POP MUSIC : It’s as Easy as SBK : SBK Records takes unknowns and spends big to make them known. (Hey, it worked with Wilson Phillips and Vanilla Ice.)

Share via
<i> Michael Walker is a New York-based free-lance writer. </i>

Vanilla Ice struts to the lip of the Beacon Theater stage, adjusts his attitude and glares at the sold-out house. The erstwhile Robert Van Winkle has something he wants to say, and the mostly young, white and female audience stops shrieking just long enough to hear him say it.

“There’s some homeboys in the house tonight,” he says conspiratorially, managing for the moment to still his adventuresome pelvis. In the hip-hop vernacular appropriated by the 22-year-old rapper, a homeboy is a trusted neighborhood pal, part of your posse, your gang. “I know Charles Koppelman is in the house tonight!”

Charles Who?

The girls scream obediently, but surely none would guess that Ice’s homey is the pleasant-looking gentleman in the orchestra section who arrived at the Beacon in a Bentley with CAK vanity tags, who’s sitting two seats to the right of Madonna and four down from Debbie Gibson.


Dressed in an immaculate blazer with a slim Cuban cigar tucked behind a pocket square, Charles Koppelman, 50, is chairman and chief executive officer of SBK Records, the upstart New York label that has sold more than 8 million copies of Vanilla Ice’s major-label album debut. Koppelman and a gaggle of SBK executives are at the Beacon to boogie in company solidarity with their golden acquisition and, perhaps, to celebrate their fledgling label’s considerable success. Between Vanilla Ice and Wilson Phillips, the progeny of Brian Wilson and John and Michelle Phillips whose first album sold more than four million copies, SBK was nominated for five Grammys, including song of the year (Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On”) and best solo rap performance (Vanilla Ice), though the label was shut out on Grammy night.

While some record companies contemplate the recession with expensive star contracts--a bidding war to keep Janet Jackson could cost A&M; Records a rumored $50 million--SBK, a joint venture formed 1 1/2 years ago by Koppelman and partner Martin Bandier with Thorn EMI, is having hits with a 22-act stable of mostly young, unproven talent like Vanilla Ice, Wilson Phillips, Technotronic, British alternative rockers Jesus Jones, and Riff, a five-man vocal band. The label grossed nearly $125 million worldwide in 1990, its first full year of operation.

Because SBK is privately held, Wall Street can’t track its financial position with certainty. But, says Craig Bibb, a music and video analyst for Paine Webber, “The overall view is positive: two very savvy longtime music industry executives with two home runs nearly right off the bat.” Having the deep pockets of Thorn EMI behind it, he adds, hasn’t hurt the firm’s propects either.

SBK already has a reputation for coddling its young artists and spending big. “Clearly when they believe in something they spare no expense,” says Danny Goldberg, who manages Bonnie Raitt and Belinda Carlisle.

The company’s small size and commitment to artistic care-and-feeding, which includes assigning blue-chip free-lance songwriters to work with baby acts, are attractive to emerging artists who can get lost at larger labels. SBK walked away with Wilson Phillips, despite intense competition, by offering a rumored $500,000 advance, unusually large for a first-time act, and a lucrative royalty agreement.

Koppelman himself served as executive producer of the group’s album, which took a year to record. “It was clear they were going to get a tremendous amount of attention,” says Peter Lopez, Wilson Phillips’ co-manager.


“Rather than base our success on proven stars that will cost us millions, our philosophy is to find unknown talent and develop them to the point of superstardom,” says Don Rubin, SBK’s senior vice president of artists and repertoire (A&R;). The strategy hasn’t always worked. SBK’s New Kids on the Block pretenders, the Guys Next Door, sold a disappointing 300,000 copies and it’s unclear to some whether the huge Vanilla Ice and Wilson Phillips albums represent SBK’s prescience or sheer good luck.

In any event, Koppelman is a happy man. “I love what I do,” he said, before the Vanilla Ice show, working a hunk of Bazooka bubble gum handed to him by his daughter Stacy, 23. “This kid Ice is a terrific young man.”

