Sic transit gloria means “thus passes worldly glory,” and is used to serve as a reminder of the transitory nature of life and earthly honors.
Former CBS Records/Sony Music head Walter Yetnikoff died earlier this week at age 87 as a symbol of that ancient saying. While his death didn’t go totally unnoticed, it wasn’t in proportion to the accomplishments of a man who played such a dominant role in the popular culture from 1975 to 1990..
For those unfamiliar, Yetnikoff was president/chief executive of CBS Records, which became Sony Music largely thanks to his initiatives. He worked with such artists as Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Public Enemy – the list goes on, all part of music’s explosive growth in the era as it rode the CD boom and MTV wave.
He was widely considered the most powerful executive in the record industry – until he wasn’t.
It was interesting to read the obits this week, as comments flowed in, some of them from people instrumental in Yetnikoff’s ultimate removal from office through their disavowal of his influence. He was never beloved in the industry, but many feared him, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons he rose so high and fell so far.
Post Sony, Yetnikoff tried to re-enter the music business with his own label, but ultimately gave that up after little impact. He instead opted for a third act as a counselor to those with substance abuse problems, perhaps finding in those moments a bit of redemption of the soul for prior excesses.
It was truly a moment when worldly concerns passed for him, and maybe that’s a good thing to remember for today’s executives who may be on a similar path. As the poet Shelley once noted, “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
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