Seymour Stein's first exposure to music was listening to the chart countdown on Martin Block's "Make Believe Ballroom" upon returning home from synagogue, hiding the radio under the pillow from his disapproving father. Billboard's Tom Noonan hired him to work at the trade publication as a teenager, where he immediately began devouring the history of the business.
From there, Stein served as an assistant to the man he describes as "my greatest mentor," the legendary Syd Nathan at Cincinnati's King Records, home of James Brown. Working at the Brill Building for Red Bird Records, he met Richard Gottehrer, with whom he launched Sire Records in 1966, first as a production company, then as a groundbreaking label, home of, among others, the first wave of artists to emerge from the punk scene at New York's famed music club CBGB. His signings to Sire ranged from the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, and Richard Hell to second-wave groups from across the globe, including the Pretenders, Depeche Mode, the Smiths, the Cure, Soft Cell, the Replacements, Echo & The Bunnymen, Dinosaur Jr., and k.d. lang. In 1982 he signed an ambitious dancer-turned-artist from Detroit named Madonna, and the rest was history.
Today, as chairman of Sire and senior label A&R executive for independent music at Warner Music Group (where his duties include signing labels for indie distributor Alternative Distribution Alliance), Stein's latest discoveries include Regina Spektor, Tegan And Sara, Delta Rae, Kill It Kid, Ben Fields, and Ewert And The Two Dragons. In recognition of his exemplary career, Stein will receive the inaugural CBGB Icon Award at the second annual CBGB Music & Film Festival, taking place Oct. 8–13 in New York.
In an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview, Stein discussed his CBGB honor, the allure of '70s-era punk and new wave, his career legacy, and working with artists such as Madonna and the Ramones.
What does this honor mean to you, coming from CBGB?
I'm blessed to have been born and grown up in Brooklyn. I had Alan Freed to listen to on the radio when I came home from school. I had the D-train to take me from Kings Highway up to 125th Street to buy my records at the Record Shack, Bobby's [Happy House] or Rainbow. I had the Alan Freed shows every Easter and Christmas. My mom would pack up sandwiches so I could sit through the three shows. The only horrible thing [was] those movies in between. New York was the music business back then … Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, along with the major labels, RCA, Columbia and Decca.
Little by little, New York had eroded as a music capitol by the '70s. It was slowly becoming less important. CBGB brought it all back home, at least for me. It was a place to hang out. I loved the atmosphere. I loved the fact that no one from any of the major labels ever came there, or else I wouldn't have been able to sign any of the bands I did. I loved [CBGB owner] Hilly [Kristal]. When I was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I invited both Tom Noonan and Hilly to sit at my table. I wanted them to be with me.
Why does that '70s punk-new wave era continue to fascinate?
The music traveled much better than anyone expected. Those bands did better internationally than they did in America, even though some of them did very well here. I felt so bad for the Ramones. They'd come back from England, playing big theaters in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Newcastle, and then have to go back to playing small venues like CBGB here.
Are you one of those who pines for "the good old days" of the music business?
Of course I do. I'd be a liar if I said I didn't. The music is what always motivated me. And the songs. I much prefer "words and music by" in the credits, rather than "top line." If you don't think the Ramones were great f***ing songwriters, listen to their music now. They were so influential on bands that came after them.
What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the music business today as an executive?
If you're in college, get an internship to learn what the business is about. I know former interns who have managed to get good jobs. There aren't as many positions. Sales are probably half what they were 12 years ago. It's very, very hard. Don't expect it to happen overnight. It certainly didn't for me. We had a hard time keeping our doors open at Sire. Our first really big success was the Dutch band Focus in 1973. What drew attention to Sire Records was CBGB, which is why I'm so grateful to them.
What's left for you to accomplish in the record industry?
I'm working at ADA now, where my job is to bring on new labels. I've already signed a small company called Baltic Records, which is run by Dave Pichilingi, who is the prime mover in Liverpool Sound City, a great UK event held early spring every year. I love the guys at ADA. I work closely with Mike Jbara, who heads it up. I think this is a big part of Warner's future.
Who are some of the most memorable artists you've worked with?
Ice-T for his resiliency. Madonna for her determination. David Byrne for the diversity of his talent. The Ramones for never giving up. Chrissie Hynde for being so down to earth. The Replacements for being completely crazy. Johnny Marr for being the greatest guitar player, better than a lot of people give him credit for. Morrissey for being totally outrageous. Depeche Mode for being so loyal to the people around them. Mac from Echo & The Bunnymen, for that voice, which sent chills up my spine. And even that insane Marc Almond [for] "Tainted Love." I've been blessed to be surrounded by so many, many great artists. My batting average is better than most, and I'm proud of that.
(Roy Trakin, a senior editor for HITS magazine, has written for every rock publication that ever mattered, some that didn't, and got paid by most of them.)