One weekday afternoon this month, a man walked into the Ace Hotel’s Breslin Bar & Dining Room and ordered a Guinness with a Patrón Silver, chilled. They didn’t have that. Would a Partida Blanco do? It would.
Jeffrey Rabhan, 40, the new chair of New York University’s Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, was there to do business with the restaurant’s owner, Ken Friedman. They’re both music managers who’ve moved on to other things. Mr. Friedman asked for an iced coffee, but once Mr. Rabhan’s beer and tequila came, the restaurateur ordered that instead. Why not? In his beautiful booth in his beautiful restaurant, he showed off hidden phone chargers. “I’m the artist here,” he said. “In a way, the chef’s really the artist, but I’m the producer, I guess.”
They drank the tequila. “I would love,” Mr. Rabhan said, “I would love to have you on the board.” The department’s Advisory Board now has about a dozen people.
“Great,” Mr. Friedman said before he finished. “I would love it.”
“At the risk of sounding crass, I’m trying to fill roles: advice, money, contacts. You’re all of the above,” he said. Mr. Rabhan, enthusiastic and well groomed, has the air of a man who is going to be doing something interesting with interesting people later in the hour. But Mr. Friedman, relaxed and mussed, looks like he just came from somewhere. Before restaurants, he managed the Smiths. Jay-Z is one of his investors, and a friend.
Mr. Rabhan discovered Hanson and Michelle Branch, and managed Kelly Clarkson. “And you give us some street cred, some New York City cred,” he continued. “If you want to make a donation, that’s great.” Mr. Friedman nodded. “What I would ask you for is introductions,” Mr. Rabhan concluded. “I wouldn’t ask for help with Jay.”
“I’d be honored to do that,” he said. He suggested he could host a party for the department in the hotel. “See, if I did something like that? I could get Jay,” he said. “Here’s the thing, we control all the spaces.” Lady Starlight, Lady Gaga’s DJ, happens to be doing punk rock brunches there, for example. “It was her idea. We can just do it. What the fuck.”
Mr. Rabhan wondered about a Recorded Music fund-raiser. “Instead of rubber chicken at a midtown hotel–”
“Do good food at a hip hotel,” Mr. Friedman interrupted.
“I’m jumping up and down,” Mr. Rabhan said.
Mr. Friedman hinted there could even be some sort of weekly Clive Davis School of Music night.
“Does that fit the brand?” Mr. Rabhan asked, meaning that the Breslin would maybe be too awesome for that. He was being modest. His program, which he took over in January, and was inaugurated only seven years ago, is basically the most interesting business school in the city right now–except, instead of teaching economics, Swizz Beatz will be giving production lessons next semester.
It’s also one of the most singular music programs, although its new chair would not know the minor scale from the Mixolydian mode if it bit him on his strong nose. In fact, he cannot read music at all. At the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, that is not a problem. “In short,” its Web site says, “we are the premier training ground for future music moguls.”
“IT TAKES A GREAT MIND to be mindless,” Mr. Rabhan said in his office. He is doing three classes this semester, and one of them, his course on the history of creative producers and entrepreneurs, covers the auteur Brian Eno alongside the Black Eyed Peas. “It’s hard fucking work to make that level of cheese,” he explained, his voice going low and earnest. “Fergie is a pro.” At the end of the 17,000-word first half of George Trow’s biblical profile of Ahmet Ertegun, who is also on the class syllabus, the Atlantic Records man sips a vodka stinger while singing along to “Black and Tan Fantasy” at a Duke Ellington show at the Rainbow Grill.
“The students see themselves as artists. They’re coming to get a bachelor of fine arts, hipster types and all of that,” the department’s artistic director, Jason King, said from Abu Dhabi, where he’s teaching at New York University’s new branch. “And yet they’re coming here to think very seriously about what it means to have a career in the music industry. They bring their creativity and apply it to their entrepreneurial ambition.”
“We’re bringing the real world into the class. I don’t know anyone else that does it. And it’s really fucking cool,” Mr. Rabhan said. “I don’t think anybody’s coming to the program to be the coolest independent artist nobody every heard of.”
“It’s not ‘show art,’ it’s ‘show business,’” Tisch dean Mary Schmidt Campbell said, quoting a filmmaker colleague’s phrase. Besides executives, the department wants to breed producers like Rick Rubin, who co-founded Def Jam in an N.Y.U. dormitory. It’s also interested in what the program calls performer entrepreneurs, and even journalist entrepreneurs. Robert Christgau, who writes the Consumer Guide, and is pretty obviously one of the greatest living rock critics, has a class on artist and audience.
During Mr. Rabhan’s class on the Black Eyed Peas, Kelefa Sanneh’s 2004 New York Times essay “The Rap Against Rockism” was projected from an Apple onto the screen. “Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star,” the article says.
Mr. Rabhan does not like rockism. “I have this crazy addiction to food and a roof over my head,” he told the students. His shirt was rolled up past his elbows, so you could see the tattoo of his children’s names in Hebrew, which he says he got in Israel when Elliott Yamin, another American Idol contestant he managed, was performing with Andrea Bocelli for the prime minister. As it happens, he met his wife when they were New York University undergrads on a trip to the Holy Land.
