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How Elektra Records ushered in the alternative music revolution—and then helped kill it

Background: The members of Metallica (Photo: Costello/Redferns/Getty Images); Foreground: Björk performing with The Sugarcubes in 1990 (Photo: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images) and Pete Rock and C.L, Smooth in 1992
Background: The members of Metallica (Photo: Costello/Redferns/Getty Images); Foreground: Björk performing with The Sugarcubes in 1990 (Photo: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images) and Pete Rock and C.L, Smooth in 1992
Graphic: Karl Gustafson
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Some music labels are ahead of their time; then, there’s Elektra in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Founded by Jac Holzman in his college dorm room in 1950, the record company has its roots in folk, but by the late ’60s it had grown to become the home of such groundbreaking groups as The Doors, The Stooges, and MC5. Unfortunately, Holzman sold Elektra to Warner Communications (now WarnerMedia) in 1970, and while the label would keep The Doors on the roster, it mostly churned out hits by adult-contemporary superstars Carly Simon, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and Linda Ronstadt—a far cry from the bands at the forefront of the counterculture movement for which the label had become known.

That all changed when Warner CEO Mo Ostin appointed his vice president in charge of talent and Blue Thumb Records founder Robert “Bob” Krasnow as head of Elektra in 1983. Krasnow built one of the most eclectic rosters in the industry, many of which would doubtless be on an indie label today, including Metallica, 10,000 Maniacs, The Cure, They Might Be Giants, Brand Nubian, The Sugarcubes, and Stereolab. He accomplished this largely through the passionate members of Elektra’s artists and repertoire (A&R) team, whose job was to scout for and develop talent that set trends, not followed them. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, many a Gen Xer likely saw the label’s black and red logo on a good number of the records they received with their “12 CDs for a penny” shipment from Columbia House.

For the label’s 70th anniversary, we spoke to many of the roster’s artists and those who signed them to find out the stories and secrets of Elektra’s success—and later, how shifting radio formats and an anti-creative corporate climate did it in.

John Flansberg and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants, 1989
John Flansberg and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants, 1989
Photo: Lynn Goldsmith (Getty Images)

Part one: “Elektra is different.”

Before legendary A&R man Robert “Bob” Krasnow (also known as “Kras”) became the president and CEO of Elektra Records in 1983, the label was known as the home for California-based singer-songwriters such as Bread and Jackson Browne. This was a far cry from the diverse array of artists he was working with in the ’60s and ’70s, such as George Clinton, Captain Beefheart, and Ike and Tina Turner. 

Krasnow immediately shook things up by moving Elektra from the golden sunshine of Los Angeles to the concrete jungle of New York City. That same year, he told the New York Times that if the label was going to be successful, it would “have to gamble heavily on contemporary talent.’’ He set about finding people who could help him achieve his goal.

Peter Philbin, head of West Coast A&R, 1985-’89: I met Howard Thompson and we became fast friends when he worked for CBS Records in the U.K. Howard wanted to move to New York. He came over, but it was a lot more corporate than he was used to. Our interest was signing bands from day one and going through the early stages of building a career.

Howard Thompson, head of East Coast A&R, 1984-’93: They [CBS] had me hand-holding acts like Pink Floyd, Men At Work, and Bonnie Tyler. The trouble was, the company made more money on domestic acts, so unless something dramatic happened, foreign acts usually got the shaft. I was pretty shocked Krasnow asked me to come to a meeting. When he interviewed me over lunch about going to work for him at Elektra, he said, “I’m not interested in hit singles. I’m looking for hit careers.” To me, that meant radio could wait. Just pick real talent.

Steve Gustafson, bassist, 10,000 Maniacs, signed in 1984: In those days, executives were music fans, not bean counters.

Sue Drew, A&R, 1988-’92: This was before labels were owned by these major companies that work on a quarterly basis. In the early days of a record label, you worked on a one-, two-, three-, and even five-year basis. That’s what it took to break somebody.

John Flansburgh, They Might Be Giants, signed in 1989: [Krasnow] was the central casting version of the record executive of the post-hippie era. He was crazy. He had this wild temper. He would get fixated on things. Among the label people I’ve met and observed, it seemed the main qualification for being a record executive in the ’80s and ’90s is, you had to be crazier than your bands.

Mike Bone, head of promotion, 1983-’87: He knew how to have a good time, and he didn’t mind spending money to do it either.

As the label slowly became more successful, Krasnow and Thompson began to grow the A&R department. Along with poaching Peter Lubin and Sue Drew from PolyGram, new hires included Dante Ross from Tommy Boy Records, Peter Philbin (who had worked with Bruce Springsteen and The Bangles at Columbia), future Billions co-creator Brian Koppelman, Raoul Roach (son of bebop pioneer Max Roach), and Terry Tolkin from Rough Trade. According to Philbin, he picked “people who actually liked music.”

Peter Lubin, A&R, 1988-’94: One of the basic tenets that we clung to was that there was nothing more important than A&R at a record company. That is self-evident, but you’d be surprised how difficult that is to find at a record label.

Sue Drew: PolyGram just had a different mindset altogether. The lineup wasn’t really that great. I couldn’t believe how unappealing it was to me. At Elektra, you had the cream of the crop in every genre.

Brian Koppelman, A&R, 1988-’90: One of the A&R people, Peter Philbin, had me show him music around Boston. At the end of it, he told me that he was going to get Bob to hire me to do A&R right out of college. It was my dream job.

Howard Thompson: The only pressure was to sign distinctive bands with a unique point of view and make sure they were willing to work. Kras said, “If you’re working harder than the band, drop the band.”

John Flansburgh: Howard was like a rock critic. He had these wild, intense opinions about everything. He loved Iggy Pop and all the reckless impulses of pop music. He was a true believer in the character-driven part of rock music.

