#RIP Tommy Page [Bill Werde]
Thomas Alden "Tommy" Page (May 24, 1970 – March 3, 2017) had experienced music industry from every angle. Page started his career with a 1990 hit single "I'll Be Your Everything," but when on to serve as the publisher of Billboard and as an executive at both Warner Music and Pandora. His cohort at Billboard, Bill Werde, remembers his friend.
In its own unforgiving but meaningful way, life has taught that people I love or have loved, enjoy or have enjoyed, or even been people I’ve been challenged by and only later realized how that challenge made me better… these people leave my life, often unexpectedly. All I can find in these moments is acceptance. And some moments to reflect deeply on time shared.
Tommy Page left this world last night. I’ll set aside the unresolved, and focus instead on what was. Because the latter was pretty entertaining.
Tommy and I shared an important chapter, I think, in both of our lives. Lisa Howard was the publisher of Billboard while I was Editorial Director, and Lisa hired this crazily high energy guy I had never met before to drive advertising sales and partnerships for the magazine. And when Lisa eventually moved on, Tommy took over as publisher of Billboard and became my partner in crime.
Tommy and I surely had our differences, mostly in style, as any professional partnership does. But he loved Billboard. Put Billboard before his own needs. Worked his damned hardest for Billboard. That was my bar for respecting a colleague, and Tommy flew past it. Anyone who knew him or worked with him will tell you that if Tommy Page lacked for anything, it wasn’t enthusiasm for the task at hand.
I don’t know how long Tommy and I ran Billboard; I went through 13 different bosses and 6 ownership structures in 8+ years there, so the dates and eras blur now, into a mostly happy continuum of music, talented people and surreal moments, mixed with a lot of long hours and travel. But I want to say it was a couple of years.
I have two memories I want to share in this moment. They are the first two that came to mind when I heard the news. And I think each says something about Tommy I’d like to remember.
The first was connected to one of the very best memories of my time at Billboard. We relaunched Billboard magazine in January of 2013; this was part of our evolution from being a pure trade brand to one with elements for music fans to enjoy. We needed the perfect artist to grace the relaunch issue—someone with a story that would intrigue fans and the industry alike. Someone who, on their own, had the gravitas and credibility to carry a relaunch issue. To say I was overjoyed when Prince agreed to do it is an understatement.
It will not surprise you, educated reader, that Prince had a lot to say about the music business. The man who once held out on his Warner contract and appeared in public with the word “Slave” on his face to protest his relationship to his record label showed little signs of mellowing as he aged, at least on this topic.
Billboard’s longtime R&B writer Gail Mitchell flew to Minneapolis and was granted access to Paisley Park. We knew Prince allowed no recordings, but Gail was caught off guard when Prince told her she also couldn’t take written notes, because “that’s pretty much the same as recording.” Gail eventually filed the story and we edited it and got it on page as time was expiring with our printer.
Now, we never published anything with the goal of making the subject happy, per se. But if you could print a great story and the subject liked it anyway, that was always a good feeling. And this was Prince, an idol of mine since childhood. His manager called after it ran to request a bunch of copies and to let me know that Prince loved it and may want to speak to me at some point about the music business and ways Billboard could help bring about more positive change. We shipped a bunch of issues to Minnesota, and I didn’t give it another thought. It took us two months of phone calls and planning to almost not make the Prince cover story happen. I didn’t expect anyone would ever take the time to make the logistics line up for a casual conversation.
Except that they did.
Two or three weeks later it was Grammy week. This was 2013 and Prince wore a hood and carried a cane and basically was peak Prince as he came out to present the Grammy for Record of the Year to Gotye and Kimbra. Tommy and I were in the audience. Billboard had a nice little afterparty that night,and I remember telling Tommy I was going to head to my hotel and take a nap, and would be by the Billboard party later. Grammy week was exhausting; I think I’d gotten a few hours of sleep the previous couple of days.
No sooner had I dumped my suit on the floor and drifted off did my phone start blowing up. Tommy was texting me.
“Where are you???”
“Need you here now!”
“Prince coming. Wants to talk to you.”
