From Cocaine Disco to Electronic Dance: the Loaded Legacy of Casablanca Records
How an iconic 1970s record label, fueled by substance abuse and bad behavior, survived to embrace a modern generation of dance music
It’s just after 9pm on a brisk, late-December evening and Brett Alperowitz, General Manager of Casablanca Records, has found himself the subject of a serenade. Standing on East 20th Street, Alperowitz has been approached by a presumably down-on-his-luck man who, tapping a rudimentary beat on the bottom of a plastic cup all the while, croons the Temptations’ “My Girl” at Alperowitz; Alperowitz rewards the busker with a dollar.
It’s the sort of moment that provokes a cognitive dissonance—a man singing a “classic” tune on the street in the hope of garnering a few dollars finding an audience with a man at the helm of one of the music industry’s foremost electronic dance music labels.
Factor into this exchange the notion that, according to The Verge, EDM generates something like $6.2 billion within the music industry, and Alperowitz’s meeting with the panhandler seems even more surreal. This star-crossed rendezvous, taking place outside the holiday party for two brand new music-oriented startup companies, appears almost symbolic of the disparity between the rock- and/or urban-driven popular music of yesterday and the bass-soaked electronica dominating the charts at present.
How did this happen? When, exactly, did a thumping “four-on-the-floor” beat supplant a traditional four-piece band in the eyes (and ears) of the music-consuming public? The story of EDM’s rise to prominence is, in part, the history of Casablanca Records, one of the labels currently securing EDM an enduring and lucrative place in the limelight.
As a record label during an American music-industrial boom, Casablanca Records, from its 1973 inception in Los Angeles, embodied all of the too-ridiculous-to-possibly-be-true stereotypes of excess and debauchery that marked the industry during the era. According to And Party Every Day: The Inside Story of Casablanca Records, penned by co-founder Larry Harris, “Casablanca was not a product of the 1970s, it was the 1970s. And no person or company in that era of narcissism and druggy gluttony was more emblematic of the times than Casablanca Records and its magnetic founder, Neil Bogart.”
Bogart was the “ultimate hype guy,” concurs Alperowitz, who asserts the Casablanca founder was “as big a star as anyone [signed to] the label.” Whereas most industry folk are either oriented toward the realms of promotion or A&R, says Alperowitz, Neil Bogart, an executive at Buddah Records prior to founding Casablanca, epitomized the most talented, most aggressive, and most successful qualities of both these career paths. No matter the project under his purview, “Bogart loved to promote. He would just market the hell out of stuff.”
While Casablanca was originally intended to be a label that predominantly hawked disco, the company experienced its first massive dose of breakthrough success with the release of KISS’ Alive! The label also broke acts like Donna Summer and George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, while Neil Bogart developed connections within the international dance music community. These connections, precursors to Casablanca’s modern-day ties to the European EDM scene, would lead to the formation of what Larry Harris refers to as “a list of characters… guys dressed in leather, a construction worker, a cop, and some cowboys and Indians.” Thanks in part to Bogart’s efforts, the Village People, “a half-serious, half-tongue-in-cheek parody,” were “assembled by two French producers”—Jacques Morali and Henri Benolo—“and their novice New York music attorney.”
By the late 1970s, Casablanca Records had reached an era of unrivaled gluttony. Says Larry Harris: “There was blow everywhere. It was like some sort of condiment that had to be brushed away by the waitstaff before the next party was seated. Cocaine dusted everything. It was on fingertips, tabletops, upper lips, and the floor.”
Indeed, such rampant substance abuse seemed to fuel the label’s overall aesthetic and ethos. Harris claims George Clinton and his “assistant” Archie Ivy would frequent the Casablanca offices, meeting with executives and rambling “for hours about how they were going to develop Parliament’s stage show into an otherworldly display of pageantry and pomp and how they needed half a zillion dollars to do it.” On one occasion, Clinton showed up with “some uncut and very potent coke, declaring that anyone who tried it would speak Spanish, as the stuff ‘hadn’t cleared customs yet.’” The P-Funk frontman, insists Harris, “would ramble on, giving voice to every thought that came into his head, stream-of-consciousness style, like William Faulkner gone jive.”