Howard Thompson: At the time, everybody was looking for the new hair band. I never saw the point in signing something in a scene that was already happening. You usually only get diluted versions of the original, so I look for the opposite thing because, as popular as that shit was—and we already had Mötley Crüe—there are even more people looking for something else entirely. I thought 10,000 Maniacs could be that something else—and for a short while, I was right.

Steve Gustafson: He was willing to let us make some of our own decisions and defend us. He pushed us to make the right decisions when we needed to. He wasn’t that much older than we were, so we felt like we were part of the gang.

Sue Drew: I was a little intimidated by Howard at first because he’s a big personality and very bold in his opinions. But if you go toe to toe with him, he appreciates that.

Dante Ross, A&R, 1989-’95: Howard Thompson said some things I perceived to be classist. He’s English, and he had a very condescending attitude in general. I found out years later I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. I was a young buck, and he was an older cat.

Krasnow was a tough guy. He was a strong, powerful, working-class guy, and he told me he saw a lot of himself in me, and I was one of his favorites. I don’t think Howard particularly appreciated that. I also don’t think he liked rap music, or cared for Black culture. He didn’t really feel my whole vibe. I remember at one A&R meeting I played “All For One” by Brand Nubian, and he stopped it after the first chorus and he tried to kind of chastise me. He said, “Why does the kick drum sound so horrible?” “That’s the 808, and that’s part of the sound of rap music,” I said. He said, “It sounds like the sound of rubbish.”

I was a baby punk rocker. I saw Bad Brains and The Clash in ’81. I saw all the stuff he was tethered to. I asked him, “Did your parents like punk rock?” He didn’t know where I was coming from, and he said no. “Of course not. If they did, then it wouldn’t be cool.” Everyone started laughing, and after that, I had his number. He couldn’t phase me. I think he respected me after that day. Not only could I justify my music, I could articulate it in a way that was very obvious.

Brian Koppelman: Dante Ross has always been ahead of his time.

Sue Drew: When I started doing A&R, there were very few women. I could count them on one hand. I used to think, “I’m surprised these guys are taking me seriously.” It was such an unusual position to have as a woman. Women were in the music business but they were publicists or promotion people for adult contemporary.

Dean Wareham, Luna, signed in 1991: I knew Terry Tolkin from Rough Trade. He was just hired as an A&R guy and Galaxie 500 was signed there, so we dealt with him there a little bit. I guess he interviewed with Howard Thompson, and Terry always liked to say things like, “Whatever you do, I’ll sign you.” He’s a charming guy, but you have to take it all with a grain of salt. He tells tall tales, and he likes to put himself at the center of the story. I don’t think he ever felt comfortable working on the 16th floor of Rockefeller Plaza for AOL Time Warner. He just wasn’t cut out for that. [Note: The A.V. Club reached out to Tolkin for this piece. He politely declined.]

Tim Gane, Stereolab, signed in 1993: Being exactly the kind of music nerd that everyone thinks I am, most of my conversations with Terry were music-related. I was disturbed sometimes with the music-biz stuff, like taking a limo to Pier Platters record store in Hoboken with Terry. He would say, “Don’t worry, Jim’s paying for it,” referencing the singer from The Doors [who were signed to Elektra at the time —Ed.]. “Jim” paid for all the dinners, too—or so I thought at the time.

Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Mount Vernon, New York, 1992
Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Mount Vernon, New York, 1992
Photo: Catherine McGann (Getty Images)

From the mid ’80s to the early ’90s, Elektra began to grow an eclectic and diverse roster that stood out, including 10,000 Maniacs, Sugarcubes, Pixies, Brand Nubian, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, They Might Be Giants, Phish, Luna, Faster Pussycat, and Metallica. 

Peter Philbin: I saw Faster Pussycat about their second week of being a band. They were one of the worst bands I’d ever seen. About four or five months later and Faster Pussycat was going on first. They played this song called “Bathroom Wall.” It wasn’t Bob Dylan, but it’s a cinematic lyric. You could see what they were doing, and it was rock and roll. Kras comes out and I tell him I have a band called Faster Pussycat. Bob liked porno, and he immediately recognized it was from the Russ Meyer film. He says, “Great name! Let me hear it.” And I said no because I knew he was going to hate it. He does a double take and says, “Great. Sign them!” And I thought, “Wow! This is not Columbia!”

Peter Lubin: Howard Thompson says to me, “You do have your ‘What’s Happening List,’ don’t you?” I asked him what that would be. He says, “That’s the list you use when Kras comes in your door and asks, ‘What’s happening?’ You have to have something to say. I always keep a pad next to my phone, and I jot things down.”

Somehow on my list was the name of Yngwie Malmsteen, the fastest, most excessive, ridiculously absurd guitar player on the planet. He’s an outlier in terms of music that credible people tend to enjoy. I had been pitched to sign him, and in my head the answer was a definitive no, not in a million lifetimes, but he was on my “What’s Happening List.”

So Krasnow comes in one morning and he asks, “What’s happening?” I told him Yngwie Malmsteen was available, and I thought he would throw up in his mouth a little and that would be that. He says, “Are you kidding me? This is incredible! You gotta sign him!” I thought because Bob was mercurial that he would forget this by lunchtime, but later in the day the head of business affairs calls me up and asks, “So you’re signing Yngwie Malmsteen?” I didn’t want to, but we did it. The album made its money back in Japan alone.

Sue Drew: I first became aware of They Might Be Giants when I worked at PolyGram, and I thought they were amazing. I was following them around and getting to know them. I wanted to sign them to PolyGram, but then I got the offer to go to Elektra. [PolyGram was] about to make an offer, so I said to the guys, “Look, I’m going to be leaving here, but I’m going someplace better. I think you’re going to be happy, so hang on for a moment until I get there, and you’ll be the first thing I bring in.”

John Flansburgh: Peter Lubin said to us in our first meeting, “Are you ready to be in the show?” It’s not very often that people talk in those terms. It’s something out of a movie, and he was sincere.

