Mike Appel Interview
(Bruce Springsteen's Ex-Manager)
When Bruce Springsteen won an Academy Award last year for "Streets
of Philadelphia", he thanked a lot of people. Mike Appel was not one
of them. And, without Mike Appel, the world would never have heard of Bruce
Springsteen. Mike Appel was Bruce Springsteen's first Personal Manager.
He took care of the business, so Bruce could take care of the music. And,
when success finally came Bruce's way, Mike Appel was dumped.
Mike Appel along with Marc Eliot, has written a truly fascinating behind
the scenes look at rock management and his years with Bruce Springsteen,
titled " Down Thunder Road, The Making of Bruce Springsteen" (Simon
and Schuster Books).
We spoke with Mike Appel about his experiences with "The Boss" — Mr.
Q. How did you know that Bruce Springsteen was gonna be a star? What did
you see in him that other people missed?
A. I was ignorant, if you will, of a lot of Dylan's work and Van Morrison's
work at the time. So, I looked at Springsteen as wholly original, not realizing
that one could definitely draw an analogy between him and Dylan, him and
Van Morrison. However, with that said, Springsteen truly was an original.
His lyrics are far different than the kind of lyrics that Bob Dylan
writes. Bruce is of course a much more dynamic performer than Van Morrison
could ever possible hope to be, although Van Morrison has a very identifiable
voice to say the least. And I know Van personally as well. I know the nature
of the beast. Springsteen's lyrics were the thing that captured me the most.
They were the most brilliant, most graphic. Words that you would never expect
to be together in a sentence would be together in a sentence. Just exciting
lyrics. Lyrics that just sort of hit you right in the face and you really
couldn't get away from it. So, I thought I'm a lyrically driven person.
I'm a reader. The intellect comes before the body sometimes. Not that I
don't love The Rolling Stones as must as The Beatles. The Beatles were great
melody writers. The Rolling Stones actually became great lyric writers and
they always had a great groove. So they were a great marriage between
the two. Springsteen as far as I'm concerned, never really reached
a point where the music was satisfying to me, except perhaps on "Born
to Run". There's a few cuts on the first two albums that weren't bad.
Thereafter there was just a couple of cuts where I thought the music was
o.k. and the lyrics were not o.k. whereby the lyrics were always o.k. on
the first three albums. The lyrics were always killer in my estimation.
How other people would miss it? I guess you have to be attuned to what Springsteen
was all about. I believe that people are born into the world with certain
things they are going to do for each other and interact with each other
in certain ways. So therefore, I thought I had a bit of purpose in Springsteen’s
life and he in mine. I was of course very much in sync with him immediately.
I can’t say I was the only one. Clive Davis, Columbia Records, and
the late, great John Hammond Sr. all heard exactly what I heard. All were
bowled over just like me. Mike Appel wasn’t some strategy guy from
another planet. My partner and other people who worked in my organization
at the time all hear it together, and all were knocked out. Other people
felt we were rude to encroach upon Bob Dylan’s turf. When we first
came to Columbia Records, people there were wearing all sorts of airs that
they had gotten from their close association with Bob Dylan. I was attuned
to Springsteen, in sync with him and others just weren’t. I don’t
know why they weren’t. It’s always been an enigma to me. Everybody
should’ve gotten it first time around.
Q. Why did it take so long for your story to be published?
A. The answer is pretty simple. I had opportunities to do it 10, 15 years
ago but they were all kinds of trivial story lines. It was just nonsense.
Marc Eliot was the first person who came to me with a substantive reason
to begin the book. That basically was that Bob Dylan's father, John Lennon's
father, and even Bruce Springsteen's father were all substituted with managers.
Brian Epstein, Col. Tom Parker, and, Mike Appel in Bruce Springsteen's case.
Therefore, we all turned out to be surrogate fathers. The problems these
fathers had with their sons we in turn inherited. This became the basis
for why I really felt we should do a book.
Springsteen's problems with his Dad are obviously well known to everyone,
yourself, I'm sure. So I thought this is a good reason to begin a book on
my life with Springsteen.
