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Remembering the ’70s with Vinyl’s mutton-chopped legal guru, P.J. Byrne

On February 14, HBO debuted the music drama Vinyl, a collaboration between Martin Scorsese’s artful direction and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger’s authentic tales. Set in New York City in 1973, the series follows the fictional American Century record label as the company tries to return to prominence after years on a bad run. With the drugged out heyday of rock as a backdrop, the show is fast and dirty, and it smashes you over the head, just as main character and record label head Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) describes Rock ‘n Roll itself.

Digital Trends spoke to P.J. Byrne, who plays American Century’s lawyer Scott Levitt, a week after HBO renewed the series for a second season. This is his second time working with Scorsese, after playing stock broker Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff in The Wolf of Wall Street. The Boston College grad put his finance degree to use and showed some startling parallels between the music industry depicted in Vinyl and the 21st century version, in which streaming has once again turned the industry into something of a free-for-all for record labels.

But enough background: Let me shut up and turn the volume up.

Digital Trends: You were born in 1974, a year after the events of the first two episodes of Vinyl. What did you do to get into the character of Scott Levitt, an entertainment lawyer for a 70’s record label?

P.J. Byrne: I read a lot of books about the time period; talked to my parents. I remember the later ’70s when I was five, and going into New York City was still scary but still a dream-filled place, if you will. That’s what’s awesome about that time period where the volume is sort of turned up on everything. The music, the drugs, the clothing. You could literally roll up in your carpet and go out. Anything goes. If you were in New York making music it was a fun place to do it.

So what insights did your parents give you into this time period? How do they feel about the show?

I remember the later ’70s when I was five and going into New York City was still scary, but still a dream-filled place.

Well, they love the show. My mom was in politics her whole life. My dad, he was a businessman, he was just coming out of army intelligence in Vietnam at the time. So, obviously they never dealt with the mafia or payola. They’re really standup and classy people, but they talk about how [the show] looked so real, and it feels so real, and it harkens back to when they were going to NYC and it was a scary place.

The real thing they talked about was it was a time where there weren’t a lot of rules, so you could kind of do whatever you want to do, in terms of music and being artistic. A lot of great music came out at that time. Punk rock, hip hop, and you’re going to find disco. That’s what the show is going to explore.

What’s your method for getting into the role on set? I know some actors are their characters 24/7, even in normal conversations off set. How about you?

I research as much as I can about the time period. Since I come from theater, I like to rehearse as much as I can all of the lines up and down. I’m also an improviser. So, while I’m rehearsing, I’m improvising as well, because I know Marty likes for us to riff a little bit. But, as the season goes on, it’s tough to riff on TV, because there isn’t much time. You have to get a lot of stuff done in less amount of days [than a movie]. So, I’m trained that way. I’ll have some lines ready if anyone does improvise. When I show up on the set, I literally try to forget everything I’ve learned. I don’t want to lock into it.

There’s a scene in the pilot episode where Richie is explaining the roles of the executives at American Century. He says “the lawyers want to be A&Rs.” How does that quote and that dynamic relate to your character in the scheme of the film and the world created?

He’s saying the lawyers representing the artists don’t want to be too good at their job, because they all ultimately want be … the lawyer for the record label. If you’re the lawyer for the record label, you have some serious power. At the end of the day, the lawyers are the ones that kind of end up running that world. Clive Davis is a great example. He came up through the ranks and now he’s head of Sony. Look at all these artists he’s signed. The good thing about Clive is he had this magical ear. He wasn’t just a talented lawyer, he was a music man. He was a record man. He had a good ear.

Now, does my character have a good ear, does he not have a good ear? We’ll sort of find this out as the show goes on. But, what he is good at is on paper. He can read a contract and he’s probably the best at that in the business. The problem is when he opens his mouth, he’s terribly uncouth. 

One of the parallels I noticed between the music business in the ’70s, as depicted in Vinyl, and the music business today are artists getting barely any of the royalties for their own music. “Little Jimmy Little” on the show was offered $300 and 3 points in a recording contract. That’s roughly $2,000 in today’s money and 3 percent of all sales. How does the music industry depicted in Vinyl compare to the current music industry?

