquarters. He doesn’t keep an office at the new Sony digs in Beverly Hills and although he does have a Sony Music email address, he only responds to emails sent to his private address, privy to just few select staff members. If anyone needs to meet with him they have to fly to LA and trek up to his house in Hollywood, which one insider refers to as “the Addams Family mansion”. And since Rick keeps “record producer” hours, the idea of reaching him during the normal business day is almost impossible. A&R meetings at first slowed down and eventually stopped altogether. With the A&R team unable to contact him, they would be forced to go to Barnett, who apparently hated reaching out to Rick.

What makes this truly ridiculous is that Rick had insisted that Sony, at great expense, relocate offices from their campus in Santa Monica into the old CAA building, a white elephant if ever there was one. The mausoleum on Wilshire Blvd, that Mike Ovitz built in tribute to himself had the cache of being an I.M Pei design, thus diverting Rick from his initial plan to de-corporatize Sony’s image and house itself in funkier digs like a warehouse in Venice or a downtown LA loft. The only thing was that Ovitz had to approve any and all artwork that went into his building, so there went the funky artist posters traditionally found taped to the walls of record company offices. But one thing worked out well. The new offices are across the street from the 5-star Peninsula Hotel, where Stringer and Barnett are the only labels execs allowed to stay. There’s always something to be said for convenience. At least it cuts down on limo bills.

It is a fairly open secret that Columbia Records co-chairman Steve Barnett was never happy about being saddled with Rick and hated the decision from Day One. Steve is known to have told associates that his biggest regret is having agreed to the arrangement in the first place, a demotion of sorts. He and Stringer are boyhood chums, so it was a particularly hard pill to swallow. Though he puts on a good front, behind closed doors Barnett takes every opportunity to disparage Rubin to anyone who will listen. According to one of my Wikisources from 550 Madison Ave., the tales of Barnett’s screaming matches with Rubin rival those of Don Ienner with…well, everyone.

In spite of all of the chaos, Rob Stringer continued to stand by his man. As the story goes, Stringer felt that Steve Barnett was not a “music guy” so he wanted to bring in a “sizzle” guy like Jimmy Iovine, someone who established artists would relate to and new artists would be thrilled to meet.

At first Rubin’s hiring looked like a stroke of brilliance, a real coup. It was like manna from heaven that would revitalize the greying iconic Columbia Records. Rick just won the Grammy for Producer of the Year for his work with Columbia’s own Dixie Chicks among other acts he had worked with the previous year.

Outside observers were secretly laughing at Stringer since everyone knew that Rubin’s first go-round with Columbia was a disaster with his American Recordings label losing millions. At the time, Sony couldn’t wait to off him to Warner Music, which is exactly where Stringer found him. Junior, being only slightly smarter than Stringer, knew how much Sony wanted him and exactly how much Rubin had lost for Warner. Junior smelled blood and the more he said “no” to Stringer the more Rob wanted Rick. Ultimately Sony paid a king’s ransom to extricate Rubin from his Warner Music deal early, even committing to re-releasing several flop American Recording masters that had been gathering dust on the shelves at the Bunny Ranch.

But things didn’t seem to work out quite as Stringer had hoped. Despite growing complaints and discord between Barnett and Rubin, Stringer, still convinced of the brilliance of his decision, kept telling the troops that Rick was “unconventional” but delivering exactly what he’d hoped he would, much like his defense of Amanda Ghost. Staffers were being hired and fired with the frequency of Macy’s revolving door on Black Friday. It was starting to look like something akin to Michael Eisner’s ill-fated hiring of Michael Ovitz to run Disney, a move that led to both of their demises.

Even though he reportedly has at least one foot out the door already, many reports have characterized him as being “psychologically gone”, at the end of the day Rubin’s not really to blame. Any failure lies with the architects of the harebrained idea to hire him in the first place. After all, they knew what they were signing up for before they opened the piggy bank. Rubin surely didn’t present himself as a corporate suit or mislead them in any way. His eccentricities and work habits are no secret. Rob Stringer got exactly what he bargained for. I’m sure his intentions were good; his efforts to shake things up were admirable, but misguided. It’s great to think outside of the box, but not beyond the realm of reality. You can’t blame Rick for taking advantage of others’ stupidity. Actually it turns out that he’s the smartest of the lot and the only winner in this picture.

Now that the ninjas back home in Japan are looking for a new corporate president to lighten the load on Sir Howard and establish a succession (in other words, show him the door), rumors are staring to fly. One has the BBC courting Howard to be their next chairman. Another has Doug Morris replacing Rolf Whatever-His-Name-Is as Sony Music CEO early next year. It’s supposed to be a done deal, in which case expect Universal CEO Lucien Grainge to eat Sony’s lunch, especially since RCA/Jive CEO Barry Weiss has left Sony to head UMG’s east coast operations. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jimmy Iovine eventually replace Rob Stringer. Just another case of rearranging the deck chairs. Stringer loyalists like to float the idea that the Weiss exit clears the way for Rob to assume the position—Rolf’s, that is. But word is that he’s already been passed over for it. Could the Sony boys in Tokyo really trust Rob’s judgment at this point? If Rob does end up leaving Sony, a word of warning to Geoff Taylor, current CEO of the BPI in London: somebody may be looking to get your job.

So who’s to blame for this fiasco? It’s certainly easy to point the finger at Rob Stringer. He’s the driver behind what could be considered one of the biggest major label boondoggles of the decade. He’s the guy who signed off on all of Rick’s mishegas. When the dust finally settles it wouldn’t be surprising if this little “experiment” ends up costing Sony $100 million or more, especially when you consider the massive billing differential between Rubin’s Sony product and that with other labels (minimally $60 million). And let’s not forget the Amanda Ghost/Epic Records disaster that cost Sony quite a few shekels, and embarrassment, as well. On the surface it certainly appears that Stringer is in over his head and has blown it. But let’s face it: it all ultimately comes down on big brother Howard’s shoulders. You’d think that at some point he would say to Rob, “What the hell are you doing?”

In the final analysis it all boils down to the same old story—a fable of corporate record industry hubris run amok. All that’s missing is the cocaine and hookers. Ah, the good old days. But in a strange way it’s kind of comforting to know that some things just never change.

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Wayne provides biting, hard edged, entertaining, humorous, sometime satiric but always provocative commentary on current events and trends in the music industry.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. in all fairness one must say that e.g. Gossip – Music For Men did quite well in Europe.
    but overall, stories like these make everybody lose the last piece of pity one might have for the major label music industry

  2. rob is a great music man who backed me many times with my projects in the uk and in return i made him millions or should i say made sony millions .Don

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