Maurice Louis Oberstein, record company executive: born New York 26 September 1928; died London 13 August 2001.
Maurice Oberstein and Rupert Perry, both is their day Chairs of the BPI and titans of the British music business!
Maurice Oberstein was a flamboyant character who helped CBS Records develop and establish British talent on the international stage. Under his stewardship, the UK arm of the company scored 44 No 1 singles in the domestic market and signed world-class acts like the Clash, Wham! and Sade.
Famous for his forthright views and his constantly changing headgear, “Obie” often infuriated guests at awards ceremonies by turning up with one of his beloved dogs. During conferences and meetings, he would pretend to listen to advice from the animals named Charlie, Eric or Jimmy after other record company executives he admired. His other favourite trick to signal his impatience during contractual negotiations would be to leave his Homburg, Tam o’ Shanter, tricorn, turban or sailor’s cap behind with the ensuing quip: “Talk to the hat. You’re making no sense.
An only son born in New York in 1928, Oberstein came from a music-business family. In the Forties, his father, Eli, was in charge of signing new talent such as the crooner Perry Como to RCA Victor. Having studied chemical engineering and law, “Obie” joined Rondor, the budget label launched by his father.
In 1963, three years after his father died, Oberstein showed he had inherited his quick thinking and business acumen. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Oberstein got permission from the President’s estate and rush-released an album of speeches entitled The John Kennedy Memorial Album. This collection sold over four million copies in less than a month, earning an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s fastest-selling LP.
Two years later, Oberstein joined CBS Records in New York. Soon he was despatched to London to help launch the label as a stand-alone company in the UK. Over the course of the next 20 years, he rose through the executive ranks, eventually becoming chairman of CBS Records UK. Anglophile and eccentric to the last, “Obie” would eat fish and chips in the back of his Rolls-Royce before checking out the Clash in a club.
In 1985, he tried to outsmart the CBS chief Walter Yetnikoff by saying he would join Polygram unless he was offered a bigger job. Yetnikoff called his bluff by announcing Oberstein’s retirement at a conference in Hawaii. However, Oberstein got his revenge and was subsequently appointed managing director of Polygram Music. In 1993, after another two-year stint heading the BPI and having supervised the lucrative purchase of Abba’s catalogue and masterminded the acquisitions of the A&M and Island repertoires by Polygram, he was honoured with the Music Industry Trust Award. He retired but was soon appointed “Professor of Pop” at the music faculty of Miami University.
A keen horseman and football fan, it was Maurice Oberstein’s last wish for half his ashes to be scattered on Cheltenham Race Course with the rest at QPR’s Loftus Road ground. At a time when the UK music industry is struggling to recapture market share in the US and the rest of Europe, his drive and vision should act as a reminder of the heights British talent can reach.
This obituary appeared in The Independent shortly after his 2001 death. I interviewed him about a year earlier. Here’s what he told me!
What brought you to London in the first place?
I sold the budget record company I ran in the States after my father’s death. I’d run it for four or five years but lost interest and sold it. I looked for a job. It happened by the merest chance that the person I used to buy print from was a good friend of someone in CBS, and I had never thought of working for a major company. I was introduced to somebody at CBS, his name was Al Schulman, who was in charge of premiums and special projects – the great secondary market of the record business. He knew my father who had been in A&R for RCA for many years, and said ‘Why don’t you see Harvey Schein?’ Harvey Schein had been commissioned out of the legal department at Columbia, where everybody came from.Walter Yetnikoff, Dick Asher, Clive Davis, Neal Keating – they were all out of the Columbia Records domestic business affairs department.
The accusation that today’s record business is run by people who are not interested in music is not inaccurate, then?
Nothing is any different; all progress is circular; all go through the seven ages of whatever it is, all go through expansions, consolidations, and mergers. What we’re doing today is no different from the normal kind of thing. automation industry, chemical industry, pharmaceutical industry, film industry, whatever industry – none of this is uncommon. You either run out of steam, ideas, excitement, whatever it is you bring when you’re young to a business. You take more chances when you’re older because you don’t have to worry with all this money in the bank. When you’re young you don’t take chances for fear you won’t be able to pay the mortgage.
I kind of think it’s the other way round
That’s what people say, but I say that, when you think about it, being able to do what you choose to do without firings it’s for the end of your career, the end of your life, the end of any more opportunity.
But having grown up not doing it, it can’t be easy to make that change
I certainly didn’t find that to be the case. As I got bigger and stronger I found it much easier to take chances. Found it much easier to invest in young producers, young production companies, young labels, left field choices of people. Some failed, some succeeded on the basis that it didn’t matter because the company was strong enough and I was strong enough to withstand failure. When you’re young you’re afraid that Friday may come. We’re all artists in that way; we’re all in terminable agreements. They may not pick up my option because the campaign I did was a failure, or someone yelled at me, thought I was stupid and then I was done! So you hang back slightly when you’re young, don’t go so far out. The reverse is always said but in practice I always found that fear drove people away from chance taking. Then when there is a period of recession with people being fired, with companies being downsized you have to be extremely careful because anybody with a quaint original off-the-wall idea didn’t present it for fear they’re liable to be remembered.”Oh, is he still here?” So everyone hangs back and they’re not noticed.
