Tommy Mottola Lives on the Road

Tommy Mottola Lives on the Road

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because if you own any kind of record collection at all, Tommy says, "You're welcome."

By Eugene S. Robinson

We’re sure he’s as surprised as anyone to find himself one of the last few men standing in a music industry where if any of you reading this can find an actual LP, or even know what that is, in your house, we’d be surprised. But he is, both standing and thriving, and if you look at all of the music and entertainment that Tommy Mottola has brought to life over his life, the fact that he took time out of his busy schedule to hang at The Carlos Watson Show? Totally major. Below you can find excerpts or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

Tommy Before Tommy Was Really Tommy

Carlos Watson: Tommy, were your parents in music or were you the first one to break into music?

Tommy Mottola: No, they were not in music. My father was a customs broker. That was his business. But there was always music in my house. They loved music. He was an amateur . . . like piano, ukulele player. My sisters would sing. My mother was a frustrated singer. She always wanted to be a singer. Music was going on in my house all the time and so it was part of our lifestyle. They would play music, they would bring different music into the house. We would have family that also played instruments.

It was a constant atmosphere and an environment of music. I was raised with it and started playing instruments at a very early age.

Watson: Did you think, like if I had met you in high school, did you think you were going to make a career out of music? Or was it just something—

Mottola: Yeah. In high school I was obsessed with becoming a star and I was a guitar player. I started as a trumpet player, of all instruments, but it wasn’t cool and you could be cool on stage with a guitar and whatever. I took up the guitar and I joined a band, a band that was like the hot band at the time in our area. There were two bands. It was us, the Exotics. There was the young Rascals who, and obviously they were the ones that became famous. We played over local country clubs, the churches, the dances, everything. It was an amazing, amazing way to sort of get my PhD in music because I started from that grassroots level of loving the music, playing the music, understanding the music, being inspired by the music.

Watson: Why do you think the Rascals succeeded instead of the Exotics?

Mottola: They were better. They were just better. They had hits. They wrote original material, where we were a cover band. Eddie Brigati and Felix Cavaliere. I mean, those guys were just amazingly talented musicians and you can still listen to their songs “Beautiful Morning” and those kinds of things. They still resonate right now. Sometimes it’ll come on a news show or a commercial. It’s just as brilliant as it was the day you heard it.

A Dream Dies. A Dream Is Born

Watson: How did you go from musician to business person? Like, did you have a business mentor? Was your dad your guide? Because you ended up having extraordinary success for someone who started off as an artist.

Mottola: Well, my parents actually wanted me to become a doctor or to go into my father’s business, which I hated both of those ideas. At an early age, I knew I was going to be aligned with music or show business somehow. I had also taken acting classes and I did some minor roles in movies, like as an extra. You know like, “Look at the bird.” That was my one big line. It was in a movie with Mary Tyler Moore, you know.

Sitting on a set all day long to say one line made me realize right away, “I don’t know about this.” Right? Waiting outside people’s offices for hours and hours to audition as a singer or a musician also was making me scratch my head saying, “I think you might be on the wrong end of this, kid.” You know what I mean?

I remember one time I had this audition with this guy at the William Morris agency. I won’t mention his name. He made me wait outside his office to audition. Someone important, an actor person that we knew set up the meeting. I waited three hours outside his office, maybe four hours. I was sitting there with someone from my family, and all of a sudden, I see the guy taking a walk. I thought maybe he was going to the bathroom and he was going to see me. The assistant comes out and said, “Mr. So-and-So had to leave. We apologize. Maybe we can set this up again.”

So this is after having waited four hours. So all these little light bulbs kept going off like, OK, you know? I want to do this really badly and I probably should be doing this, and taking this knowledge and experience and this passion and doing it vicariously through other people, through artists. And that’s what happened. And I got my first job. I decided to get a job as a music publisher. I took my first job as a music publisher.

Watson: And who was your first star?

Mottola: Funny thing is six months after I got the job, these two funny-looking guys walked in my office. Long hair and crazy-looking clothes and these big, high-heeled shoes, and just all kinds of colorful outfits, which back then was unique, it was special. And they walked in and I said, “Man, this better be good.”

They sit down, one guy’s on the piano, the other guy on the guitar, and they played me three songs, and I almost broke into tears. I looked up and I said, “OK, God, you have delivered me today.” And it was Hall and Oates.

Watson: Wow. You knew like that, Tommy, that they were going to be stars?

Mottola: I mean, they played these songs that were just so brilliant, and their singing and their style together was so special and so unique that if you couldn’t hear that, you didn’t deserve to be in music.

The Business of Music, The Music of Business

Watson: It’s interesting, Tommy, because your route, going from very successful manager of talent to someone who’s running a multibillion-dollar business. A number of people have tried that. Michael Ovitz tried it. He went from CAA to Disney. Didn’t quite work out. Why do you think you made it from being this young hustler, outsider manager, young cool kid in his 20s and 30s signing all these folks, to someone who actually could turn a $1 billion business into $10 billion business?

Mottola: The simple answer to that is I knew what I didn’t know. So I knew that I didn’t know much initially about distribution. I knew I didn’t know much about the global music market. I knew I did not understand how the financial systems work exactly the way they should work, or the sales organizations of a big machine. So I brought in people who were much more experienced and much more knowledgeable than me as my team to surround me, to be able to help me navigate through all those things. And not only did that become the strongest team in the industry, but of course, I’m a good learner. So I was in there night and day as a student, eating, drinking, sleeping the whole process. And within a few years, it was very fluid to me.

But then this team just grew stronger and stronger and stronger. I had one guy, who was my COO, who was one of the older, most experienced guys in the business. Smartest person in the music business I had ever encountered. And my early encounters with him as a manager were always that he was on the other side of the artist, fighting for the company to not give me an advance and stuff. And I would have huge fights with the guy. I ended up loving him, like a godfather to me. And so he came in and he was at my side through all of this.

Another person I had met through Hall & Oates in the early ’70s that ran Atlantic Records, I brought him in. His sales and distribution knowledge was better than mine. Another guy who knew promotion probably better than anyone out there in the business. And on and on and on and on. So I had this team around me, again, knowing and recognizing that if I did not have this, I would fail.

What I did know is I knew hit songs, how to make hit records, and how to get them on the radio, and how to make them successful. But the other pieces were all pretty much learned as I went along. And I had the blessing and the benefit of this amazing team of people around. Believe me, I took full advantage of it.

The funny thing is that I always, and I still do, I love to surround myself with people who know more than me about anything that I am entering into and doing. Because that’s how you can help yourself be successful. When you think you know it all, that’s when you fall on your face and fail. So I always did that. Or even if I was entering into a big deal when I was at Sony or on my own or whatever, I would try to surround myself with two or three people who would be more knowledgeable than me, and also become an asset and make it a stronger force to go and get that task done.

I think it’s helped me along the way tremendously. My new ventures that I’m doing, it’s a new world, it’s a new way of being done, and there are people who definitely knew more than me and know more than me in a lot of ways. And I’ve now surrounded myself with a lot of them and I’m learning every day. Again, they look at me as their mentor . . . so the combination is really great.