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Tommy Mottola Faces The Music

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My Fair Lady: Mariah Carey with then-husband Tommy Mottola.  

In many ways, Howard Stringer is a perfect executive for a Japanese corporation, understanding procedure while recognizing that it often pays to be nonconfrontational. Stringer is considered a tough, savvy businessman who doesn’t drag his ego around like a hunch on his back. He remembers names and what people do. He is big and capacious, and his frequent hugs are bear hugs. He is intensely intelligent and athletically sociable, and his off-the-cuff remarks at testimonial dinners or Davos have an eminently British quotability.

At first, Stringer made an effort to kindle a relationship with Mottola by inviting him out to lunch and dinner. He also tried to speak with him weekly. “But Tommy was just not responsive on those levels,” says a source.

It bothered Stringer that Mottola would never observe pooh-bah protocol by inviting him to the Grammys. A Sony employee remembers seeing Stringer at one Grammy party taking a group of people over to sit with Mottola and Mottola signaling his minions to close ranks because he didn’t want Stringer sitting there. Mottola was known to refer to Stringer as “the buffoon” in private.

Stringer was also given mediocre seats at Sony-artist concerts, and backstage passes were usually out of the question. “Tommy never wanted Howard at any event. He didn’t want him near the talent,” says one former employee. Stringer’s younger brother Rob started at Epic Records before Stringer even came on at Sony, and had become the well-respected head of Sony Music U.K.

“Howard used to call Rob and go, ‘Why the fuck am I dealing with this guy?’ ” says a friend of Rob Stringer’s. “ ‘Why the fuck are we paying this guy? Tell me what this guy does. Tell me what this guy does. Tell me what this guy does.’ ”

There was always chin-stroking over whether Mottola’s presence in the gossip columns—which charted his life on the Bedford–Da Silvano–St. Bart’s axis, his succession of pop-star wives, and his occasional tangles with the talent—tried the patience of the Japanese. “They were displeased,” confirms one observer. But as long as Mottola was making money, the Japanese left him alone. Mottola had managed to stay in reasonably good odor with Sony Corporation’s former chairman Norio Ohga. But Ohga was succeeded in 1995 by managing director Nobuyuki Idei. “Idei is not impressed by flash,” sniffs one source close to Sony.

It has always been a company joke at Sony about who has to schlep to Japan for meetings, especially since the Japanese have a propensity for calling management meetings on holidays, or on September 12 this past year, when no one wanted to step on a plane. Still, says a source, “we go, and Howard goes, too.” But Mottola would go to Japan only when he was personally invited by Idei. That he hadn’t been there in many years was meaningful to the green-tea-leaf readers. And then the numbers caved.

“When business isn’t going well, suddenly you can’t treat your bosses badly anymore,” says one executive. In the early summer, Stringer started telling people he was letting Mottola go. The Japanese had finally tired of Mottola, he said. “In every board meeting, they were brutal and they were critical and they were demanding results,” says a source close to Mottola.

But sending him on his way wouldn’t be so easy. Sony, which paid Mottola as much as $20 million a year, with bonuses, didn’t want a rerun of Clive Davis’s long good-bye at Arista Records, in which Davis kicked up such a ruckus in the newspapers that BMG was compelled to hand him $150 million to go start J. Records. Two years later, BMG bought him out of J. Records and merged his label with RCA Records, handing him a new five-year contract to run the whole thing. Says a label head at a rival company, “It’s like, pay him to leave, pay him to stick around, and then pay him even more to come back.”

"Tommy never wanted Howard at any event. He didn't want him near the talent, " says a former employee. It grated on Stringer.

Attempting to ensure a smooth transition, Sony is negotiating with Columbia Records chairman Donnie Ienner to oversee both Columbia and Epic records. “Ienner runs the place like Tito ran Yugoslavia,” says one rival-label head. “But he’s very proven.”

Last summer, two years before Mottola’s contract ran out—not long after J. to tha L-O! hit the Billboard top ten—he announced he wanted to begin talks with Sony; Stringer & Co. stonewalled as they secretly shopped for a replacement. Friends say it was a frustrating and embarrassing period for him.

A source says that ultimately, Sony bought out Mottola’s five-year contract, and threw in a bonus. “He probably made more this way than if he’d stayed,” one Sony source observes.

'I’m not sure why he wanted to do it,” says talent manager and former MCA head Irving Azoff. He’s pondering why Andy Lack, whose music credentials are mostly that he’s a big Eagles fan and friend of Don Henley’s, took the Sony Music job. “But if you knew Andy and if you knew Howard—and I do—you’d think this had a real shot at working. It’s a bold choice.”

Others are less sanguine about the appointment. “They’re treating the music business like it’s widgets,” says R&B mogul Andre Harrell, his voice freighted with skepticism.

“Andy’s got an ability to negotiate with talent, and there are going to be some very different negotiations that are going to be taking place,” says ex–Sony board member Pete Peterson. The revolution Sony expects to lead is going to demand new kinds of relationships with talent, distribution, media, and manufacturers. There is also talk of new ways to compensate artists. People in the business call Lack’s appointment the triumph of the suits. But Lack has defenders.

“The fact that someone puts on a suit every day does not automatically mean that all creative ideas fly out of his head,” says Strauss Zelnick, a former studio executive who resigned from BMG in 2000 after five tension-filled years. “I mean, who’s a suit? Barry Diller wears a suit to the office. We should all aspire to be that kind of suit.”

NBC News anchor Brian Williams concurs. “I’ve read all the clips on the skeptics who wonder how Andy is going to translate his skills,” he says. “He had no experience here as a news-division president and he was handed an enormous budget and an enormous task—taking the news division from No. 3 to No. 1. Which he did. I have never doubted for a second that he will be successful at Sony.”

