A Personal History of the British Record Industry 83 – Maurice Oberstein Pt.3

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Up to this point, Maurice had been responsible solely for the factory side of the newly  created UK branch of CBS Records, so….

At what stage did you move away from manufacturing  ?

It just came..slowly and surely. How much was there to do in manufacture and distribution? What do you do with your day? So  it (the time) allowed me to start the premium special project company. It allowed me to do other things – I was available as a pair of hands. By an accident of geography I was always on the same floor as the head of the company. So they’d come in and talk to me, tell me their problems. I could attend all the meetings so it wasn’t as if I was physically out at the factory or distribution centre. I was in the building at the right hand of whoever was running the company, Clancy, Richard Robinson or Asher. I was always there which was fortunate. So they’d look at me or talk to me or see me at gigs. They’d wheel me in if they had some American they wanted to talk to – I was the token American! So by my physical presence I got involved and given assignments. I’d sit in meetings and I learned a little bit about marketing. I ended up being in  charge of the sales company because there was nobody there who was interested in sales. So that allowed me to meet (John) Fruin. It allowed me to go downstairs to the EMI meetings and sell to EMI (salesmen) – we ended up with joint distribution with EMI. We could distribute through everybody in those days – to Selecta, which was Decca, through EMI, through Philips. Philips were still manufacturing a lot of the (CBS) catalogue; we’d ship it out of there with a  new numbering system. I was responsible for the drop shipping (?) facility and Philips would warehouse a lot of the catalogue, so we’d split the orders. Philips would do all the classics because we were a shitty quality manufacturer. We really couldn’t compete with Decca and we weren’t as nearly as good as EMI; we really weren’t and the reviews we got in The Gramophone were justified. We were making pressings not up to the quality of Decca, certainly, and later, EMI too. There was a certain amount of prejudice. A favourite thing I remember, a review in The Gramophone of a Columbia Bernstein recording. Actually I became friendly with the Pollards (Tony and his son Chris, creators of The Gramophone). They’d worked out where their money was coming from – their advertisers and we were a small advertiser. I don’t say they biased their reviewers to be more favourable to Decca and EMI releases – their staff were really good – but you knew they used to constantly criticise American recordings as being brash, a hard brittle sound and all that sort of garbage. Then I knew how important the  label was to the classical business because they reviewed one of the CBS recordings with that same standard palaver but it happened it had been recorded by the Decca production group, with the Decca mobile, Decca mastering and Decca had pressed the record, and it was because it had a CBS label on it! It was damned for having “that hard brash American sound that we don’t favour over here in Europe”…and that was OK – all these things are lessons.

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Tony Pollard (right) and John Mew, former head of EMI Record Tokens, at my Abbey Road retirement party, as it happens!! (face-spotters may also recognise the silver locks of Bill ~Martin and the no locks of Vic Lanza in the background – only John is still with us, sadly)

So, having had a chance at being in distribution I suddenly find myself in sales because I was with the sales department trying to figure out how much we’d got to make and what we were doing. So I would go round as I was always interested in sales, to all the monthly sales meetings, to Roberts (I think it was) at Selecta, to Fruin and all of his crew, including Roy Featherstone, and we would have the chance to present our stuff to the distributors. I got to know the layer of people in the (CBS) sales side and sales then became my responsibility. Logical because we had to make the stuff and who knew what the sales department was doing?! We used the distributors’ sales forces. They would take a box or two of every damn thing we made, so we put out anything, and particularly with the low selling classics or jazz we could sell 300-500 of everything. We couldn’t sell 500 copies across the counter, but with this huge network of distributors our costs were amortised. And by that time small quantities were also being manufactured by my friends at Decca, so I found a way of getting decent pressings. I didn’t care what the price was because I couldn’t manufacture them (at that quality) , myself. They were charging horrendous sums of money but they made wonderful records and that took all the pressure off the classic al people in America and my own people complaining about the quality of our records. It was done by first class people and they needed the business at that time – it was in the days of Bill Townsley. Sir Edward knew my father – they used to do things together in America, so I brought a certain cache with my name.

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Sir Edward Lewis

So I moved into sales and by accident one day Olav Wyper left, who was head of marketing, and I became head of marketing and sales and then eventually became Deputy Managing Director which made me in charge of everything except A&R and the company. This was early 1970’s.

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Olav Wyper.

I always understood that journalists had space to fill and my company had developed  a good relationship with journalists – they knew they could count on us. Gossip columns had Friday afternoon calls and I always kept those lines open to the press because that’s free advertising. That’s back to advertising costs – getting that free space to me as a marketing person is wonderful. That was my quid pro quo – I got that and they got editorial. Every now and then I would overstep the mark and shout and scream at somebody..”if you don’t do this for us I’m going to pull my advertising”, but they knew that come Monday I’d be back.

