Veteran Exec Charles Koppelman on his Return to the Music Biz, Artists as Fashion Brands (Q&A)

Charles Koppelman 2009 P

Now co-managing country star Clay Walker, the former CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and Steve Madden Ltd. also expounds on running a company whose namesake is in prison. "These things happen," he tells THR.

As a former executive at CBS Records, the founder of SBK Records (later sold to EMI for a reported $295 million) and CEO of his own CAK Entertainment, which handles brand management for such artists as Jennifer Lopez, Nicki Minaj, Adam Levine and Marc Anthony, Charles Koppelman is a music industry veteran if ever there was one. But in the last decade, the lifelong New Yorker has stepped away from the lights of arena stages and devoted himself fully to the business of branding -- first, as chairman of the board for shoe giant Steve Madden from 2000 to 2004, and then as chairman of the board and CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia from 2005 to 2011 (worth noting: during both stints, the company’s founders were incarcerated).

Today, the 73-year-old executive is jumping back into the music game, taking on co-management duties for country star Clay Walker, getting him representation at CAA and launching a campaign to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his debut album, as well as the singer's forthcoming release, which has yet to be announced.

Why Walker and why now, when the industry’s glory days have long since faded? Koppelman explained in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

What prompted your return to the music business? 

Clay has been a friend and we’ve had a lot of conversations over the years. I’ve always felt that he was an incredible artist that never quite reached his potential. Although he’s a big star, he has so much more to go, and is much more diverse than where he’s been. That, quite candidly, is the way I approach branding. I look at artists and songs as brands, and Clay really fits the overall picture of not only someone who can be bigger in the world of music, concerts and performance, but has a great future for television, film and other branding opportunities. Clay is the perfect lightning rod for that and I think we can take him to the next level.

Does becoming a country star inherently involve being able to crossover? Or can you still just be a country singer?

No, I think it is crossover. I’ve always been a fan of country music. It's America’s music -- I love the songs, love the lyrics. You can go to any city in the country, whether it’s Southern, north, east or the southwest, and hear country radio so country music is as vibrant as ever.

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In your time away from the music business, did you miss it?

The music business that I grew up in is a different business today. But individual artists are the same business. The basics haven't changed: great songs, great live shows, and being in the right venues to expose your music to more people. Today, you have an opportunity to do that even more via social media, television, all the formats where music is in real-time.

Of all the companies that you’ve run, which experience has taught you the most?

I've always had an interest in the fashion side of pop culture. When I first connected with Steve Madden, it was very clear to me that he sold his shoes to the same constituency -- females from 13 to 35, let’s say -- that I was gearing my music to. I learned to go about the marketing in a similar way. With Martha Stewart, the power of the brand, the power of television, taught me that if you can marry all those ingredients -- like you marry a great song with a great artist -- and get the right television exposure, then you’ve got something that really is going to be sustainable. You can expand and blow up.

Then, if you take it a step further and look at the fashion sense of that person, that gives you plenty of places to extend the brand. Marc Anthony being a great example. I’ve known Marc for ten years. About four or five years ago, he and I had a conversation that he could be a brand. I always thought he was the Latin Sinatra. He has a style unto himself. We took some time and put some ideas together, and Marc Anthony is now doing tremendous business at Kohl’s with his apparel line. You’d be amazed at the numbers that he does. He has a perspective on fashion. He has perspective on a look.

Is it more challenging to market a men’s line?

That was the case five years ago. Today, men’s business is a terrific business. Lifestyle is a terrific business. When you think of country, look at the amount of people involved in rodeo or NASCAR -- it’s a lifestyle. And it hasn't been well-served from a fashion perspective.

Carlos Santana, however, has an incredibly successful shoe line. What gives?

Most people don’t get the connection. If you’re a big movie star -- say George Clooney -- nobody really cares what shoes or suit he’s wearing. What we care about are the roles he plays. When you’re a music celebrity, your fans are used to spending money on you. They go to your shows. They want to look like you. They want to be like you. You become part of their life. So it’s a no-brainer that the audience, if the products are right, will respond to that. That’s why Marc Anthony does so well. Jennifer Lopez does incredibly well. Nicki Minaj and Adam Levine, who are two clients of mine, are about to launch their lines at K-Mart. It isn’t about celebrity as much as it is a lifestyle. It’s a connection. Daily television is a connection. You see someone everyday, and you trust them. You emulate them. You take their suggestions.

SBK Records, which was home to Vanilla Ice and Wilson Phillips in the 1990s, claims some very successful alumni, among them: Daniel Glass, who’s seen massive hits by Phoenix and Mumford & Sons on his own Glassnote Entertainment…

I couldn’t be prouder of him.

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Did you see those CEO traits in Daniel back then when he was head of promotion?

Of course! [Republic Records chairman and CEO) Monte Lipman was one of my interns. I’ve got those people all over the place. I used to hire anybody who had a child that wanted to intern. We would have 50 to 100 interns because I found them to be a great resource. We'd play music for them, look at their lifestyle, see what they’re into. To this day, I get anecdotal research from my grandchildren and my kids. The first time I heard about Lady Gaga was from a granddaughter of mine when she was 13-years-old! I took her to a concert, and she wouldn’t let me come in. So I waited outside and watched who was coming to that concert. There were straight people, and gay people, and black people, and people with piercings everywhere -- it was such a variety of folks streaming into this club on the Upper West Side. I said to my daughter who was with me, “If I was still in the music publishing business, I would go in and write a check for a million bucks without even hearing a note of music.” Because it was so clear to me.

Martin Bandier was the B in SBK and is still in the publishing business running Sony/ATV, which bought EMI Music Publishing, the company he helmed for 18 years. Are you surprised that he's still at it and essentially doing the same thing?

I’m not surprised. Marty is a dear friend who loves what he’s doing. It’s all about loving what you do. Publishing is a different kind of business. I always look at music publishing kind of like real estate: you own the songs and if somebody wants to use them, they have to pay you. It’s different than relying on finding a great song, finding a great artist and making sure that the public becomes aware of them.

Along with private equity firm Apollo Global Management, you were in the bidding to purchase EMI Publishing. How do you think things have worked out?

I think the combination [with Sony/ATV] is awesome. They have the scale to absorb a lot of overhead, and as a business, music publishing is a great business. I know for sure nobody could run that business better than Marty. It’s an incredible asset -- one I helped build and would have loved to own. The truth is, on a standalone, it would have been much more difficult. Combining it with what is already at Sony/ATV and the great team that Marty has assembled -- a lot of whom, are still there from when we assembled them. They’re a terrific team and I’m sure they’re going to do very well.

You led two companies during or after their founders were incarcerated. Is jail time sometimes just the cost of doing business?

These things do happen. When you’re a high-profile individual, it becomes even more daunting, of course. But in both of those instances, these are incredibly talented individuals. Steve Madden got into trouble having nothing to do with his business, his designs or his shoes. [Madden was convicted of stock manipulation, money, and securities fraud in 2002 and sentence to 41 months in prison]. He made a mistake and he got in trouble for it. Martha was never convicted for insider trading. They convicted her because they said she lied on a question to a prosecutor. [In 2004, Stewart was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of an agency proceeding, and making false statements to federal investigators; She was sentenced to five months in prison.] Having said that, Martha was iconic. Her brand is iconic. Steve’s brand was phenomenal. The public -- they get it. These are good people. I also represented Michael Jackson for a number of years. My Christmas party invitation would say, “If you’re not indicted, you’re not invited.”

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin