Magazine | November 12, 2018, Issue

Music Too

Rock concert in Paris (Wikimedia Commons)
Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story of Surviving the Music Industry, by Dorothy Carvello (Chicago Review Press, 240 pp., $26.99)

‘A book for the #MeToo and Times Up Move­ments” proclaims the PR one-sheet for Dorothy Carvello’s new memoir. In theory Carvello should be just the person to lead a charge against the hitherto fortified boys’ club that is the music business: a protagonist whom everyone — even readers who might not otherwise have much sympathy for social-media-driven uprisings — ought to be able to get behind. Indeed, her vision for the workplace is so commonsensical it seems surprising a movement would be needed to agitate for it. In essence, Carvello would like to see a world in which female employees can go to work without fear of encountering what she had to deal with at Atlantic Records. A world, that is to say, in which women do not have to worry about being groped by male bosses; in which women can enter conference rooms without tripping over packs of male colleagues screening pornography; in which those male colleagues won’t feel emboldened to boast about their anatomies and their sexual prowess at every turn; and in which women are properly credited and compensated for their contributions and not fired for refusing to sit on male executives’ laps (metaphorically or literally). That’s about it, and if those scenarios sound far-fetched and of a different era, consider the similarly themed stories coming out of Hollywood, CBS, NBC, and Fox in the present day. At its heart, this is a simple plea for decency and professionalism in the workplace, and who could be against that?

It’s a shame, then, that Carvello’s book is so uneven.

To be fair, Anything for a Hit starts off strong and remains that way for its first third. This is where we get the story of Carvello’s wild years at Atlantic: her dizzyingly rapid ascent from secretary to A&R rep (she was the first woman to hold such a position in Atlantic’s history); her Cinderella-like journey from working-class Brooklyn to a world of private jets, five-star restaurants, and backstage VIP lounges; and her proximity to some truly brazen (and possibly mob-connected) criminal behavior in­volving misappropriated artists’ royalties. Everything about her experience at Atlantic was spectacular: the success, the excess, the abuse. She even lost her job spectacularly, dropped in the wake of a blistering memo in which she detailed an especially egregious harassment incident at an executive meeting. We learn that legendary Atlantic maven Ahmet Ertegun, whom cohorts were in the habit of describing — with a wink and a nudge — as a “wicked uncle” and “still living the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle,” was, in Carvello’s telling, a Harvey Weinstein–style abuser who maintained a safe full of diverted Atlantic funds to pay off blackmailers and who found it appropriate to grope Carvello during the funeral reception for his longtime assistant. This is explosive stuff. Based on the circumstantial evidence, it seems credible. 

But this powerful first section creates a problem for the rest of the book: Carvello’s subsequent career working for the likes of Giant, RCA, Relativity, and Columbia was less eventful, and she struggles to bring that story alive. While many readers will be able to relate to her experiences during these years — the day-in, day-out grind, the petty office rivalries, the interminable meetings and phone conferences, the ever-present harassment — these later passages are inevitably less engaging than the Atlantic material. Carvello compensates by speculating at great length on the machinations and private misadventures of powerful music executives such as Tommy Mottola and Doug Morris; her theories on their Game of Thrones–style power plays seem plausible but lack the visceral quality of the earlier chapters.

Even more problematic is the way Carvello muddies the waters with stories of her own misbehavior. Though she is to be commended for her candor, her tale of sending an assistant to “toss” a new supervisor’s office “for anything interesting” (in the event, she finds a private memo that labels Carvello “unrelenting”) and then standing by while a mob-connected friend makes threatening calls to that boss tarnishes her integrity even as it enlivens the narrative. The fact that she seems unaware of the contradiction in taking her previous bosses to task for harassment while tacitly endorsing the harassment of a subsequent boss is disquieting. Some may cheer her aggressive approach — after all, no one would want to be described by an employer as “unrelenting” — but this is not a simple case of eye-for-an-eye justice: The object of her ire seems to have been more a run-of-the-mill jerk than an actual abuser. Carvello writes that she “should have taken [the memo] to Human Resources” and that RCA/BMG “would have fired Dave in a second,” not grasping that her own actions, had they come to light, would have likely gotten her fired — and justly so. Did her superiors at Atlantic routinely get away with worse behavior than Carvello’s? Unquestionably. Should we view her acting-out in context? Probably. But her apparent lack of self-reflection is jarring.

Anything for a Hit is not a great book. It can never quite decide whether it wants to be a Me Too polemic, a bawdy tell-all, a true-crime thriller, or an exercise in old-school Italian-style payback. But it raises enough important concerns that it ought not to be dismissed entirely. One of its most valuable takeaways is the observation that the behavior of the head of a company filters down into virtually all aspects of said company. Atlantic Records, with the (allegedly) amoral, abusive, drug-addled, sex-obsessed Ertegun at the helm, became, according to Carvello, an environment of amoral, abusive, drug-addled, sex-obsessed employees, a place where both the viewing and the reenactment of hard-core pornography were commonplace. “Is it any wonder these guys were sexual animals in the workplace?” she writes. “Watching porn all day got them hyped up and ready to go. . . . Everything was about sex at Atlantic. Discussing sex and having sex took up a large part of the day.”

Carvello contrasts the Ahmet Ertegun fun house with the more professional tones set by Bob Buziak at Relativity and Don Ienner at Columbia. “Politically correct he was not,” she notes of Ienner. But he got results. . . . He demanded excellence from those who worked for him because he demanded it from himself. . . . He worked like lightning — he’d return calls, attend the meetings, and leave every night at seven with his day done. That’s the mark of a great executive.” Much has been made in the book’s promotional materials of how Carvello names her abusers. But it should also be noted that she names — and lauds — those men who behaved honorably.

Intriguingly, Carvello largely sidesteps the subject of groupie culture. She mentions it early (“I hated the groupie scene at Atlantic,” she writes; “these guys” would have sex with “girls young enough to be their daughters without thinking twice”), but she chooses not to elaborate. Perhaps this is because she views artists — whatever their faults — as allies and, in some sense, fellow victims. From her privileged position as a music-business insider she has seen just how frequently musicians can be exploited, misled, and bilked by the very people whose careers their music makes possible. That some of these artists may have abused their own positions of power is perhaps a topic for a less personally invested author to explore.

One could view all of the above through a feminist lens — an approach the book encourages. But Carvello is arguably going for something broader: Via the microcosm of the music business, she is highlighting the line between childishness and professionalism, between animal-like behavior and common courtesy, that currently demarcates our society. Whatever her faults, she brings to the table an urgent conversation. And it seems appropriate, given this book’s many contradictions, that I end this review with one: I cannot in all sincerity recommend Anything for a Hit, yet I am grateful I read it. I would like to see this conversation carried further.

Robert Dean Lurie — Mr. Lurie is the author of the forthcoming book Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years.

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Music Too

Robert Dean Lurie reviews Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story of Surviving the Music Industry, by Dorothy Carvello.

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