Music

The Inside Story of How t.A.T.u. Captured the World’s Attention: ‘Rockin’ the Kremlin’ Book Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from the newly published book Rockin’ the Kremlin: My Incredible True Story of Gangsters, Oligarch, and Pop Stars in Putin’s Russia written by David Junk with Fred Bronson, out now on Rowman & Littlefield. David Junk was the first CEO of Universal Music in Moscow, helping promote artists from Elton John to Mariah Carey in Russia and signing t.A.T.u. and Alsou to Universal. Junk also opened the first Universal Music office in Kyiv, Ukraine, and developed music reality shows for TV in Ukraine. Fred Bronson is a journalist, author and regular contributor to Billboard. He has written three books about the Billboard charts and covered American Idol and Eurovision for Billboard extensively.

Adapted from the book Rockin’ the Kremlin: My Incredible True Story of Gangsters, Oligarch, and Pop Stars in Putin’s Russia by David Junk with Fred Bronson. Used by permission of the publisher Rowman & Littlefield. All rights reserved.

Rockin' the Kremlin by David Junk with Fred Bronson

The Kiss Heard ‘Round the World

I knew the Moscow-based duo t.A.T.u. was going to be my international breakthrough from the first moment I saw their controversial video.

I loved their music. The dynamic vocals were haunting and the music had an infectious dance beat. The lyrics were provocative. There was no act like them anywhere in the world. But I had to convince my Russian marketing and sales team to support me. An act like t.A.T.u. was going to be a risk for everyone. Russia was still a very intolerant society, despite the Soviet Union being long gone. This band would be pushing boundaries.

I gathered the team in my office, plugged t.A.T.u.’s VHS tape into my TV hanging on the wall, and we watched it together. Everyone’s mouth dropped watching the infamous scene when Julia and Lena kiss. “No! You cannot sign them. Are you crazy, David?” Asya, my very wise marketing director stood up and shouted. “We are going to catch so much hell for this, from everybody!” I argued, “Don’t you love how they’re rebelling against authority? That’s all that kiss is. They’re teenage symbols of a new Russia, leaving the past behind.” That’s when my excellent radio promoter Sasha Rodmanich spoke up. “The song is a hit.” At a record label, that’s all that matters. So with Sasha’s promise the song would be a hit at radio, I was able to rally the team, including Asya, who would have to carry most of the burden. We were going to pursue signing t.A.T.u. But she was right to be cautious, since I was taking Universal into uncharted territory.

Homosexuality was a crime in the old Soviet Union and under Russian law, promotion of LGBTQ issues was considered propaganda, punishable with time in prison. Gay Russians have always been treated as outcasts and subversives by the authorities. So when Julia and Lena openly embraced gay rights and kissed in their first music video, I knew I had to make a quick decision that could change my music career forever: should I sign the most exciting new music act in Russia (and maybe the world) to Universal, even if it meant risking my visa status as an American working in the country or even possible jail time because I angered the two most powerful institutions in the country – the government and the Russian Orthodox Church?

Both frowned on all things LGBTQ. Or should I shy away from the controversy and miss the best opportunity I would ever have to promote a Russian act around the world, perhaps achieving my wildest dream, being the first record executive to promote a Russian band in America? There was no way I was going to pass on this. I kept my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t end up in a Russian prison.

To sign t.A.T.u., I had to deal with Ivan Shapovalov, a high IQ provocateur in the mold of Sex Pistols manager Malcom McLaren. He was a manipulative, edgy person, whose eyes would pierce you while you were in conversation. The band was his idea, and he brought in songwriters to craft the anarchistic message. He auditioned many girls and ultimately chose two Moscow teenagers: Lena Katina, a firey redhead with a head of wild curls, considered the reasonable one; and Julia Volkova, the sassy brunette manga comic-looking foul mouthed and funny one. Both had worked in television and music projects as child actors.

I didn’t know what to expect from Ivan because negotiations in Russian show business were never predictable. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was chaotic, corrupt, and dangerous, like Chicago was in the 1930s when Al Capone was declared the FBI’s public enemy No. 1. Russia was the wild, wild east, and their music industry had no rules or standards.

Common Western business practices like royalty payments and songwriter copyrights were foreign concepts. Payola was rampant. The government didn’t support the music industry or musicians’ rights.

The biggest obstacle was that 90 percent of all music sold in Russia was printed on counterfeit compact discs, while music legally released by record companies accounted for the other 10 percent. Musicians only made money from sales of the official releases, so this situation made it nearly impossible for artists to survive financially. The pirates who made the bootleg CDs sold them in illegal outdoor markets and kiosks throughout the country while local authorities turned a blind eye to all of it. Worse yet, the pirates were controlled by organized crime groups that used the proceeds from counterfeit sales to fund a host of illegal activities, including selling weapons to terrorists and sex trafficking.