As he lectured, he waved his hands, chewed his gum and paced in Gucci loafers. “What is rockism? Talk to me,” he said. “Aaron!” The student he called on was not named Aaron. “Oh, I’m sorry. Dylan. True. Good. Yes.”
Rockists are strong-willed buffoons, someone said. “Rockism is not tolerated here. You have to form your own opinions,” Mr. Rabhan said. “Is Justin Bieber any less credible than the Rolling Stones?”
“I love her,” a student in a purple New York Yankees cap worn sideways joked.
There were arguments about Ashlee Simpson’s famous Saturday Night Live performance, when she was caught lip-syncing, then swept herself offstage with an embarrassed jig. That led to a side conversation among a few young men in the back about Roger Waters, the Pink Floyd singer who has been rumored to lip-sync in concert. “Everybody’s playing background vocals,” Mr. Rabhan said. “Everybody’s trying to fatten their sound.”
“I was talking to my roommate as I was programming MIDI drums,” a student with a Fender sticker on his Apple said, referring to digital percussion, “and he was like, ‘I’d never do that, I need the real thing. And I was like, ‘You’re such a rockist.’”
“In the future,” a classmate nodded, “it’ll be, ‘I don’t want to that. I want to be genuine: MIDI drums.’” A video of models advertising Tommy Hilfiger popped up on the Times Web site on the screen. Students giggled.
A student in the back said that one of his friends had insulted Britney Spears without realizing that two of three musicians in Miike Snow, a band this friend loves, produced her hit “Toxic.” “You better have the gun loaded when you go out there and start firing,” Mr. Rabhan said.
“Britney Spears is one of my favorite artists; I just want to put that out there,” a student in a train engineer hat in the front said.
“If you have an opinion, own it. You’re a student at the most prestigious music business program in the country. You’ve deserved it,” said Mr. Rabhan. “Own it.”
“ARTIST MANAGEMENT IS a wonderful, tragic, heartbreaking business,” Mr. Rabhan said the next day. “It’s all highs and all lows. But if you’re a junkie, you love it.” In the facility’s gargantuan recording studio, in front of a whiteboard where someone had drawn two fists bumping, he said that if you want to learn about music management, you put your head in the door, and then he’ll come over and slam it on you, and then stomp. He said the same thing at lunch a while later, but added kicking teeth.
After college, he worked for Rolling Stone and Spin, but left for Atlantic Records, and then Elektra. In 1996, according to a suit he filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, a friend of his asked him to shop an unknown pop trio of very young brothers. He passed them along to his girlfriend, a senior vice president at Mercury, which is where Hanson sold millions and millions of copies of their debut album.
The suit was settled, and the young daughter of one of his then-nemeses, Stirling McIlwaine, is now best friends with his 7-year-old, the oldest of three. “It was impossibly hard to get her to move from L.A.,” said his wife, Abra Potkin, the senior vice president of programming and development for CBS Television Distribution. “They’re best friends and they Skype to pick each other’s clothes.”
Even Michelle Branch, who was his most important client, opened for Hanson after the suit. He had discovered her during a tour of timeshare units in Sedona, Ariz. His guide called up her close friend’s teenage daughter, who played the guitar, and told her that a “man from the music business” was there. Ms. Branch, who was at home with her little sister, drove over in a friend’s golf cart.
Mr. Rabhan spent a good portion of the last decade as a partner at the Firm, the management behemoth. “I learned how to do things on a grand, worldwide level,” he said. Afterward he co-founded his own shop, called Three Ring Projects, where he worked with people like Mr. Yamin, whose 2007 debut was enormous.
“We had this stunning house, this architectural home; you’d walk out and the birds were chirping. You open the doors and you’re up in these stunning hills,” Ms. Potkin said. “You smell the most insane jasmine.” Their 7-year-old even got into the prestigious Oakwood School. “It’s like Harriet Tubman. If you get one child in, all the others get through,” she said.
She was in Sydney Harbor one day when the Michelle Branch smash “Everywhere” started blasting off of a boat. “I thought, ‘God, he has made such an impact,’” she said. “Yet I also knew he was not feeling fulfilled.” On another trip to Mexico’s Maya Tulum, they met a professor named Dacher Keltner, the co-director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Mr. Rabhan thought that teaching might be a good idea. “I sent Dacher 50,000 songs, two hard drives of every great record in the history of music,” he said. “How else do I know how to thank somebody who inspired me?”
In an email, Mr. Keltner fondly remembered their “beach-strolling talks,” and said he considers Mr. Rabhan “a sparkling force.”
Mr. King, the program’s artistic director, was in Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards, and the two had brunch to talk about something like a guest lecture. “I kind of gingerly said to him while we were eating, ‘Have you thought of anything more? You could apply to be a faculty member. Or chair.’”
New York City has caused newfound allergies and bad skin, Mr. Rabhan said, but, besides that, he’s never been happier. His kids are enjoying P.S. 3, where, although lots of the parents are from N.Y.U., his 4-year-old son’s mohawk has gotten funny looks. “I’m like hey,” he said, “it’s music.”