By Hans Ebert
There are music guys who become music executives, there are music executives who should never have been allowed into the music industry, and then there are music guys who become music executives who become music moguls and lose all sight of why they joined the music industry in the first place. Jimmy Iovine is a perfect example of the latter species- pretentious from what he wears to the Apple watch he shows off as if part of a product placement deal to the verbiage spewing from his mouth and, these days, a sad caricature of the fat cat, hip-talking musical “visionary” intent only on being a bigger corporate fat cat. And then there’s Max Hole.
The news that Max is stepping down as Chairman and Chief Executive of Universal Music Group International is no surprise. Following contracting encephalitis after a trip to this region- Asia- almost a year ago, he has battled memory loss and the battle continues. He’s no quitter and he’ll be back. Wait and see.
Max Hole is a music guy whom I was happy to work under and get to know as a friend and confidante. He was hugely supportive and, unlike many fair weather friends in this business, he never forgot those loyal to him and the company, what one brought to the table in a business context, and the secrets shared offline. Whenever in Hong Kong, no matter how short the visit, he made the time to call to say Hello and meet up for a chat. How many bother doing that these days? We live in an I, Me, Mine world and it holds us back from being better people. For “Maxy”, it didn’t matter that I was with another music company. It was simply two friends catching up with no cards up our sleeves, no sleight of hand tricks, no one looking for free anything, and no agendas.
This lack of bullshit is why Max Hole will be missed at Universal, especially by some very good people like Andrew Kronfeld, to whom he has been a great support system and cheerleader- and also missed by quite a few in this region, but for different reasons. These are the well-known Backhanders Anonymous, who should thank their lucky stars for being promoted way beyond their levels of competence from where they continue to wheel and deal in Hong Kong, in Singapore and in Mainland China.
Maybe Max knew exactly who they were, and how inefficient and superficial these people still are. After all, this region has never exactly been a huge profit centre to UMG’s bottom line, so it might have been a question of letting running dogs lie, and having glorified shoeshine boys continue to be the vapid empty vessels they’ll always be. Gawd knows, there was much shoe shining to get into the good books of Max. Pension funds and secret bank accounts were at stake.
Where Max Hole succeeded brilliantly was in building a great team at Universal Japan, the most difficult music market to understand, who delivered the numbers along with the music plus giving the company in Australia a new lease of life under the leadership of George Ash. But there were other home runs hit out of the park by this soft-spoken man who absolutely loved every aspect of his job- the artists, the music, the challenges, again, the music, the opportunities, his colleagues, the travel, and, yes, the music and how to get as much music out there in as many different ways possible long before “sharing” online happened and the genie orchestrated the Digital Revolution.
When at the Titanic and smoke and mirrors that was EMI Music led, at that time, by Eric “The Biscuit Bungler” who slyly sold the company to private equity fat boy Guy Hands and his Terra Firma bandits who mismanaged the company into Sleepy Hollow, I often looked back and regretted leaving Universal Music as it meant leaving the enormous joy of working with Max Hole. But an insufferable megalomaniac had somehow weaselled his way into the good books of the political and rather, well, dumb Jorgen Larson, the ageing head of Universal Music International, and was given the job of running the company in the region. Not even happy pills could have kept me numb enough to take his affectations and severe bouts of being a legend in his own dim sum lunchtime. Starting off weekly meetings with quotes from “The Prophet” and various “housekeeping” rules to make the office more “sexy” along with the team of two faced toadies clinging to their jobs was tough to stomach. But those were the bad old days.
When with Universal Music, it was Max Hole, then head of Marketing and A&R, who was largely instrumental in the setup of what came to be called U3, a three-tiered music marketing division of UMG to exploit its vast back catalogue. This was handed over to a very savvy, in a kinda mad German scientist way, named Wolf Urban. The objective of UM3 was to work like an ad agency and find ways in which music could be used in non-traditional ways. This is where Wolf Urban came into his own by preaching to all UM3 teams setup around the world about producing branded CDs with sponsors and featuring music to, for example, soothe hyper canines, produce CDs for pregnant women, CDs for rainy days, CDs for making love etc etc. There were also attempts at producing shaped CDs for brands like McDonald’s. For them was created a CD in the shape of a Big Mac. Alas, many of these shaped CDs mangled many CD players and had to be immediately withdrawn- while ideas like producing CDs for every man, woman and hyperactive poodle eventually showed a runaway train going off the precise. And then, just like that, Wolf Urban was gone like a bad Duran Duran song, UM3 was handed over to someone else but by this time it had become UM Zero with the biggest hit being when yours truly managed to sell over 860,000 CDs to Chivas Regal as a premium deal- a weird collection of tracks from our extensive back catalogue featuring everyone from Status Quo and Humble Pie to Cliff Richard, the Beach Boys and the Supremes. Chivas packaged these CDs with their product, sold them at all Duty Free shops and the promotion was a huge success. Why? A bad taste in music?
It was all a bit weird for that time, but looking back, UM3 happened a decade before it should have and when the online world took over music. Wolf Urban was onto something, but the technology wasn’t in place at that time- and neither were the mindsets of the traditional music executives. It wasn’t sexy enough.
Another of Max’s initiatives was a division comprising largely A&R-driven music executives to re-establish artists who had seen better days. Though trying to turn Sheena Easton into a “hot” disco diva inspired by Cher’s comeback hit, “Believe”, faded without trace, what worked was shipping out a string of washed up balladeers to the Philippines and the concept where Michael McDonald Sang Motown.
The original idea was to have Boys II Men record this album- something very commercial as their sales were on a downward spiral. That never happened. The group baulked at the idea. They wished to record their own music despite the songs being ponderous at best and left to join Sony. We had the Motown concept there for the comeback of an artist, and, scarily, Ric Astley came close to recording the album before sanity prevailed, and it became a Michael McDonald release. Michael McDonald Sings Motown sold almost 15 million copies. Irony: Years later when Boys II Men returned to Motown, they also returned to the project. Beggars can’t be choosers and where are Boys II Men today? Probably touring with El Debarge and the Jackson Four.
For some reason, the division- ERA- folded. Perhaps we couldn’t find the right people around the world to keep it going? Perhaps most of the old artists whose careers we were trying to revive were dead? Whatever it was, this was another example of Max Hole, the music guy, first, and music executive, second, showing everyone how music can be a business- and fun- without resorting to ripping off artists, business partners and music fans.
The last time, I saw Max in Hong Kong, we chatted about the first time we met- at a staff party in a karaoke lounge in Malaysia. I had sung “Desperado” and he decided to show me up by singing “Do You Want To Know A Secret” replete with cheesy dance moves. He asked after someone who had once worked for Universal before leaving to run EMI saying he never warmed to him- or as he put it, “We don’t like him, do we?”- before asking if my love life had taken another detour and then exchanging our thoughts on the Mainland China music market and our favourite new acts.
There were plans to work together again on a project with the “hardware” of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Then came the news about Max’s illness. And without Max Hole’s involvement and leadership, it wasn’t worth pursuing- not in this region. Those out here would have been clueless where to start. Hopefully, working with Max can continue after what I hope is just a break, or semi retirement.
Music, and what’s left of the music industry, cannot afford to lose someone as special as Max Hole.