Pete Rock, signed (along with CL Smooth) in 1991: We were making music at home, and we shopped it around to a few different places. Believe it or not, Elektra was the last try. Raoul Roach liked our music, and he signed us. It was as simple as that.

Dante Ross: Bob didn’t understand the genre of hip-hop, but he knew it was important. He was very astute. But he knew he needed to get some skin in the game, but didn’t know how to do it. I backed Brand Nubian because I knew they were important, and I still feel they were important. I’m a child of activists. My father was a left-wing writer. I grew up in a very unconventional household, so to me, Brand Nubian and KMD were attractive. [Note: Grand Puba of Brand Nubian did not respond to numerous interview requests.]

I’m a firm believer in Black power and Black empowerment. Ironically, I’m a white Jewish kid, but I speak Spanish and was raised in an all-Puerto Rican neighborhood by political activists. I signed these groups who led the Black Consciousness movement in rap music. I lived the culture. There was very little division between myself and the groups I signed. If rap music didn’t save me, I don’t know what I would be doing. There was a reason I signed the groups I did. The dynamics of color and economics were always very interesting to me. I was raised in my home to view the Black Panthers as heroes, which isn’t a common experience for white people my age.

Sue Drew: In the case of Phish, that is music that Howard would have never, ever listened or been attracted to. But then he and Bob came to a gig at Roseland. It was the first time they were playing for the company, and Howard just turned to me and said, “This is incredible, and I now have my new favorite drummer of all time.” He trusted it, and then he got it. He was always very supportive of me.

Kirk Hammett, guitarist, Metallica, signed in 1984: We equated being on a major label with commercial or album-oriented rock, as it was called at the time. It was played on FM radio with its bastard cousin, pop music. We were very hesitant about that because we weren’t about to change our sound. But it was our co-manager Cliff Burnstein that sat down and said, “Elektra is different. They’re a major label, but they’re known for nurturing their acts.”

Howard Thompson: We knew we weren’t in the “pop” biz, where confections were bought onto the charts. We needed two or three albums and constant touring to develop an audience. We did it without radio at first.

Sue Drew: By the time you get the third record out, that’s when you were hoping something major would happen, like radio. That was a routine that we understood.

Kirk Hammett: So [Metallica] played the show at the Roseland Ballroom, and I remember the four of us getting off the stage saying, “What a horrible show!” We had a lot riding on it, and we thought we totally sucked. We went to our dressing room expecting the worst, and five minutes later the parade started. Peter and Cliff came in and said we were great. [Head of promotion] Mike Bone and [A&R rep] Michael Alago came in and said we were great. Alago said, “We’re going to do great with your album.” Everyone was talking like all the contracts were going to be signed.

Mike Bone: I was known for working hard rock records. I always said that as long as General Motors keeps making the Camaro, there will always be a market for heavy metal records.

When I got to Elektra, Michael Alago had signed Metallica. But then, Bob [Krasnow] had their managers Peter Mensch and Cliff Burnstein in his office on a Friday to explain to them that Elektra was not going to go forward with the deal, even though the contracts were being drawn up. He said they were just noise. They walked out of Bob’s office and Cliff walked into my office and closed the door and said, “You got to get the fuck out of here, man. That guy is crazy. He just dropped Metallica.” I told him that they hadn’t even recorded an album yet, but Cliff said he didn’t want to proceed with the deal. Needless to say, I was upset about it.

On Monday morning, Bob walks into my office and asks me to call Cliff and Peter to get them to come back over here. So I call them, and they come back over… I wasn’t in the room for the meeting, but there was a large portion of humble pie served, and Bob ate it. I had no idea what was said in the meeting, but when Cliff and Peter walked out, they were elated. I don’t know if Bob gave them more money or a guaranteed marketing budget or whatever, but everyone in the company knew what happened. Bob called all the executives in and said, “I made a terrible mistake on Friday, but I’ve righted it today.” He proclaimed that Metallica was “the new street opera.” I was back in business. He was a very forceful advocate for the band from that day forward.

David Lovering, Frank Black, Joey Santiago, and Kim Deal of the Pixies at the Pinkpop Festival, Landgraaf, Netherlands, 1989
David Lovering, Frank Black, Joey Santiago, and Kim Deal of the Pixies at the Pinkpop Festival, Landgraaf, Netherlands, 1989
Photo: Gie Knaeps (Getty Images)

Despite their current status as noise-pop pioneers, the Pixies were initially rejected by American record labels, including Elektra. It wasn’t until the band’s demo reached Ivo Watts-Russell, the co-founder of independent British label 4AD, that they found a home, but the group still needed an American distributor.

Robin Hurley, general manager and CEO, 4AD, 1991-’99: Ivo Watts-Russell, the owner and driving force of 4AD’s A&R, would sign artists out of the U.K. As these artists started to become more successful, labels in the U.S. would start taking interest in them. Ivo would sign different bands to different labels. His decisions were based on the enthusiasm of the A&R person in the U.S.

Peter Lubin: I worked with Ivo, who was the head of 4AD, and the rest of the staff. It wasn’t an unusual arrangement.

Joey Santiago, guitarist, Pixies, signed in 1988: We had this thing with other labels. They weren’t willing to do anything with us. America is really late on the trends.

Brian Koppelman: My office was next to Peter Lubin’s, and I could hear “Debaser” coming through the walls. You could not help but have your mind completely shattered by it.

Sue Drew: I remember seeing the Pixies at a club called The World. They were incredible.

Brian Koppelman: Howard had the sense to know that everyone should go see this. We all went down. I just remember “Bone Machine.” I was 22, and I’d never seen anything like it. I remember how the light hit Black Francis. I was trying to take it all in. This was before Dolittle. The audience was going insane. You could see the look on Peter Lubin’s face. This was the future.

Peter Lubin: Unbeknownst to me, Bob allegedly passed on the Pixies before I brought them to him. I guess he initially didn’t have any faith they would sell records and be an item. He amended his position when I advocated for them. I didn’t have to argue with him. He said, “If that’s what you want to do, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Robin Hurley: Working with a major label is going to have its pros and cons, particularly when the label in the U.K. was so staunchly independent and accepted some of the more corporate activities. But you also got the benefits, such as large video budgets, which were bigger than we could have afforded if we were putting them out independently in the States, and tour support. There was a respect and a feeling for the Pixies and The Breeders that Elektra was the place to be.

Before he joined Elektra, Koppelman was a student at Tufts University. In 1987, he heard fellow student Tracy Chapman performing at a coffeehouse, and he told Rolling Stone that “her presence, her voice, her songs, her sincerity—it all came across.” He took a demo from the college radio station and sent it to his dad, Charles, who owned SBK Publishing, and they worked together to get her signed to a major label.

Brian Koppelman: When my dad and I started working with Tracy [Chapman], we had a sense of how groundbreaking and remarkable her music was. When we would bring her music to most record companies or they would come see her, they wouldn’t get it. When Bob heard her, he understood how important she was as an artist. When the album was finished, I presented it at the A&R meeting. They all freaked out. Everyone in that room understood how great it was.

Dante Ross: [Bob] asked if he could play me something, and it was Tracy Chapman. It wasn’t out yet, and it blew my mind. Then he told me she was Black, and I got really bugged out. I thought he was onto something.

In 1988, Thompson flew to London and caught a performance by Icelandic band The Sugarcubes, which featured Björk on vocals. Thompson describes the show on his blog as “the ugliest, most cacophonous, unrelenting, grating noise,” but they sounded great on record, so he gets the go-ahead from Krasnow to make a deal. When everything was signed, Einar Örn Benediktsson told Thompson that he couldn’t wait for the A&R rep to see them live. Thompson confesses he has, and tells Benediktsson he left after 10 minutes. Benediktsson reveals that the show Thompson attended was their “punk” gig: The group had intentionally performed badly to confuse the industry people who were bothering them.  

Howard Thompson: I was never anything less than honest at the time. I saw myself as a bridge between the art and the company, and even though the company was paying me, I often sided with the artist. Because if your artist’s not happy, you’re not gonna get good art.

Brian Koppelman: I remember the first time Einar [Örn Benediktsson] and Björk came into the office. It was when Howard came back from signing The Sugarcubes, and I remember they didn’t look like anyone I had ever seen before. When we heard the music, it was just… People overuse the word different, but it was unlike anything else that was happening. It was an incredible thing to see them after Howard had talked to them. They had so much charisma. It was quite a thing to take in.

Sue Drew: Who can say they saw Björk at CBGBs?

Elektra reached its critical and commercial peak in that era. But the label did let some opportunities pass by, including a chance to be at the forefront of grunge.

Brian Koppelman: I would say I left Elektra because I wanted to sign Toad The Wet Sprocket and Blues Traveler, but the truth is you probably shouldn’t leave a job for that reason when you’re around amazing people doing amazing work.

Peter Lubin: I thought there was something credible and good about the Butthole Surfers, and Bob shut that down in a millisecond. He said, “Pass!” I said, “What? Why?” “I’m not going to have a group on the label called the Butthole Surfers,” he says. “That’s ridiculous, Bob,” I say. “I never heard anything so shallow.” He says, “Now you have!”

Dante Ross: They wouldn’t let me sign Cypress Hill. I had them. They [had previously] wanted me to sign them, but the Ice-T “Cop Killer” stuff was going down. It wasn’t going to fly at corporate.

John Flansburgh: Elektra already had something going on in every world. It’s funny to think that as all that grunge stuff was happening, they were still putting out Linda Ronstadt.

Peter Philbin: Something was clearly going on in Seattle, and Mudhoney was interesting.

Sue Drew: I don’t even know if we tried for Nirvana. I think Geffen had that on lock.

Brian Koppelman: [Mudhoney] had this single out [“Touch Me I’m Sick”] with the song “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More” as the B-side.

Howard Thompson: I didn’t go for that sound. It was on the other side of the country, so I never saw it until it was too late. Nobody on the A&R staff brought anything like that into my office either.

Peter Philbin: I knew something was going on in Seattle the same way I knew something was going on in Austin.

Brian Koppelman: We go to Seattle and see the band. The next day, we meet with the two guys at Sub Pop [owners Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman], and they play us a bunch of music and don’t tell us the names of some of the bands. They played some Screaming Trees and maybe a couple of songs off of the Nirvana demo. It was all incredible. We left there, and I remember Philbin saying, “Do you think we should sign Mudhoney?” I remember thinking that there’s this scene here, and I didn’t know enough to know if we should sign Mudhoney, but Elektra should sign a deal with Sub Pop because they know what’s going on.

Peter Philbin: I don’t have a real strong memory, but I think Brian is right. I think Kras didn’t entertain that, and I understand why. He was specifically signing bands by act. He wasn’t looking for somebody to bring in a supermarket of rock ’n’ roll.

Brian Koppelman: Philbin went and said to him that he should give them some reasonable number to own 25 percent of Sub Pop, but he couldn’t see a clear way to do it. That was an opportunity, but I was a kid, and I didn’t know their corporate structure or if it was possible. It was clear to me that those guys knew what was coming.

Peter Philbin: As an A&R guy, I’m not the guy who would want to sign five bands with the Seattle sound. I’m not interested in a sound. I’m interested in signing specific bands where they write the songs, and I care about what they’re singing about. It should be different with each band.

Metallica at the Sheffield Arena, 1992
Metallica at the Sheffield Arena, 1992
Photo: Mick Hutson (Getty Images)

Part two: Winning on style points

For many of the bands on the Elektra roster, signing to the label meant being a part of a beloved label with a rich musical past.

