Dirty Secrets of the Hidden Industry

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Near the end of 1981, I stumbled across a promising job opening, at yet another publication I’d never read or even heard about: Video Marketing Newsletter. Though I didn’t yet own a recorder, I knew video cassettes were the future. Right away, I was sold: the future had potential. The future sounded like a solid commercial proposition.

At a couple hundred bucks per subscription, business newsletters only required a few thousand subscribers to turn a profit. Production costs were almost non-existent on these glorified brochures; they were stapled, picture-less, ten-page pamphlets. Veteran rock critic and folk music maven Ira Mayer ran Video Marketing Newsletter. He’d just rented a five-room suite on a tidy midtown side street between Lexington and Third Avenue. Next-door was an enclosed concrete park with a fountain and a snack bar that operated in warm weather. On the other side was a synagogue, housed in a modestly handsome modern building. Across the street was an outlet of the “Erotic Baker” chain, its display window stocked with a grotesque assortment of penis and breast-shaped layer cakes. New York City was so tacky sometimes. Little did I suspect that the porn presence was prescient.

A few weeks later, I was introduced on the back page of VMN as a “veteran trade reporter.” From that point on, I knew we were all in trouble.

During the six months I worked at VMN, every so often I answered the phone and heard this: “Who the hell writes this crap?” I was never quite sure how to answer. Naturally I knew who wrote it, and so did the film studio executives and video store owners who called to complain about the subtle shadings of their quotes. Our sources were also our subjects, and our subscribers. Businessmen – successful executives – paid good money to read VMN musing on the future of consumer electronics. And consumer electronics was about to change the world. Ira and his California-based partners foresaw the all-conquering acronyms: VCR, CD, DVD, and PC.

Though I still hate to admit it, my bosses were right. On the money. Considering how much of the specific short-range stuff they consistently got wrong – such as laser discs overtaking videocassettes – only makes their omniscience on the big picture all the more incomprehensible. Video Marketing Newsletter was a high-tech oracle, a handbook for nerds before being a geek became cool or insanely profitable.

“In the future all our media, all our entertainment will be consumed and delivered on machines made in Japan” — this was our mantra in early 1982. Churning out vague yet obvious predictions turned into a lucrative business for Video Marketing Newsletter. Too bad I spent most of my time there writing freelance music articles for little or no money.

The videocassette market, in terms of movie content, resembled Times Square circa 1982: evenly divided between Hollywood blockbusters and the vast tawdry empire of pornographic films.

Times Square was hands-down my least favorite place in Manhattan. Relentless sleaze permeated the neon atmosphere. It was literally breathtaking, and depressing beyond words. The grim aura of human exploitation extended from the joyless porn movie palaces to the various personal services offered in strip clubs and on the streets. Obvious and not-so-obvious whores of various genders bantered with the tourists who stood around gaping at the marquees: Live Nude Girls 24 Hours, Peep Show/Private Booths and XXX All Male Cast Triple Features Daily.

There were still first-run movie theaters on Broadway in those days, too. The Times Square audiences were lively, let’s say: openly smoking pot, yelling at the screen. Watching a movie in these conditions may not have been dangerous, but it wasn’t remotely pleasant either. As a rule, I tried to avoid those sorts of potential-mob-scene situations.

The mass popularity of pornography (and prostitution) was simply astonishing. Not merely the prevalence, but the demand and the apparent frequency of consumption. Put it this way: I knew porn was popular but I had no idea how popular. The proximity of Times Square to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Penn Station only partially explained the lurid proliferation. How many commuters made a secretive sex stop on the way home?

Though porn movies accounted for roughly 50% of the burgeoning video cassette market, you (understandably) wouldn’t have read about that in Video Marketing Newsletter. The retail outlets and video stores that serviced the new market couldn’t afford to be so discriminating; the “adult section” was discreetly situated in the rear of the store.

A crucial issue for VMN was sales versus rentals. Most consumers preferred to borrow video cassettes for $2 or $3 and return them to the store, rather than purchase and own a movie for $20. Columbia Pictures tried to squelch the new videocassette rental market in early 1982 by announcing that it would begin restricting movies on tape to “sale-only” but the video dealers weren’t having it.

