LARRY MESTEL Making Big Waves at PRIMARY WAVE MUSIC
Personality Snapshots by Jeffrey Slonim
Last year, over the holidays, this writer snagged a dinner invite to a steel-and-glass house on a hill in rural Vermont the day after two feet of snow blanketed the Northeast.
The host, Larry Mestel, founding partner and CEO of Primary Wave Music, who I barely knew, went beyond his duty as host to save me and my family at the end of the evening when I admitted that we had endured a harrowing slide through a mountain pass en route to his idyllic home.
The tow crew that dragged my Volvo back to my hotel knew Mestel. They’d dragged his sleek sedan out of a ditch a few days earlier. And in the icy temperatures at the bottom of his serpentine driveway, as he kindly waited with me for help, we bonded.
Sadly, nearly the same week this year, Mestel savaged his right knee while skiing on nearby slopes and, after knee surgery, could only wear black Nike sweatpants over the Draconian immobilizer that gripped his right leg.
As we recently spoke, wearing a jet Under Armor shirt, Mestel sidled up to the rough oval of the red boardroom table. The raw shape was a groovy surfboard waiting to be milled in lacquered scarlet with black distress marks.
But Mestel’s company is even cooler than the elliptical boardroom table surrounded by mid-century modern seating. Primary Wave was founded when Mestel and partners snapped up 50-percent ownership of the catalog of Kurt Cobain for Nirvana in 2006. And with a big nod to the former music industry exec’s entrepreneurship and moxie, the company has grown into one of the largest indie music publishing, marketing, and talent management companies in the U.S.
Primary Wave now represents its own interests in the Beatle songs written by John Lennon, as well as the work of Steven Tyler for Aerosmith and the catalogs of Hall & Oates, Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Def Leppard. It maintains marketing and administrative agreements for Gregg Allman, Katrina and the Waves, and Graham Parker. It also manages CeeLo Green, Taddy Porter, and Eric Benet.
Speaking of new beginnings, in September of 2011, Primary Wave’s Talent Management, headed by Michael “Blue” Williams (who made his name managing Outkast and was a veteran of Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit) merged with Violator Management, founded by Chris Lighty, now COO of Primary Violator. “We help with marketing brand management and digital marketing,” says Mestel of the division. “But Chris brings 20 years’ worth of artist management skills. He is a large presence in music management.”
“Lighty manages 50 Cent, LL Cool J, and Busta Rymes–fantastic artists,” says Mestel.
Williams, now Lighty’s partner, and president of Primary Violator, “makes everything happen for CeeLo Green,” according to Mestel, “and many others.”
“I’d been in the record business for about 18 years, and I really saw it going in the wrong direction,” claims Mestel, formerly COO and general manager of Virgin Records, executive VP and general manager at Arista, and, before that, COO of Island Entertainment Group. “Sales were slumping; record companies weren’t giving artists the same monetary support.”
What changed so rapidly in the digital age, according to Mestel? “There is a lot more money when you sell an album,” he says. “Ten to twelve times more . . . and kids are choosing to pay 99 cents or $1.29 for a single at their convenience unless there is a real reason to buy the album.”
According to Mestel, ten years ago, it would probably would have been more taboo to associate an artist with a brand. “But people don’t spend as much time on the radio now, the traditional means to promote records,” he says. “Because they spend much more time on social media now, browsing, and playing video games, you have to go where the consumer is. Music can influence people and enjoy fame and exposure through brand relationships that make sense.“
Thanks to Mestel and company, branding has begun to bring back the big bucks to artists and their catalogs. A prime example: Primary Wave set up the deal to place handwritten Kurt Cobain lyrics on the sides of its canvas sneakers (like the ones that Cobain wore himself). “And it was one of the most successful sneaker lines,” says Mestel. “We’re up significantly from where the earnings were when we bought the catalog. And we’ve done it in a tasteful way. You don’t see Cobain’s songs in a McDonald’s commercial.”
The company also arranged the deal that allowed Aerosmith-themed state lottery games that include concert tickets and even a private concert with the band. “The theme was Dream On,” he notes of the 12-state initiative.