Q. Do you know if Bruce has commented either publicly or privately about
A. I'd been with Bruce privately myself before the book came out. His
attitude and I'm sure he was somewhat prepped by Jon Landau (Springsteen's current manager) was
to leave me entirely at liberty to write whatever I pleased, although they
were hoping of course there would be nothing derogatory in there for either
of them to read at a later date. However, Bruce Springsteen didn’t
try to coerce me one way or the other, privately or publicly. I think the
only time that I know of that he commented about the book was on "A
Current Affair" where he admitted he knew the book was out and that
he had not read it.
Q. Springsteen is very concerned about what is said of him, isn't that
A. He does care very much about what is said about him. He's very sensitive
to the press. That's why Landau and Marsh (Dave Marsh - Springsteen biographer)
had such power over him. He truly curried favor with the press. I mean this
is natural. Actors, actresses, all artists want to be favored by the press.
They like nice things written about themselves. Bruce is no different than
anyone else in that regard.
Q. Would I be correct in saying that Rolling Stone magazine bears the
largest share of the blame for slanting the press coverage against you?
A. Of course, Rolling Stone was the last magazine to even get on board
regarding Springsteen's talents as an artist and a performer. It wasn't
until Jon Landau finally got involved being a Senior Editor with Rolling
Stone already and him collaring Dave Marsh and bringing Marsh to a concert
out in Westbury, Long Island where finally Dave Marsh saw the excitement
surrounding Bruce Springsteen at that time. Of course Dave Marsh did see
the light and was completely flabbergasted and finally jumped on board.
Later on, when the break-up occurred it must be remembered that the manager
now, Jon Landau was represented by an attorney, Mike Meyer over at Atlantic
Records. I think what happened was that Mike felt that if he could break
Springsteen's contract with Mike Appel by making it seem that Mike Appel's
contracts with Springsteen were unconscionable, Springsteen would become
a free agent and could be signed to Atlantic Records. Mike Meyer would then
be a hero with Atlantic Records. Jon Landau could be the manager, and Producer.
Dave Marsh could write all the biographies favorable to Springsteen and
Landau. Springsteen didn't get out of his contracts, therefore was unable
to sign with Atlantic Records. However, Dave Marsh did write a very biased
book on Springsteen, "Born to Run". It was the most biased book
against Mike Appel ever written. I could understand Dave's blindness to
some extent because he was caught up in all the fervor. It was actually
easy to manipulate Dave into thinking Mike Appel was the bad guy, not that
Dave was some jerk, but, if I had to make a case against Mike Appel, I could
make a case against Mike Appel being there to defend himself. Rolling Stone
in this case was the primary source of and foundation of bad press for Mike
Appel. The reasons were obvious. Obviously being best friends with Dave
Marsh and co-writers for Rolling Stone had great influence over Rolling
Stone. When the break-up occurred and Landau would be the heir-apparent
to Mike Appel, obviously Rolling Stone took Jon Landau’s side in the
litigation, in spite of the outcome of the actual trial.
Q. Springsteen is talking about Jon Landau and says "He just made
me aware that I could do better, that I could be better than I was." You
were bringing in his albums on time and on budget. You were making sure
that all the band members were being paid. Didn't Bruce see that?
A. Bruce did see that. He knew all those things as absolute fact. I think
Landau's greatest plus if I'm totally objective about it was that he came
into our lives when Bruce was in a creative slump. Somehow being a new face
on the scene, he acted for a short while as a catalyst and I mean just for
a short while. He sort of got Bruce rolling again and starting to create
again. Then of course he was ground up in the meat grinder just like all
the rest of us were. He became just like everybody else, having no
more of that new kid on the block power and excitement to him after maybe
a month of being on the scene with us. He had to go to the studio and stay
there late at night and be up the next day with Bruce. It was a real grind
and Landau wasn't used to that kind of life. So therefore he found it very,
very difficult to keep up quite frankly.
Q. Without you, would Landau have been able to sustain Bruce's career?
By the time he got on board you had already built the foundation. Couldn't
we say that he had an easier time than you did initially?