In an era known for its unapologetic decadence, Casablanca, as an entity, managed to stand out. Encyclopedia Britannica claims the label “set the pace” for substance abuse and bacchanalian diversions. The label did things in a larger-than-life sort of way that caricatured the industry. To celebrate the release of KISS’ debut album, in addition to Warner Brothers’ acquiring of Casablanca, a party was thrown in the Los Angeles room at the Century Plaza Hotel; the night became the stuff of legend. “The event,” says Larry Harris, “grew in size and scope until it became the most expensive music industry party in history to that point. Factoring for inflation, it may still hold that distinction.”
Brett Alperowitz agrees with this notion of Casablanca’s almost incredible opulence, intimating that while many label executives in the industry during that era discouraged garish shows of money from their employees, Neil Bogart would get upset with his staff for not spending decadently enough. Larry Harris claims Casablanca “would have birthday celebrations with crates of Dom Pérignon and lavish cakes for everyone, from the top-level employee to the lowliest mail-room worker.”
Casablanca’s corporate culture was one of exceptional licentiousness and a pervasive sort of degeneracy in a record industry that, during the 1970s, wasn’t exactly renowned for its scrupulous business practices. Larry Harris offers one example in discussing his promotional rounds for KISS’ debut record. The problem at the time, claims Harris, was that “Top 40 radio was not yet buying the fact that [KISS] was a viable group.” Harris, who was based out of Casablanca’s Los Angeles offices, was tasked with convincing, apparently by any means necessary, KLOS, “the big ABC-owned station, to jump on the record.” Instead of meeting with the station’s program director, Harris instead ended up getting to know quite intimately the “attractive young woman” working as music director for KLOS. The tryst was ill fated but “no matter,” says Harris with dry braggadocio. “I got KISS added to KLOS, and I got laid many times in the process. What great leverage. I’m sure Neil was very proud.”
Bogart routinely executed risky maneuvers with the label’s finances and Casablanca’s coffers were often in dire straits as a result. Harris says that on one particular Monday morning, Bogart approached him and said, “Larry, we need ten thousand dollars to make payroll for the week. We’re out of money and I’m out of ideas.” Bogart would end up traveling to Las Vegas that Thursday to cash in a line of credit at a casino, using the funds to pay Casablanca’s staff for the week. “Cashing in a line of credit sounds like a simple financial move, and it was,” says Harris. “But it was also a big gamble, because in the 1970s Las Vegas was still largely a Mob-run town. The casinos would not become comparatively clean corporate entities until the late 1980s. Neil was able to pay back his line of credit before anyone knew what he’d done.”
Casablanca’s brush with the mafia didn’t end there. Harris also recalls another occasion when Hy Mizrahi, who, “along with Artie Ripp and Phil Steinberg… had been one of the original partners in Buddah [Records],” threatened Bogart and Harris with a .38 revolver. Though Mizrahi left when Bogart’s colleagues threatened to call the cops, the Casablanca founder soon placed a call to his accountant, one Arnold Feldman, who “was rumored to have connections to the New York Mafia.” After Neil told Feldman what had happened, Feldman sent “two really tough-looking Italian fellows” out from New York to act as Bogart’s personal security staff.
Casablanca’s epoch of excess, fueled by substance abuse, built on a pattern of unscrupulous behavior, and subsidized in part by intra-industry relationships like that between Bogart and Billboard music charts editor Bill Wardlow, was to be short-lived.
By late 1977, industry giant PolyGram had acquired a majority stake in Casablanca. “After the four KISS solo albums had emphatically bombed,” says Larry Harris in And Party Every Day, “we knew that PolyGram would at last realize that we were losing a fortune. They were handling all distribution for us, and it was impossible that they would fail to notice two millions returns. No amount of cooking the books was going to hide truckloads of unwanted records, especially since those trucks were backing up to their doorstep, not ours. When at last the ruse was up, PolyGram insisted on dramatic changes.” This development led to Harris having to lay off approximately one third of Casablanca’s nearly 175-person staff. “The bloodletting,” says Harris, “took place on June 29, 1979.”
Weeks later came the loudest death knell: Disco Demolition Night, the explosive obliteration of disco vinyl sanctioned by a “popular Chicago DJ named Steve Dahl [who] had lost his job when his station changed its format to disco.” For weeks, Dahl, encouraged “anyone wishing to destroy their disco albums to bring them to Comiskey Park on Chicago’s south side.” He made plans for July 12, 1979, to stack the albums in a pile in the outfield, then detonate a small-scale explosive, blowing the whole collection of vinyl sky-high.
