By Beverly Keel
As a result of his sizable donations, the music business program at Belmont University now bears his name, as does the family music center at West Nashville’s exclusive Harpeth Hall School. His $1 million gift kicked off the Country Music Foundation’s campaign to raise funds for its new $26 million downtown facility. In town now for just five years, Curb and his family live in one of Nashville’s most imposing houses, the huge Hillsboro Road residence formerly occupied by Nashville Banner publisher Irby Simpkins and his wife, Peaches. Curb paid $2.45 million for the house in 1992.
And yet there’s little about Curb’s unremarkable 16th Avenue S. office that says anything about who he is. The place seems to be all function. Except for photographs of his daughters, Megan Carole, a Vanderbilt freshman, and Courtney, a Harpeth Hall student, there is little of his personality in the place. Gold records line the walls, the result of his professional associations with LeAnn Rimes, Debby Boone, and Donny & Marie Osmond. The awards document his accomplishments in building his company, Curb Records, into the most successful independent label in the country. Its annual sales have topped $100 million. In recent days Billboard named Curb Records its top country album label of the year. Earlier this very week, Curb claimed 36 percent of Billboard’s Top 75 country market. Curb signed the Judds in 1983, Sawyer Brown in 1984, and Lyle Lovett in 1985. And yet his critics accuse him of serving up pabulum and catering to the lowest common denominator. They say his greed will very likely scuttle the 15-year-old Rimes’ skyrocketing career.
But this small, quietly furnished room reveals little, positive or negative, about Mike Curb. The son of an FBI agent and the grandson of a Baptist preacher, he is known for his silky-smooth, polished exterior and for his shrewd—some would say malicious—deal-making. He is both high-profile and intensely private. The office says nothing about what really makes Mike Curb different from all his competition. It says little about the California boy who was president of MGM Records by the time he was 24 and who has now amassed a fortune somewhere between $50 million and $100 million, making him, according to Business Nashville, one of the 50 richest people in Nashville. It reveals little about the man who wrote “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda,” recorded “Candy Man” with Sammy Davis Jr., and went on to become a protegé of Ronald Reagan. It says almost nothing about the only producer on Music Row who has ever served as acting governor of California.
Despite his middle-of-the-road appearance, Curb is a maverick, a risk taker and a loner, who has no intentions of fitting in. “I don’t even listen to my critics,” he says. “I go home at night. I’ve got a nice family, so I don’t even pay attention. I spent a short time in government, and I learned there that someone is going to criticize you every day. It doesn’t make any difference to me what people on Music Row think of our company or our records.”
Indeed, Curb eschews the social functions that are a staple of the industry. He seems to have little social life, and he admits to having few close friends here. For some observers that increases his mystique; for others, his independence is only a reason for further disdain.
“The two hardest working people that I’ve seen day in and day out have been [BMI president and CEO] Frances Preston and Mike Curb,” says artist manager Stan Moress, who worked for Curb at MGM in 1970. Maybe that explains his lack of interest in the party scene. On the other hand, the Banner’s Irby Simpkins suggests that Curb is “shy, which is typical of an artist. He is not as gregarious as you would think a guy in his position might be.”
But plenty of people in the music business have another read on Curb. Some who have worked with him or have observed him closely charge that he has “questionable business ethics” and that he has little interest in making friends because he is simply “a business guy who takes care of himself.” According to one label executive, “If he tramples the act and the format in the meantime, it doesn’t make any difference.”
Curb shrugs off such aspersions. “There’s a lot more competition in this town than I expected when I moved here,” he says. “It’s not one big happy family. It’s a very competitive town where all the major labels, with the exception of mine, are owned by big companies, and there’s a lot of pressure.” Riding high for the moment, he says, “There’s a feeling in this town that the country music business is down and if there’s a company that isn’t down, that disputes what [the other labels] are telling their bosses.”
Insofar as he can tell, Curb says, his own relationship with “the bigger community of Nashville” has been wonderful, while it’s “the Music Row community that’s very competitive and hard.” Then he adds, as if he had stumbled upon a great discovery, “But you know something? I’ve found that the downtown community has trouble relating to Music Row.”
Curb does have at least one fact right: While every other Nashville label head answers to bosses in New York or Los Angeles—bosses who are wanting answers about the decline in country sales—Curb calls all the shots himself. He signs his own acts and approves his own budgets. Today his empire, with its 100 employees, consists of three labels—Curb Nashville, Curb/MCG, and Curb/Universal. In addition to Rimes, Lovett, and Wynonna, the various rosters include the likes of Tim McGraw, David Kersh, Jo Dee Messina, Sawyer Brown, Hank Williams Jr., and Hal Ketchum. Curb also reissues “greatest hits” packages by performers such as Kenny Rogers, Gladys Knight & The Pips, the Four Seasons, and Ike & Tina Turner. He is the sole investor in his company.