The kids, terrific and otherwise, who buy truckloads of records by SBK artists tend to confirm the label’s hit-picking abilities. “The kids always know,” Koppelman says, and he scans the rows at the Beacon hungrily for their reactions.

When they warm noticeably to “I Love You,” Vanilla Ice’s latest single, he beams in vindication.

Koppelman, who threw the Beastie Boys--the bratty rap trio--out of his daughter’s sweet 16 party and passed on hundreds of rap acts before signing Vanilla Ice, doesn’t need to be told that rap purists probably represent an infinitesimal portion of Vanilla Ice’s vast audience.

“People ask me how I know what a hit is,” Koppelman says the next day in his enormous Charles Gwathmey-designed office across the street from CBS headquarters, where he was a vice president of publishing and director of A&R; for Columbia Records in the ‘70s. “I say everyone knows a hit. My talent is knowing what isn’t a hit, and knowing how to discipline myself not to get caught up in the hype. If I hold to that, then, it’s like easy.”


Koppelman has had plenty of practice. Since the ‘60s he has, off and on, been in the business of matching up artists with hits. It was on Koppelman’s advice that Dolly Parton recorded “Here You Come Again,” her crossover from the country to pop charts; he paired up Diana Ross and Lionel Richie on “Endless Love,” Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb on “Guilty.” In 1986, he signed to a publishing deal an unknown singer-songwriter named Tracy Chapman on a tip from his son, Brian, then an undergraduate at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

In the language of the industry, Koppelman is a “song man.” The almost freakishly eclectic SBK roster, which includes everything from Vanilla Ice’s suburban hip-hop to snarling rockers McQueen Street, has one common denominator, Koppelman says, “and that is song. I’ve gotta be on board with that.” Says Daniel Glass, SBK’s peripatetic general manager: “He does like things that have mass appeal, but his left and right are more extreme than average. It starts with good songs.”

Koppelman originally planned to become a physical education instructor but ended up in the record business by way of the Ivy Three, a Four Freshmen-styled group that included pal Don Rubin. The guys scored a Top 10 novelty hit, “Yogi,” in 1960, with Koppelman supplying the voice of the cartoon bear. Following an undistinguished stint as $25-a-week songwriters for music mogul Don Kirshner, Koppelman and Rubin formed a publishing and production company that handled the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Turtles, to whom the partners sent a demo of a song called “Happy Together.”

“They were one of the few companies from that time that dealt fairly with us,” says ex-Turtle Mark Volman. “Charles was very much in tune with what an artist was trying to accomplish. Without their involvement, who knows where we would be?”

Over the years Koppelman added to his publishing holdings, spurred by the memory of the record-company executives he encountered while working for Kirshner. “They all had pale pallors, chain-smoked cigarettes and were running for planes,” he recalls. “The publishers all had great suntans and smoked great Cuban cigars.” They also had money. As Koppelman discovered, “music publishing is the real wealth of the music industry.”

After his hitch at CBS in the ‘70s, Koppelman hooked up with New York real estate magnate Sam LeFrak and attorney Martin Bandier to form the Entertainment Company, which administered song catalogues and produced records. Koppelman and Bandier ended their partnership with LeFrak in 1984 amid tensions Koppelman says were caused by Bandier’s divorce from LeFrak’s daughter. (LeFrak declined to comment.) Bandier says he and Koppelman “wanted to expand and make further acquisitions--our plan was to acquire a major music publishing company,” moves he says LeFrak was “not interested in pursuing in the grand manner” that he and Koppelman envisioned.


After the split, Koppelman and Bandier formed their own company and purchased the Combine Music catalogue. In 1986, with backing from financier Stephen Swid, they founded SBK Entertainment World Inc. and paid $125 million for the 250,000-title CBS Songs catalogue, which held the copyrights to songs ranging from “Singin’ in the Rain” to “Wild Thing.”

