Repost Essentials: An Interview With Marshall Blonstein of Audio Fidelity
Sound has always been foremost in the agenda of Marshall Blonstein and his various endeavors and accomplishments, which makes for fascinating and surprising reading. With Marshall‘s history and propensity for ‘the human touch’, it’s no surprise to us that success has virtually lived on his doorsteps. It’s Marshall‘s hard work and perserverence that provides the words that makes up this lengthy and revealing interview.
With stops at CBS, as Island Records‘ President, as co-founder of Ode Recordsand founder of DCC Records as well as his present venture, Audio Fidelity, Marshall has been there and done that.
Marshall Blonstein is not afraid to talk and even more willing to spend time to explain how the industry works. We, as consumers, think a magic wand gets waved and an SACD recording of our favourite artists ends up on store shelves months later. While many of us realize that conversion takes time, we may not realize that licensing is much more prickly and involves a ton of stipulations, many of them impossible to concede to. Marshall has graciously given up a lot of his time to explain many singular instances to me on the phone. And he doesn’t stop there. He is frequently in the forums of his website where many people congregate to suggest SACD conversions and he answers many of them if not all of them. Committment to fans and to a better product is what drive Marshall Blonstein.
We wish to thank Marshall Blonstein for his answers to our interview questions and for his constant accessibility. We hope that he’ll allow us the pleasure of such an interview in the future. But, even more, we hope that you’ll enjoy the interview.
MusicTAP (Matt Rowe): Marshall , the shadow that follows behind you stretches for years and has a strong stamp of innovation on it. You’ve helped to advance the CD in its early years, worked at several great labels, co-founded Ode Records, and even serving as President of Island Records. In addition, you have fostered the careers of many bands, helping to break historical albums such as Carole King’s Tapestry. Can you elaborate on your career, perhaps provide deeper insights into your roles in all these things previously mentioned? And please, toot your horn..we want to know.
Marshall Blonstein (Audio Fidelity): I actually started with Dunhill Records in the stock room. ABC bought Dunhill and the company became ABC Dunhill. When the company was purchased I then became a local promotion man for ABC records.
MT: Tell us about your involvement with ABC and Epic Records as Promotions Executive.
MB: While at ABC Dunhill I worked records by artists such as Mamas and the Papas, The Grass Roots, and Ray Charles. After several months in this position, a job opened up as Regional Promotion Director on the West Coast. I was offered the job and accepted. After several more months as a regional promotion director, CBS started a new division and began distributing small independent labels. Some of these were Date, Ode and Immediate Records. I then accepted the position of West Coast Regional Manager for CBS Custom Labels.
MT: What notable albums and bands with both ABC and Epic Records have you nurtured?
MB:We had a great run of artists. We worked with Peaches and Herb, Scott McKenzie, Spirit and The Small Faces, to name a few. After several months I was then offered the position in Chicago as Regional Sales and Promotion Manager based in Chicago covering the Mid West. Soon after, I accepted a new position in New York as Head of Promotion for Epic and Custom Labels. Then Epic Records and the custom label division joined forces. While at Epic, I worked with such artists as Donovan, The Hollies and Sly & The Family Stone.
MT: Have you worked hard to break an act that you knew was extraordinary only to have them not catch the fancy of the public? Can you give us a name of a band or someone from those years at ABC and Epic?
MB: As far as working a band or a record that I knew was going to be a hit, that occurred with Carole King’s “Snow Queen”, which falls into that category perfectly. This was off of her “Writer” album”, and I knew this was a sure hit.
I bugged the local radio stations week end and week out begging them to give this record a chance. Finally after months of this, the program director at KRLA looked out his window and pointed to a mountain and said when that mountain gets snow on it “I will play this record”. Remember, we were inCalifornia but it was the winter so I had a shot. About three weeks later the mountains in California had a freak snowstorm and I thought fate was with me, which was further proof that this was a hit record. Well, KRLA played the record for two months, no sales, no phone requests, nothing!
MT: How is the public different now as opposed to the 60s, the 70s, 80s, 90s. I’m more interested in the musical consciousness of the 60s and 70s vs today but I’m sure every decade has had its changes.
MB: The difference in the music business today as opposed to the 60’s and 70’s is that a handful of conglomerates now controls radio. At one time each city had its own flavor. You could be in Louisvilleand know that you were in Louisville by the sound of it’s radio stations. Chicago , New York , L.A. ,Portland , Hartford … on and on. They all had there own distinct sound that captured the feel of their town, their city. Retail was the same way, the local buyers were just that, local buyers. They knew and understood their city and their town better than anyone and worked hand and hand with the local radio stations.
Today you can be in any city listening to the radio and, other than the morning shows, they all sound the same. There is little if any local programming. Radio is now programmed out of one central area where one sound fits all. With the advent of Wal-Mart, Best Buy, TransWorld, etc. there is very little local buying. It is all bought out of one central location.
MT: In your estimation, which decade was the best in terms of music?
