Eleven Seven Music's Role In Saving Rock: 'We Realized the Major Labels Were Giving Up on It'

Papa Roach
David E. Jackson

Papa Roach

In a masonry loft building on West 21st Street in in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, the offices of independent label Eleven Seven Music are comfortably removed from the glitzier midtown home of most of the multinational music companies.

“You would have to hire a private investigator to find a major-label person [down here],” jokes Allen Kovac, 61, CEO of the rock-focused Eleven Seven Music and its sister company, Tenth Street Entertainment, as he sits in a spacious company conference room. True, Sony Music Entertainment recently relocated to new digs on Madison Square Park a few blocks away, but Kovac adds, “it’s very indie here.”

At Eleven Seven Music, which is marking its 10th anniversary, Kovac and business partner Steve Kline, 51, have reaped success with the kind of rock bands that have fallen out of favor at major labels — Buckcherry, Hellyeah, Papa Roach, Drowning Pool and Motley Crue, among others.

In Kovac’s view, major labels pursue the fast financial returns of pop music, while Eleven Seven takes a slow and steady route to long-term rock rewards, while serving a very loyal fan base.

Nielsen Music statistics back up Kovac’s strategy. Among all music genres, rock still rules. According to Nielsen Music’s 2016 U.S. Midyear Report, rock has the leading share — 26.8 percent — of total music consumption volume by genre, including album sales, downloads and streams, outpacing R&B/hip-hop, pop and country. Rock’s lead in physical album sales is even greater, at 43 percent, compared with that of R&B/hip-hop, 16.3 percent, which is the second-biggest genre.

In the Eleven Seven conference room, a replica of a Victrola wind-up phonograph occupies one corner. It’s a reminder that music technology is ever-changing — and the label’s acts are riding the latest wave.

Papa Roach has a “significant” ranking among all streamed artists on Spotify, says Kline. The band has achieved 420 million career on-demand streams, according to Nielsen. “With streaming now, people can create a soundtrack of their lives.”

Eleven Seven is thriving in the digital age. “We’re unique for an indie,” says Kovac, noting the label’s global focus and ambitions. The company has 32 employees spread across offices in New York, Los Angeles and London, and plans to open in Berlin and Sydney in 2017.

The two industry veterans — Kovac got his start as a concert promoter in Eugene, Ore., and later founded Left Bank Management and Beyond Records while Kline worked in senior positions at labels including Atlantic, MCA, Geffen, Sony and J Records — began working together shortly after Kovac founded Tenth Street Entertainment in New York in 2002.

At Tenth Street, Kovac and Kline had been managing classic rock acts including Meat Loaf, Yes, Blondie and Motley Crue. Among their clients was California rock band Buckcherry, which had been negotiating a new deal with Atlantic. When the deal fell through, they decided to release Buckcherry’s album, 15, themselves — and Eleven Seven was born. The album sold 1.5 million, according to Nielsen Music; sent the single “Sorry” to No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100; and earned the group a Grammy nomination for best hard rock performance.

“We realized the major labels were giving up on rock,” says Kline. With Papa Roach, Drowning Pool and Motley Crue added to the label’s roster, “we really established ourselves and got a lot of airplay,” he says. “We had a good market share at radio and everything else, and we decided to start developing some new acts.”

A steady flow of new artists has expanded the reach of Eleven Seven. The label’s alternative-focused Five Seven imprint is home to the bands Just Loud, Bleeker, Romes and Dirty Heads, which has reached the top five on Alternative Albums with three releases in the past five years.

In February 2015, Kovac announced the formation of another imprint, Better Noise, for “bands that are a little left of center.” The imprint is home to Canadian rock group Art of Dying, metal cellists Apocalyptica and Pennsylvania band From Ashes to New, a group that brings a rap edge to its rock style and has achieved 33.7 million career streams.

“That’s what broke that record,” says Kline. “We took that story to radio, and rock radio doesn’t like to play rap music for the most part. So we took the streaming story and ran with it.”

In March, the group’s debut album, Day One, reached No. 2 on the Hard Rock Albums chart.

Along with the importance of streaming, Eleven Seven has focused on video promotion. The label uses the Louder Noise media company to create conten (videos, interviews, lifestyle clips) to promote its acts. A social media department bolsters the video efforts. Says Kovac, “We weigh [social media] more than radio.”

Yet even with the importance of streaming, video and social media, touring remains essential to the success of Eleven Seven’s acts, adds Kovac, who draws upon his past experience as a concert promoter and “my relationships with promoters around the world” to get his acts on hard-rock touring packages.

“Rock is artists and passion,” says Kovac. “It isn’t quarterly billing. It takes two years [to develop an act]. It transcends borders. We develop market by market. That’s taking care of your artist." He adds, "I am one of the luckier guys on the planet. I’m very grateful that I can learn all the time, and I’ve been able to learn in every area of the business I’ve been in. It has helped me sustain whatever I want to do.”

Additional reporting by Christa Titus.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Billboard.

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