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Tommy Mottola Faces The Music

Why was Tommy Mottola—the industry's most flamboyant mogul, and one of its most powerful—pushed out of Sony's beleaguered music division and replaced with NBC head Andy Lack? The real story behind Sony’s musical chairs.


Just Friends?: Jennifer Lopez with Mottola in Los Angeles.  

Buried under nineteen inches of snow and duct-taped into submission by terror warnings, New York was in a glum mood for the Grammys, back in town—APPLAUD NOW—for the first time since 1998. The Madison Square Garden festivities would be televised on CBS in prime time, punctuated with performances by such Sony money-spinners and award nominees as Bruce Springsteen, Ashanti, and the Dixie Chicks. But this year’s Sony party, held at the barnlike Hammerstein Ballroom nearby, stood to be conspicuously downscaled from the red-carpet extravaganzas of the not-so-distant past. Sony’s Grammy soirée had been second only to Clive Davis’s big-shot-heavy bacchanal. But no more. Maybe because nobody expected to run into the party’s recently deposed host, Sony’s pinky-ringed music man, Tommy Mottola.

On January 9, Sony had faxed around a press release: The chairman and chief executive of Sony Music, Tommy Mottola (or Thomas D. Mottola, as he preferred to be known in the newspapers) would be leaving to launch a new venture. He’d been thinking about making a change for some time, it said, and while it’s true he had a couple years to go on his contract, Sony had suddenly, graciously agreed to spring him.

Ever the diplomat, Sony America’s avuncular head, Sir Howard Stringer, saluted the outgoing Mottola as “an icon,” but there was no disguising the fact that the best-known and most flamboyant executive in the music business was out in a force play.

Indeed, with the business swiftly changing, the swagger had gone out of Mottola’s step. He’s a man who’s always made a point of being larger-than-life, one of those old-line music guys who passed out perks and took them himself. On the road to becoming what he would call “gigantic, global superstars,” Mottola’s charges might be rewarded with vacations, cars, Rolexes, liposuction. Sony even picked up the check for Celine Dion’s Fiji honeymoon.

But the company’s numbers were down—it lost $132 million in the first six months of its current fiscal year—and industry-wide, album sales have dipped 11 percent from 2001. The music business was being hijacked by Internet file traders, and Mottola was losing sleep over Sony’s ebbing market share.

And now more people were looking over his shoulder: There was little love lost between Mottola and Stringer, who in Mottola had an under-boss immune to his courtly charms. Because in the runaway republic that was Sony Music, it was Tommy Mottola who ruled, not Sir Howard.

“Tommy wouldn’t kiss Stringer’s ass,” says one business associate of Mottola’s.

When times were good—and there were years when Mottola’s ghetto divas and gilded thrushes saved Sony’s bacon—Stringer could swallow his annoyance. But with the music industry’s fortunes sagging, laissez-faire turned into Let’s have a look, shall we? Wanting answers, Stringer typically had to troop down to Mottola’s thirty-second-floor office, where the shades were always drawn.

“I think Tommy is one of those guys who hated having anybody as his boss,” says one executive who knows them both. “Tommy didn’t want anybody messing with him.” Finally, say those who know Stringer, he found it hard to stomach a diet of constant disrespect. “Howard was having to read about developments on the music side in the newspaper,” says a source close to Sony. “That was embarrassing.”

"Tommy wanted to show he was separate from the pack. He had a distain for his peers in the music business. There were only a few who mattered."

The announcement of Mottola’s successor clocked in a bruising 24 hours later: Andrew Lack, 55, the president of NBC and a friend of Stringer’s since their days at CBS’s documentary-film unit in the seventies, was the new suit the likes of Pearl Jam would be reporting to. Lack was certainly an interesting choice, the press relentlessly finger-wagged, since he had no experience in the music business.

An artful manager of those who always remained convinced they were managing him, Lack had nevertheless been outmaneuvered in a power tussle with network chairman Bob Wright, who some say was prodded on by his wife, Suzanne, known to certain network spectators as the Nancy Reagan of NBC. And just as he was pulling the rip cord on a job he’d ascended to less than two years earlier, his old boss Howard Stringer was only too happy to come pick him up.

The Man: Tommy Mottola purposefully adopted the shiny-suited look of a Mafia lieutenant.  

Tommy Mottola was a man who wore his feelings on the sleeve of his suede safari jacket, passionate about his work and keeping his grand and gaudy life but still able to put everyone at ease with a self-deprecatory script. Artists and underlings found in him a father figure—albeit one who demanded utter loyalty.

Even his enemies concede that Mottola worked 24/7, and when he wasn’t on the phone—sometimes he’d call employees at eleven at night expecting to talk shop—he was in the studio making records with his artists. Like RCA’s Clive Davis, he was a diva-maker who knew how to Svengali women onto the Billboard charts.

Under Mottola’s watch, Sony had signed the Dixie Chicks, Destiny’s Child, Michael Bolton, New Kids on the Block, Shakira, Mariah Carey, Ricky Martin, Celine Dion, and Jennifer Lopez. And he was the most aggressive executive in pushing American acts outside the U.S., sometimes tripling the money he made on his artists.

With the rising prices of marketing and promotion—it cost him $1 million to launch a new artist who could only really break even if 1 million albums sold—Sony’s future depended on hits that came fast and furious. And those numbers became a lot harder to make when teenagers started to rip the tunes for free off the Internet, the asteroid whose impact would mow down the free-spending dinosaurs.

When Mottola left Sony, Stringer was telling people that his departing squad leader’s personal overhead, including travel and expenses, was $10 million a year. Of his five full-time assistants, three were making $180,000 a year. Employees got expensive gifts for Christmas, like $550 Gucci bags.

