What is Herbert von Karajan doing on HBO?

What is Herbert von Karajan doing on HBO?


norman lebrecht

February 27, 2016

The HBO drama series ‘Vinyl’ focusses on life in the old record industry. Typically, Herbie gets in first.

Our review is from an industry veteran who asks to remains anonymous.

Herbert von Karajan. Autographed postcard.

Vinyl on HBO

The first scene in HBO’s new series “Vinyl” opens with a close up of Richie Finestra, the CEO of American Century, a fictional record label, in the conference room at PolyGram records, in the mid-seventies underneath a large black and white portrait of conductor Herbert von Karajan. As the camera pulls back and switches to the German executives the voice over is heard to say: “This is my story clouded by lost brain cells, self-aggrandizement, and maybe a little B.S.”

This series sprung from the mind of Mick Jagger and was developed by Martin Scorsese and Terrence Winter. While not a documentary, or even a docudrama “Vinyl” shows many of the personality types that have been in the record business since its inception. Most the events in the show have happened at one time or another, just not at the same time, by the same people, in the same place.

Richie Fenestra is played by Scorsese favorite Bobby Cannavale. Also on the staff at American Century are P. J. Byrne as Scott Leavitt, the lawyer for American Century; Max Casella as Julian “Julie” Silver, the head of A&R of American Century, J. C. Mackenzie as Skip Fontaine, head of sales for American Century, in his introduction is shown dumping box lots of unsold LPs in to the harbor in New Jersey, and Ray Romano as Zak Yankovich, Richie’s best friend and head of promotions at American Century. Yankovich is introduced supplying a disc Jockey with Cocaine which they snort off of the spinning LP that Yankovich is promoting.

For those who have read “Hit men”, “Mansion on the Hill”, or “Exploding” many of the types associated with the record business are illustrated. A touch or Morris Levy, a hint of Walter Yetnikoff, a bit of Paul Castellano and a dash of Joe Isgro. The era of the seventies as the record business was becoming more corporate and less entrepreneurial is the background while music tastes were fragmenting with the advent of punk, disco and the legacy acts shows how Fenestra had to navigate through his own personal demons as well as the changing landscape of his business and musical tastes.

The anachronisms are rampant, PolyGram did not exist in that form, and Mercury Records was purchased by Phonogram, the version of PolyGram that did exist, at that time. The fictional American Century was not sold in the series. The highlights for many people was the reference by the fictional PolyGram executives to “The Led Zeppelins”. The A&R meeting where Fenestra and Julie Silver threaten their staff has happened from time to time. But the word that should never be spoken out loud was said. “Recoupment”. Maury Gold in trying to get an extension from the mob enforcer, Corrado Galasso, on his gambling debt payments talks about how advertising, promotion, manufacturing, and other expenses are charged back against the artist’s royalty accounts. “If the drummer drinks a Pepsi at the session he is paying for it at a huge mark-up”.

Nowadays the music business is run by people whose expertise is spreadsheets, demographic studies, and corporate reports to shareholders and regulators. As the late Stan Cornyn said, in his book, “Exploding”: “The suits won.” With such large amounts of money at risk and the change in how consumers obtain music the dollars and sense are spent.

A long time industry veteran once said: “Back in the day thick volumes were written about the music business. Now it all can be summed up in 140 characters.” The era of “Vinyl” has come and gone but the stories sure were colorful.


  • Olassus says:

    OT, but …

    Isn’t it spring, sprang, sprung? So here sprang.

    Another post the other day had shrunk in place of shrank, as (farcically) in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

    Swim, swam, swum. Sing, sang, sung. Etc.

  • Joel stein says:

    Meanwhile the show is pretty awful

  • David Boxwell says:

    What is Herbert Von Karajan Doing on HBO Doing Evita?