It’s impossible to read about the death of Ahmet Ertegun without reflecting on how much the media world has changed over the course of his lifetime. And how much it hasn’t. When he started Atlantic Records in 1947 with $10,000 in borrowed money from a family dentist (seems like dentists have been angels for a long time) the music industry hadn’t consolidated into the top-heavy beast it has become. Twenty years later, at the dawn of the merger era, Ertegun sold Atlantic to Warner Brothers-Seven Arts for $17 million dollars, or just slightly more than the omikase at Nobu, in 2006 dollars.
Because Ertegun had an uncanny ear for talent, and was respected as a class act in an industry where trust was never highly rated in the Billboard charts, Atlantic was able to survive and prosper as a label. While he discovered and sponsored titanic talents like Ray Charles and John Coltrane, over his career he witnessed mass-production take over the industry, and with that the slow death of individuality, as artists got swept up, packaged, made-over, homogenized, and exsanguinated.
Yet as we approach 2007, which will be the 60th anniversary of the founding of Atlantic, in a curious and welcome way the music industry is more open to the kind of unmediated originality that Ertegun lived for, than it has been since the days when he got going.
The arrival of MySpace and YouTube — and, of course, the entire online distribution platform — provide an opportunity for talent to bypass corporate blockages, institutional fearfulness and focus-group decision-making. It also provides an opportunity for talentlessness to take the same journey.
Which is why what Ertegun did so brilliantly, to find, filter and nurture, is more necessary now than it was in 1947. Indeed, the combination of a democratic distribution sysem and Ertegun’s talent tropism is the killer app we’ve been waitiing for, but aren’t likely to find. We’re not likely to see his kind again, though we need him more than ever.