MB: To me, the best decades for music was the 60’s and 70’s. There was the blending of R&B, Blues, Rock N’ Roll and Country. This is when Rock N’ Roll came of age with an attitude and a style. The 60’s and 70’s took you from the hit 45’s to the albums…which were stories told by the artists. This is when you could listen to a 10-minute version of a song on the radio. This is when FM underground radio was born and it created a whole new genre of music and a new lifestyle was created. The artists were free to be artists and creative and radio and retail were as free and creative as the artists. People are still trying to copy it today. You could listen to the radio and hear Led Zeppelin followed by The Temptations followed by The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa and Otis Redding.
MT: Your years at Ode Records is of interest. What was your job and/or involvement with this label?
MB: After a year at Epic, Lou Adler called to tell me that he was forming a new label called Ode 70 Records in California and asked that I join him in this new venture. I moved back to California . I moved from corporate life to the world of the independent…and haven’t left since. We started Ode records in 1970. At the time it was just Lou Adler and myself and one assistant. I had just moved back from New York and looked at this as a terrific opportunity.
Lou Adler was then, and is today, one of the most creative record executives the industry has ever had. Lou brought with him from Ode-CBS Carole King. The new company was called Ode 70 Records. For the first 9 months we couldn’t buy a hit, and then came Tapestry. The world changed. Not only for Lou and I but the industry and the world of music. Tapestry was the first album to sell muti-platinum. Carole was the first singer-songwriter, and a female, to put it all together… a true multi-million selling superstar. Prior to Carole selling multi-millions, gold was the highest designation for sales. The platinum category was created because of Carole and Tapestry. The next act that fell into place for us was from far out of left field, Cheech and Chong. Comedy on album had always been Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, etc. This was a something brand new. We coined the phrase “hard rock comedy”. That fit them perfectly. To this day they are the only comedy group to ever have nine singles hit the Billboard Charts. All of their albums went platinum. Between Carole and Cheech and Chong we were on a roll. Grammy’s for Carole King’s Tapestry were multiple and even Cheech and Chong were nominated for a Grammy for their first album. More success followed with Mary Clayton, David T. Walker and Tom Scott and the LA Express. We expanded the company from three people, including Lou and myself, to seven. We were truly a boutique company.
A&M was our distributor; this was a relationship made in heaven. Carole King continued to put out hit after hit and Cheech and Chong kept amazing everyone with their hit albums and selling out 10,000 seat arenas. We also released the London Symphony Orchestra’s Tommy and we were the first company to have an album played in its entirety across the country on radio stations all at the same time, nine o’clockNew York time and six o’clock Los Angeles time. Just before we decided to move on from Ode we came up with the Rocky Horror Picture Show, a play that was successful in London that Lou brought to Los Angeles where it ran successfully for a year. We then took it to Broadway where it failed and then, of course, the film was made…which initially failed also. The movie later was to find new life at midnight shows near college campuses and would become the phenomena it is today…a cult classic. Needless to say we sold a lot of these albums.
After nine years of incredible success, Lou wanted to move into movies and I wanted to stay in music, so we decided to sell the Carole King and Tom Scott catalog to Sony Music. We then sold the Cheech and Chong catalog to Warner Bros and Ode kept the Rocky Horror Picture Show and all the other titles. To this day the Rocky Horror Picture Show continues to be a huge seller.
MT: I remember as a young child of around 9, listening to a new talent by the name of Carole King. Her Tapestry album embodies the spirit of the 60s and it was her ‘hip’ look that endeared me to more album oriented music. Can you provide an anecdote or two from those years at Ode?
MB: When Carole recorded Tapestry, listening in the studio we knew it was something very good. We had no idea how good was good. In order to help break the album, Lou had Carole go on tour with James Taylor as the opening act. I went to radio and retail trying to get them to come see Carole…with not much interest until I told them Carole was opening for James. Then they were interested. From the time that Carole first walked out on stage the crowd was her’s. By the end of the week’s engagement at the Troubadour, Carole was the star and people were begging for tickets to see her. Same thing happened all around the country. Carole was the opening act but by the end of these concerts, it was Carole and her songs from Tapestry everyone was talking about. The next time Carole played the Troubadour, she was the headliner and there was a line around the block and I was a very popular guy at radio and retail. There was something very special about Carole walking out, sitting down at a piano. She became one of the most beautiful women in the world! It was magic…it was Tapestry.
MT: Being installed as president of Island Records was an incredible step for you. How did it impact you and the label’s direction?
MB: After Ode Records, I decided I wanted to move to London and represent American groups in Londonand European in groups in America . I went over to Europe to start setting up my contacts and find a home for my wife and I. My first meeting was with an Island Records rep that suggested I meet with Chris Blackwell in New York when I returned to the states. After setting up my European contacts I flew back toNew York and met with Chris Blackwell, who offered me the position of President of Island Records. I had always been a big admirer of Blackwell and Island Records and, as my wife wasn’t too eager to move toLondon , I accepted the presidency.
