Seymour Stein, the man who signed Madonna: 'My ears got me through'

His Sire label gave careers to Madonna, Talking Heads and the Ramones, while he was stuck in the closet and a tumultuous marriage. ‘Who’s to say what’s normal?’ he wonders

Seymour Stein loves the music business. And so he should, given he is one of the last old record guys – the kind who came up when rock’n’roll was the thing, who worked in the Brill Building, who talks about songs and records rather than streams and monetisation. The kind of guy who signed the Ramones and Madonna.

His conversation is littered with the names of old labels and the men who ran them, the stanzas of a romance that is now dusty and forgotten. King, Chess, Imperial; Don Robey, Art Rupe, Lew Chudd. “Lew had, in my opinion, the greatest man in rhythm and blues at the time, Fats Domino,” he says. “He had one of the greatest country artists: Slim Whitman. And he had one of the first rock’n’roll teen idols: Ricky Nelson. What a spread!”

What links them all? And what links them to Stein? “Ears. Ears are very important. If you don’t have them, you better hire someone who does. And there are some record companies [where] the heads of whom are not the ear people. The business people may have been fortunate to get the right people around them. I was never like that because I could never afford them. I had to do all of it. I don’t think I’m a bad businessman, and I may not be the greatest A&R man, but I think it’s my ears that got me through.”

Stein and his wife, Linda, with the Ramones and Iggy Pop.
Stein and his wife, Linda, with the Ramones and Iggy Pop. Photograph: Roberta Bayley/Redferns

Stein is 76 now and the author of a wildly entertaining new autobiography. Siren Song, detailing a career that began with him travelling into Manhattan from Brooklyn to help compile the Billboard charts when he was still in his early teens, and continues today: he’s still president of Sire, the company he set up in 1966 (it was swallowed by Warner Bros in 1977).

“If you want to get into the business, get in when you’re young,” he says – when he was 15, his parents allowed him to go to Cincinnati to spend the summer living with and learning the record trade from Syd Nathan. “He told my father I had to be in the music business, otherwise I’d be a failure, because I had shellac in my veins.”

Stein was always more entranced by the songs than the singers. In Siren Song, he writes of realising he was gay in his teens and knowing it had to be a secret. “It was only when the music began flowing through me that I could feel something medicinal happening,” he writes.

“What attracts me to a band is their music, their songs,” he tells me. “I don’t look for how good they are with their musicianship. That will definitely improve and can improve. I’ve never gone after a big band; they’re all young bands I’m after. You have to see what’s in the songs. Musicianship can always improve, but at least a germ of the songwriting has to be there from the start.”

For the first decade or so of its existence, Sire was by Stein’s account a fairly precarious operation (though secure enough to enable him to buy an apartment overlooking Central Park). It had hits largely by licensing records from Europe that no other American label was interested in, striking gold by picking up the rights for the entire world – bar Holland – for Focus’s bizarre yodelling prog-rock song Hocus Pocus, which became a worldwide hit in 1973.

He had wanted to release a record by Jan Akkerman, but EMI’s Dutch outpost told Stein: “‘He’s joined his old band Focus. They’re not doing very much, they don’t have a deal, they’re playing the background for Hair.’ I jumped on a plane and I met them and I signed them. That became my first million-selling album. Without that, we might not have been around a few years later.”

Stein with Michael Jackson.
Stein with Michael Jackson. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex/Shutterstock

Though Stein knew he was gay, in 1971 he married Linda Adler in what was, as Siren Song makes plain, a fairly tumultuous relationship. Why did he marry in the first place? “I didn’t dislike women,” he says. “I just preferred men. I guess some of it might have had to do with being raised as an Orthodox Jew. Family was always so important, and I wanted a family. I felt it very important to pass on and continue the link. Linda was not the only woman I went out with, but she was the one I felt most compatible with. There were some really nice women, but Linda and I kinda hit it off. We fought a lot, battled back and forth. But we got married, had two lovely daughters.”

In Siren Song, Stein is upfront about not being a great father, and Linda being more interested in being a socialite. Did he think he could somehow have a “normal” family life? “Who’s to say what’s normal? I’m still here. I’ve got a family. Sometimes normal sounds boring. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t as crazy as I am, I will say that. Life’s been good to me. I have very few regrets.”

Stein’s enduring reputation began in 1975, when the Ramones became the first of a string of New York punk bands who joined the label, followed by Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Then he began signing the best British underground bands for the US: the Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Depeche Mode (whom he picked up after taking an $8,000 Concorde flight to London, then travelling straight to Basildon to see them in a club).

It must have required a wide variety of interpersonal skills to work with people as different as the street hustling Dee Dee Ramone, the bookish and reserved David Byrne, and the, well, Morrisseyesque Morrissey, I suggest. “I don’t call them skills. I don’t change hats: ‘Give me my David Byrne hat!’ I’m the same person. Even by the time I started Sire, I had been around the music business for many years, and many of the stars I had been aware of as a kid, they were gone. I knew that some of them would have very, very short careers and so I felt empathy, I felt an obligation to go out of my way to help artists. I’m sure I’ve screwed up a couple of times, but most of the time I’ve tried to look out as much as possible for the artist.”

Seymour Stein at this year’s Grammy awards.
Seymour Stein at this year’s Grammy awards. Photograph: Lester Cohen/Getty Images for NARAS

His greatest commercial success was Madonna, whom he signed from his hospital bed in 1982, while being treated for the heart condition subacute endocarditis. “She was a study. I could see how ambitious she was. How strong she was. People ask me: ‘Did you know she was going to be ‘Madonna’? Of course, I didn’t know how big she was gonna be, but I knew she was gonna go pretty far. I’ve never met anyone like her in my whole life. I believed in her and I wrestled to get her signed very, very quickly.” Which entailed a battle with the head of Warner, Mo Ostin – Siren Song’s villain – who did not want Stein spending more of his money.

Sire is not what it once was; it couldn’t be. It is a little imprint within Warner that has a handful of artists, none of them stars. That it exists at all is probably a courtesy to the last of the great old record men. But his golden run from the mid-70s to the mid-80s – when he had the best ears in the business – marked Stein as Sire and Sire as Stein. That is the age that gave him a name that people who love music recognise.

“I don’t believe there are any geniuses in our business,” Stein says. “Maybe there are a few. I’m not among them, I can assure you of that. I have good ears, I’m a hard worker and I love what I do. Don’t make me out to be more than I am.”

He stops. Then adds an afterword: “Don’t make me out to be less than I am, either!”


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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