Britt Daniel, Spoon, signed in 1998: Elektra’s history is deep. I saw that logo on a lot of the records I ended up buying.

Joey Santiago: We went to the office and raided their album closet.

Kirk Hammett: As time went by, I’ve come to realize that Elektra was a really significant label. They have a lot of my favorite bands. I remember having a conversation with Cliff Burton, and we couldn’t believe we were on the same label that The Stooges were on. They were bands that we saw in the same light as us. They weren’t really commercial bands—well, maybe The Doors were—but they were artists that didn’t kowtow to what was popular at the time. Knowing that was a huge source of confidence for us.

John Flansburgh: It wasn’t set up like Reprise, where you had all the great vocalists at the time, or SST, which had all the punk hardcore bands.

Sue Drew: Phish never thought about being signed to a major label… I think what turned their head is when they saw our record cabinet and they saw all the artists from the inception of Elektra in this cabinet. It got in their head that they wanted to be associated with this great lineage of talent.

With labels reissuing their back catalogs on compact disc, record companies were flush with cash, allowing Elektra to take risks and give the new bands on their roster the freedom to make the records they wanted and nurture their careers for long-term success.

Steve Gustafson: Our manager thought it was a really good idea for 10,000 Maniacs to go to Elektra because it was smaller. We were very green and immature in some ways. We thought highly of ourselves because we wrote our own songs, but we didn’t really know a lot about what we were doing. They let us pick the producer for The Wishing Chair, which I thought was unusual. [Album producer] Joe Boyd didn’t really make acts; he worked with Syd Barrett and did stuff with Fairport Convention, a band we all love. We fancied ourselves to be similar to a folk band like them, and Elektra said, “Go ahead.” Record companies were swimming in money back then, so an $180,000 budget for an album was nothing.

John Flansburgh: Sue went on a worldwide producer search. She knew if she could find the right producers, they could polish us up into something presentable. With Clive [Langer] and Alan [Winstanley], they were a much bigger deal than we were. They were the biggest producers in Great Britain, but they had also done a ton of stuff like Madness and Morrissey. Working with them was a huge education for us. It was a complete crash course on how to have at it in the studio.

Tim Gane: We were never worried about losing creative control. Elektra effectively had no say in the content of any of the LPs Stereolab did for them. It was in the contract. They had the right to refuse a whole album, but not any individual tracks or elements from it. As we never did band demos either, this meant that the first clue they had about how an LP sounded was when we gave it to them.

Kirk Hammett: They were very helpful with The $5.98 E.P. They understood what we were trying to do: get something down on vinyl to let fans know that we were still around post-Cliff’s passing [Metallica’s original bassist, Cliff Burton, died in a tour bus accident in 1986. —Ed.]. We made it in 10 days, and it was a cheap thing to make, so it should be a cheap thing to sell. Elektra saw the benefits of it, and the reason we put the price on there was because we were concerned about independent record stores charging more for it.

Brian Koppelman: Metallica called me. They needed to do an edit on the video for the song “One” off of And Justice For All. Lars [Ulrich] had a very particular way for the edit to be done: It’s for the video, but he doesn’t want it to be the way it normally would happen—he just wants it to fade out in a spot. They were like, “You know metal. We want you to handle this.” I got on the phone with Lars, and he told me what he wanted me to do. When the band heard it, they called me to thank me, and invited me out to Columbus, Ohio, to meet them when their tour started.

Dean Wareham: Luna did okay. We got good press. It’s not like we were outrageously expensive. They weren’t losing money on us, but the major labels at the time weren’t interested in making albums that would sell 100,000 copies.

Dante Ross: I’m proud of Ol’ Dirty Bastard. It was so hard to finish [Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version]. It took a year, and I had so many people telling me I signed the wrong guy. There were a lot of trials and tribulations making that record. It was one of the few times when I knew I had lightning in a bottle, and I had to get it to the finish line. It was a great record and a wonderful thing to hang my hat on. He’s probably the most important person I worked with to this day.

John Flansburgh: Nobody ever suggested to us that we would be a novelty act or to do something broader, which I have to give them tremendous credit for. They left us alone. There was a lot of fretting about the nature and qualities of what we were doing, but I wouldn’t say they got up in our animal space in the way you would hear people talk about in a Behind The Music episode.

Kirk Hammett: We had actual friendships with a lot of record execs. A lot of bands view these people as the enemy, but we were calling them up to see what was going on.

Britt Daniel: There were people looking out for us, but they weren’t in charge.

Kirk Hammett: There were a couple of times when Elektra would come up with an idea of how to present ourselves. We would have to sit down and say, “How about this?” They were always great about meeting us in the middle.

Britt Daniel: They didn’t change anything on [A Series Of Sneaks], but they did strongly suggest that we make a radio edit for “Car Radio.” We found a way to make the song longer by copying and pasting. It was just dumb. It didn’t work.

Steve Gustafson: [The Wishing Chair] didn’t recoup, but it got some critical acclaim. They said, “Let’s do another one, but we’re going to pick a producer.”

Sue Drew: With They Might Be Giants, we gained trust. I was very into their world. I loved them as musicians and people. We did have a major disagreement at one point. I did want Elvis Costello to produce their record. I reached out to his manager, and Costello wanted to do it. The guys freaked out and said no. “We can’t be in a room with him,” they said. It was very intense, but we did have a respect for one another.

John Flansburgh: But as much as I would like to have had lunch with Elvis Costello, I don’t know if having him as a producer would’ve been helpful. We would’ve spent the whole time being in the way of Elvis Costello making one of his own records.