MT: Which acts did you introduce to the label?
MB: Island had always been known as the label of Bob Marley and Robert Palmer. It was thought of as an album company. I had an eye to take the company in a more singles- oriented direction. I wanted to maintain its integrity, respect and its independence as an artists label but at the same time I wanted to crash the single charts in order to generate broader sales. We accomplished that with Robert Palmer “Bad Case Of Loving You ” and now Island had its first top ten single on the Billboard Charts. We also scored with hits by a new artist named Charlie Dore with “Pilot Of The Airways” as well as a singles chart success with Third World ‘s “Now That We Found Love” and, of course, Bob Marley and Steve Winwood.
MT: You took an even bigger step beginning an independent label that eventually garnered deserved praise and respect. DCC Compact Discs was as innovative as it was essential. Tell us about those years.
MB: After several years at Island I walked into a stereophile store and heard an incredibly clear sound called the compact disc. I immediately bought a CD player and every CD they had at the time, which was only four or five mainly GRP records. I was hooked! I resigned my position at Island Records and started Dunhill Compact Classics, which was later to become DCC Compact Classics. We changed the name from Dunhill Compact Classics to DCC Compact Classics because of a lawsuit with the Alfred Dunhill Company, which was primarily a cigarette and cigar company. They claimed we were infringing on their copyright, which was untrue. We were only about nine month’s into the company but had established a reputation for quality of sound and unique packages.
We were one of the fortunate early labels into CD as we were able to get CD pressings on a consistent basis. At one point I had more CD pressings available to me then Capitol Records, who got into it late. With the lawsuit with Dunhill eating away at our financial resources and knowing that the European market would block us from using Dunhill we chose to change the name to DCC Compact Classics. I am sure had the lawsuit proceeded we would have prevailed, but in the end and the long run we wound up prevailing anyway.
The 15 years I spent at DCC Compact Classics was filled with great music and great people. From the inception of the company we were known as a label that would not compromise on the quality of sound. If we couldn’t find the master tapes, whether it was a single or an album, we would not use them. We were able to compete in the world of compilations with companies such as Rhino and at the same time be one of the leaders in the Audiophile market with our 24 KT Gold series and our 180+ virgin vinyl analog pressings.
I enjoyed every release that DCC put out…whether it was Toga Rock or Club Verboten and everything in between. We always tried to put a theme to our compilation series, whether it was Too Cute, The Best of Tragedy, or Music For a Bachelor’s Den. We were one of the first companies to use magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Omni, and Rolling Stone to create a musical series. Our series on underground radio with Tom Donahue and Mitch Reid and then Wolf Man Jack were some of my favorites. It was a joy to open up the ears of generations to these talents.
Our 24KT Gold series and 180+ Virgin Vinyl Analog are still the standard by which other audiophile titles are measured. This is largely due to a guy who walked into my office one day and said “I can make all your music sound better”. His name was Steve Hoffman and he is one of the most talented people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Steve always amazed me in that he could look at the color of a reel in a box and tell you what year the tape was from.
After 15 years at DCC, the company had evolved to more than just a music company but also an audio book company and camera company. It was no longer the company I had founded in 1986.
MT: Heading into the present time, you find yourself at the helm of a new and exciting technology. SACD is the basis of your latest venture, Audio Fidelity. Why did you choose to produce DSD realm recordings?
MB: In 2002 I started Audio Fidelity. After investigating the different formats I settled on SACD. In some cases I like the sound of the multi channel but I always felt I wasn’t entitled to remix someone else’s work. I always felt it was like taking a Monet and changing the colors of the painting to suit a new picture frame. The SACD format allowed me to take music to new heights while staying in the two-channel format. We chose hybrid SACD’s as we want our music to reach the broadest audience possible.
MT: Given your track record of foresight, do you see SACD becoming a de facto standard in the industry? Will they inevitably replace CDs or will they exist side by side? Will the implementation of Hybrid be the logical answer or wiil they all co-exist side by side?
MB: I feel that the audiophile format, and that’s what SACD or DVD-A is, will remain a niche market. When CD’s came along there hadn’t been a new format in 40 years. The CD was completely different than the LP or the cassette. It looked different, it felt different and sounded different. The SACD and the DVD-A does have superior sound but it doesn’t look or feel different than the CD. I doubt if the masses are willing to once again buy new equipment and once again get rid of their CDs to buy a new format because of a superior sound. It is the audiophile that cares about a better sound and the audiophile is our niche market.
MT: At the present time, you only do Stereo SACDs. Is this because you are a stereo purist and do not wish to subjectively move sound around or will you eventually embrace surround sound for your releases?
MB: If the opportunities were to come along and the multi-channel would be applicable I wouldn’t be opposed to it but I do prefer the simplicity and the superior sound of the SACD format. All in all I feel very fortunate to have chosen music as my profession and a way of life. If I were to die tomorrow and come back I would want to come back as a music man.