Alan Meltzer, who passed away Oct. 31, was a triple platinum music executive. He hit it big the first time out building a small CD wholesale business into a super one-stop, which he sold and ultimately realized about $30 million from; he invested $1.2 million in a small start-up called CDNow, where he served as a consultant, and later received about $25 million when that company went public; he bought a small indie label called Grass Records and hit the big time when he changed the name to Wind-Up Records and delivered multi-platinum sellers from Creed and Evanescence, among other successes.
Meltzer — whose cause of death was unknown at press time, pending a coroner’s report — was 67. Despite all of his success, those who know him best describe him in his last few years as troubled, drifting away from the music industry but still retaining an amazing mind and a penchant for fun.
“He was difficult to work for but you could learn so much from him because he was so far ahead of the curve,” says Tony Bruno, senior VP of marketing at RED, who worked at Wind-Up for eight years. “He was definitely a visionary.”
Meltzer, whose divorce from his wife Diana was finalized earlier this year, left Wind-Up Records in 2010. He quietly sold the label to CEO/president Ed Vetri and chief creative officer Gregg Wattenberg earlier this year for an undisclosed sum in a deal that closed in April, Vetri confirms. Meltzer stayed involved and was a great consultant, Vetri adds.
“The legacy continues; Evanescence being No. 1 a few weeks ago was a tribute to Alan,” Vetri said. “He taught us how to build artist and establish careers.”
Meltzer’s music-industry career began in the early 1970’s as the owner of a record store, Titus Oaks Records, in Brooklyn. He also opened stores in Huntington and Hicksville, on Long Island, in New York, while his wife ran yet another store called Rainbow Records in Connecticut, where he founded CD One-Stop. Many of his longtime industry friends, still called him “Titus.”
While starting out as a one-stop that specialized in selling hard-to-find CD supplies when that format was still new, Meltzer catapulted into becoming a power player simply by adding cassettes to his offering, becoming one of the largest one-stops in the U.S.
In 1993, he sold CD One-Stop to Alliance Entertainment, a music industry roll-up in the early-to-mid 1990s engineered by Joe Bianco and Anil Narang. Besides CD One-Stop, Alliance acquired wholesalers, Bassin Distributors, Encore, Abbey Road One-Stop, INDI, and One Way Records; and the record labels Castle and Concord. Instead of taking the money and running from the sale of CD One-Stop, Meltzer took some cash and more stock and became president and chief operating officer of the company. But he soon found himself embroiled in company infighting with other entrepreneurs who sold their companies to Alliance, as well as arguing with Bianco and Narang about the direction of the company. Feeling frustrated, he abruptly resigned by fax in the middle of the night in December 1994, selling back his shares.
In the late summer of 1995, Metlzer acquired the indie label Grass Records for $950,000, which had issued records by bands like Edsel and the Toadies, and at the time still had on its roster about 30 bands, including the Wrens and Baboon. His first move was to fire the staff and bring in his own people, which made him, needless to say, an unpopular figure on the indie-rock scene of the internet. He told Retail Track at the time that he was putting up $500,000 to build the label’s infrastructure. He also said he planned to grow bands organically and in the indie manner, buying them a van and sending them on the road to support their records and build their brands.
When that strategy failed because the label tried to market too many records at once, he fired most of the staff and again became the object of scorn in the indie community. He started over by bringing in Steve Lerner, his former marketing director at CD One-Stop, to head up the label. At that time, it was clear there was too much negative buzz surrounding Grass, so he renamed the label Wind-Up Records.
Around the same time, he became a consultant to and an investor in CDNow, and early online seller of CDs. Through a power play, he became a prominent shareholder in the company and eventually became a director. When that company went public, Meltzer made his second killing.
Despite making his name on the music-merchandiser side of the music industry, Meltzer always wanted to be on the record label said of the business, friends say, but he was known more for his business acumen than his ears.
While Meltzer’s former wife Diana is credited for being the A&R talent of the team and was the one who signed Evanescence among the label’s other big bands, it was Meltzer who thought the Evanescence song “Bring Me To Live” needed another ingredient and “he put the rap in the song” that became the band’s breakthrough hit, Vetri says.
While Meltzer still built artists organically when he renamed the company Wind-Up, his new approach to running a record label called for making a few key signings and working those few releases all year long. This time, he got it right, and rode the A&R skills of Diana and his savvy business skills to derive seven-figure sales from artist like Creed and Seether.
In selling to Vetri and Wattenberg, Meltzer passed up the opportunity for a bigger payday. “He chose to sell to us for a lesser price because he knew we would keep what he created going,” Vetri says.
Down through the years, Meltzer negotiated the sale of Wind-Up at least three times, first time turning down about $100 million, then about $60 million; and more recently about $35 million, according to various sources familiar with those talks.
Ultimately, he couldn’t sell to a major, some say, because he liked the cache of being a well-known record label owner; others say because he didn’t like the thought of giving up control and working for one of the majors. If that’s the case, he must have remembered his frustrating experience from selling CD One-Stop to Alliance.
Nevertheless, one of the ways Meltzer distinguished the label in its early days was making it feel like a family, something that he had done at CD One-Stop. At Wind-Up, Meltzer even gave his artists health benefits, recalled his former wife Diana, who called Meltzer a genius. “He gave them benefits because he wanted the bands to feel like they were part of the family.”
Creating the feeling of family is one of the things that Jay Fink, VP/GM and DJ for WRIP in Windham, N.Y. remembers most about Meltzer. “Alan fostered a real sense of loyalty,” says Fink, who worked with Meltzer for 12 years, most of that at CD One-Stop and a short stint at Wind-Up. “What an exciting trip it was, right from the word go, with Alan. He had a great sense of humor and never lost his street sense. While he like to have fun, he was also the toughest negotiator I have ever seen.”
After becoming a successful record label owner, he turned his attention to high stakes poker, where he became a well-known figure in Las Vegas. The poker websites this week are abuzz with remembrances of Meltzer’s adventures in that world.
“I would watch some of the poker games he played in on TV,” says Fink, who has been with WRIP for 9 years. “He still had the same expressions, laugh and demeanor. I hadn’t worked with him in years, but he looked like he just never changed.”