The man atop the Capitol Records building – Joe Smith

The man atop the Capitol Records building – Joe Smith – Capitol-EMI Music Inc.; includes biographical sketch

Kara Glover

Joe Smith, DJ-turned-recording-executive, has put Capitol EMI Music back in the black

Joe Smith says instinct is the key to success in the record business. When he hears a terrific new tune, he says he can almost feel the hair standing up on the back of his neck.

He should know. Smith is chief executive and president of Hollywood-based Capitol-EMI Music Inc. He oversees the operations of seven record labels, including Capitol Records and EMI Records USA.

Capitol-EMI Music ranks third in sales among the nation’s record companies. It currently has the No. 1 selling albums on “Billboard” magazine’s Pop, Country and Rhythm & Blues charts. Its labels also dominated the magazine’s No. 1 spot on the Top Pop Albums chart for 46 weeks from April 1, 1990 to March 31, 1991, with albums by artists M.C. Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Sinead O’Connor and Bonnie Raitt.

Capitol-EMI Music is a subsidiary of Thorn EMI, a London-based entertainment and electronics conglomerate with sales of $6.3 billion during fiscal 1991.

The record labels under Capitol-EMI produce all kinds of music, including rock, jazz, country and classical.

The company encompasses diverse operations in North America, including the record labels, manufacturing facilities for pre-recorded audio cassette tapes and compact discs, studio operations and a sales/distribution division — all of which Smith oversees.

Smith, 63, works out of a spacious executive office on the top floor of the cylindrical Capitol Records building in Hollywood. His office has a perfect view of the downtown Los Angeles skyline.

In one corner of his office is a six-foot-high basketball hoop. “I play above the hoop on that one. I can really dunk the ball,” exclaimed the 5-foot-7-inch executive.

In another corner of the office sits a framed photograph of Smith posing with the entire Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. He was voted the Lakers’ “Spectator of the Year” in 1989, the only year that award was given out.

At the time of the interview for this story, Smith had just returned from a vacation in Paris where he saw the Lakers play. He said he has held season basketball tickets on the floor of the Forum for the past 30 years, ever since he moved to California.

“I just love the game of basketball,” Smith gives as his reason for being such a diligent fan.

Smith was originally an East Coast man, studying English and history at Yale University. His career in music stemmed from the experiences he had as an amateur disc jockey in both high school and college.

After graduating from college, Smith became a professional DJ and worked at a major Boston radio station during the late 1950s. He moved to California in 1960 with the goal of entering the promotions segment of the record business. He soon became national promotion manager for Warner Bros. Records.

Since then, Smith has held a colorful array of positions in the industry. He became president of Warner Bros. Records in 1972, chairman of Elektra/Asylum/Nonesuch Records in 1975 and president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1987.

Smith took over as president and CEO of Capitol Industries-EMI Inc., now Capitol-EMI Music, in 1987.

In his current position, Smith oversees presidents of Capitol-EMI’s seven record labels, and in turn these presidents hire the staffs who choose which artists to sign. Because of his extensive hands-on experience in the industry, though, Smith gets personally involved at times in dealings with the artists, perhaps talking with managers or assisting in negotiations.

Smith is also known as being the guy who pulled off Capitol-EMI’s turnaround during the late 1980s, transforming the company from a “sleeping giant” into an aggressive competitor.

Throughout his career, Smith has been regarded as a music maven with a knack for choosing artists who become hot. He knows the industry players but also is a good businessman.

Smith has been personally credited with discovering such bands and artists as the Grateful Dead, Rod Stewart, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, James Taylor and The Cars. Some of his own favorite artists of all time include Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole, while he says he listens to a lot of black music now, which encompasses soul, rap and rhythm & blues.

He also has key connections with many industry heavyweights — and proved that by securing personal interviews with 225 of them for his book “Off the Record,” which was published in 1988.

“You can’t imagine what a kick this was,” Smith grins as he talks about his opportunity to interview some of music industry’s greats.

Sitting alone in a room with Ella Fitzgerald to discuss her career and catching an interview with Barbra Streisand in a New York hotel room while she was still in her bathrobe were just some of his memorable moments in putting the book together.

By talking to these artists, Smith says, he learned “almost all of them never enjoyed the success while it was happening” because they were so busy trying to keep on top and feared their success was going to end.

He also mentioned that many of the artists were hard to get ahold of. “Chasing these people down was murder,” he says.

“The Springsteen people, in particular Jon Landau, treated this like it was the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) talks,” Smith notes in his book.

“Before James Brown finally said yes, he wanted a condition on the interview that I sign two or three acts he was working with,” Smith also wrote.

Smith talks so fast he is sometimes tough to keep up with and is known to have a terrific sense of humor.

“He is the funniest person I know,” says Jason Berman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America Inc. “Joe Smith is the master master of ceremonies,” Berman adds. “You cannot have a terrific dinner without Joe as the MC. He’s got a nasty thing to say about everybody, but he says it in the funniest way.”

One feather in Smith’s career cap is the turnaround he has helped institute at Capitol Records since being at the helm. When Smith joined in 1987, the company was considered a major record company that was not profitable.

During his tenure, Smith instituted changes that made the company more profitable. Before he came on board, the presidents of the various labels worked very closely with Bhaskar Menon, his predecessor. But Smith decentralized operations into various autonomous divisions.

Smith eventually replaced some management at all levels of the company, including the presidents at all of the labels, to provide leadership that would both be able to handle the autonomy he was dishing out and to inject some badly needed motivation.

He added that he was looking in particular for new presidents at the labels who were both “creatively driven” and had some business sense.

Smith also led the way for mergers between some of the labels and the establishment of some new labels.

“We’ve just got to keep people pumped up all of the time,” Smith says, noting a distinct difference between the music business and other industries. “I don’t know if at IBM it’s necessary to have that drive and spirit.”

“You’ve got to believe your record is better because you can’t sell it if you don’t,” he adds.

The issue of censorship is one of Smith’s sore spots. He refers to it as the “Jesse Helms syndrome.”

“The music business isn’t about dirty words and dirty thoughts. It’s about great artists making great music,” he declares.

His response to the 1990 fiasco over the censorship of an album by the rap group “Two Live Crew” was that in any creative world with people reaching out, “somebody goes over a line.”

SNAPSHOT

Joe Smith

Native of: Chelsea, Mass.

Current residence: Beverly Hills

Age: 63

Education: B.A. in history and English, Yale University

COPYRIGHT 1991 CBJ, L.P.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group