Koppelman believed that the catalogue had been an “undermanaged asset” at CBS. When SBK bought it, CBS Songs was generating $26 million a year in net publishers’ share--that is, the money left over after royalties and other costs. Koppelman and Bandier slashed expenses, installed new managers and aggressively promoted the catalogue. The partners were well-positioned when it became common, in the post-”Big Chill” era, to use pop and rock classics from the ‘60s in commercials, movie soundtracks and television shows. By 1989, the net publishers’ share had leaped to $39 million. That year the partners sold the catalogue to Thorn EMI for $295 million. As part of the deal, EMI retained Koppelman and Bandier (Swid has since pulled out, amicably) to run the publishing business and to form a new recording label within the conglomerate: SBK Records.

After some early misses, SBK struck platinum with Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Volume,” the soundtrack to the movie “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and with Wilson Phillips. Then came what SBK executives took to calling “this thing.”

Koppelman wasn’t looking to sign a rap act the afternoon he returned a phone call from Los Angeles attorney Gregg Harrison. Nor was he especially fond of rap. “It was just that everybody who walked in my door over the last year showed up with a rap artist. To be quite candid, it all sounded alike to me. And I passed on all of it. For us to be in that business, we had to find a rap artist that was very special.”

Harrison, it turned out, had exactly what Koppelman was and wasn’t looking for: A young, white, telegenic rapper whose album, released on an independent label, was lighting up the switchboards at the few radio stations playing it.

Koppelman recalls the ensuing phone volley like Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf describing a flanking maneuver on the Republican Guard: “Gregg told me about this white rapper he represented who had an album out on an independent label that was making some noise in about three or four markets. He said he had a deal he was close to concluding with Atlantic Records, but he wasn’t happy with the terms and would I be interested. I got off the phone and called Daniel Glass, who was then our senior vice president of promotion, and gave him a rundown of the markets where the record was happening. He checked it out, called me back a half an hour later and said it was.


“I got on the phone with a guy at a small station in Mississippi and asked him to play (“Ice Ice Baby”) for me over the phone. I thought it sounded like a smash. I called back Gregg and said, ‘What’s the deal you’re looking for?’ He told me, and we shook hands over the phone. I made the deal subject to my hearing the whole album the next morning, which I did. I came into the office on Monday and told everybody to get geared up.”

Glass marshaled SBK’s promotion troops on a 72-hour blitzkrieg to get radio stations to play “Ice Ice Baby” and dispatched Vanilla Ice himself to markets where the record was having success. Fueled by the “Ice Ice Baby” single and video, “To the Extreme” took off for the top of the charts after its release last September, eventually reaching No. 1 and spending 16 weeks there--a record for a debut album.

Record company sales managers shipping a hot record strive for a “100,000 five-day” or filling 100,000 orders for an album in a Monday through Friday period. At one point, “To the Extreme” was selling as many as 170,000 copies a day, according to Bob Cahill, SBK’s vice president of sales. Now, SBK is betting Vanilla Ice can do more than sell zillions of albums. The company has formed an offshoot, SBK Pictures, expressly to launch the rapper into films. The Ice vehicle, tentatively dubbed “Cool as Ice,” is a rapper-meets-girl story with plenty of music and dancing scheduled to begin shooting in April (Ice will also appear in the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II”).

Aside from Vanilla Ice and Wilson Phillips, SBK has several acts on deck that could pad the company’s bottom line in the coming years. Jesus Jones’ second album, “Doubt,” is selling strongly, and Koppelman has high hopes for Riff, whose single, “My Heart Is Failing Me” is making its way up the R&B; charts.

By putting its money on the kids, SBK is also positioning itself for the future in a business notoriously susceptible to short-term odds. It’s the shrewd philosophy of the song publisher, who knows, as Koppelman knows, that long after the records stop selling, the royalty checks from radio, TV and movies just keep rolling in.

“The first time I heard the Beatles, it was a song called ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Koppelman says. “One could have looked at that and said, I give these guys a year. But they were surrounded by (producer) George Martin and people who weren’t afraid to give them musical experience. We do the same thing for our artists, whether it’s Ice or Wilson Phillips or Riff. What we can give to them, besides releasing their records, is terrific career guidance and terrific musical insight.


“This isn’t a bunch of guys sitting around waiting for someone to deliver their product,” Koppelman says. “We’re a real music company.”