Born Albert Teller in 1944, in the Bronx, NY; married; wife's name, Jennifer; children: Alex. Education: Received two engineering degrees from Columbia University; received MBA from Harvard Business School, c. 1969. Addresses: Office--MCA Music Entertainment Group, 70 Universal City Plaza, 3rd Floor, Universal City, CA 91608.
Al Teller, chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of the MCA Music Entertainment Group, is at the helm of two of the music industry's major companies. While climbing his way up to such a venerable spot, he has guided the careers of innumerable artists, ranging from contemporary rhythm and blues singer Bobby Brown to rock star Bruce Springsteen, from country's Lyle Lovett to pop's Billy Joel, and from the alternative sounds of Fine Young Cannibals to the twangs of Wynonna. The Los Angeles Times once called Teller a technology junkie, and the six computers in his home will attest to that. His attraction to the machines stems from a particular interest in the possibilities of meshing music creativity with emerging technologies. Since early in his career, Teller has shown a strong and often vocal commitment to the future of the music industry and to the future of music itself.
Although Teller originally studied engineering--he has two degrees in the field from Columbia University--his pure love of music led him to pursue a career in the music business. During a summer break from Harvard Business School, Teller worked at CBS Records for consultant McKinney & Co. In 1969, having just graduated, Teller landed a job at CBS as the assistant to the president. He soon left to become director of corporate development for Playboy Enterprises, but returned to CBS in 1971 as vice- president of merchandising. Three years later Teller again left CBS, this time to become president of United Artists Records, and then president of Windsong Records in 1978. He returned once more to CBS, leading Columbia Records from 1981 until 1985, when he was named president of CBS Records.
Teller established early in his career a strong commitment to the future of the industry. Through speeches and trade paper editorials he constantly encouraged his peers to seek out new technologies and to anticipate their creative uses. At the same time that he attempted to grapple with the new compact discs (CD) and digital audiotapes (DAT), Teller also showed concern for the industry's history. In his keynote address at the 1988 National Association of Record Merchandisers (NARM) convention, Teller expressed kind words for the "senior citizen of the music business," the LP. "There's still plenty of demand out there for it," Billboard quoted him as saying. "Let's treat it with the respect every senior citizen deserves. Let's not let it be mugged and left for dead, as was the case for the 8-track cartridge." Teller's keen awareness of the marketplace and sixth sense for the future anticipated the debate regarding the merits of analog over digital sound and the resurgence of the vinyl LP.
In the same speech, Teller also prognosticated the elevation of alternative rock to the mainstream in the 1990s. He chided album-oriented rock stations for beating the classic rock format to death and for no longer seeking out the newest music of interest to the active music buyer. He praised alternative and college stations for their courage and creativity. "I urge you to pay close attention to and strongly support the college and alternative formats. They are the cutting edge of rock radio today and could well be the rock-radio mainstream of tomorrow."
With the reorganization of his label after its purchase by Sony in 1988, and due to a strained relationship with the company's then-music chief, Walter Yetnikoff, Teller stepped down as CBS Records president. Just a few months later he was scooped up by MCA Records, becoming its president and chief operating officer. MCA had enjoyed major successes with their contemporary R&B/hip-hop and country music acts, but had not done as well in the rock sector. Noting that Teller's tenure at CBS had been marked by such commercial breakthrough artists as George Michael and Terence Trent D'Arby, the label hoped to tap Teller's talent for discovering hot young stars. As Teller forecasted in Billboard, "We're going to be very aggressive out on the streets looking for great young talent; it's as simple as that."
Within a year Teller was appointed chairman of the MCA Music Entertainment group, while still retaining the responsibilities of MCA Record's head. He went on to oversee MCA's acquisition of GRP and Geffen Records, as well as new ventures in Germany, Japan, and other international markets. Adding Geffen to the group helped boost MCA's share of the alternative audience Teller deemed so important. DGC Records, an imprint of Geffen Records and one for which MCA handled distribution, was responsible for launching Nirvana, the grunge band that heralded the mainstream success of a drove of alternative rock bands, many of whom sprang from the Geffen roster.
Once again touting the merits of underground rock, Teller told Musician's Thom Duffy, "Alternative music really reflects the good old-fashioned way of developing an artist--a band gets together, builds a following in clubs, builds a local buzz--all independent of the record company." He was also quick to deny that he was focusing on any one kind of new music, stressing that it wasn't the genre, but an artist's ability, that mattered. "I've always believed that any definition of superstar has to include the ability to affect thousands of people who see you do it live, to transport people as a performer."
With the explosion of easy home access to the information superhighway in the 1990s, Teller continued to be a leader in bringing the record industry into the twenty-first century. In a commentary for Billboard Teller wrote, "The biggest barrier we face now is not technological but human. It's inertia.... Success has become a habit. And no one resists change more stubbornly than the successful." He sent out a call to retailers and music companies to join together in envisioning a future in which the record store is not obsolete but "a store that will turn technology into a motivating experience in retail theater.... One of the most potent marketing tools we have," he continued, "is our capacity to build demand for our products through the selling power of the retail environment. If we sacrifice this to technology, we not only lose a vital arena in which to expose and promote new products, the consumer loses too--loses the freedom to browse, to sample, to discover, and to buy on a whim."
In 1994, in line with his philosophy of keeping the music business up to date with technology, Teller established the position of vice-president of interactive media, whose mandate is to identify, implement, and help market interactive media projects from the MCA Music Group family of artists. Teller's own mandate for the future became that of his company's; as he told the Los Angeles Times' James Bates, "The core vision of (MCA) will be music itself, but as technology provides all sorts of new vehicles to hear music with, we will follow that path. Who's to say what form it will take?"
by Joanna Rubiner
Al Teller's Career
Assistant to president, CBS Records, c. 1969-70; director of corporate development, Playboy Enterprises, c. 1970-71; vice-president of merchandising, CBS Records, 1971-74; president, United Artists Records, 1974-78; president, Windsong Records, 1978-81; president, Columbia Records, 1981-85; president, CBS Records, 1985-88; president, MCA Records, 1988-89; chairman and CEO, MCA Music Entertainment Group, 1989--. U.S. President Bill Clinton's appointee to National Information Infrastructure (NII) Advisory Council.
- Billboard, March 26, 1988; September 3, 1988; September 16, 1989; September 28, 1991; October 5, 1991; April 10, 1993; March 5, 1994; March 8, 1994; May 14, 1994; April 22, 1995.
- Cash Box, October 6, 1990; September 7, 1991; September 21, 1991.
- Entertainment Weekly, October 30, 1992.
- Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1993; January 7, 1994; March 25, 1994.
- Musician, April 1992.
- New York Times, March 13, 1994.
- Variety, April 20, 1988; April 27, 1988; August 31, 1988; September 13, 1989; March 29, 1993.
- Wall Street Journal, March 24, 1994.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from MCA Records, Inc., publicity materials, 1994.