A. It's unequivocally true that when Landau arrived on the scene we had
sold a couple of hundred thousand albums at that time. "Born to Run" had
been completely produced without his help. Bruce had already written " Jungleland" and
some others off of that third album. We were known heavily around the U.S.
at least the Northeast and some sporadic places elsewhere as a bunch of
comers and as somebody to watch. Landau was very lucky to enter our world
at the time he did which was just before lift-off. I'm not saying he did
nothing, but he was extremely fortunate to miss the first three years and
be there for the last six months before take-off. So he was lucky in that
Q. In your book, Leonard Marks states that for five years you made absolutely
nothing on Springsteen. How then did you pay the bills?
A. (Laughs). Well, when he says nothing, he means nothing substantial
and that's absolutely a fact of life. Everyone, myself included and the
band members were drawing salaries anywhere from $200 a week in '72, '73, ‘74
to $350 a week in '75, '76 before we finally had bigger monies and could
pay people differently. I think there was one royalty check that came in
for $18,000. We put it in the bank, and ended up spending it on equipment
for the band. So, he's right. There was absolutely no taking of profits,
'cause there was no money to take. There was just enough really to live
on and pay for your "roadies", your repairs, your new equipment,
and to promote the artist in certain areas. There was no other money. That's
what Leonard Marks means. He doesn't mean that there was absolutely no money
and we made nothing, zero. We made some money every week we played.
But, it all went to keeping everybody afloat. Nobody was getting rich that's
Q. Your co-author Marc Elliot writes, "One
thing Appel didn't do which many other rock managers did and still do
was to put his name on Springsteen's songs as one of the composers in
order to cut himself in on the writer's piece of the publishing pie. Col.
Parker and Brian Epstein didn't to that. What rock managers did that and
are doing that today?
A. There were managers that purportedly did this in the early stages of
rock ‘n roll. Perhaps even Col. Parker had pieces of the publishing.
But, I don’t know anything about Col. Tom Parker having any writer
royalties or Brian Epstein having any writer royalties. Where this really
comes from I don’t know. I guess if you go through every writer-artists-manager
relationship that ever existed you’re gonna find some of that somewhere.
It certainly wasn’t a problem with me. It certainly wasn’t a
problem with Col. Tom Parker as I understand it or Brian Epstein. They may
have owned pieces of the publishing. A lot of times Marc would have his
own substantiation for these things. I can’t remember right now off
the top of my head without speaking to Marc where he got this idea. I would
probably take it on faith that it is true. I don’t think it’s
true in Epstein’s or Col. Tom Parker’s case, and certainly not
Q. You used the William Morris Agency as the booking agency for Bruce.
You got on well with an agent there named Peter Golden. Were you happy with
the job the Morris people did for Bruce? Couldn't I.C.M. or Premier Talent
have done a better job for Bruce? They were more rock oriented.
A. Peter Golden was the West Coast agent at the William Morris Agency
that was handling Bruce Springsteen. However, Sam McKeith was the Number
One Agent at the William Morris Agency that promoted Springsteen and all
the major deals that Springsteen was offered came through his office. Sam
McKeith was the guy who signed Bruce. However, Peter Golden did not miss
Bruce when he was presented with Bruce's tapes. He really loved him as well
and worked very hard to see that Bruce was promoted properly on the West
Coast in those early years. Premier Talent at the time was Heavy Metal with
Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath and all those other British bands.
Springsteen was somewhat eclectic and left of center of their mainstream
signings. Therefore, Frank Barsalona never gave us a tumble. I.C.M. passed.
Forget the agent. He's deceased. He had passed on the artist even though
once Bruce hit, he wanted the artist. That was too little, too late. It
was the William Morris Agency thank goodness that stuck their neck out and
got us the Bookings that sort of saved our necks, and Sam McKeith was the
agent that saved our necks.
Q. You were talking about your early days as a musician
and you wrote, “You
wanted to make a record, you made it. You sold it to a small label. They
put it out and you were in the music business.” Does that music
business still exist today?
A. (Laughs). Today's business is so far from the late 50's, early 60's
record business, it really isn't funny. It's become so corporate. Record
companies used to live and die on an individual savvy, a musical savvy.
Of course there's always promotion and money spent on an artist that goes
into making successful recording artists. But there were a great deal of
individuals at the time that themselves were musicians or had been musicians
or singers. None of that exists at all today. There are very few musician
owned record companies today. There are some independents where the owners
perhaps may have been musicians, or singers, or performers in their past.
