Cleveland Scene: That’s All, Folks: Will the last major-label rep to leave Cleveland please turn off the light?

by DX Ferris
June 17, 2009

When Warner Bros., Elektra and Atlantic Records merged into one international music-industry powerhouse in 1970, Cleveland had one of the new Warner Music Group’s first offices. And for decades, its sales and marketing force made it one of the stronger ones.

In May, when the Warner Group (also known as WEA, short for Warner Elektra Atlantic) laid off John Koury, it released the last foot soldier from a long line of sales and marketing pros that helped influence what music took root in the city — and, sometimes, across the country. Koury was the last major-label sales representative in the city. Now, Northeast Ohio’s Sony and Universal sales reps work out of Cincinnati. EMD/Capitol’s is in Pittsburgh.

Koury declined multiple requests to speak for this article. If his severance is anything like the generous deal WEA gave to those who went before him, it includes financial penalties for publicly discussing company business. But WEA has a whole contingent of former employees in the city. And their hush periods have expired.

Fifteen years ago, the Warner Group had 10 employees in the market. By 2007, it had just three. Then the company slashed 400 jobs in response to the industry’s digital-era downturn. From colleagues to co-workers, Koury is remembered well. Koury was (is) a music person, one of a peculiar breed you find in radio stations, newspapers, magazines, blogs and — increasingly rarely — in record companies. They’re people who are drawn to the music, who need to be involved with it. Koury, say the people who know him, was a man of discerning taste, a fan of country, R&B, rap. A guy who wouldn’t just talk about his accounts, but could discuss all labels’ music and its relative merits.

Back in the 20th century, local sales reps affected what their cities bought. In the 1950s and ’60s, reps simply took orders. Through the ’70s and ’80s, go-getters reinvented the job into what former WEA sales rep Bill Peters calls “smarketing” — sales plus marketing. Peters started with Warner Group in 1981, unloading trucks. Over the years, he worked his way up the ladder. Along the way, he made some things happen.

Across the country, local reps like Peters used their connections to make low- or-no-cost promotions. They improved print ads the national office sent. They organized cross-promotions with local businesses like Regal cinemas. Peters used his connections to sell a Black Sabbath/Heaven and Hell DVD via a screening-Q&A session at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And occasionally, he helped create city-stopping events, the stuff of legend — episodes that became Cleveland lore right up there with Howard Stern’s visit to the city.

A Tori Amos listening party drew fans from five states when Cleveland reps wrangled limited-edition promo items. In 2000, Peters twisted corporate arms until he lured metal gods Pantera for an in-store appearance at the Parma Heights Exchange. The event pulled a crowd of 2,000 and turned into an all-day circus of stripping women, beer-chugging dudes and a near-riot when the band turned up hours late. That’s not the kind of music-based experience that fits on an iPod; it’s one you don’t even get at a concert.

When WEA cut Peters loose in 2007, he was one of the country’s top sales reps, but he was too expensive to keep. So the company consolidated marketing, sales and merchandising positions into one, with all duties assigned to Koury, the youngest and cheapest employee.

With local diehards like Peters and Koury gone, WEA’s Chicago office now decides what music is advertised and pushed in Cleveland. And now if Cleveland gets a listening party, it’s more likely to be a low-key gathering of fans who enter a room, sit down, listen to the new album and leave.

“Anyone can go in and sell Madonna records or Led Zeppelin DVDs,” says Peters. “If you have things you can do in your town, it makes a big difference for your accounts. Smaller accounts like the Record Den [and] the Exchange — they really benefit from having people here. You could keep 20 of us and get rid of one high-pay executive. We know our towns, we know what works in our markets — not some guy at a desk in Burbank.”

WEA’s retreat could be taken as another woe-is-Cleveland story, but it’s really about the entire record business. As with radio, overvalued record companies changed hands, consolidated, choked on debt and let executives with questionable credibility continue making bad decisions that sank the company. To an outsider, it seems like the music industry is giving up ground it doesn’t need to by pulling local reps, giving up to the Internet and big-box stores, and saving the expense of a fight. They might be right. Tastemaker jobs don’t pay what they used to, and they’re drying up.

“It’s the nationalization of radio and the nationalization of retail,” explains Ted Cohen, a music-industry guru who worked with the WEA Cleveland office from the late ’60s through the early ’70s. “Other than regional peculiarities, we’ve moved into an area where everything happens, for better or worse, on a national level. It doesn’t happen on a local level any more.”

Like Peters, Koury will always be a music person, whether or not he’s working in the business. Corporate cost-cutting decisions aren’t just clipping a few more local jobs. They’re impacting local businesses.

“Guys like John Koury are the victims of guys at the top not having any clue,” says John Shahinian, who dealt with Koury as a partner in the Exchange, a regional independent chain. “All that John lost was a job. Warner Bros. is too stupid to understand what they lost. If they knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t have to chop heads. You don’t get rid of people like John Koury. You build with people like John Koury.”

Posted by Ted • Wednesday, June 17, 2009 .