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“The freedom to make smart, creative decisions has been so much easier as an independent company.”
MESTEL’S PERFECT WAVE
Label Veteran Brings Some New Wrinkles to the Music Publishing Business
Larry Mestel logged almost two decades of experience as a label exec at Virgin, Arista, Palm Entertainment and Island Records before forming Primary Wave Music Publishing, a boutique company that has been aggressive acquiring song catalogs from the likes of icons such as Kurt Cobain, Steven Tyler, John Lennon, Hall and Oates, Maurice White, Steve Earle and Graham Parker as well as promising newcomers The Airborne Toxic Event, Anberlin, Saving Abel, Blue October and Shwayze. As CEO, he has quickly built up the pubbery’s rep as both opportunistic and aggressive in pursuing partnerships for its roster.

What are the chief differences between the record business and music publishing?
The first, and most important is, music publishing’s a better business. There are just more income streams for a publisher than there are for a label.

How has the downturn in physical sales affected music publishing?
It’s forced people to look at alternative ways to generate income. That’s the basis of the business we formed here. We didn’t set out to become good administrators, which is what most music publishers concentrate on. We want to be the best brand management team in the music business. Most everyone in this company comes from a record label, advertising agency or strategic marketing background.

You’ve been very aggressive in acquiring catalogs.
We’re interested in either legendary acts who have been underexploited or potentially great new bands and singer/songwriters that we can market and brand. We’re not a real estate company. We have only 7,000 copyrights, while our competitors control anywhere between 300,000 and 2 million. We have a much bigger creative team here. We have product managers. We run this company much closer to a record label than a music publisher.

Are record labels leaving a void in long-term artist development that music publishers have been forced to fill?
Record companies are happy to have a partnership with us because we add value. We do a lot of the marketing legwork, things like landing Guitar Hero, or getting a Pontiac commercial to launch Shwayze. We want to work with just a handful of acts that we’re able to put the power of our entire team behind. When we find something we’re excited about, we do it. We’re not a public company, so we don’t have to go through red tape. We have the leverage of owning catalogs by icons with the freshness of new talent, which is a very powerful thing when you walk into an advertiser.

How do you walk the line between taste and exploitation when working the Kurt Cobain catalog?
We have turned down many more opportunities based on appropriateness than we have things that we’ve pursued. In working with Courtney [Love], we feel we’ve done a good job, like the deal we did with Converse. We come up with tasteful ways to market. I prefer the word “partner” to “exploitation.” We try to do things to make money that enhance the brand of a legend, rather than dilute it.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was originally written about a deodorant. Would you ever use it in a commercial for one?
[Laughs]. You know, I don’t think you could ever use the word “never,” but I doubt that would be in the top thousand uses we’d consider for that song.

Are you looking to maintain your independence, or are you for sale?
We have been incredibly lucky, from the day we opened the door here. The freedom to make smart, creative decisions has been so much easier as an independent company. I don’t think any of us have ever had more fun, or worked harder. There is absolutely no plan to be anything else but independent.
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