August 11, 1933 |
Brooklyn, New York, US
Yetnikoff was born in Brooklyn and graduated magna cum laude from Brooklyn College in 1953, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After earning his law degree at Columbia University, he joined the Rosenman & Colin law firm, which represented CBS Records. He then joined the CBS/Columbia Records law department in 1962 and rose to become head of the department. He was promoted to head CBS Records International in 1971. When Clive Davis was sacked by CBS for minor financial impropriety in 1973, and the legendary CBS executive Goddard Lieberson retired in 1975, Yetnikoff was promoted to President of CBS Records and a vice president of CBS, a position he held until September 1990. During his time as President of CBS Records, Yetnikoff oversaw the creation of the most profitable and prestigious stable of artists in music history such as Michael Jackson, George Michael, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Cyndi Lauper, Meat Loaf, Boston, Living Colour and Public Enemy.
Renowned for his "colorful" personality and his abrasive management style, Yetnikoff was a key protagonist of the 1990 book Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business, Fredric Dannen's landmark exposé of the shady dealings by major American record labels in the 1970s and 1980s. The book focused on the practice of payola; the record companies' controversial connections with "The Network", a loose grouping of so-called "Indies" (independent record promoters) who were, by the 1980s, being paid tens of millions of dollars annually by major record labels to promote new releases to American radio stations and who could reputedly make or break a new record.
In the book, Dannen recounted Yetnikoff's rise to power at CBS, his "war" with hated corporate rival Warner Music Group, then owned by Warner Communications, its head Steven J. Ross and his escalating conflict with CBS Records Deputy President Dick Asher—who came to oppose the use of "Indie" promoters — which culminated in Yetnikoff's controversial sacking of Asher in April 1983. According to Dannen, Yetnikoff strongly favored the use of "Indies," and in the early 1980s he opposed a plan by the RIAA to investigate the use of "Indie" promoters after a series of NBC News reports revealed apparent links between prominent "Indie" promoter Fred DiSipio, and members of the Gambino crime family, including notorious New York Mob boss John Gotti.
The book also examined Yetnikoff's intimate links with other major industry figures, including music industry "Godfather" Morris Levy, prominent music industry lawyer Allen Grubman, Michael Jackson's one-time manager Frank Dileo and former artist manager Tommy Mottola, whom Yetnikoff appointed to a senior post at CBS Records after its sale to the Sony Corporation in 1988.
Yetnikoff renewed his public feud with Ross in 1989 when Yetnikoff interfered in Sony's negotiation with Ross and Time Warner in signing Jon Peters and Peter Guber to co-head Sony's newly acquired subsidiary Columbia Pictures (Now known as Sony Pictures Entertainment). At the time, Guber and Peters both had contracts with Time Warner's Warner Bros. unit. As a result, Sony's U.S. head Michael P. Schuloff, embarrassed by Yetnikoff's abusive behavior, quietly settled with Ross and Time Warner over Guber and Peters, who became co-heads of its movie unit.
After leaving CBS Records in 1990 (renamed Sony Music Entertainment in 1991), Yetnikoff put together an independent label Velvel Records, which debuted in 1995. The label released many records, including The Kinks catalog. It was sold to Koch Records in 1999 and Yetnikoff was no longer involved with the label. Subsequently he co-founded Commotion Records an independent label focusing on soundtrack CDs.
His autobiography Howling at the Moon, co-written with David Ritz, was published in 2004. Yetnikoff recounted in the book how Vincent E. Puma had helped him recover from his addictions to alcohol and drugs. The Jewish Yetnikoff noted that he viewed Father Puma as a mentor, saying: "It'd be easier for the Pope to convert to Islam than for me to turn Catholic, but that didn't stop me from hanging out with a priest who understood the need for redemption."
Yetnikoff is featured in the book Hit And Run about Sony's purchase of Columbia Pictures in 1990 and hiring, on Yetnikoff's recommendation, Peter Guber and Jon Peters to run the studio. Yetnikoff is also featured in the books The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood by Thomas R. King, and Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age by Steve Knopper. He is rumored to be the inspiration for Walter Fox, the record-label boss played by Rip Torn in the film One Trick Pony written by and starring Paul Simon.
- "Yetnikoff Stepping Down As Chief of CBS Records". New York Times. September 5, 1990. Retrieved 2012-08-23. "Mr. Yetnikoff was instrumental in the sale of CBS Records to Sony in January 1988 for $2 billion. ... Mr. Yetnikoff was made president of CBS records in 1975. Before that he was president of CBS Records International, which he took over in 1971. He had joined the company a decade earlier as a lawyer."
- "A Music King's Shattering Fall". Time magazine. Retrieved 2012-08-24. "Yetnikoff steered CBS Records (major labels: Columbia, Epic) to world prominence. He boosted its revenues from $485 million in 1975 to well over $2 billion last year, when it ranked second only to the Warner Music Group. ..."
- "An Interview with Former CBS Head Walter Yetnikoff': (October 2007; retrieved January 28, 2010)
- Billboard - Google Books. Books.google.com (1971-07-31). Retrieved on 2013-07-16.
- Ritz, David. Howling At The Moon. 2004, Abacus Press. ISBN 0-349-11797-7.
- Dannen, Fredric. Hitmen. Published by Vintage Books. 1990. (ISBN 0 09 9813106)
- James, George. "A Music Mogul's Tale: Salvation in a Soup Kitchen", The New York Times, April 18, 2004. Accessed August 25, 2011. "Mr. Yetnikoff, who is Jewish, writes, 'I grew closer to Father Puma, as a mentor and a friend. It'd be easier for the Pope to convert to Islam than for me to turn Catholic, but that didn't stop me from hanging out with a priest who understood the need for redemption.'"
- Howling at the Moon, Broadway 2004, ISBN 978-0-7679-1536-6
- "Sex, Drugs and Ego: A Music Mogul's Swath of Destruction; A Deposed President of CBS Records Chronicles His Debauchery and Detox", The New York Times, March 4, 2004 (retrieved January 28, 2010)
|President of CBS Records International
|President of CBS Records
Sony Music Entertainment