Having this finance degree, I understand the details of this world and how it played out and how they screwed over the artists. They would really charge the band or an artist a bajillion dollars to make a record, so that even if it did go platinum, the record label had that magical word called “recoupable expenses.” They would charge them a lot for space to make the album. They would charge them a lot in terms of the musicians they’d pick. They would charge them a lot for all the meals brought in. So, if you had a steak dinner, which is $30, (they’d) charge you $160. So they would have to sort of get all of that money back before they would pay the artist. On top of that, exactly what you said, they would bump them down to a very low percentage of all sales. The record label is making all of the money off the success of the artists.

Scorsese always makes you feel like you’re a diamond in his jewelry store. It’s special.

Now, the dilemma of today’s world. I don’t think anyone has quite figured out how to properly make money in the music world … I actually think the movie and television industry [are] really the ones reaping the benefits of the early days of the music industry not knowing what the heck to do and how to make money in music. With the Netflix’s and HBO’s and all these other outlets, I think they’ve learned a way to monetize the world properly and pay their actors better and pay the directors and writers a little better compared to the music industry.

The people that are benefiting in the music industry now are the people like the Apples of the world, the Pandoras. The artists are really the ones getting screwed. I think they’re getting pennies for their songs, even though they’re on the air thousands and thousands of times. I think a lot of musicians are going off on their own and making their own labels to have any success to get it out there on their own.

That’s definitely true. How would the execs at American Century in Vinyl operate in this new world of streaming music? A lot of deals to get songs on radio were done hand in hand and sales could easily be inflated by just destroying unsold albums. How would Richie and the guys of Vinyl be successful in this day and age?

I think they learned a certain way how to go in, do some coke, pay somebody off to play their music. I think that method is sort of a dinosaur method. But, I think some of these guys are so street smart, they can learn and adapt to the modern day world. The modern day world is “oh you’re getting four million hits on YouTube, I’m going to lock you into some sort of deal and own a piece of everything that you’re putting out.” That feels like the new model. These guys can sell you a vacuum cleaner. They can sell ice to Eskimo’s. They’d be totally fine in today’s industry.

This is your second time working with Scorsese, after appearing as Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff in The Wolf of Wall Street. What’s it like working with him?

It’s always great to work with the great icon, the great Martin Scorsese. I think Terry [Winter] is an icon in his own right. Then you get Mick Jagger. I like to have a minimum of two icons before I walk on any set. [Laughs]. The greatest thing about Marty — and I call him Marty and it still blows my mind that he answers to it — he’s the kind of guy, like [Syracuse University head coach Jim] Boeheim, or [Duke University head coach] Coack K. He gives the players the confidence to go out and hit the big shot. It doesn’t matter if you’re not the star player. You really feel like you’re the guy.

If he told me “I want you to play this new character. Her name is Hilary Clinton” in a movie I honest to God feel I could go out and win an Oscar playing Hillary Clinton. That’s the genius behind Marty. He makes such a wonderful playground. He wants you to screw up. He wants you to take chances. He wants you to riff a little bit. He wants you to sound natural, honest and true. It’s the best set to be on.

What is a special moment between you and Scorcese that you can share that shows that leadership in action?

There was one scene in [The Wolf of Wall Street]. I used to be a finance major. I almost worked on Wall Street. I knew a lot about that world. I learned to improvise on monologues a little bit. Since I knew about that world I ended up just writing my own monologue about selling a stock. [Rugrat] essentially called up a widow, I think [he] was going to call the husband, and [he] talked her into buying $100,000 worth of stock, thinking that her late husband wanted to do that for her grandchildren. These guys are so gross. That’s actually what got me the part. We were rehearsing one day and Marty kind of remembered that monologue and, I wasn’t in the room when he did this, but the other guys were finishing up a scene and they were going to get to our rehearsal. Apparently he memorized my monologue and sort of read it back to them. I don’t think I can ever top that moment. He always makes you feel like you’re a diamond in his jewelry store. It’s special.

Vinyl airs Sundays at 9 p.m. EST on HBO.

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