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 airport. 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 a 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 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.”

dont you ever stop long enough to start take your car outta that gear…

Reading tabloid articles in the aftermath was as close to the Public Image rout as I cared to be but The Clash’s proposed seven-night stand at Bond’s International Casino in Times Square, just a couple weeks later in May 1981, was a different matter. I’d witnessed the Detroit stops on every preceding Clash tour and there was no way I would miss my favorite band when they hit my new home turf.

True to form the group had recently released a sprawling, foolishly ambitious three-record titled Sandinista! The name was a tribute to the left-wing guerilla movement in El Salvador that was currently giving Ronald Reagan a serious case of indigestion. Politics aside, to my ears the diversely influenced songs on the album succeeded more often than not. Even disco – the bete noir of every punk-rock true believer – was seamlessly woven into the Clash’s newly cosmopolitan style. On a track called “The Magnificent Seven” the English rockers appropriated the rhythmic rhymes of rap, the latest sound to rise from the uptown city streets. And New York returned the compliment: on WBLS, Frankie Crocker was spinning a funky instrumental remix called “Magnificent Dance” in heavy rotation. After a few stagnant years, America’s musical melting pot was bubbling again.

Naturally I wasn’t the only person hotly anticipating these concerts but even the Clash must’ve been surprised at the ensuing melee and melodrama. I expected a mob scene when I showed up at Bond’s, a former department store converted into a disco, with my ticket in hand. The presence of mounted police and blue barricades was initially reassuring. All in a Saturday night’s work for the NYPD, I figured, but the subsequent arrival of fire trucks with sirens blaring suggested something extraordinary was afoot. Indeed I never made it in; the show had been oversold, double the club’s capacity according to news reports, and the Fire Department shut it down. Sticking to their guns, The Clash hurriedly called a press conference the next day and extended their stay at Bond’s for another seven nights.

Finally shuffling into the vast ballroom on the following Thursday I wasn’t disappointed. Balancing their recent material with the urgent anthems of their punk past, as far as I was concerned The Clash ascended a new peak that night. “Guns of Brixton,” in particular, came across like a promise delivered rather than an implied threat. But I sensed impatience in the audience, bordering on intolerance. Not for the Clash themselves, who were irresistibly charismatic performers to the end, but for the direction they sought to push their followers. The indifferent reaction accorded to the opening act, the luminous reggae superstar Burning Spear (Winston Rodney), came as no surprise. Later, I cringed when the saintly poet Allen Ginsberg was booed as he joined The Clash onstage. Free verse beatitudes and clanging guitars clamor isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Still the crowd’s close-mindedness was upsetting. I kept waiting to hear somebody call for “Whipping Post!” or “Free Bird!”