Ira Mayer and I attended a hastily convened meeting of the regional branch of the Home Video Merchants Association, a loose knit group of video-store owners, taking place in New Jersey at a chain-hotel conference room. The day before I had called the main office of Superstar Video (let’s call it), New York City’s popular new chain of video stores, located in the back room of what was basically an upscale pornography supermarket in Times Square. When he found out VMN knew about the meeting, the owner got on the phone. Of course he was pissed off by the security leak. Swearing me to secrecy until the story ran, he grudgingly said we could attend the meeting as long as we didn’t draw undue attention to ourselves. “Mr. Superstar” rallied the troops that night; he rocked the house.

We built this business for the studios. They wouldn’t have Home Video divisions if we didn’t risk our necks in 1978, 79. The movie companies didn’t know they were sitting on a goldmine. Retailers created the home video market. It didn’t exist back then. Now we’ve got fucking, excuse me, Fotomats renting videos. [applause] I don’t have to tell all of you. We watched it grow, the home video market. We grew it. And now the movie studios are trying to snatch it back from us. No thanks. We’re not laying down. No way. My stores aren’t carrying sale-only videos.

We were mildly exuberant on the way back to New York. A little drama made for lively journalism, even in The Hidden Industry. The story would write itself, for once.

***

A shot at establishing (or redeeming) myself as a business reporter arrived with the coming of warmer weather. The Summer Consumer Electronics Show, or CES to those in the know, was scheduled for the first week in June. Naturally my boss planned to attend, this season with me in tow. I spent the week before CES on the phone. Ira hoped to interview every – any – executive who could be corralled for five minutes on the convention floor. “Why in the world does he want to speak with me?” was a frequent response. Eventually, nearly everybody gave in. VMN was impossible to avoid before the bloody show even began.

Our hotel, more of a motel, was a Holiday Inn equivalent next to O’Hara airport. The McCormick Center was accessible via buses from the motel. My flight was delayed five hours so I the missed Thursday’s evening festivities, including Sony’s legendary all-you-can-eat sushi buffet and a luau hosted by Panasonic, among other draws. I slept fitfully in the unseasonably sub-polar air-conditioning. The first bus departed at 7:30 and I was on it, clutching my styrofoam coffee cup.

A battery of satellite dishes guarding the entry plaza imparted a militaristic Star Wars vibe to the airy lakeside complex.  Welcome the wonderful world of gadgets. Batteries not included. It was a midnight-sun environment, relentlessly bright. Natural light would’ve been inappropriate, somehow. The harsh lighting gave me a near-blinding headache after a couple hours exposure.

Predictably I was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of variation that I had trouble putting each product in context. What makes this one different? I’d think, and then silently answer: who cares? Who would want to watch the Sony Watchman, a portable TV with a tiny 4-inch screen? Presumably not the same sort of person who would fork over $10,000 for a Sony Trinitron 30-inch screen sunk in a wood cabinet, complete with monogrammed gold plate. I didn’t have anything invested in “consumer electronics” because I wasn’t an electronics consumer beyond my Walkman, cheap stereo and TV. I felt like an enemy spy behind the lines at CES – or a double agent.

I studied name tags and loitered close to the booths, zeroing in on the nerdy-looking guys who seemed to be in charge while avoiding the moderately pretty and provocatively dressed Midwestern blondes who were stationed by the display tables.

Identifying yourself as a journalist at a trade show meant removing yourself from the ranks of potential paying customers. You served no purpose, as far as the exhibitors were concerned, you were useless. These guys bought ads to sell their products, paid to publicize their companies; they didn’t need an inept trade magazine reporter to spread the word.

I had a hard time getting past “what’s new?” in other words. My problems started with “I’m with Video Marketing Newsletter.” The invariable response was “what? Never seen it.” I didn’t have a snappy answer at hand. There was no snappy answer.

The most popular exhibits at CES – by a wide and obvious margin – were situated in a roped-off section devoted to the so-called adult video industry. This was the most heavily trafficked area in the entire McCormick Center. When various porn actresses were appearing, the line of guys waiting for (presumably) autographs stretched past the life-sized cardboard statue of Jane Fonda in her workout leotards at Karl Home Video.

