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Monday, January 23, 2012


Fortune's Fool: Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music, And An Industry in Crisis
by Fred Goodman
p. 2010
Simon & Shuster

  Did you ever wonder what it would feel like to lose twenty billion dollars dabbling in the music business?  If so, Fortune's Fool: Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music and An Industry in Crisis, is the book for you!

  Part obituary for the music business after the internet era, and part cautionary tale about the vagaries of operating at the highest levels of that business, I imagine that Fortune's Fool was a little bit much for the general Audience at the time of publication.

  It also can't help that there is no redemption in the end.  In fact, this book reads like it was written before the end. Specifically, it was written before Universal- run by Vivendi- who Bronfman originally sold Universal to- snatched EMI from his own Warner Music- which he had bought from Time Warner back in 2004- that happened last fall. And then on December 5th, Bronfman Jr. announced he was stepping down from Warner Music, which he sold to Len Blavatnik of Access Industries, for 3.3 billion, this summer.

  To put that in some perspective, Bronfman Jr. was able to get involved at the highest levels in the music business because Seagrams acquired 20% of DuPont in 1981.  At the time, Dupont traded at 7 dollars a share.  Today, Dupont stock is worth 50 bucks, and the companies market cap is 45 billion dollars.  Today, a  20% stake in DuPont would be worth nine billion dollars.  The drink side of business was sold by UniversalVivendi in 2000 for nine billion dollars.  Diageo has a market cap of fifty billion, Pernod Ricard of roughly twenty billion dollars.  So Seagram's is a major part of that income, at least.

  So, to conclude, Edgar Bronfman Jr. LOST at LEAST six billion dollars (what 20% of DuPont is worth today- the 3.3 billion he got for Warner Music.  AND- arguably, let's say 30-40% of BOTH Diageo and Pernod-  we're talking somewhere between 15-20 billion.  Using the low end, that is 21 billion dollars reduced to 3.3 billion dollars.  That is breathtaking in magnitude.

  Is it his fault?  Well, yeah because he took his money from a very stable and dependable part of the global economy and went "all in" on a market segment that imploded just after he sunk a huge amount of money into it.  That is what you call "bad judgment." The sense that you get from reading Fortune's Fool is that Bronfman was motivated by something other business acumen to make the business decisions that he made.

 He was also basically wrong about everything he ever did.

  Bronfman Jr.  is really the spiritual heir to another business man of the 20th/21st century, Steve Ross, only failing from the outset instead of succeeding his whole life and then failing like Ross did. (2)  Ross started with what was essentially a parking lot company, Kinney National Services- which itself contained a parking lot and cleaning service division.  In 1967 Ross acquired Warner Brothers- which had just bought Atlantic- and then they added Elektra shortly thereafter- and it was in THAT configuration that Warner Brothers assumed the structure that it would have until recently- Steve Ross running the show and adding talent as it arose- specifically adding Interscope Records and Def Jam in the 1980s- through Doug Morris.

  Steve Ross's main guy at Warner Records is Doug Morris.  Doug Morris is still around- he was appointed Chairman of Sony/BMG in July 2011- which is kind of like the Yankees manager taking over for the Mets: Still New York city, but not quite the same prestige level. Morris though, came to Warner Brothers Via Atlantic Records.  Thus, within the Warner Records structure there was very loose association of labels, except when it came to distribution. Each label operated independently of the other labels in terms of release scheduling and even competition for Artists.

 Bronfman Jrs. foray into the music business consisted of three steps:

 1) Assembling his own "major label" called Universal Music Group.
 2)  Selling that Label, plus the rest of his families' business' to Viviendi and becoming Chairman of the combined company.
3) Buying back Warner Brothers Music from Viviendi after getting booted off the board of directors.
4.  Selling Warner Brothers Music to Len Blavatnik.
5. Losing about 20 billion dollars in the process.

  First, I bought this book- hard cover- brand new (remaindered) for  a penny from Amazon. (1)  Second, the only fact I knew about the Bronfman family before reading this book is that they used to own Seagram's, and that Edgar Bronfman Junior's son calls himself Ben Brewer, put out a So So Glo's record on his own record label, and showed really good judgment in marrying the artist known as M.I.A.  Yeahhh... good call on the wife, bro.

  The story of Edgar Bronfman Jr. and his simultaneously continuing AND ill fated venture into the world of recorded music is best described in this statistic:

  Edgard Bronfman lost more then three billion dollars of his families money investing in the music business.

  I am not talking about money that Edgar Bronfman Jr. earned himself, and then lost.  I'm not even talking about money his DAD made and that he lost.  I'm talking about money his grand father made, and then invested wisely.  Seagrams earned a bloody mint selling Canadian booze during American Prohibition.  After Prohibition ended they bought up a ton of US assets, making them even richer.  After that, they made an extremely smart investment in DuPont.

   None of that was good enough for Edgar Bronfman- he wanted something that would be his own.  Beginning as a failed singer songwriter (in the book the Author describes James Blunt as being a close approximation to what Bronfman would have wanted to be himself.)

  As Bronfman Jr., assembled his major label, Universal Music Group, he took direction from the business model that was current at the time: Over paying for talent, making a ton of CDs and selling a ton of CDs, "looking for hits."  Bronfman's reaction to the Internet is most kindly described as "un-savvy."  Here, we are talking about the period after 2004, when he bought Warner Brothers from Vivendi Universal.  Bronfman's "second act" as it were was to introduce the "360 Deal" to the record business, and serve as a hawk on issues like "suing fans for illegal downloading."

  The book actually interviewed Bronfman though really, no explanation is necessary- the facts speak well enough for how it went down. He doesn't appear to be sorry for anything.  I suppose his saving grace as far as the family was concerned is that they got 9 billion to split up- although if they got it Vivendi stock we're talking about a drop between 70 dollars a share and 20 dollars a share.

  As for the 360 Deal, which literally appears to be his legacy, his gift, if you will to the music industry, I would like to quote @wavveswavves on twitter, from March of 2011.  I think he speaks for me when he says:



(1)  First of all, I bought this book brand new for a penny, which means that they shipped a ton (publication date was July 13th, 2010) and didn't sell many of them.

(2)  Time Warner, of course, was acquired in AOL in 2000, a merger widely described as the "worst of all time."  Time Warner received AOL stock, and so that didn't really work out for anyone, long term.

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