Ivan was a tough negotiator, and he knew how badly I wanted to sign the band. My rival Sony Music had caught wind of my efforts and started courting him while I was trying to close the deal. I knew I had to play to his ego, so when he arrived at our Universal office to discuss a record contract I made sure Asya gave him a tour of our marketing and sales department where large cut-out posters of Elton John, U2, and Bon Jovi’s new album releases were hanging on the wall along with dozens of other posters of Universal’s vast roster of superstars, demonstrating that we were an international label, not a small Russian one. That was my best leverage for negotiations. “Why should I give you the rights to t.A.T.u.?” Ivan asked, staring at me with his wild eyes. “I don’t need a record label; the pirates will steal the music from you anyway.” He was right about that. Piracy would limit our sales. I told Ivan, “If you sign with me I guarantee that t.A.T.u’s album would will be promoted by Universal not just in Russia but also internationally.” That persuaded him. Universal was one of the most prestigious American brands in the world and the largest record company, and he wanted t.A.T.u. to be associated with the best Western artists.

Ivan demanded $100,000 for the rights to t.A.T.u., which would have made it the biggest record deal in Russian show business history. He was adamant that he couldn’t accept anything less. I didn’t believe him until I discovered that he had already sold the rights to the first single to a record label controlled by Russian gangsters and they had already manufactured it.

I got angry with Ivan, and he told me that he had made a mistake, that he was new to show business and didn’t know anything about song rights. The gangsters had initially paid him $5,000, but now that he was in talks with Universal, they wanted significantly more to give the rights back. I didn’t have much choice because this wasn’t just any song. This was the hit single with the notorious music video that would launch t.A.T.u. internationally and top music charts worldwide. If I didn’t get the single rights back from the gangsters at that exorbitant price, there would be no t.A.T.u.

I had to keep my bosses at Universal’s headquarters in the dark about some of the unsavory aspects of the deal. Luckily, they thought I had done a good job selling American rap and hip-hop music in Russia, with Eminem being my biggest success.

Still, $100,000 was outrageous for an artist from that part of the world and would be the biggest payout in Russian and Eastern European history. None of my colleagues who ran Universal subsidiaries in Eastern Europe had ever requested that much. Ultimately, my London bosses agreed to the amount, and I used the money to pay Ivan, who paid off the gangsters.

With Universal Russia behind the duo, t.A.T.u.’s debut album, 200 Po Vstrechnoy, got wider distribution and became a phenomenal success in every Russian city and former Soviet republic, including Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine. Julia and Lena topped the charts everywhere in the region, and t.A.T.u.’s first song and video hit No. 1 simultaneously on pop radio and MTV in 2000.

Their music first appealed to gay and lesbian youth, then spread to a much larger audience of disaffected teens. They took off like a wildfire throughout the former U.S.S.R. Stadiums were sold out and crowds of fans were worked up into a frenzy with Julia and Lena’s provocative performances. It was Russia’s version of Beatlemania. My Eastern European colleagues took notice of that because they all had sizable teenage Russian-speaking populations in their countries and sensed a hit for their markets. On that score, t.A.T.u.’s album delivered, topping the charts in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland.

We were getting ready to release 200 Po Vstrechnoy in Germany, but I knew that t.A.T.u. would never go beyond Russian-speaking audiences in Eastern Europe unless they recorded in English for Western markets.

We needed a partner to help make a t.A.T.u. album in English. We needed to rewrite and re-record the songs, and we needed a bigger, more powerful partner ally inside of our parent company Universal Music Group to shepherd us through the process. I wanted Universal’s full weight behind the release.

I went on a road tour of all of all the company’s offices in search of help. We told everyone that t.A.T.u. was on the way up, selling out concerts everywhere and climbing the charts in Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary. If they had an English-language release, I said, they could become a global act. Unfortunately, nobody was interested in partnering with us.

Wherever we went – Los Angeles, Nashville, New York, London, anywhere Universal had an office – the answer was always no. When people from the label saw footage of them kissing on stage, it made them uncomfortable, and when Lena and Julia invited boys onstage to do the same, my colleagues were too nervous to support us.

Another issue for the executives was my goal of breaking t.A.T.u. into the American market. They would have to compete with American pop stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, boy bands like the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC and big pop acts from the U.K. My colleagues arrogantly dismissed the potential for a band not from America or the U.K. to have a hit in their markets.

My road tour was a bust, so I went back to Moscow and mailed packages with the Russian album and videos out to all the remaining labels in the Universal Music Group that we hadn’t visited. We kept getting turned down. It felt like we would never find a partner – until suddenly I received a phone call from Interscope Records in Los Angeles, a subsidiary label of Universal and the hottest record company in America.

I was surprised that Interscope was interested. Their roster included No Doubt, Marilyn Manson, the Black Eyed Peas, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Nelly, and Blink-182 – some of the most popular acts in the world. They really didn’t need us. Still, I had done well selling their artists in Russia, so there was already a symbiotic relationship in place.

I had sent our package to the label’s co-founder, Jimmy Iovine. He was the most powerful record executive in the world, and before forming the label, he had produced some of the most prominent artists of all time, including Tom Petty, U2, and Stevie Nicks. He sent t.A.T.u.’s Russian-language CD to British producer Trevor Horn, who had helmed very successful records for artists like Seal and Yes. He had also been in the Buggles, whose “Video Killed The Radio Star” was the first video ever shown on MTV.

He loved the t.A.T.u. CD and was very enthusiastic about working with Julia and Lena. He had been a ground-breaking pioneer in the U.K. music industry, producing the openly gay act Frankie Goes To Hollywood. I suspected that t.A.T.u. breaking through boundaries in Russia and Eastern Europe hit a nerve with him. He just had one question: “Can they sing in English?”

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