Naturally I ran into my boss and his business partner near the entrance to Sodom and Gomorrah.

“What are you doing here?” The tone was accusatory, as though they weren’t “here,” too.

“I came over to check out the crowd. I should’ve known what was going on.”

“What else have you been up to, Mark?”

I flashed my reporters’ notebook, blue ink visible on its fluttering pages. My shoulder-pouch was stuffed with brochures.

“Wait there’s something else you could do before lunch. There’s a secret meeting of retailers back at one of the hotels. The guy from Superstar Video is rallying the troops. I want you to just show up.”

“He’ll kill me. Then kick me out.”

“No, it’ll be fine. Tell him we’re sending you in my place.”

The Red Roof Inn conference center resembled a mid-sized college classroom. One notable difference: Mr. Superstar, looking fierce in a button-down shirt and warm-up suit, glowered next to the podium and empty blackboard. Everybody seated at the long tables in front of him – maybe fifty or sixty people – turned to look when I slipped in. I shut the doors behind me, turned around and smiled like a fool. “How’s it going?”

“You!…you sold us down the river with that fucking article!”

You said we could write about the dealers’ meeting. The entire piece was your quotes. Hey, we got in hot water with our subscribers for taking your side.”

“No that article was fine. The one after that pissed me off. These Hollywood pricks say we’re greedy? Don’t get me started.”

“No, no, let’s talk, let’s talk, you should do a follow-up interview.”

“Kid why don’t you come down to my store back in New York and I’ll rent you a copy of All The President’s Men.”

“How about Deep Throat?” I hoped he got the joke.

“Get the fuck out of here. Now.”

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No More Nukes 1982

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Two industrial AC/heating units squatted outside my apartment window, servicing the restaurants downstairs. When these behemoths rumbled into action around three or four every morning, the sound resembled the roar of a low-flying jet passing overhead. I’d wake up about half-way and groggily imagine: Here Come The Bombers. All the apocalyptic anti-Soviet rhetoric that Ronald Reagan threw around in the early 1980s scared me, and plenty of other people.

Naturally I attended the huge Nuclear Disarmament rally on June 12, 1982. Some estimates put the turnout at nearly one million people. This momentous event occurred on the weekend after my first business trip, a disastrous jaunt to the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. Making my way to the Central Park with some college friends on that sunny Saturday, I remembered the rusted Fallout Shelter signs on public buildings in Cincinnati.

There was a civil defense drill on every first Wednesday of the month while I attended  elementary school. This was in the middle-to-late 1960s, the Vietnam era. And yet here we were, still performing an absurd ritual left over from the cold war. A siren on the roof of the school blasted and we’d get marched out of the classrooms onto the ‘playground’ – actually it was the back parking lot of the church. So much for “duck and cover.” We were sitting ducks! Even as a ten year old I didn’t get it. Nobody ever explained what we were supposed to be doing. There was a lot of that in Catholic school. Unquestioning faith.

Flash forward to 1982: we skipped the parade and headed straight to the rally. We entered Central Park at Columbus Circle near 59th street, after riding uptown on the boogie-down D train. Painstakingly, we made our way toward the general vicinity of the Great Lawn, joining the herds slowly moving north on the park drive. The day was seasonably warm. I sported my new post-punk summer uniform: short-sleeved white collared shirt, black Levis and Palladium canvas shoes from Dave’s Army Surplus, cheap sunglasses from a recent 14th Street shopping lark.

The assembled masses were peaceable, not at all riot-inclined. Planet Earth balloons bounced on strings and the banners unfurled.

Bombs Kill Babies 
Mothers Against Nuclear Arms
Students Not Mutants

Ironically and perhaps intentionally, the inescapable boombox songs-of-the-day were Trouble Funk’s “Drop The Bomb” or The Gap Band’s “You Dropped A Bomb On Me.” Everywhere. The effect was eerie, though of course both songs were dance-party anthems.

My friends wanted to catch Jackson Browne, the eternal bard of sensitive ‘70s teenagers, so we settled on a gnarled patch of grass that seemed theoretically within earshot of the stage. But the speeches and music were audible only as background noise. So we watched the crowd. A message was sent that day, but President Reagan didn’t receive it. Perhaps January 21 2017 will turn out differently.