Mike Sigman spends a big portion of his day practicing piano. He’s played since he was young, but since moving to Ventura in 2014, he has found a renewed passion for it. He also manages his music publishing company, Major Songs, and spends his time writing. Sigman was a music journalist for over 30 years, first at the major trade magazine Record World, a contemporary and rival of Billboard, and later for L.A. Weekly. From Clive Davis to Bruce Springsteen, Sigman had the opportunity to talk with some of the biggest heavy hitters in the 1970s and 1980s. He wrote about some of these experiences in History of the Music Biz: The Mike Sigman Interviews, released in April. Even more fascinating, perhaps, was living the life of a music journalist at a time when the music world was exploding. From classic rock to disco and punk, from the seedy clubs of New York to concert halls, and from radio to MTV to the digital revolution, Sigman has seen it all.
Sigman was just 22 years old and fresh out of college when he started working at Record World. For a young music journalist, it was a dream come true. “It was the early ’70s in New York City,” Sigman recalls. “I could see any concert or music event. It was incredibly exciting.”
You could say that Sigman has music in his blood. His father, Carl, was a Tin Pan Alley songwriter who collaborated with Bob Hilliard and Duke Ellington and wrote compositions for big-band giants such as Glenn Miller and Guy Lombardo. Sigman’s mother, Terry, was Louis Prima’s “gal Friday.” Terry and Carl met in the famous Brill Building.
Sigman recalls his first interview vividly. “It was my first day, and it was Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. I was wearing a jacket and tie, and he gave me a bad time. I never did that again.” Anderson was, of course, dressed in full flamboyant rock-and-roll threads, and Sigman quickly realized that this was the new professionalism for his industry. “Billboard, our competitor, was trade and staid,” he explains. “At Record World, we were young, more focused on the music and less on the business. We were music first. We grew up with the industry.”
When Sigman came on at Record World in 1971, the airwaves were ruled by Carole King, the Rolling Stones, Carly Simon, The Doors and Led Zeppelin. Bruce Springsteen, disco, punk and new wave were on the horizon. It’s hard to imagine a headier time to be in the music business.
Sigman amassed a collection of interviews of the industry’s heaviest hitters: Jerry Wexler (who signed Aretha Franklin), Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones, as well as young up-and-coming artists such as Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen. “Being at a trade magazine was different than Rolling Stone,” says Sigman. “People trusted us; they told us everything. . . . I could get anybody on the phone. It was incredibly intimidating in the beginning.”
Sigman couldn’t afford to stay intimidated. He quickly found himself promoted from reporter to managing editor and then editor-in-chief. “I was this 22-year-old who became the editor by default,” he recalls. “Everybody else was getting fired or quit. The magazine wasn’t successful, and it didn’t pay anything.” He himself had come on for a mere $85 a week.
The experience was something of a trial by fire: Sigman had to learn the ropes of putting out a national magazine largely on his own. But just as he took up the helm, the music industry started booming, and suddenly the struggling Record World, with its staff of young, hip music enthusiasts, became a major player.
For 11 magical years Sigman ran Record World, until the Reagan recession and miscommunication between the owners led to its demise. Lenny Beer, a former Record World editor who had moved to Los Angeles, recommended Sigman for the top post at L.A. Weekly. “I was totally unqualified,” Sigman admits. “I was almost as unqualified for L.A. Weekly as Donald Trump is to be president.” But the man hired instead, a guy dubbed “Mr. Ed the Talking Publisher,” was a disaster for the alt-weekly, alienating his employees with his old-fashioned views and penchant for insults. “I looked good by comparison,” he explains. Before long, Mr. Ed was out and Sigman was in.
“When I got there, it was culture shock,” he recalls. “That was 1983 — it was the height of the post-punk era. L.A. Weekly was the locus of that scene. It was a very anti-authority, anti-establishment and very angry time. [My staff] didn’t want to have a boss. . . . But the paper had incredible energy.”
Once again, Sigman found himself out of his depth at a watershed moment in the music industry, and once again he managed to make it work. The 1980s and 1990s were a time of huge growth, with different styles of music coming on the scene, stars and star-makers growing bigger and more profitable, the rise of MTV. “[L.A. Weekly] blossomed into this behemoth because what was happening in the music industry was happening in newspapers. Everything was just booming.”
Sigman rode the wave for nearly 20 years, until the digital revolution wiped out all the old rules. Once the Internet made it so much harder for artists and record companies to profit from music, the industry started to collapse . . . and so did the publications. L.A. Weekly was hit hard. “They got rid of just about everybody,” Sigman says. “I was fired in 2002.” It wasn’t by choice, but may have been for the best: The landscape had changed so dramatically that it “wouldn’t have been fun to stay on.” And, as Sigman himself attests, “Nineteen years is a good run.”
After the initial shock, he found purpose in creating Major Songs, a music publishing company he started with his mother and brothers, largely as a catalogue of his father’s songs. “That’s been a labor of love,” he says. Now a resident of Pierpont, Sigman and wife, Wendy, enjoy an active semiretirement. He keeps busy as a newspaper consultant, a contributor to the Huffington Post, and a piano student. He’s currently working on a second volume of History of the Music Biz, which he describes as “the best of both worlds”: the joy of writing without the headaches of deadlines and ad sales. “I’m trying to give a little bit of a sense of history to younger people who otherwise wouldn’t know this stuff,” Sigman says.
“It was such a magical time for the music industry,” he adds. “It never occurred to me to do anything different. It was the greatest job in the world.”