It is fitting in our current age of record inequality that the most popular business books in the past two years feature Apple’s Steve Jobs and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. While Jobs cared about design as well as money, both he and Bezos have become unfortunate role models for a value system in which ruthlessness toward competitors and contempt for workers offers a roadmap for success. That’s what makes the Rhino Records story so refreshing. As co-founder Harold Bronson details in his new book, The Rhino Records Story: Revenge of the Music Nerds, one can succeed in business by treating people fairly and by promoting values beyond maximizing profit. Rhino’s story will interest anyone who cares about the rock music of the 1950’s through 1990’s, which Rhino’s reissues did so much to promote. If the Turtles, Monkeys and the Knack bring back fond memories, and you want to recall going through used record bins to find a Yardbirds classic, this book is for you.

Rhino Records is best known for reissuing out of print rock classics in a pre-Internet era when many great albums were simply unavailable to the public. The passion of co-founders Harold Bronson and Richard Foos to retrieve and promote great music benefitted millions of grateful listeners, as well the recording artists themselves.

Today, virtually every song by every rock band can be found online. But in the 1970’s when Rhino began, you couldn’t hear a classic like Spooky by the Classics IV unless you owned the record or were lucky to hear the song on the radio. Even songs by the Monkees, a group whose first two albums sold five million each, were not sold in stores a decade after their success.

Rhino changed this. Roos and Bronson came up with the seemingly obvious idea of making deals with record companies to reissue the masters of some of rock’s greatest albums and songs. And they didn’t put out the junky K-Tel series in which the versions of classic songs were often second-rate; Rhino insisted on quality, and so did its customer base.

Rhino’s Rise

Richard Foos opened Rhino Record store on Westwood Blvd. in west Los Angeles on October 23, 1973. Bronson joined him in April 1974. Foos is one of those incredibly successful business people who had a lot of unorthodox ideas and wasn’t afraid to try them all. For example, to get rid of a stack of albums by the Partridge Family’s Danny Bonaduce he advertised that he would pay people five cents to take one home. When business was slow, Rhino staff picketed the store for its lack of customers. Picket signs warned customers that if Rhino went out of business the site could soon be a “porno shoppe, and they brought the pickets to McDonalds to highlight that business’s far greater sales.

Rhino was one of the stores in which all the employees loved and knew a lot about music. For example, Nels Cline, a heralded guitarist who is now with Wilco and who I went to junior high and high school with (his mother was among my junior high English teachers), was working in Rhino’s jazz department.

Cline heard Will Ackerman’s record on the radio and encouraged him to send a box of albums for Rhino to sell. Among Rhino’s customers was a man named George Winston, who had given up playing piano but was convinced by Cline to resume playing. Winston soon created the hit Windham Hill album, Autumn, on the record company founded by Ackerman.

From Store to Record Company

Not content with being a great record store, Rhino wanted to produce records. And they wanted to bring back records that were previously hits but which restricted radio formats of the 1970’s never played. Songs like Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater,” Napoleon XIV’s “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” and Richie Valens’ La Bamba (Rhino produced the first retrospective boxed set of Valens’ music in the United States.

Bronson grew up in Westchester, California, just outside the airport. The Turtles also came from there, and Bronson developed a long relationship with Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman (still touring as Flo and Eddie). His discussion of the Turtles rise and decline is a profile of an era, echoing what Tommy James (of Shondells fame) recounted in his excellent, Me, the Mob and Music.

Bronson and Foos were business people, not volunteers. They cared about making a profit and this required them to contract with big record labels to distribute Rhino’s products. Bronson confirms all the terrible stories circulated about the big labels. Most striking is the refusal of many to license songs for a reasonable price as they held out for a price nobody ever offered. This deprived the public of hearing music and the artist from getting paid.

The Internet changed this dynamic. And while even top artists like Beyonce sell a fraction of what she would have sold pre-Internet, music is now more available than ever.

This is a very disorganized book. It is best enjoyed as a compendium of great stories from the music world. Reading how the girl friends of rock stars prevented big money deals from being made, how the stars themselves made terrible business decisions, reminds us that the evil record companies are not always to blame. And when you read the true story of The Knack’s Doug Fieger’s obsession with the real-life Sharona, you’ll never think the same about “My Sharona” the next time you hear that rock classic on the radio.

An editor would have helped, but thanks to Harold Bronson for bringing back some great memories and for giving rock fans some wonderful inside stories we can now share with others.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His new book is The Activist’s Handbook, 2nd ed.: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century