Steve Gustafson: When 10,000 Maniacs were writing and recording songs for what would become Our Time In Eden in Jamestown, New York, where we were from, Bob didn’t hear a hit. He flew on his private plane to this little airport, rented what was probably the only limousine in the area, and met us at our favorite restaurant. He bought us all lunch and was telling us, “I need more! I need more!” He was a very pleasant man, but he wasn’t specific. He says he’s got to go back to New York, so he’s standing on the curb waiting for a limo to come smoking a cigar. I told him thanks, and he turned to me and said, “I feel like I’m in a movie.” At that rehearsal, Rob Buck was toying around with this Hawaiian tune, and that song became “These Are Days.” So Bob did get more. And Natalie [Merchant, 10,000 Maniacs singer] wrote “Few And Far Between,” which was a reference to that lunch meeting, or at least that’s how I interpreted it.

Dante Ross: I never spent a lot of money. I signed Ol’ Dirty Bastard for about $175,000. On the first Brand Nubian album, I was scared I went over budget by $12,000. I remember Michael Alago going, “Chill. Metallica spends like $2 million to make a record.”

Howard Thompson: As long as you were getting things done and the work was good, Kras had our backs and never ever questioned my expenses.

Robin Hurley: I can’t remember a huge amount of frustration with Elektra, mainly because we were selling quite a lot of records.

Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs at Laguna Seca Daze in Monterey, California, 1993
Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs at Laguna Seca Daze in Monterey, California, 1993
Photo: Tim Mosenfelder (Getty Images)

Often, bands like 10,000 Maniacs and They Might Be Giants went through grueling tours and promotion schedules in order to reach listeners.

Mike Bone: We had great A&R, which made it easier to work the records when you knew they were good records.

Sue Drew: We had a very strong promotion team. They Might Be Giants wanted that mainstream success. They had a number one single in England, and their album was on top of the alternative chart here. They did work hard.

John Flansburgh: We spent a full 12 months promoting Flood and touring. Between all the shows, we would have continuous press days that started at 10 in the morning and ended at six at night with a show at the end of the night. It was like being shot out of a cannon. It was totally and completely exhausting. When we got off that tour, we were much older people than when we started.

Steve Gustafson: Having In My Tribe go gold made them push it even harder, because they want to go platinum. We did in-store visits, signed autographs, played radio stations, and we did interviews like crazy. We did whatever we could.

Mike Bone: Rock radio would talk about an act a lot, but maybe not play them. They would talk about Metallica a lot. They may only play them from 7 to midnight, but they would talk about them all day.

Tim Gane: We would do all they asked, but once I refused because they wanted us to cold-call radio stations live and say, “Hi, I’m Tim Gane from Stereolab, and we have a new LP out…” There’s no way I could do that. I hated talking on the phone then anyway. Now I hate Skype and FaceTime.

Sue Drew: [Phish] were dead set against doing any promo. They wouldn’t do any late-night shows or a Rolling Stone interview. They didn’t want to put out a single for radio. We were respectful of that, but we did try to nudge them a little bit. I think Letterman offered them a spot. They never wanted to open for anyone, but the opportunity came up to open for Carlos Santana for maybe five to 10 shows, so they could do that. Everything was pretty much their way. [Note: Phish declined The A.V. Club’s interview request.]

Mike Bone: Mötley Crüe was doing five to six nights a week opening for Ozzy [Osbourne] in these 7,000- to 12,000-seat venues. So we got permission from Sharon to put leaflets on the seats of the entire arena with a message to Mötley Crüe fans to request a video from Shout At The Devil, I think. We did this for about two months, and it became the top video that MTV wouldn’t play. Finally, they had to add it, and it went ballistic at that point. A band can’t be everywhere, but a video can.

Pete Rock: They kept signing acts like us, KMD, and Brand Nubian. It was pretty far to the left.

Dante Ross: I wasn’t confident [Elektra] could break a hip-hop act, and they never really did to their full ability.

Dean Wareham: We didn’t have to do a terrible amount of promotion, except when we were on tour. I think it would only be a fraction of what we would have to do if we had a hit on the radio.

The hard work had paid off for Elektra. Not only did the label usher in alternative radio and rule the charts in the up-and-coming genre, but it also made a strong showing at the 34th Annual Grammy Awards in 1992, winning Record and Song of the Year for “Unforgettable,” the duet with Natalie and Nat King Cole, and Album of the Year for Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable… With Love.

Howard Thompson: Other labels started wondering how we got to number one on college, alternative, and modern rock charts so frequently when mainstream radio wouldn’t touch them. It’s because we identified something special about the artist/group and let them do their thing with very little creative interference.

Peter Lubin: Sometimes if a couple of artists at a label take a year off, they can have a catastrophe on its hands. When the Elektra roster really hit its stride, it didn’t matter if Anita Baker or Linda Rostandt took a year off. There was always something to take its place and keep us in good standing at Warner. It was really extraordinary that way.

Elektra’s success helped foster a family atmosphere—and doing everything with panache, from a stylish Rockefeller Center office to parties that people remember with varying degrees of success.

Peter Lubin: Elektra did help draw the artists together in a camaraderie that wasn’t necessarily present in other labels where business was business and acts were separate entities.

Tim Gane: Someone once told me that we were a “band magnet” for Elektra. Bands would think that if Stereolab were working fine with them then they must be okay.

Sue Drew: Frank Black became a huge fan of They Might Be Giants, and those guys would connect and hang out.

Joey Santiago: We kept in touch. We played with them live in small venues and The Ritz in NYC. We bumped into them a lot on the road.

Sue Drew: When I came to Elektra, the creative team was on a separate floor. And then we got the space, and they renovated it. It was absolutely beautiful and impeccably done, including leather floors. It was over-the-top.

John Flansburgh: They were very interesting and quite beautiful, but the impulse to do it seems mercurial and insane.

Joey Santiago: Being at Elektra was kind of weird because the posters on the wall were unrelatable to us. I saw a bunch of people with hair in metal bands. I remember a Mötley Crüe poster.

Steve Gustafson: I sometimes say that I was having so much fun during that time that I forgot to pay attention. Some of the corporate parties were wild. We played one in Miami that was… whoa! That’s all I can say. You figure it out.