Dick Asher came in in 1973. That was my one big break – like the Indian pressing plant (mentioned in a previous episode) – so when Clancy left to go to RCA I was the logical replacement. I’d been there four or five years, I knew a lot about the company, but they decided to appoint our English finance director  Richard Robinson to MD  over me. I say what was good about that was that I didn’t really have enough experience and knowledge and therefore another couple of years was very good for me. I did a much better job taking it on after Asher came in, because he was a terrific man to work for. Very good, very thorough, verbose and boring and 16 other things, but very genuine and I sat there and learnt; watched his organisation, watched the meetings he set up. The skeleton of the modern CBS was done by Asher – all the jobs, all the spaces – he was a methodical man, all the holes, all the understanding, all the relationships, all the artists – he knew all the people and knew all about it. He was excellent .

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So excellent, it’s worth repeating the photo!

I remember  being impressed at the CBS Conference by the stature of the artists performing

They understood – that was their living. And I was the first, when I was marketing for Asher, to bring customers to the sales conference. What a wonderful thing for three days, we own these f*ck*rs, everyone was aghast. That was part of the American training; customers – we want them at our sales meetings; we want them at our dinners, we want to entertain them, we want to be friendly so they wouldn’t yell at us when they had a problem. They (the key dealers) were chuffed – other companies weren’t doing it, so they were thrilled in their work-a-day lives to have the opportunity to meet the artists and see the kind of presentations we made, which were first class. They could sit at the same table and have a drink with them. And I felt just the same way meeting these people at The Dorchester.

When Richard Robinson was appointed, were you aspiring to the top position?

Well, I’ve been lucky – I’ve never aspired to anything so I’ve never been disappointed. I never had a job plan. The only people whom I thought peculiar were  those who, when I was about to hire somebody, would talk about ‘steps on the ladder’, where was this job going to lead? I had no idea when I went to college what I was going to study, what I was going to do. It’s all sort of happened. Good friends would call me and say ‘ how dare they appoint him over you? How can you put up with that?’ At that point I might have left because I might might have been bruised, but I didn’t have any ego. I didn’t have any aspirations. I thought I should have the job because I was the best available and there was no comparison between me and anyone else – they didn’t have another American, they already had me, therefore I could do the job pretty good! When Robinson came in, that was OK, it didn’t bother me at all. The agitation of others, wanting to make me angry, fell on stony ground because I wasn’t growing any of that envy or desire or any kind of thought that I was going to be that (MD) one day. I didn’t have any fear of that, didn’t have any concerns – it never occurred to me, it didn’t matter. I had a lovely job, more and more freedom within the company and I was allowed to operate. I was never bothered by politics. I worked for whomever I worked for and by my personality or strength they left me alone. I never had any difficulty with any of these peopler; they never described what I should be doing or shouldn’t be doing. It was the best situation to be in. I found when I finally became head of the company, how scary it was – how different art was to being deputy.

 

I’ll leave it there, with Obie, as we all knew him, though maybe not to his face, now in charge of CBS UK. As a self indulgent aside, I shared with him no concept or thought of career progress. Having by pure chance become a jobbing reporter on the Kent Messenger in 1966, with a passion for music that started 10 years before then and a particularly love of the pirate radio stations, I did quickly persuade my editor to give me a quarter page music column, the cuttings from which I used to secure myself a job on Disc & Music Echo, one of the many national music papers. After that, 31 years just took me along. 

text © David Hughes. Illustrations from Google to break up the text.

About dhvinyl

Lifelong obsession with music, 33 years in the music business, 43 years immersed in selling old records, 20 years very happily retired!
This entry was posted in A Personal History of the British Record Business, Stories of the British Music Business, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Personal History of the British Record Industry 83 – Maurice Oberstein Pt.3

  1. Adrian Murray says:

    What a pro ! What a worker ! Actually that is the message (depressing as it is to us flâneurs & idlers) that emerges from all these extremely illuminating posts about very successful people. To adapt what Gary Player(?) said: (about golf) … the more they practised, the luckier they became.

    Having said that …. we in the peanut gallery are still looking forward to outrageous tales of extravagant eccentricity …. but i’m beginning to worry that those may not materialise ….

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    • dhvinyl says:

      Bear in mind these interviews were originally intended as the basis of a book on the History of the British Music Business. That said, Ken East, Colin Burn and Tony Calder are three whose conversations would have had to be edited had they been for formal publishing! Ken East’s in fact, contained a section that did verge on slander and in deference to the individual concerned, I agreed to delete!

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  2. Adrian Murray says:

    Dear Dave,

    Much appreciate your reply, which (alas) I’ve not negligently seen up to now (May 30th)
    My golf club (Mitcham) opened ( according to govt. 🤮 official plan) about a couple of weeks ago, and frankly I have taken my eye off the ball (music-biz-wise) …..since then.
    It’s really bizarre….but I subsequently never met a banker or City big-wig whose business credibility positive vibes even came close to Ken East & (in a wholly different way) Colin Burn.

    I still have a few a few record biz anecdote stories which I will share with you privately.

    As always,
    Yours Adriano
    A

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