All that’s a bit of a condemnation of management in a creative business.
Yes, but the creative management has to survive for when the upturn comes. Many don’t make it to the next cycle.
So I was given an interview with Harvey Schein who by the sheerest of luck had taken the philosophy of Goddard Lieberson and the board of CBS to get away from licensees and move to wholly owned subsidiaries around the world. So CBS International was formed, a division charged with the responsibility of opening their own companies rather than licensing to EMI, Decca, etc. There were very few wholly owned companies (worldwide) . RCA with its electronics background, had penetrated Latin South America, so they had companies in Brazil, Mexico and a few other countries, but even RCA didn’t have European companies. Columbia/CBS may have had a Mexican company and possibly Canadian, but (in the rest of the world) you were looking at distribution branches, rather than stand alone A&R driven record companies.
So I happened to wander into CBS International and had the perfect credentials for the job..there was no job! He (Schein) was just putting staff together and I was appointed because he was allowed to hire certain people. I was hired as an engineer, simply because I had graduated in chemical engineering and also had a degree in law from NVMU, and was a member of New York State bar, so what could be better on a CV than being both an engineer and a lawyer. This was 1964.
Had you travelled before?
I was at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki with my father. I was in the US forces in Austria and Germany. My first real overseas thing was coming to Europe in the army in the early 50’s. I got a chance to be in London and Paris. That was 1953-4 when there was still rationing. My favourite anecdote, which I’ll keep for my own book, was not realising the terrible state that Britain was in economically, how poor and run-down it was. Coming over on the cross-Channel ferry I saw this priest gorge himself on chocolate and then getting sick!
Getting this job coloured my life to the extent that if anybody is so stupid as to give me a job, then it becomes their problem, not mine! I suddenly found myself at CBS looking at a joint venture in India and then was suddenly asked to design a pressing plant to be built there, and then to go over and run it! It’s almost like them saying ‘you’re an engineer…’ Fortunately the joint venture fell through and I never got to India and I never built my factory. By chance, it then happened that CBS bought Oriole Records (who had a factory) at the end of 1964, and had a joint venture with Maurice Levy
So by then the links with Philips had already been severed
At a guess it was probably November ’64 that CBS came into its joint venture in the UK. EMI and Decca dominated the market, controlling prices and retail and everything else. Probably the old boys act controlled Two Way Family Favourites and what got played, and they also controlled all that airtime when Radio Luxembourg came along. So for an independent to survive we had to do everything. At EMI and Decca, customer manufacturing was not one of the strong arrows in their quiver, ‘Make records for others? Give them a chance to live and breathe?” Oriole had its own recording studio off Bond Street. Maurice Levy’s brother Jake ran that. I always resented that he prepared himself for the coming of the Nazis by changing his name from Levy to Lee. Maurice didn’t and Eddie Levy didn’t. I said to him one day ‘they can check whether you are circumcised or not – you ain’t going to get away with it.’
Oriole had a totally vertically integrated company. They had a classical department, A&R; they made hit records, they had artist relations people. Two of the people we inherited were Guy de Charmers (??) who was head of classical and Derek Witt head of public relations. We gave the people who ran the factories more money to build bigger factories. Oriole were alive during the way. Eddie Levy would have some knowledge though he was a kid at the time (we’ll get to Eddie at some point!) I was sitting around the office thinking about the Indian pressing plant, I suppose, and was told to go over to England to help because they weren’t able to deliver all the orders and maybe I could do something to sort out the distribution and get the stuff out, because, as always happens when there’s a change from a licence to someone else being a licensee, let alone owning it. There’s so much initial business because you’re reviving and marketing the catalogue, you’ve got people in the field selling the records, you’re presenting the stuff to the retailer, not letting it disappear into a dark room (no disrespect to EMI or Philips) They (the licensors) have so much catalogue, so much they’re working on that they don’t emphasise one label over another. Now they become our own company.
They (Oriole) were totally out of control, having taken the thing on. Harvey Schein came up with a deal that was absolutely wonderful as far as I was concerned. He had bought 50% of the companies around the world, with the option of buying the other 50%. Therefore he bought going concerns into which he laid the entire CBS catalogue. They made money from day one because they had huge volume. I saw him do with with a whole number of companies around the world. I was the first American in.
There I will leave Maurice and let you digest his dissertation on the joys of taking what became for many years the most important American record company in the world, from a mere licensee to first Philips and then EMI, to a stand alone world wide company. Much more to come!
©David Hughes 2020. Photographs via Google search are purely for illustration to break up the text