Joey Santiago: They had a party at Mercury Lounge. Bob Krasnow was there. He shot me a look like, “Get the fuck out of my face.”

Sue Drew: My bands were not crazy. They were geeky nerds. I had more crazy nights with the staff at Elektra than I ever did with the bands. We had a good time.

John Flansburgh: Everything at Elektra was about winning on style points, I think. It all goes back to leather floors.

Mike Bone: Bob invited me over for dinner. He was making pasta, and the doorbell rings, and he asked me to get the door. I went down the hallway and opened the door, and The Cure were standing there. They were supposed to start a tour, and Bob invited them over for dinner. They’re looking at all this modern art in a living room you could land a helicopter in. Bob was cooking lamb chops, and I’m moving things out to the dining room, and the doorbell rings again. I go back down the hallway, and Henry Kissinger is standing at the door. I bring him into the kitchen and introduce him to Robert Smith. You want to talk eclectic? That was Bob Krasnow.

Howard Thompson: Luna was opening for the Velvet Underground’s reunion tour, so I thought I’d go and see them in Paris. Why not, right? Being friends with Dean meant I’d get in and probably be well looked after.

Dean Wareham: We went out to dinner with Howard. We might have all been on E. He brought a Walkman and a camera. It was at The Olympia in Paris, and they were filming the whole thing. Luna wasn’t even playing that night because the stage wasn’t big enough.

Howard Thompson: As the group were taking a bow at the end of the concert before the encore, I took two shots with my Nimslo 3-D camera. I thought it was unlikely that anyone would have a 3-D shot of the Velvet Underground. A minute later, I was being led out of my seat, and marched backstage where their tour manager confiscated my film and the cassette, too. A bit humiliating, but it was such a thrill to see them and hang out with Dean in Paris after.

Dean Wareham: I saw Lou [Reed] later that night, and we were all friends. He asked me, “What happened to Howard?” I said, “He got kicked out.” Lou thought that was hilarious.

Steve Gustafson: Someone had this brilliant idea to have three bands tour through Europe called the Elektra Caravan. It was us, The Call, and X. We didn’t want to follow The Call because they were too loud, so we let them or X headline. We weren’t feeling great about it. Howard took Dennis [Drew], Jerry [Augustyniak], and I out to a bar in Germany to get us psyched up. We started doing shots of Jägermeister, which I had never done. We drank too much. We got to the gig, and we were drunk. Natalie was pissed off, and she had every right to be. We were performing “Don’t Talk.” She took her mic stand and smashed it until it was bent over. I don’t lay blame at Howard’s feet for that. He was trying to help, and things just went overboard.

Tim Gane and Mary Hansen of Stereolab at Lollapalooza, 1994
Tim Gane and Mary Hansen of Stereolab at Lollapalooza, 1994
Photo: Ebet Roberts (Getty Images)

Part three: “The seas were changing.”

In 1993, the rap trio KMD, formed by Zev Love X (an early alias of MF DOOM), was putting out their second album, Black Bastards, on Elektra. The record’s controversial lyrics and cover art, which featured a drawing of a Sambo hung from a noose, led to the label canceling the release.

Dante Ross: It was part of the fallout of [controversial Body Count song] “Cop Killer.” The cover art offended a woman named Terri Rossi and a guy named Havelock Nelson, who were writers for Billboard. Havelock was a friend of mine and to this day, I have a bone of contention with him. They saw the artwork and he wrote a scathing thing about it in his column.

WME said it was offensive. I explained to Krasnow what the artwork was. We had a meeting with the powers of be, but it was canceled. I never knew who canceled it, but I suspect management did because they had made their decision. So DOOM and I sat and talked to Bob about it. [Note: MF DOOM did not respond to interview requests.] I clearly remember Bob telling us, “Dante, this is not your day. This is bullshit, and it rolls downhill, and we’re all in your way. This is what we’re going to do. I’m going to offer you $20,000 and give you your master tapes back.” He told DOOM he was sorry it happened. I thought I was going to get fired, but Bob let me cool out for a couple of days and told me he was sorry. “I don’t believe in censorship, but this is how the cookie crumbles,” he said.

Pete Rock: Labels never want to be a part of things they don’t understand. They’re just into the music and the work.

The climate was changing at Elektra’s parent Warner Music Group, and according to reports, Krasnow was feeling excluded from the corporation’s inner circle. Some employees said the chairman was becoming more unstable. And by 1994, the label wasn’t doing well chartwise or financially.

Sue Drew: [Krasnow] was only great to me, but I could see things were changing. It made me feel okay about leaving.

Howard Thompson: I never butted heads with Bob. We just quietly grew apart in the last year or so I was there. I felt I was treading water and not challenged by anything, and I think he was listening to the wrong people. It happens.

Peter Philbin: Faster Pussycat wasn’t my aesthetic, and I knew they weren’t his either. There’s a part of rock and roll where you can’t take yourself too seriously. And the record sold about 150,000, and we made money. At Columbia, that wasn’t a problem. But at Elektra, Bob was going, “Why is this band on the label?” He didn’t care if they were making money. It really offended his aesthetic. It basically led to me leaving there four years later. At one point, he said to me, “Peter, I really think you lost your point of view.” My affection for him never wavered. This is one of the great guys, but he was erratic.

Steve Gustafson: Natalie told us every other year that she was going to quit the band, and her timing was her timing. We all wished we’d been able to record one more studio album with her. Bob Krasnow called us into his office and said, “We signed her into a contract. If you get some good songs, give us a call.” Elektra said goodbye and they weren’t going to sign us.

In 1994, Krasnow abruptly left Elektra with two years left on his contract. David Geffen said to the Los Angeles Times that “Bob Krasnow is one of the smartest and most talented executives working in the music business these days. His track record as a talent scout is impeccable.” Sylvia Rhone, now considered one of the most influential women in the music industry, took over as chairman. Krasnow died in 2016.