“Sony was a real oligarchy,” says one longtime executive. In the old days, the oligarchs commanded their own lobby elevator. But then the elevator was requisitioned for the public and a freight elevator was drafted to whisk Mottola, his right hand, Michele Anthony, and Columbia Records chairman Don Ienner up from the garage. In their contracts, members of Mottola’s inner circle—which included Ienner, Anthony, Epic Records chairman Dave Glew, Epic Records president Polly Anthony, and Mel Ilberman, Sony Music’s 75-year-old vice-chairman and bookkeeper—were guaranteed a driver with a leased top-of-the-line Mercedes.

Mottola also had a Monopoly-board hunger for real estate. A Balinese-style villa Mottola built in Miami for himself and his third wife, Thalia, a 31-year-old Mexican singer and soap-opera fixture, was the latest in a succession of sprawling homes he renovated or built for himself. The $4 million property on Star Island, a private enclave with a guarded gate, has indoor and outdoor pools, horses, and a library. Mottola’s luxe townhouse on the Upper East Side was purchased for $13.3 million from David Geffen in 1999 and was tricked out with such niceties as a perfume refrigerator for his wife. “Tommy has an addiction to buying lavish, enormous places, overpaying for them, putting millions and millions of dollars into them, most often with good taste, showing off with them,” says a friend, “and then when they’re finished, he suddenly realizes they’re too big or too expensive.”

Indeed, his townhouse went on the block in November for a blistering $27 million. He has already lined up its successor, a more modest $9.25 million, 5,000-square-foot condo in an unspectacular building whose redeeming feature seems to be its great views.

Mottola also has a customized bulletproof car with a driver on standby; he said he needed it in case there was another terrorist attack. And he usually travels with a full phalanx of bodyguards. Why the obsession with security? At times in the past, Sony has had urban-music labels with rappers who’ve been busted on gun charges. “But I think it’s more like he got used to these guys opening doors and carrying his bags for him,” says one Sony executive, shaking his head. Says another who worked with Mottola, “He wanted to show he was separate from the pack. He had a disdain for his peers in the music business. There were only a few who mattered—RCA’s Clive Davis and Universal’s Doug Morris.”

And his executives felt similarly entitled. “The Tommy clique really loved power,” says one former employee. “They had this whole thing that they were untouchable.” The upside is that the company was admired for the lengthy tenures of its executives. “When you can assemble a strong team that can deliver year after year after year, as Tommy did, it gives the artists confidence that they’re signed to a winning team,” says Arista Records chief L.A. Reid.

On the downside, one executive who’s known Howard Stringer for years says Stringer told him Mottola ran his team like a little Mafia family. And loyalty to the dysfunctional famiglia was prized. Another insider remembers sitting with Stringer last year in the Sony Club dining room when Michele Anthony walked past the table. “Tommy will know about this lunch in fifteen seconds,” Stringer said under his breath. The senior management team were like brothers and sisters, squabbling with each other over credit, spying on each other, knifing those who might presume to trespass on their turf. There were two dads, Tommy and Mel Ilberman. “He’s Tommy’s brains,” said one executive. “It was like that character Master-Blaster, in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” a dwarf genius who rides a giant brute of a man like a chariot.

If there was an unflattering leak to the gossip columns, Mottola himself would browbeat the suspects. People in the company believed he was reviewing phone records. He would sometimes hire detectives to check up on artists who were litigious with the company—most famously Michael Jackson.

But there were also the sanctioned leaks to the press. When Mottola divorced pop star Mariah Carey and she was negotiating her release from the Sony label, items ran in the press about his ex that Carey wanted dusted for Mottola’s fingerprints: Mariah was feuding with fellow Virgin Records artist Janet Jackson. Mariah threw a salt shaker at Mira Sorvino. Tommy was now training a 16-year-old singer who could be her next serious rival. Carey almost sued Mottola and Sony after it appeared that he arranged for some music she was using in a single from her first film to debut on a Jennifer Lopez album six months earlier. “He had an emotional response to her leaving him,” says a source close to Sony, “but she would call him after her crack-up for advice, and he would be there for her. He still holds a little bit of a candle for her.”

He told a friend he had a brief post-Carey fling with Jennifer Lopez, who records for the Sony label (Lopez has denied the two ever had a relationship). And then Lopez went and fell in love with Sean Combs. “He was bad-mouthing Puffy all over town,” says a longtime friend.

“When Tommy has it in for somebody he can be unbelievably petty. He’ll call maître d’s to make sure people aren’t given tables,” says an acquaintance. Mottola’s tactics were often brass-knuckle, but those who’ve known him for many years describe him as a gangster groupie who purposefully adopted the shiny-suited look of a Mafia lieutenant. “I think he created a persona that came back to haunt him when he needed to appear presidential,” says a source close to Sony.

After taking over as head of Warner Music in 1995, Michael Fuchs remembers being invited to lunch at Mottola’s sprawling house in Bedford. Fuchs asked Mottola who was the biggest influence on the house. “But I think he misheard the question,” says Fuchs. “ ‘The biggest influence on my life, everything,’ he said, ‘was Morris Levy.’ Morris Levy was the godfather of the music business!”

Morris Levy was a nightclub impresario and record-label founder with ties to the Genovese crime family who eventually wound up in prison for conspiracy to commit extortion. Mottola had spent some time with Levy in the seventies when they both had farms in Columbia County. A frequent house guest at Levy’s was Father Louis Gigante, a priest and the brother of the stubble-cheeked, bathrobe-wearing mobster Vinny “Chin” Gigante. Mottola says he has optioned Father Gigante’s life story for a film.

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