Meanwhile, CeeLo Green’s Brand Synergy Group-driven commercial for 7-Up is also an artist-promoting snapshot of Green’s life story. They are also behind Green’s “What Goes On in Vegas Stays in Vegas” commercial for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) which goes national on January 30—not to mention Green’s starring role as a judge on his tremendously hot television series The Voice.
“We’ve also done a lot of work with video games,” points out Mestel. “Getting Kurt Cobain’s music into video games. The music in the video games is what kids now hear; they don’t hear music on the radio anymore.”
“And we have quite a few television shows in development around our artists,” he says. “And we’re beginning to break into sports management.”
You think you have busy days? Forget you…this writer got the Primary Wave experience firsthand when I ran into Mestel at the side of CeeLo Green at the launch of Range Rover Evoque in May.
Mestel described his own hard-driving schedule the day that I encountered the dynamic duo at the Winter Garden atrium a stone’s throw from Ground Zero. “CeeLo had gotten up at 6 a.m. I met him down at the pier on Wall Street, and he did the Range Rover Evoque event simulcast around the world.”
Following DJ Solange Knowles, Beyonce’s sister, Green killed “Forget You” for the live audience on the pier in lower Manhattan, as well as for audiences in Hong Kong, Milan, and Shanghai.
“We then caravanned to Tederborough Airport,” added Mestel. “We headed to Alabama, where he headlined for a music festival on a beach. Because of New York traffic, we arrived an hour late and got a police escort to the beach. Then CeeLo jumped up onstage with Foo Fighters with Dave Grohl, did a couple of songs with Grohl and a couple from Lady Killer, darted offstage, went back into the car with another police escort, and took another private flight to Las Vegas.”
“At 7:30 we landed in Vegas and went on to the MGM Hotel,” said Mestel. “And he made the sound check for the Billboard Music Awards, where his piano would do a 360-degree turn in the air.”
“I don’t have to travel as many miles as Green does,” insists Mestel, who has my head spinning. “But our team does. Our team, ‘Blue’ Williams, is with him all the time.”
Another bittersweet Green-Mestel moment? “We were on a tour bus in Europe and pulled in to Luxembourg,” says Mestel offering the global touch. “We were on the bus all night, and he had a gig that night. I checked into the hotel, caught my little toe on the side of bed, and broke my toe. I limped down to the car. And that night, CeeLo, Gipp from his band Goodie Mob, and Q, his security, and I had one of the greatest meals at a little house in Luxembourg. Dessert was this outstanding chocolate soufflé.”
Primary Wave, Mestel also notes, is constantly adding exciting, young groups—GMD3, Alex Young. “We have a band called Cabb,” he says of the youth female group headlined by Cassidy Reiff and Abigail Breslin (star of Little Miss Sunshine).
“It’s very rare to have a brand marketing department, digital marketing, television development, management, and publishing–and to handle all the press out of our office. But it allows you to more effectively reach people that want to know the music without having to go through the now-difficult means of radio and other traditional methods.”
And the greatest reward for the very hard work? “Almost everybody with the company longer than six months is eligible for equity,” he says. “Everybody feels like it is their company.”
“It is a hell of a lot more fun now, because I work for my partners and myself,’ says Mestel, “as opposed to the Man.”
In 2006 record executive Larry Mestel quit working for the man and founded Primary Wave Music, which, through branding, has brought the big bucks back to the artist.
Larry Mestel interviewed by Jeffrey Slonim
Written by Jeffrey Slonim
Edited by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Primary Wave Music
Design by Marie Havens
(Main/ Central Photograph) Larry Mestel, Photography Courtesy of Primary Wave Music
(Left) Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland for the Aerosmith / GTECH Lottery Winner’s Party: (L to R) Steven Tyler, Larry Mestel, Seth Faber (Partner & Director of Marketing / Artist Development of Primary Wave Music) and Adam Lowenberg (Partner & Chief Marketing Officer of Primary Wave Music), Photography Courtesy of Primary Wave Music.
(Right) Eric Benet’s NYC “Real Love” Listening Party on November 29th, 2011: Def Leppard’s Phil Collen, Eric Benet, Larry, Mario Cantone (huge Eric fan) and then Michel “Blue” Williams, Photography Courtesy of Primary Wave Music.