This got me out of bed.
Fast forward 45 minutes and I’m on the roof of some chi chi hotel rooftop. Pool, torchlights, cabana, the works. Our dear friend Marcie Allen, who throws the best parties, period, was organizing this one, and led me to a cabana in the back where we were instructed to wait until Prince arrived.
This story is already too long, so I’ll save the details of what went down for another time. But suffice it to say, Prince showed up. He came straight to the cabana, still with his sparkly cane from the Grammy stage. And after a sliver of pleasantries, got straight into explaining why the record business was still unforgivably corrupt, and why Billboard needed to be doing more to stop it. I pushed back. I wanted Prince to consider the possibility that because of his actions and the actions of others who dared fight the system, that the balance of power had shifted and was continuing to shift to the artist. I wanted him to consider the possibility that his justified anger might be keeping him from taking some small amount of satisfaction or pride that his efforts were showing signs of paying off.
It was a respectful but certainly intense back-and-forth. At some point, about 20 or 30 minutes in, Prince started quoting scripture to make his points. As he and I went toe to toe, I could see Tommy watching, head swiveling as Prince and I parried, getting increasingly concerned with what it meant to be arguing with our iconic party guest.
Now, Tommy and I have never discussed this night, and I know from a post he made about it when Prince died that he remembers it a little bit differently than I do. But his account and mine agree on this point: Tommy hated to see anyone unhappy, and so Tommy, perhaps misreading intensity for anger, wanted to lighten the mood. And, after a few of his attempts to insert humor were only briefly acknowledged, Tommy seized his opportunity the next time there was a pause.
“You have really incredible skin, Prince. What kind of lotion do you use?”
Prince Rogers Nelson crooked his head at Tommy, stood up on his cane, and said “With that…” and like a purple wisp of smoke, was gone as suddenly as he came.
Now to be honest, in that moment, I kinda wanted to pound Tommy. But the truth is, the conversation had run its course. And really, a back-and-forth that surreal deserved an ending equally so. And of course, in retrospect, Tommy just wanted everyone to be happy. To be enjoying the party. This was quintessential Tommy.
The other memory is much more personal and less Prince-like, though it does involve bright colors.
Billboard has a big Latin music conference and awards show each April in Miami. And setting aside all the very real strategic reasons why this was an important week for Billboard, it was also just about as much fun as a person can legally have and still call it “work.” Dancing to Latin music every night, and partying with the Latin music business and fans was always a real highlight of my year.
The thing about Miami, though, is that people treat “formal” differently down there. If you wear a grey suit, you stick out. Linens, pastels… these were a requirement. And for those that know me, linens and pastels aren’t exactly a staple of my wardrobe. Tommy loved fashion, and loved to talk fashion with me. I think he got a kick out of a straight guy who had a POV. Tommy decided he and I were going shopping on our first day in Miami, and that he was going to Miami-fy me.
There’s not much more to share than that, although I’m sure if you could have seen me and Tommy, bouncing around South Beach with all the muscle boys in Zara Man and Banana Republic, you’d have smiled. Tommy running up to me with skinny ties. Tommy getting other sharp-looking men to gather and share opinions when I came out of a dressing room. Tommy just being genuinely blissful in that moment to shop, to share time with a friend… to help me. I got some nice compliments when I wore the slightly-shiny, sky blue suit and the tie that Tommy picked out to the Latin Music Awards, and Tommy beamed like a proud parent. We’d laugh about that shopping trip for years to come.
Now the years have stopped coming for my relationship with Tommy. And I’m sad, tearing up, really, selfishly thinking about things I didn’t get to tell him, and then thinking, with broken heart, about those he’s left behind who need him in more profound ways.
The older I get the more I see how life is exclusively about our experiences with other people and the world around us. Tommy and I shared a wild chapter full of parties and laughter, airplanes and restaurants, hard work and music, oh so much wonderful, blessed music, and a goddamned unparalleled team at Billboard that worked harder and better than anyone had a right to expect. I write this for those loved ones, and I write for Tommy. I accept that you’re gone now. I’m so appreciative we had the time we did. And I miss you, man.