Rock and Roll Book Club: Dorothy Carvello's 'Anything for a Hit'

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Dorothy Carvello's 'Anything for a Hit.'
Dorothy Carvello's 'Anything for a Hit.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Imagine this scenario. You're a woman in the music industry, and you walk in to greet a professional peer. He looks up from his piano and says, "Why are you wearing a red bra?"

You reply, "Why are you looking down my shirt?" You both...laugh? Yep. This cringe-worthy incident (the man is Frank DiLeo) counts as one of the happier moments in Dorothy Carvello's memoir, practically a feel-good story in a book that also describes the sexual, physical, emotional, and verbal harassment the author experienced at the hands of some of the most powerful men in the music industry.

Foremost among them is Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary co-founder of Atlantic Records. Carvello first met Ertegun in 1986, when she was 24 and he was 63. Looking to break into the music industry, she'd swung connections to get the meeting, and kept working the angles until she was finally hired as his secretary. She was ultimately promoted to become the first female A&R executive in Atlantic history, later moving on to RCA and Columbia before retiring from the business in 2006.

She didn't get assigned the biggest acts — you didn't, as a woman. She got Skid Row signed, a big win for Atlantic...but then she rejected their manager's advances, and got cut out of their career. She had a sweet liaison with Michael Hutchence of INXS. She urged Columbia to sign Creed, but they passed because the band sounded too much like Pearl Jam. "That's the f---ing point," Carvello remembers thinking.

Most of the book is an astonishing catalog of moral depravity and abuse, much but not all of it aimed at Carvello. She describes Ertegun as a sex-addicted, alcoholic, manipulative monster who also happened to have brilliant ideas for his label — and in that era, Carvello, suggests, his lifestyle was a pro rather than a con. The story, which Carvello repeats, is that he managed to sign the Rolling Stones in the early '70s because he partied with them until they were ready to talk turkey, then offered them a deal and passed out drunk before they could respond. They were impressed.

Carvello would open Ertegun's mail to find compromising photos ("this was a rough way to start my day," she writes before selecting an unappealing simile to describe her boss's naked body) from women she'd then need to pay off using company money. Beyond the documentation of the culture of routine harassment, Carvello's book is eye-opening for its precise documentation of all the ways labels would cheat their artists out of money that would then be used to pay for sex, drugs, and presumably dividends.

Many of these ways involved remainders and cut-outs. There were various ways for labels to account for records, CDs, and tapes as unsellable — they'd be counted as promo items, or as production overruns, or as cut-out returns — and then sell them to record stores at a discount. That way, the store got to offer a low price, the label got a cut of the action, and the artists got...yep, nothing.

Carvello even describes how the labels would boost less-established artists up on the backs of big sellers, at the direct expense of the stars. As a hypothetical example — but after noting that Laura Branigan was romantically involved with Ertegun — Carvello describes a transaction in which retailers would be induced to carry copies of Branigan's unpopular album in return for getting cut-out versions of, say, Genesis's Invisible Touch.

If you walked into the record store in 1986, you'd see Invisible Touch on the shelf for $12.99, and you'd find the same album in the "G" section of the bargain bin for $5. If you bought the bargain-bin album, Genesis got screwed.

"Even the legal s--t we did was messed up," writes Carvello, citing practices like plying artists with lavish "gifts" that were actually being deducted from their own royalties. The only way artists could get to the bottom of any of this was auditing their own label, a combatative and tedious process.

The memoir could serve as a textbook on how a culture of toxic masculinity favors the alpha males who knew how to work it, while hurting artists, fans, and of course women. Time and again, Carvello describes a male executive losing his job for perfectly good reason, only to call in a favor and get hired elsewhere — or at least (sometimes additionally) sabotaging his former friend. Sometimes this just involved artists being played like pawns, and sometimes it was directly abusive towards them.

One particularly insidious story involves Mariah Carey's career after breaking up with Columbia honcho Tommy Mottola. When the then-20-something Carey was married to the 40-something Mottola, everything was gravy: she'd show up at Columbia's New York offices to find a herd of literal sheep in tribute to her nickname for her fans. After the couple broke up, though, things got nasty.

Carey moved from Columbia to Virgin, where she started work on a feature film and soundtrack called Glitter. Mottola used his industry connections to watch early cuts of the film, taking notes on the style of the songs she was planning to release. One of them was a super-catchy give-and-take duet with Ja Rule, sampling a 1978 disco jam called "Firecracker." Mottola, according to Carvello (and Carey), called in a favor with his friend Irv Gotti at Murder Inc. Records. Gotti got Ja Rule to join Jennifer Lopez for a remix of "I'm Real" where the two duet in call-and-response style over a sample from...yep, "Firecracker." Carey's track couldn't be released.

Pretty much the only man Carvello has consistently positive things to say about is Hutchence. "I remembered his charisma, his passion, and his wicked sense of humor," she writes about the day she learned of the INXS frontman's suicide. On that day, she writes, she was comforted by a "truly wonderful" Ahmet Ertegun.

Wait...that Ahmet Ertegun? The guy who groped her at a funeral? In the book's final chapter, Carvello muses on the mentor who abused her.

He was a historic figure, a legend, and an abuser of substances and people. He gave me my first job and set the tone for the rest of my career. He taught me the most valuable lesson in life: it doesn't matter what others think of you; it only matters what you think of yourself. He also fractured my arm, called me stupid every day, and made unwanted sexual advances at will. What the hell was I supposed to do with that?

One of the goals of the #MeToo movement, of course, is to provide people of all genders with a clear answer to such questions. In 1986, Carvello felt she had no choice but to endure Ertegun's treatment to benefit from his largesse. It was, as she might say, messed up.

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