It's so rare. Out of 100 record companies, maybe 2 or 3, tops. With all
the majors there's no such thing. You're dealing with lawyers, accountants,
business representatives, all corporate types who know really little
or nothing about music. The musical environment, the artistic environment
really doesn't exist anymore. All you have is the musician and his coterie
of musicians’ friends and band members if there are such and themselves,
and their managers or producers. That's the musician, artist environment.
Then when the artist actually walks into SONY, it's a completely corporate
environment. It's certainly nothing like the past when one individual
could make a decision and that would be it. Today it's made by committees.
Q. You write, "A victim of in-house power struggles and little
promotion, Springsteen's career almost broke at the gate as 'Greetings'
proved a commercial disaster." Why do record companies sign an artist
and then sit back and do nothing to promote the album/CD.?
A. Well, it's like any other business where there's a flux of executives.
You may be signed by Clive Davis in August. Then if Clive Davis is ousted
for whatever reason, your power base has eroded completely. The new
boss comes in and says if I promote Bruce Springsteen real hard, all the
accolades and glory will go to Clive Davis not me 'cause all I'm doing is
following Clive Davis' lead. If I drop Bruce Springsteen and sign somebody
else and make that person a star, I get all the glory. I get the promotion.
It's a windfall to me and nobody else. So from that statement you get a
picture of what really happened at CBS and with Springsteen. To really answer
your question beyond that, record cos. are signing lots of artists.
They're releasing lots of artists all at the same time. They know full well
that there's a certain number of them that are just gonna go down the tubes.
Those that stick make up for all the losers. The cost of promoting any pop
artist today is so astronomical that the record co. really has to feel they've
got three or four hits in that first album so they can sell five or six
million copies. This is not gonna be a growth project where the artist blossoms
under the auspices of the label's good will and good nature. It's gotta
be on the first record. Your first three records have to exist on your first
record. You really have to be grown-up by the time you come to the label
in the first place. It's a telescoping of an artist's life and career so
to speak. It's stupid, but then again it's the nature of the beast. We all
are who we are.
Q. You say, "Rock stardom is notoriously brief. The average run at
the top for an act is usually a year, two at the most." Isn't that
what's wrong with the business today? That has to change, right?
A. Well, you know you live in a junk food society. You take pictures with
a camera then you get rid of the camera. You know, disposable cameras.
Well, everything is like that. Something that's "hot" today, three
weeks from today is boring. That's the society we live in. All art is a
reflection of the times within which it lives and blossoms. The music
business is no different. It's a direct reflection on us and the way we
are. Does that have to change? I guess so. We have to change. When we change,
that'll change, but not before. It's just the way it is.
Q. You point out that record cos. always make you sign for more albums
than you can possibly deliver in the allotted time. Then later when and
if they agree to cut your recording obligations in half they're going to
get something for it. Like what? Publishing? Merchandising? What did Bruce
A. Record cos. are notorious for saying two albums a year for five years
or ten albums. Now, there's no artist on the face of the earth that does
that. What happens is once an artist hits, the artist's manager and or lawyer
goes running to the record co. and asks for a big advance and a change in
royalty rates and all sorts of accelerations. The record co. is usually
amendable to that because what they're gonna do is stretch out the contract.
They know the artist can't do ten albums in five years. That's ridiculous.
So they got all sorts of other little goodies. Half publishing and
merchandising deals are really not part of that negotiation because usually
publishing and merchandising deals are initially cut when an artist is signed
to a record label not after the artist becomes a success. What happens is
the record co. gives an artist a bigger royalty rate and a big chunk of
cash because the record co. knows they’re going to have to give it
to the artist anyway. They’re just giving the artist his own money
early. Then they’re going to get a longer term contract. They’re
gonna say we got a deal with you for seven albums. Well, that could take
an artist 15 years or longer. The record co. is after an agreement that’s
conterminous with the number of albums they can get an artist to agree on.