Mike Veeck, promotions director for the Chicago White Sox, was fully supportive of Dahl’s plan. He announced tickets for the White Sox-Cleveland Indians doubleheader that night would be sold at 98 cents (Dahl’s radio station being at 97.9 FM) for fans who brought disco records to be destroyed. Says Larry Harris: “This drew a beyond-capacity crowd of over fifty thousand. The demographic was atypical—read: pot-smoking rock music lovers—and the crowd had no sense of baseball etiquette.”
When the dynamite-packed pile of records was detonated in Comiskey Park’s outfield after the first game of the doubleheader, the crowd rushed the field and “a small-scale riot ensued.” This public display of contempt for the genre came to be known as “the day disco died” and hit Casablanca, the mainstay of which was disco itself, hard.
In 1980, Neil Bogart was pushed out of Casablanca by PolyGram. After half a decade of releasing music to relatively tepid acclaim, the label was eventually shuttered in late 1985, and Casablanca’s meager roster was absorbed by Mercury Records.
Casablanca would remain a label in name only until 1998 when Tommy Mottola, formerly CEO of both Columbia Records and Sony Music Entertainment, accepted a deal between the latter and Universal Music Group to form his own imprint, which he chose to name Casablanca as an apparent homage to Neil Bogart. Mottola would experience moderate success as the head of Casablanca, breaking Lebanese-British singer Mika and releasing records by Lindsay Lohan. However, the label was fated to remain relatively static over the next decade, and Mottola moved on in 2009, leaving Casablanca more or less defunct.
“We were always fans of dance music, of club records,” says Brett Alperowitz, now inside the music-startup-company holiday party. The party is hosted by two fledgling companies: Splice, a social networking platform of sorts that allows users to share and remix each other’s tracks, and Jukely, a ticketing app that acts as “a matchmaker for concerts + friends.” New York’s music industry is one of those scenes where everybody knows everybody, and tonight proves no exception to this concept. Alperowitz has some colleagues involved in these startups, and one of his most recently signed artists, a twenty-five-year-old New Jersey native who goes by the stage name Gazzo, is spinning.
Today, Casablanca boasts an impressive roster: Tiësto, Martin Garrix, Dimitry Vegas, and Nicky Romero are all signees, while the label moves to pick up fresh talent, both domestic and abroad. As a subsidiary of Republic Records under Universal Music Group, Casablanca has all the heft and power of a major label, offering distribution, promotion, publishing, collaborations—the works.
When Casablanca Records relaunched in early 2012, Alperowitz—named Casablanca’s General Manager following the conversion of Motown Records into an archival label—immediately recognized the potential impact of EDM artists on the music industry at large. He was also keenly cognizant of the genre’s crossover capability.
“I don’t know what the catalyst was,” says Alperowitz, “but the whole EDM culture started to take hold… now, you’ve got tens of thousands of kids coming to Ultra or [Electric Daisy Carnival],” two major American electronica festivals at which Casablanca is undoubtedly well represented.
Rock is “no longer the flavor of the week,” argues Alperowitz, who, by his own admission, is a neophyte in the EDM world. “If you ask kids what they’re listening to, they’ll say ‘EDM’ first, then ‘hip-hop.’”
Michael Gazzo, who announced his signing to Casablanca Records in January 2015, agrees with this sentiment. The young DJ from north Jersey, who uses his surname as his stage name, insists that EDM has been present within the tone of much of pop music’s major hits for the past five years. “What Casablanca is doing is using the benefits and connections of a major label to push me to a bigger audience,” Gazzo says, beaming after a set at the Splice-Jukely holiday party.
“I was the guy who spent Saturday night producing a song… I can sit in a studio and shape a kick drum for four days.” Though he’s had a spate of good luck of late, Gazzo tries to remain humble, noting a search for part-time jobs at one point in his career in order to supplement his income from DJing. And though he’s a new signee to Casablanca and a relative newcomer in the EDM world, he seems ready to work, asserting that, “no matter where you go—rock, country, pop—there are always going to be people who work hard and people who sit back.”
