January 25, 2013
Music exec Ron Fair talks industry, Israel and his Yiddish Theatre heritage
Ron Fair is a three-decade veteran of the music industry and widely considered one of the its leading record producers. He was recently named Chief Creative Officer of Virgin Records and prior to that served as the chairman of Geffen Records and president of A&M Records. As a producer, arranger, engineer and songwriter, Fair has worked with artists such as Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, The Black Eyed Peas and The Pussycat Dolls. He recently became a celebrity in Israel as the star judge of the reality series, “Living in LA LA Land” (“Chai B’LaLa Land”). A week before returning to Israel to shoot the show’s second season, Fair talked about his return to a major record label, the qualities he looks for in a potential star and his illustrious family history in the Yiddish Theatre.
You’ve been in the music business for more than 30 years, along the way heading some of the biggest labels in the industry. What happened after your contract at Geffen expired and what was the appeal of joining another major label?
Basically for the last year and a half I’ve been working as an independent producer, which was the first time in many years I had worked that way. I got to a very peaceful place inside myself about what it is I do in my career and basically what I do is I make the jewelry. I start with the raw gems and put them together as a piece of jewelry -- but I don’t necessarily run the jewelry shop. Then I met Steve Barnett and he gave me this chance to come back and reinvigorate a label that had been kicked around for many years.
You’ve seen the industry undergo radical changes as technology has transformed the way the business operates. Now that music is freely accessible on the Web and artists are marketing themselves through social media, how does the record label stay relevant and profitable?
I feel like technology and music have had a steamy, tempestuous love affair since Thomas Edison. Music and technology go hand in hand. This gigantic cultural tsunami of electronic dance music is all based on technology, where computers take over creative impulses that used to come from humans. [Technology] levels the playing field like never before: everybody is exposed to the same tools and can bypass the gatekeeping process of curation that record companies do. This is the greatest time ever to consume entertainment, and it is such a great time for mankind because of technology so I don’t fear it.
But isn’t a double-edged sword? Because while technology has created all this opportunity on the Internet, the unfettered access to art and information has created profitability problems for content creators.
If I write a song or write a Shakespearean sonnet, that authorship is mine. That is something that does not belong to everyone equally simply because it appears on a mass medium like the Internet.
People think of you as a discoverer of talent. What are the ingredients that make someone a star?
Being a star myself wasn’t something that ever really created any desire or passion in me, it was always about the construction of it, the architecture of it -- making a song, making a record. To be a star you have to be narcissistic. You have to want to be above other people, but it’s okay, because if you want to be a star that comes with the turf, so it’s sanctioned narcissism. I combine that with musical skill, god given talent, the person’s personality, their sex appeal, their friendliness, their edge, their own interminable desire to succeed and be on top. So you mix all that up, take a look at it, and then you make a leap of faith. You say, ‘I’m going to make my life that person’s life.’
You’ve spent the past few years taping the reality show “Living in LA LA Land” in Israel and have compared your role on the show with that of Simon Cowell, formerly of “American Idol.” What is that meanness really about?
I use ‘mean’ as a fun word like when you watch cartoons and you have a villain. All television shows need a villain. And on this one I’m a bit of an authority figure because they say, ‘Well here’s this successful guy from L.A. who’s going to pass judgment.’ The main thing is to have a stone face and show no emotion and perpetuate the suspense of what might happen -- when really underneath it all is that I’m a very simpatico musical partner. Once the music work begins, the drama of the decision instantly disappears.
Before your involvement on this show, you hadn’t had much of a relationship with Israel. How has your feeling for it evolved since getting involved in their entertainment industry?
It was really an indescribable thing. On the first night there my wife got appendicitis and had to be rushed to Ichilov hospital, and all the sudden these people were all around us taking great care of us and it was an extraordinary thing. It was like everybody knew everybody. I never had much affinity for Israel; I wasn’t Zionistic, I hated Camp Alonim. I didn’t understand the concept of a Kibbutz. I was a typical American Jew -- I had no clue. But what I saw and what I felt was incredible, like, ‘Wow, everyone’s Jewish.’ It was a fantastic feeling.
I understand you’re pretty famous in Israel.
On the night of the finale of Season One, there was a party in a big club and there was this long runway with ropes, probably 3,000 people showed up and I’m walking down this runway and they were all screaming my name. My sister happened to be in Israel at same time and it’s kind of like, if she wasn’t there to witness it, nobody would have believed it.
Are people in the music world in Los Angeles curious about your Israel experience?
The people that are sort of the Israelophiles are conscious of it. We all have like a little secret handshake and it’s kind of a wonderful bond.
You also come from an illustrious Yiddish theater line.
My grandfather [Zalmen Zylbercweig] and grandmother [Celia Silber] were actors in the Yiddish theater in New York with Maurice Schwartz, you know, that whole unit that spawned a lot of major Hollywood stars--Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Leo Fuchs, Lee J. Cobb. It was basically an incubator for a lot of Hollywood talent. My grandfather was also a journalist, historian and raconteur of the Yiddish theater. After he came to L.A. he established a radio program called The Yiddish Hour on KALI, broadcast from this studio they built in the backyard through special FCC underground lines. They broadcast from their home studio five days a week for 25 years. They also staged plays at the Wilshire Ebell. His major life’s work, though, is The Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre [Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater], an encyclopedia of entries of every single person, play, scenic designer etc of any kind from the beginning of Yiddish Theater through the Holocaust. Each volume is thousands of pages. The only problem is that there is no indexing so the Museum of Family History is starting to transcribe the Lexicon.
Sounds like the Talmud.
What has it meant to you to have that legacy in your lineage?
When I went to Jerusalem, I saw my grandfather’s archive in this museum at Hebrew University -- his life’s work, his collections, tapes, everything he had done in his life. It was all sent to the theater arts department at Hebrew University, including a marble bust of him. And here I am thousands of miles away from everybody and there’s my grandfather’s head. Knowing that he’s there, alive to people, is very powerful for me. It’s like a piece of me, a very big, very important piece of me is in Jerusalem. Plus when I recollect living with my grandfather -- this was a man who woke up at the crack of dawn and all he ever did was work, work, work -- I look at myself and understand how much of him is in me. He was not an Orthodox guy but when it came to the holidays he was by the book. Passover was like hours. Of torture. I’m not terribly religious, but [Jewish identity] is really really really important to me. And I rarely talk about it and I don’t sell it. Even from the standpoint of being melodramatic, which I am, is because of being Jewish. But we were people from the Yiddish theater so I have an excuse.
What do you love most about music?