Andrew Lack was always one of the more creative executives in the news business—sometimes to his detriment. An adman who’d worked on the Crest and Charmin accounts, Lack landed on CBS Reports in the late seventies, where he befriended a young Welsh writer-producer named Howard Stringer.

“Stringer always thought of Andy as his No. 1 weapon for popularizing the network documentary,” says someone who worked with both of them. “He would always hold up Andy’s work as the way we want to go.” Stringer and Lack had a Thursday-night poker game: “Your status at News was determined by things like that. Those who were in were in. Those who were out were dead,” says the source. There were people at the table who thought Lack would sometimes lose deliberately. “He was the schmoozer of all schmoozers,” says a former co-worker.

“Andy was always very Hollywood” is another trait people like to cite. Lack first won notoriety as the creator of an early newsmagazine show called West 57th, often described as breakthrough and before its time—and also as the beginning of the end for network news. Scored with boomerly jazz and alive with hyperkinetic montages, West 57th aimed to be a TV version of Rolling Stone, serving pop culture with its politics.

It was Bob Wright who appointed Lack to head up the news division. And things did go well during Lack’s stewardship. Lack got the $15 million street-level Today show studio built. When he took over at NBC News ten years ago, it was losing $100 million a year. By the time he was elevated to network president, he’d coordinated efforts to put the news division $250 million in the black. And when Lack left the network, NBC had the No. 1 morning program, the No. 1 evening program, the No. 1 Sunday-morning program, a successful and profitable newsmagazine, and a cable channel, even if some believe Lack didn’t have the big job long enough to make an impact there.

It was hard playing second fiddle to Bob Wright. Over Wright’s objections, Lack had been hired by Jack Welch as Wright’s putative successor; Welch’s and Lack’s wives were also close. Lack had been promised a bigger role, as everybody thought Wright would recede at NBC when Welch retired. Only Wright wasn’t ready to fade to black. And his wife, Suzanne, liked her job as First Lady of NBC. After all, the Wrights’ boat is named The Peacock. “Suzanne Wright thinks she’s the co-chairman of NBC. She uses the we word,” says a friend.

“Suzanne Wright got tired of hearing that Andy Lack did this and Andy Lack did that,” says another source. Wright and Lack’s relationship soon frayed beyond repair. Bob Wright, who had hired Lack all those years ago, was now trying to fire him. But he was overruled by GE’s chief, Jeffrey Immelt. “Andy grew increasingly isolated,” says a source. “Everybody clearly got the message that you don’t say nice things about Andy Lack if you want to be in the good graces of Bob Wright,” says a source close to NBC. “Bob Wright would always ask people the question very overtly: ‘Does anybody know what Andy does? What is Andy doing with his time?’ ”

There are those who believe that Wright’s annoyance with Lack impacted the fortunes of MSNBC, which Lack started and which remains a valuable asset in spite of its ratings. “A few years ago, MSNBC was the rising star in the news world, and now it’s kind of an asterisk,” says a source close to NBC. “Nothing happened in that operation for two years.” There is speculation that Wright didn’t want it to look good because it was Lack’s baby. Others argue Lack simply lost interest.

A Sony executive concedes the divorce from Mottola needed to be rushed, as Lack couldn’t eject from NBC fast enough; NBCers were surprised to see him land at Sony Music instead of at Sony’s movie studios or TV operation. Lack’s reported $2 million salary will also be lofted by bonuses predicated on his turning things around, says a source close to Sony.

In his first week on the job, Lack met with executives to gauge Sony Music’s numbers for the next few quarters. Some wonder if Donnie Ienner will play well with Lack. “They’re going to go through that whole thing about how they don’t want everyone to leave,” says one ex–label head. “But then you’re going to have people working for you who you don’t trust. Andy Lack is in for some fucking ride.” “Donnie Ienner is a real street fellow,” says someone who knows them both. “Andy Lack reads books. There’s an inevitability to the conflict.”

Howard Stringer strode purposefully toward the table at The Four Seasons. It was the last Monday in January, and Thomas D. Mottola was here in a decidedly unflashy gray-on-gray sport coat and slacks having lunch in the Grill Room with Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, discussing the the chart-topping Chicago soundtrack. “When no one believed in Chicago, and I’m saying no one, it was Tommy Mottola and Polly Anthony who came through,” says Weinstein. There was also the possibility the pair might do a Broadway musical together.

“Howard was extremely cordial with Tommy,” said Weinstein. “Howard’s manners are impeccable. I don’t think Howard is the villain in the piece.” Friends say Mottola is still in a state of shock.

As for Sony’s offer to give Mottola a label, people in the business are likening it to a studio president who gets fired and is handed a production deal. Though many have called the press-release chatter about Mottola’s getting a new Sony label a Japanesey, face-saving tactic, a source close to Sony insists a label might very well happen, citing his prowess with the divas.

But Mottola, a tough guy to the last, isn’t waiting on Sony. He immediately started working the phones, and already, the man who helped broker the Grammys’ return to New York has secured a preliminary deal with VH1 to conduct a star search with the catchy title Destination Diva. He is also most definitely going ahead with a management company. The word is that Mottola is already trying to poach major stars from their managers. Says Irving Azoff somewhat huffily, “I’ve just been told he called Enrique Iglesias, who’s managed by Jeff Kwatinetz at the Firm, and that it made Kwatinetz crazy.” (Kwatinetz didn’t return calls.)

As is his habit, Mottola also went on the prowl for some real estate, ultimately taking a penthouse office in a well-secured landmark building under renovation on West 57th Street and still swarming with hard hats. The phone rings and is brightly answered, full of hope for whatever life’s B-side might bring: “Champion Entertainment.”


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