For all his humility, Gazzo is supremely confident about the state of EDM. It’s a versatile genre, he says. “It makes Americans more educated as listeners… they’re listening to the roots [of dance music].” He goes on to support the notion of EDM achieving success by a popular music metric, saying, “the listener is going to expect more from the artist; [the music] is just going to move in a different direction… there’s DJs making festival bangers but the superstars will be the ones who transcend genre.” In stressing the cross-genre capabilities of EDM, Gazzo is also sure to point out his recent, label-sponsored remix of “Centuries” by Fall Out Boy (who, themselves, were the consummate crossover act, bridging the world of pop music with the alternative scene).
Though the ubiquitous success of EDM bodes well for label folk like Alperowitz, some die-hard fans of the genre are quick to point out their grievances with its current incarnation. Dylan Landon—a some-time promoter and social media personality for Casablanca Records who’s run the official YouTube channel for events like Miami’s Ultra Festival—claims he’s seeing a heretofore unrecognized level of integration in the EDM scene between “bros and hipster-alt kids who are finding common ground.” Landon jadedly insists that while the hipsters are functioning as tastemakers within the scene, the “bro kids are ensuring the cycle” of artists finding tremendous success coming from what he refers to as the “underground.”
“A majority of that particular sound has an expiration date,” offers one longstanding EDM fan, who, though she maintains viable social media and real-life presences within the EDM scene, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of her position at a New York-based music PR firm. “It’s not that their artists aren’t reaching everyone,” she says of Casablanca Records. “They are. Even if you don’t listen to them, you know them. You’ve heard their biggest track—even if you don’t know its name, maybe you’ve heard the remix.” Surely, the music is popular, she agrees. But is it enduring in the way so much of pop has historically been; do EDM songs have the capacity to become “My Girl”-esque classics?
“It’s manufactured. There’s a structure. It loses that essence of timelessness. It’s good for the moment, not forever. How popular is Martin Garrix’s ‘Animals’ going to be ten years from now? Or that song Tiësto has — ‘Wasted’ — or something… If the music is good, it never matters what genre it is.”
The differences between rock-based pop and EDM-based pop seem to be sticking points for Alperowitz, who came into his own in the music industry as a self-proclaimed “rock guy” under the auspices of the Universal Motown Republic Group, breaking bands like Chumbawumba, Godsmack, and the Bloodhound Gang. “It just seems criminal, the amount of money they’re generating,” Alperowitz admits when comparing EDM performers to more traditional rockstars. Though both tend to embody cults of celebrity, the former set is sleeker, more efficient and pragmatic. Whereas a successful rock act, popular as it may be, comes laden with tons of equipment and a gaggle of musicians, an EDM DJ “might not even need a tour manager.” All qualms aside, “whatever this is”—this formula of efficiency, accessibility, and latent popularity—says Alperowitz, “it’s real.”’
Real as EDM’s popularity and ubiquity may be, Alperowitz has some pretty big shoes to fill in stepping into Neil Bogart’s role at the head of Casablanca. The company, which essentially functions as Universal Music Group’s electronica brand, is fighting an uphill battle against already established EDM labels. It would stand to reason that a major imprint like Casablanca—with Universal’s capacity for distribution and promotion, as well as its capital, at its disposal—would have no trouble going up against independent dance powerhouses like Ultra and Spinnin’.
But Casablanca’s competitors have had lengthy head starts, earning them the sorts of positions in the dance music world that come only with time and authenticity (for reference, Casablanca’s Facebook page has about 41,000 “likes,” while Ultra and Spinnin’ boast two and five million, respectively). Though Casablanca professes to have its proverbial ear to the ground, companies like Spinnin’ Records and Ultra Music can garner fresh talent by virtue of name alone. For its part, Casablanca seems to be doing all it can to fast-track its way the type of authenticity that, in the EDM scene, can only be earned with time.
In a cab outside the holiday party, Brett Alperowitz describes how, a few days earlier, he’d taken his family to Z100’s annual Jingle Ball concert at Madison Square Garden. Among the diverse bill of entertainers—Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Maroon 5, Sam Smith, Iggy Azalea, Pharrell—there was one major EDM artist present: Calvin Harris. Alperowitz depicts Harris’ performance with the same tone of awe and enthusiasm, of fandom, as he does when talking about discovering KISS’ Alive! at age twelve. He describes the pulsating bass, the light show, the crowd and its reaction to the world-famous DJ. In a sea of other hugely talented musicians, this lone DJ evoked a tremendous and ecstatic audience response; says Alperowitz of the performance: “It really just… cut through.”
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