No greatest hits package or “live” albums will count towards
that recording commitment. They know they’re locking the artist up
for a long time that is their purpose. Those are the kinds of things that
go on. Bruce didn’t give up anything. After the break-up of Bruce
and I, as far as I know, Bruce gave us seven or eight albums. You know how
long it takes Bruce to do albums. So, they have Bruce ‘til this minute.
Q. After Bruce appeared on both Time and Newsweek in the same week in
1975, you had a lot of big name artists calling you asking you to manage
them. Fleetwood Mac called. John Cougar Mellencamp called. The Knack called.
You turned them all down. Why?
A. I could've handled other major artists once Springsteen became a success.
But, if you knew how ensconced I was in his creative and business life you
would know there really was no time to do anything else. I couldn't stop
being Springsteen's Producer, manager one day and then suddenly work in
Fleetwood Mac or John Cougar Mellencamp. There was just no way I could possibly
do that. I couldn't switch gears. I was just so focused on Springsteen and
what that was all about that I couldn't really focus on anything else. I
just couldn't do it psychologically, emotionally, artistically. Businesswise
I probably would've done a half-ass job. Springsteen was a full-time job
and that was it.
Q. You were constantly pushing, promoting Bruce,
to the record co. to the press. Did anyone at anytime ever come up to
you and say, “Mike,
A. Well, actually during the famous Bottom Line performance of Springsteen
in the summer of '75 I was sitting with Lou Reed and Clive Davis. Clive
was no longer the president of Columbia Records. He was with Arista Records.
He did put his hand right on my knee and said, "You did it. You did
do it. You finally did it." Clive was one of the only guys that actually
ever said that to me. I did however, have a very good meeting with Walter
Yetnikoff who's no longer with CBS as well. When we did finally get Bruce
on the covers of "Time" and "Newsweek", he did respond
with a very nice, cordial letter to me. So there were a couple of people
that said "Nice work". It's like you work so hard for something
so long, it finally happens, you're a little bit startled. When I saw the
covers of Newsweek and Time myself, I was startled by the enormity of that
situation. Being so young to have engineered that, it was startling to me.
It's all upon you, this tremendous success. All the things you've been working
for, for so long are so attainable. You have all sorts of choices that didn't
exist six months ago. It was quite an experience. There weren't a lot of
people that said, "Great work". But, even Jerry Weintraub (Karate
Kid film producer) congratulated me and was gonna introduce me to Col. Tom
Parker. It never occurred actually. Even my old boss Wes Farrell congratulated
me. So I can't say no one congratulated me. But, there isn't as many as
you might think. It's kind of a lonely thing, (laughs), the success, when
it finally comes. There isn't as much camaraderie as you might think in
Q. You think that Bruce's recent music is too simplistic and devoid of
the unique art form he once possessed. So you don't like his newer material?
A. There are several songs that are post Mike Appel that Springsteen has
written that Mike Appel likes musically and lyrically, although lyrically
not as much as his earlier things. I just feel that he and Landau made a
conscious effort to try and simplify his lyric writing and try to write
what they thought were somewhat commercial, mainstream songs. When they
did that they never ended up with another "Meeting Across, The River." They
never ended up with another ' Jungle Land' or 'Born to Run'. Nothing ever
came close to these things. As far as I'm concerned Springsteen peaked in
1975 and never reached that artist peak again. He reached a commercial
peak, which was bigger than 'Born to Run' which was the “Born in the
U.S.A.” album. But as far as I was concerned there was just no way
he ever out did those early recordings because they were unique lyrically
and musically. He never ended up with that kind of musical mix ever again.
Q. Are you still actively involved in the music business?
A. I would say at the moment, no. Whether, or not I'm going to go back
into it. I don't know. Whether or not I'm going to go back into it in a
different way, that is to say as a publisher, producer, or manager, I don't
know. Whether or not I would try to get financing to acquire some entity — a
record co., music publishing co. or studio complex I don't know either.
I'm on the cusp of deciding whether or not to come back in the record
business. I'm a different person than I was back when I started out. I gained
a lot of knowledge, in other areas. I'm not sure how they would play in
today's musical mix. I don't know if it's part of my life's purpose to continue
on in the record business at this time or not. I've procrastinated though
for some time on this. But, it's come to a point where I am going to make
a decision very, very shortly.
© Gary James All Rights Reserved