Charles Koppelman, a veteran music executive whose career spanned five decades before he became a top executive at Martha Stewart and Steve Madden’s companies, died Friday at the age of 82. The news was posted on social media by his son Brian, co-creator and showrunner of the Showtime series “Billions,” and daughter Jenny Koppelman Hutt. No official cause of death was given, but Brian wrote, “He spent his last days surrounded by those he loved the most.”
It is no overstatement to say that Koppelman was one of the most formidable industry executives of the past 50 years. Over the course of his decades in the music business, Koppelman worked with everyone from Barbra Streisand and the Lovin’ Spoonful to Prince and Vanilla Ice.
He began his career as a singer but quickly became a top-flight publisher, working for Don Kirshner’s Aldon Music, with Clive Davis at CBS Records, and in partnership with longtime Sony Music Publishing chief Martin Bandier, with whom he co-founded SBK Entertainment, which was sold to EMI in 1988 for $300 million.
After leaving his post at the helm of EMI in 1997, he worked with Steve Madden and Martha Stewart before returning to the music business with his own C.A.K. Entertainment, where he oversaw branding deals for Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony with Kohl’s, Nicki Minaj and Adam Levine with K-Mart, and many others.
Born in Brooklyn in 1940, Koppelman began his career with a group called the Ivy Three (which scored a hit in 1960 with the novelty song “Hey, Yogi”) before being recruited as a songwriter by Kirshner, who oversaw much of the hit factory loosely and often inaccurately termed the “Brill Building”; Kirshner’s offices were actually across the street. Finding his songwriting skills outshined by such legendary associates as Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Ellie Greenwich, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Koppelman moved to the other side of the desk and ran Kirshner’s Aldon Music, which eventually merged with Screen Gems/ Columbia Music and produced a number of early hits for the Monkees and many others.
In 1971 he joined what was then CBS’s music division in a role that spanned both records and its publishing arm, April/Blackwood Music. As national director of A&R for Davis’ Columbia Records, he signed or worked closely with such artists as Billy Joel, Dave Mason, Janis Ian and Journey.
In 1975 he formed the Entertainment Company with Bandier and New York real estate developer (and Bandier’s then-father-in-law), Samuel LeFrak, which over the years acquired catalogs including hits by Fifth Dimension, the Rascals and Brill veteran Neil Sedaka and teamed up such hit duets as Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love,” and Barbra and Streisand and Donna Summer’s “No More Tears” and hits for Dolly Parton, Diana Ross, the Four Tops, and Cher.
He and Bandier then teamed up with financier Stephen Swid to form SBK Entertainment, which began as a publishing company and acquired CBS Songs — a catalog both executives knew well — for $125 million, which included such classics as “Over the Rainbow” and “New York, New York,” and oversaw licensing for the ATV Music Group, which managed the Beatles’ publishing and was later acquired by Michael Jackson (and merged with Sony Music). After playing a key role in the careers of Tracy Chapman (discovered by Koppelman’s son Brian) and New Kids on the Block, SBK sold the publishing company to to Thorn EMI for $300 million in 1988, launching SBK Records as a joint venture.
SBK Records was an almost immediate smash success with hits by Katrina and the Waves, Wilson Phillips, Technotronic and even the soundtrack album to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise — not to mention Vanilla Ice, one of the biggest commercial successes of the era. The company was also a spawning ground for future executives, as noted in a recent oral history published by Variety: Glassnote Records president/founder Daniel Glass ; Republic Records cofounder Monte Lipman; Atlantic Records president of A&R Pete Ganbarg; Cornerstone and the Fader cofounders Rob Stone and Jon Cohen; veteran promotion execs Neil Lasher and Ken Lane; and Deborah Dugan, who would go on to become president of Disney Publishing, CEO of Bono and Bobby Shriver’s (RED) non-profit, and endure a brief and controversial turn as president/ CEO of the Recording Academy.
The company eventually merged with EMI, with Koppelman taking on the CEO role and bringing in Prince’s first post-Warner Bros. album “Emancipation,” although internal politics led to his departure in 1997. He soon formed CAK Entertainment, which he continued to run through his stints at Steve Madden Ltd (2000-2004), which he operated while the founder was serving jail time for securities fraud, and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, where he served as chairman from 2005 until 2011 (appearing with her on NBC’s “The Apprentice”).
After Prince’s death in 2016, Koppelman briefly oversaw the estate’s entertainment interests with former Prince manager L. Londell McMillan. Early the following year, during a visit to CAK’s elegant but understated midtown Manhattan offices — which featured music-inspired sculptures along with gold or platinum records by everyone from the Lovin Spoonful to Streisand to Technotronic — Koppelman recalled to this writer his experiences with Prince.
“The first time I met Prince was in 1991, maybe ’92,” he remembered, gesturing with one of the cigars that long had been his signature accessory (but was unlit). “Someone called my office, a cold call, and said they were calling on behalf of Prince, and we set up a meeting. [At the meeting] Prince said that he was incredibly impressed with SBK and [diversity of the] artists I was signing and how I was marketing them: Technotronic, Wilson Phillips, Tracy Chapman, Vanilla Ice, Jon Secada. He asked if I would be interested in him producing artists for SBK, and I said, ‘Are you kidding? Of course — when can I hear some music?’
“He said, ‘You can’t. I’ll deliver it and you’ll put it out.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s my record company, I can’t put something out and market it if I don’t believe in it. I’m gonna have to hear it.’ He stood up, said ‘Thank you very much,’ and walked out the door. I didn’t hear from him again until Londell called,” in 1996, launching the negotiations that led to Prince releasing “Emancipation” through EMI.
In discussing potential future plans for the Prince estate, Koppelman also showed his long view on entertainment, earned through vast experience in the business where he’d first found success nearly 60 years earlier. “Deals have a gestation period: If you’re talking about Broadway or movies, even if you did the deal today, [the project won’t be ready for the marketplace until] two years down the road. And if you did it a year from today, you’re talking three, four years down the road. How relevant will it be then? I’m not sure.
“The public grows up every day,” he concluded, “and the attention span doesn’t last forever.”