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“I don’t know that there are any other record companies as small as we are who are making the noise we’re making.”

RECORD MAN: S-CURVE’S STEVE GREENBERG GETS STONED AGAIN

His Label Is Well-Named, as the Entrepreneur/Exec Comes Full Circle—With a Squiggle in the Middle

by Simon Glickman

“The label’s really hitting its stride,” says S-Curve founder/chieftain Steve Greenberg.

This may sound slightly odd coming from the guy who already brought you the Jonas Brothers, Hanson, the Grammy-winning Baha Men monster “Who Let the Dogs Out” and—oh yeah—Joss Stone.

Then again, Greenberg had to put S-Curve on hold (after two blockbuster Stone albums, the Fountains of Wayne hit “Stacy’s Mom” and more) to take the helm of Columbia in 2005. He relaunched his own outfit in October 2007, cultivating a typically eclectic but impressive roster.

Among his acts is Hot AC troubadour Andy Grammer, who recently crashed the Top 10 in the format with two successive gold-certified singles, won a BMI Award and snagged an MTV O Music Award for a forward-looking, choose-your-own-adventure video.

Then you’ve got alterna-pop bunch and fellow MTV O winners We the Kings, the top-selling S-Curve act since its reopening. Also, singer/songwriter Diane Birch; her evocative follow-up to 2009’s critically adored Bible Belt exerts an unearthly charm reminiscent of early Sinead O’Connor and Annie Lennox.

Plus recent releases by classic artists Duran Duran and Betty Wright & the Roots, whose 2011 release, Betty Wright: The Movie, was nominated for a Grammy. U.K. imports Jessie Rose Trip and Night Bus are on deck.

But Stone’s decision to record a sequel to her landmark debut, The Soul Sessions, is generating serious chatter. Like that mega-selling 2003 stunner, The Soul Sessions Vol. 2 (jointly released by S-Curve and the singer’s Stone’d Records) is an authentic continuation of the classic soul tradition. And it showcases Greenberg’s ridiculous Artists & Repertoire chops: Much of the disc is taken up with her volcanic renditions of songs from his capacious collection of vintage 45s.

In addition to these jams—originally done by the Chi-Lites, the Honey Cone, Sylvia Robinson, Labi Siffre and other heroes, sung and unsung, of R&B’s golden era—The Soul Sessions Vol. 2 once again places a recent alternative gem into its groove-heavy crucible. The first disc had “Fell in Love With a Boy,” Stone’s sultry, distaff reading of the White Stripes’ frenetic hit; SS2 boasts a spellbinding take on Broken Bells’ “The High Road,” complete with a scorching, psychedelic guitar solo by the great Ernie Isley. In fact, the album taps into the acid-tinged vibe of Funkadelic, late-’60s Temptations and Sly Stone often enough that, Greenberg says, “We were tempted to call it Stoned Soul Sessions.”

Greenberg emphasizes that a guiding principle was to avoid careful, faithful cover versions. Instead, he and Stone sought reinvention, attacking ballads with hard-charging fervor and putting an intimate spin on the uptempo numbers. “It’s fun,” he says. “It’s all about loving soul music and wanting to make it fresh and contemporary—while at the same time paying tribute to the pioneers who created it in the first place.”

10 years of recording, performing and just plain living stand between Stone’s audition for Greenberg at age 14, when she threw down over some downloaded karaoke backing tracks, and SS2. “She’d never sung in front of a band before, and she was intimidated,” Greenberg notes of her coltish early days. By contrast, the new disc’s sessions at Nashville’s Blackbird Studios found her leading the band with the finesse of a master.

For the record, that band variously included Isley, Clayton Ivey of Muscle Shoals’ legendary Stompers on keys, and Jay-Z drummer Tony Royster, Jr., not to mention special guest Delbert McClinton on harmonica. “It was definitely old meets new, in the best possible way,” declares Greenberg, who shares production credit on the set with Stone and the confusingly named Steve Greenwell, who engineered and mixed her first two albums.

Why did Stone (who signed a two-album deal with S-Curve last year after stints with EMI and Surfdog) choose this moment for a new Soul Sessions? “She just thought it would be a good time,” offers Greenberg. “She’s into projects that are fun.”

Not that he hasn’t his own surplus of fun lately. It was surely sweet to see singer-songwriter Grammer, discovered busking on the Santa Monica Promenade, jet from obscurity to fame with the madly hooky back-to-back hits “Keep Your Head Up” and “Fine by Me” (new radio track “Miss Me” aims to make it a trifecta). “A year ago nobody had heard of Andy,” he points out. “Now he’s passed 2 million in single sales, opened for Colbie Caillat and is about to open for Train.”

The O Award-winning, “playable” videos by Grammer (“Keep Your Head Up”) and We the Kings (“Say You Like Me”) both highlighted interactive technology created by Israeli firm Interlude, a Web startup in which S-Curve holds an equity stake. “I’m very proud of the fact that our commitment to scouting new technology has led to S-Curve artists winning MTV’s O Music Award for Most Innovative Video two years in a row,” Greenberg says.

Indeed, Greenberg has pursued strategic relationships with several such companies—offering the startups “proof of concept” for their technology and baby bands the benefit of cutting-edge, first-mover advantage using new Web tools. Another partner is Hashtag Art, a social-marketing innovator that (among other nutty things) forms users’ Twitter icons into startling mosaics; it helped launch We the Kings’ second album and has since drawn the attention of McDonald’s, Coke, Katy Perry, Major League Baseball and other profitable concerns.

We the Kings’ debut album benefited from social Web promotion using technology developed by Nabbr, a company Greenberg initially used when he launched the Jonas Brothers at Columbia and which became the first Web property in which S-Curve acquired a stake. Nabbr, now renamed Selectable Media, has since pivoted to a successful business in the social-gaming ecosystem.

Greenberg acknowledges that the plenitude of digital channels now available provides numerous advantages for breaking new artists. “iTunes is a tremendous vehicle because the programming staff love music and give placement to things they think are worthy,” he insists. “They’ve helped launch several of our artists, and I’m grateful for that.” Praise also goes to Sirius 1 PD Kid Kelly: “He should really get a lot of credit for leading the way on pop records over the past few years,” Greenberg underscores. “He takes risks in a world where most people play it safe. It’s an amazing resource for the industry to have. I think he’s great.”

There’s no doubt that staying ahead of the technology curve will continue to boost S-Curve’s bottom line. But Greenberg is living proof that certain old-fashioned virtues continue to generate real value in the musical marketplace. Virtues like having a great record collection. And making records, not just deals. And working hard in tandem with a small, dedicated team.

“We have six people at S-Curve,” he notes. “I don’t know that there are any other record companies as small as we are who are making the noise we’re making. I’m proud of that.”

 

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