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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.)

March 10, 1991|MICHAEL WALKER | Michael Walker is a New York-based free-lance writer.

NEW YORK — 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.

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