VT Voices: Q&A with Larry Mestel

STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER

PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY LARRY MESTEL

Larry Mestel is an entrepreneur, a music business executive, and the founder and CEO of Primary Wave Music, an incredibly successful independent music publishing, production, and artist management company. Primary Wave’s vast music publishing catalog features over 700 Top Ten hits and over 300 chart-topping #1 records. Highlights include best-selling singles by legendary artists like Prince, Stevie Nicks, Sun Records, James Brown, Bob Marley, Whitney Houston, and many more. Their Artist Management division has represented numerous world-renowned musicians, including Melissa Etheridge, CeeLo Green, and Eric Benét, among others. Primary Wave also provides specialized marketing services for both established and developing musical artists. By doing so, they help to introduce the artists’ music to new fans, increase sales, and elevate their cultural impact.


Sherman: Welcome, Larry! We’re thrilled to have you here at Old Mill Road Recording. I’m excited to learn more about your career in the music industry and Primary Wave, but first, let’s start with the basics. Where were you born?


Mestel: I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and I lived there until I was six. Like many families in Brooklyn and Queens, my parents moved out to New Jersey. We were there until I went to college.


Sherman: Was music a big part of your childhood?

Mestel: I think it was as big a part of my childhood as it was with any kid growing up, along with sports, food, bicycling, and all of that stuff.

Larry Mestel in the conference room at Primary Wave Music standing in front of the company’s “war board”

Sherman: Are you a musician?


Mestel: You know, I wish. But unfortunately, I’m not. I can’t sing. I tried playing the clarinet in school, and it didn’t work out very well. My kids and wife are much more musically inclined than I am.


Sherman: Where did you go to college?

Mestel: I went to college at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I graduated in 1984, and I go back there occasionally to talk about investing in music and alternative investments for the business school at UMass. I enjoyed my time there. I majored in Business Administration, and I did sports on the radio for WMUA. I played lacrosse, and I worked in the campus judicial system at the student credit union. After I graduated, I came back home to work in New York.


Larry Mestel and Cedella Marley in front of the One Hotel during Grammy week, January 2020. Primary Wave took over the hotel renaming it the “One Love Hotel” for the week.

Sherman: What kind of job did you think you were going to get when you first left school with that degree?

Mestel: I don’t tell many people this (because I love dealing with artists and I love the creativity of the music business), but I left school and I got a job with a company called Arthur Young. They did consultancy accounting. I survived there for about four years before ultimately leaving. I met Chris Blackwell back in 1989, when PolyGram Records, a company that I was advising, was buying Island Records. Chris Blackwell took a liking to me, and he offered me a job in 1989 being his right-hand person at Island Records. I got very lucky. I always say, “It’s better to be lucky than good, especially in the music business.”

Primary Wave Music staff at the company’s pre-Grammy party at the One Hotel 2020.

Sherman: In another interview, you were quoted as saying that everything you learned, you learned from Chris Blackwell. One of the things that we talk about a lot here on VT Voices is the importance of mentorship. Can you tell us about some of the things that you learned by working with Chris Blackwell that you’ve been able to utilize throughout your career in the music industry?

Mestel: When I started at Island in 1989, I thought I knew a lot about the music business. I was advising PolyGram Records on the acquisition of Island, so I got to know the company very well. I quickly realized- after about 24 hours- that I knew nothing about the music business. Chris was not only an incredible mentor, but an incredible music executive, a charitable human being, and a genius when it came to marketing, branding, signing talent, and knowing who to back. I absorbed a lot of information from Chris. He was very hands-off, and he let people be very entrepreneurial. I learned the business of music, I learned how to treat artists and how to put artists first, and I learned the world of business. The music business was not just local. It wasn’t just domestic—it was international. That knowledge really served me well when I started Primary Wave years later.


L-R: Adam Lowenberg, Ramon Villa, Chris Blackwell, Justin Shukat, Larry Mestel at the One Hotel for one of Primary Wave’s events during Grammy week 2020.

Sherman: How did your career advance after working with Chris Blackwell?

Mestel: I worked with Chris for 11 years, from 1989 to 2000. In 2000, I got an offer from a gentleman named Strauss Zelnick. At the time, he was the Chairman of the Bertelsmann Music Group, and they had put a succession plan in for Clive Davis. There was another gentleman coming in to run Arista, and BMG wanted me to partner up with him. That was my next gig in the music business. At the time, Clive had built Arista Records into the biggest label in the world. After 11 years working with Chris and within a certain genre of music, I was ready to move on and get more experience in a different genre, which was much more Pop and Urban.