Almost everyone on the roster felt the change of guard, from the label shifting their focus to radio to failing to properly promote album releases. When describing The Afghan Whigs’ departure from Elektra, Greg Dulli said in an interview, “There wasn’t a motherfucker over there that we could trust anymore.” To further his point, The Afghan Whigs’ song “Neglekted,” from the album 1965, was originally titled “Sylvia” on advance copies of the record. [Note: Greg Dulli declined The A.V. Club’s interview requests.]

Then the label’s biggest-selling artist, Metallica—who renegotiated their contract before Krasnow left—sued to leave Elektra when the label and Warner Music Group didn’t honor the deal.

Kirk Hammett: We owned our masters for our first three albums. We wanted to own all of them. And we also wanted to go into a joint venture with Elektra. It was something that Bob Krasnow initially agreed to hear, and then the logistics and terms started getting worked out, and then Bob left. The lawsuit inspired us to really challenge them.

I remember at one point there was a huge stall and a breakdown in negotiations for the agreement. I remember our lawyer telling Lars to go to Elektra and say, “This is what we want. Yes or no?” And they acquiesced. It was a really great deal. It was split down the middle. We split the costs, but we also split the profit… Things didn’t change that much for us after Krasnow left. We had this joint effort in place, and they pretty much left us alone. They put us in our own little column. They really didn’t have to worry about us at that point. We were guaranteed to move a certain amount of units. We couldn’t do wrong.

But not everyone had the clout of six-time-platinum Metallica. Especially not once Sylvia Rhone’s regime was in place.

Pete Rock: Bob Krasnow heard [the hip-hop group] InI, which I produced, and saw the talent and loved the music. He put the [debut album] into production. We mastered it. We dropped the first single, and that’s as far as it went. The album never came out on Elektra because of Sylvia Rhone. We left the label.

Britt Daniel: We ended up being dropped less than four months after [A Series Of Sneaks] came out. This guy who I couldn’t get to stop calling me I now couldn’t reach on the phone once we signed. I never saw him once after the record came out. I could tell his interest was waning, then it started gravitating toward [newer Elektra artist] Vast once we signed. Then we found out he was managing that band while still at Elektra, which is a slight conflict of interest. Then a few weeks later, he quit Elektra, and we got dropped. We saw a correlation.

Dean Wareham: One of the first things you learn in the music business is you get signed somewhere, and you figure out who everyone is, and then you wait 12 months, and everyone gets pushed out.

Tim Gane: We knew it was coming. It seemed all very “matter of fact” and business-like. We had already begun work on the next phase of our activities.

Dean Wareham: Terry [Tolkin] told me [Sylvia] trusted the radio people more than the A&R people, and ultimately they started having more power at the label. Alternative radio had become such big business back then. Those playlists started getting tighter and tighter. You’re competing with other labels and other bands on your label. The radio rep will go, “We’ve got Björk. We’ve got Third Eye Blind. We’ve got Luna.” We were going to get the short end of the stick, but that’s reality.

Britt Daniel: We were concerned that the label would be very excited to work with you until your record came out, and if it didn’t make a dent in radio, they would forget about it. We went through all those worst-case scenarios when we talked to [Spoon A&R rep] Ron Laffitte, and the scenario we ended up with was worse than we ever thought it would be.

John Flansburgh: If people don’t think of you having unlimited potential, it’s hard to sustain the interest of a major label. They saw our professional possibilities plateauing. You get into weird arguments with the people you’re working with. If something breaks, they don’t see an opportunity to get something going. They want to focus on the new record by The Cure. As a young man, I found that impossible to believe because I came from the DIY part of things where everything is a major push. They have lots of resources but they also have lots of acts. You see opportunities coming up, and you can’t amplify because you’re not on the roster. On the cultural roller coaster that we were on, we weren’t new anymore.

Dante Ross: It wasn’t until Sylvia Rhone came on that we really knocked home runs out, and I left shortly thereafter. I didn’t care, working for her.

Britt Daniel: Jim [Eno] remembers better than me, but Sylvia said something like, “We won’t do a lot of money up front. That way you guys can tour and tour, and we can take as long as we want with working this record. Then we’ll do another one.” I couldn’t really read Sylvia Rhone, and I should have known that I shouldn’t work with someone that I couldn’t read. She was just in a different world.

Many of Elektra’s artists went on to find success after they were dropped, though for many bands, the label still owns their music. Elektra eventually went dormant in 2004, only to come back to life in 2009 as part of its former sister label Atlantic Records.

Britt Daniel: It all worked out, because everything we wanted from our deal with Elektra we eventually got it on our own terms—without doing dumb things like extended radio edits. In a way, it was the thing that gave us some notoriety because I wrote two songs about it. It’s what gave people a story about Spoon for the first time. If anything, that really helped us.

Dean Wareham: They still own the masters of our first four albums. I was looking at my contract the other day. I asked, “Do they own us forever?” Yes, they do. Any money those albums make goes to them. However, some people are starting to challenge that and restructure their deals. I realized how brilliant their contracts are.

Pete Rock: They still have some unreleased music. The studio I used to work in had the tapes, and when he sold it, he gave them back to the label. Somebody has them. Everybody wants to get their music back.

John Flansburgh: I don’t spend a lot of time going woulda, coulda, and shoulda because we did the best we could. The last four years we were on Elektra we were on a mediocre downward spiral. I’m proud of everything we did on the label, but the second we were off, it was like the floodgate of possibilities opened up. We were inundated with outside offers from television and movies. We started doing The Daily Show music, Malcolm In The Middle, and kids’ albums as a parallel career. Once we were answering our own phone, I couldn’t believe how much it rang.

Dean Wareham: If I look back at that whole time, I was surprised to be on a major label. I didn’t grow up thinking I’d become some huge rock star, so the whole thing was an unexpected ride. You can’t really do better than that.