L-R: Justin Shukat, Larry Mestel, Adam Lowenberg at Primary Wave’s pre-Grammy party at Milk Studios in NY in 2018.

Sherman: What were some of the primary differences between working with Chris Blackwell at Island and working at Arista?

Mestel: Island had artists like U2, Bob Marley, and Melissa Etheridge, and Chris was incredible at developing talent. Frankly, he didn’t care how an artist did on their first or second album. It was all about the long game, and it was always about developing a career and creating a brand for the artist. That was very different than the pop music business, which was much more centered around radio success. If you didn’t have a radio hit, chances are you weren’t getting a second album.

At Island Records, it was centered around packaging, touring, and development. Arista was more radio and video-centric.


Sherman: What happened next after your time at Arista?


Mestel: I was at Arista from 2000 to 2004. In early 2004, I was approached by Alain Levy. At the time, he was the chairman of EMI. He was also the gentleman Chris and I reported to at Island Records, and he worked as the CEO and the Chairman of PolyGram Records. I knew Alain Levy very well from those days, and he offered me a job. Funnily enough, at the time, I was on contract still with Arista Records. I knew that Sony and BMG were going to merge, but at the time, the gentleman who was the chairman of Bertelsmann, Rolf Schmidt-Holtz, would not let me out of my agreement. There was a lot of back-and-forth between EMI and Bertelsmann regarding my employment status, but Sony and BMG ended up merging, and I was able to get out of my agreement. I ended up going to Virgin, which was under EMI in 2004. I was at Virgin Records from 2004 to 2006, and I started Primary Wave in early 2006.


Sherman: What inspired you to start Primary Wave?


Mestel: I think I had the right vision at the right time. Back in 2006, the record business was still pretty good, but it was starting to decline. CD sales were falling, and digital distribution was just starting to come online. Overall, major record labels were not paying attention to their icons and legends. They were relegating them to their “special markets” divisions. I’d always been at frontline labels. The mantra was to break new talent, make hits, sell a lot of records, and make a lot of money. While the Nirvanas and Bob Marleys of the world were very important to the labels, it’s not where the frontline labels were spending their time. I saw this opportunity and void in the market to provide these icons and legends real marketing support, focus, and attention. At the same time, I had gotten very lucky and raised a lot of money to start Primary Wave. One of my first purchases was buying Kurt Cobain’s music publishing catalog. The whole premise was to be the “home of the Legends”. That’s our moniker. We wanted to find as much iconic talent as we could, buy into a partnership, partner with these artists, estates, and heirs. The idea was to give them what they weren’t getting from their major labels: Focused attention and brand building opportunities—not just focused on the catalog of music, but focused on the brand of the artists.


Larry Mestel, Smokey Robinson, and Smokey’s wife Frances Robinson. Pre Grammy party in 2018 at the London Hotel in Los Angeles.

Sherman: What was the strategic plan when you bought the Nirvana catalog, and how have you evolved your strategies over the years, now that you have many other legendary artists on your roster?

Mestel: Back in 2006, we created this wooden heart-shaped box. We put all of Kurt Cobain’s catalog on CDs inside of the heart-shaped box that had a beautiful piece of flannel inside. If you lifted off the cover of the box, it played the lullaby version of “Heart Shaped Box.” We did that, because it was an attention grabber. Our marketing team sent that out to 500 of the most important producers, directors, editors, and creative executives at advertising agencies. We created an art piece that started the reintroduction, and we created some amazing brand opportunities. Kurt basically lived in Converse sneakers, so we went to Converse and we said, “Look…we’d like to create a line of Kurt Cobain sneakers.” We partnered with Courtney Love, who had the merchandising rights, because

at the time, we’d only bought the music publishing. We put the lyrics of Kurt’s songs on the side of the sneakers, and we created this music opportunity that was a merchandise opportunity. We also co-produced the documentary, “Montage

of Heck.” Again, it was trying to keep true to the music—very organic. Kurt wasn’t commercial. Courtney didn’t want it to be commercial, and she was absolutely right. We learned a lot from the Nirvana experience early on. We bought Aerosmith, Hall & Oates, Chicago, and

a piece of The Beatles catalog, and we evolved to the point now where we are one of the largest, if not the largest, independent music publisher in the world

—certainly of iconic and legendary music, with James Brown, Prince, Bob Marley, Stevie Nicks, Count Basie, Boston, Def Leppard—you name it. I think we have 140 icons and legends right now.

Sherman: Artists are very protective of their catalogs. What are some of the ways that you create an environment that is conducive to them trusting you?

Mestel: Unlike my competitors, when we buy, we partner. I don’t want to buy 100% of a catalog. I didn’t buy 100% of Smokey Robinson, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, Stevie Nicks, Bob Marley, or any of those tremendous catalogs that we have. Almost all we partnered with. Every once in a while, an artist will say, “I’m selling 100% of my catalog or I’m not doing it.” Most of the time, we are partnering with the artist. If we do a good job, the artist benefits from it. Partnership is the first point in getting an artist to trust you. Second, we always give the artists the final say over creative matters. We involve the artists, the manager, the heirs, the trustees—depending on what type of artist it is—in all of our decisions. Third, over 30 people of the 80 people who work for Primary Wave now have equity in the company. I don’t call people employees or staff. I call all of our team “partners.” We have very little turnover, especially at the senior level. When an artist walks into a major music company, chances are that three or four years later, the people that they knew in the beginning are not going to be there. They may have moved on, or they may be out of the business. Almost all of my team has been with me from the start. I think it’s important to an artist to know that when they’re coming into a marketing meeting, they’re seeing the same people again and again or talking to them on the phone weekly or monthly. There’s a real rapport that gets built up. Most importantly, we treat our artists like partners, so our artists are also our best references. If we’re talking to somebody about a deal with their music, it’s very easy for me to say, “Call Paul Anka. Call the Whitney Houston estate. Call Smokey Robinson. Call Melissa Etheridge. Ask them what they think of Primary Wave, what they think of our team, and what they think of me.” That is paramount to an artist gaining trust.

Sherman: One of Primary Wave’s stated objectives is “Nurturing young talent to become legends themselves.” Have you had the chance to develop artists yourself? If so, who are some of those younger talents that you think are future legends?

Mestel: Mainly, we are in the songwriting business right now. We do own labels. We own Sun Records, and we own Green Hill Records. There’s a bunch in the pipeline, and we’re in the process of growing our recorded music business, but it’s really songwriters that we’re focusing on. Our real focus are those icons and legends. About 90% of our business are the Smokey Robinsons and Stevie Nicks of the world. We have signed lots of new artists over the years, like Blue October,

Anberlin, and The Airborne Toxic Event. We’ve had our hand in helping develop and grow young artists, but our real specialty—and what I think we do better than anyone else—is reinvent, remarket, and help reintroduce these icons and legends to a new youth culture.


Sherman: In 2019, Goldman Sachs named you one of the “100 Most Intriguing

Entrepreneurs.” What does getting that kind of acknowledgment mean to you— especially considering that you started off as a business major at UMass Amherst?


Mestel: I was flattered! Goldman Sachs is probably the most prestigious financial institution in the world. To be recognized by them is very flattering, and I think it’s meaningful to our team. We have 80 people, but I’m just one small cog in our overall wheel. I rely on our team, and our team is fantastic. They make me look good. That honor is really an honor for my entire team and our company.


Sherman: Looking towards the future, what’s next for Primary Wave?


Mestel: We have some big things that we’re going to be announcing. We have an insatiable appetite to grow, but grow with our artists. We’re always looking for the best music possible. Having been at labels where it’s hard to find, sign, and develop new talent and make that profitable and successful, I find that it’s a lot easier to say, “I’m going to buy Bob Marley, and I’m going to try to make it more interesting. We’re going to try to grow its value.” Some people might look at that and say, “Oh, my God! That must be hard,” but that’s a lot easier than signing a new, undiscovered talent.


Sherman: Let’s talk about Vermont. When did you first discover Vermont?


Mestel: I discovered Vermont about 30 years ago. I came up with a friend of mine whose girlfriend had a house in Newfane. We stayed there for the weekend, and I absolutely loved Vermont. I was young, it was very rural, and I had never seen anything like it before. I had been to Brattleboro a few times when I was at UMass, but I had never gone skiing in Southern Vermont, and I had never been further north than Brattleboro. I bought my first place in Vermont in 1988, and then my wife and I bought our current house the year we got married in 1995. Our three kids have grown up here. Vermont, I think, is the greatest place in the world. It’s absolutely the only place in the world I can relax.

Sherman: Do you have any favorite family traditions here in Vermont?

Mestel: We have so many. We ski together at Stratton Mountain, and we always spend Thanksgiving here. My son and I love the buffet at the Equinox Hotel in Manchester for Thanksgiving or Christmas—especially the bread pudding. I have so many memories of having water gun fights with my kids on the lawn, swimming in my pond, having snowball fights, and building snowmen. There really isn’t anything you can’t love about Vermont. Everything here is just incredible.



To listen to the extended interview with LARRY MESTEL go to VTVOICES at

OldMillRoadRecording.com

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