As the man at the top, Mike Curb takes the risks and reaps all the rewards. That means that, if he wants to, Curb can pander shamelessly to the masses. (He is, after all, the man who brought us the Osmonds and Debby Boone.) What’s more, he seems to have little interest in impressing the cultural elite. As one label executive says, “If he could’ve put something on LeAnn Rimes’ inspirational album about Princess Diana, he would have.” Then the same executive admits, grudgingly, “And people would buy it.”
A lot of Music Row insiders like to dismiss Curb as little more than a politician who just happens to make records. And Curb, admittedly, has made a fortune by not offending anybody—at least not anybody who buys records. He began his musical career singing, “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda,” which, along with other jingles, made him a hit on Madison Avenue. He also composed a new theme for Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in 1968 and later scored several Hollywood B movies for teens, including Wild Angels and Riot on Sunset Strip.
Around the same time, he formed the Mike Curb Congregation, a singing group who, in 1969, became regulars on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour for CBS. Already, at age 20, Curb had formed a record company, Sidewalk Records, to sell his music and had been living in the janitor’s office of the building that housed his label. But 1969 was the year in which his luck changed forever. That year, he merged Sidewalk Records with the ailing MGM Records. In the deal he got 20 percent of MGM and, at 24, became president of the label.
Determined to maintain his clean-cut image, Curb took a controversial stand, announcing that he would drop any MGM act that advocated drug use. (Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground were among the casualties.) “In those days, the artists were dying,” Curb recalls. “Artists would come in and meet with you and show you their needle marks.” Still, he says, he got “a lot of grief” for sticking with his decision. “You were considered a freak if you spoke out against drugs,” Curb says.
During his five years at MGM, Curb signed the Osmonds and produced their first No. 1 hit, “One Bad Apple.” He paired the Congregation with Sammy Davis Jr. for another No. 1 hit, “Candy Man.” In the early ’70s he also wrote or produced hits for Hank Williams Jr., Liza Minnelli, Marie Osmond, and Eddy Arnold. In 1972 Billboard named him its producer of the year. After MGM was sold to PolyGram in 1974, Curb revived his label, then called Curb Records, and produced hits such as the Four Seasons’ “Oh What A Night,” The Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow,” and Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life.” Almost a decade later, in 1983, Curb made an aggressive assault on the country market by signing the Judds. He continued to have pop hits, such as the Righteous Brothers’ platinum re-release of “Unchained Melody.”
Already however, in the mid-’70s and at the urging of former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, Curb had become heavily involved in Republican politics. In 1976 Curb served as chairman of Reagan’s presidential campaign in California and later was co-chair of Gerald Ford’s California campaign. In 1978 at age 32, Curb mounted his first political campaign. He ran for lieutenant governor of California and won. Curb seems bemused by the memory of his success. “I had never considered [running for office],” he says. “I wasn’t even voting.”
In his 1978 campaign, Curb says, he received assistance from political strategist Lee Atwater, and Curb went on to release an album of Atwater, an amateur guitarist, playing alongside various R&B greats. The two men remained close friends until Atwater’s death in 1991.
Curb says Atwater helped him “become a better person and see things about myself.” During his campaigns, Curb says, Atwater showed him “how to say things succinctly, correctly, politically correct. He was a tremendous help to me.”
When Curb took office, he put his label into a trust. But that precaution did not shield him from controversy. While Gov. Jerry Brown was out of the state, running for president and dating Linda Ronstadt, Curb filled in as acting governor. During such times, he handled natural disasters and a threatened strike by prison guards, and he signed anti-crime legislation. During Brown’s absences, too, Curb took the opportunity—granted to him by the state Constitution—to make numerous appointments. In one highly controversial instance, he appointed a conservative judge to the state Court of Appeals, a stepping stone to a seat on the state Supreme Court. When Brown got wind of Curb’s action, he rushed back to Sacramento and rescinded the action. The Democrat-controlled legislature even created a Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission to slow down the appointment process and guarantee that Brown, a liberal Democrat, would have enough time to return home and nullify Curb’s decisions.
According to the Sacramento Bee, Curb “tried to take advantage of [the] situation by making a controversial judicial appointment, but mostly succeeded in making an ass of himself.” Curb responds by describing the Bee as “one of the most liberal newspapers in America. It was not surprising that they would be angry over certain appointments that I made.”
Once a rising star in Republican politics, Curb ended up as little more than a footnote in California history. In 1982, he ran for governor, but lost in the primary. He lost another race for lieutenant governor in 1986.
Curb remains sanguine about his political experience. “I’m probably very lucky that I didn’t win [the governor’s race],” he says. “I won lieutenant governor one time, and I ended up being governor for so long that, if I had continued on doing that, I wouldn’t have Curb Records today. If I had been elected governor, would that have put me in contention for something else? George Bush picked Quayle two years later. You can go through and say, ‘What if I had done this or that?’ But it doesn’t work.”
And he is adamant that he will never run for office again. “I’m a music person, not a politician,” he insists. “I made the decision to devote the rest of my life to being in the music business and being a father.”
There are those who have their doubts as to whether Curb made the wisest choice. His supporters give him credit for having “very commercial musical ears.” But T.K. Kimbrell, who manages Sawyer Brown, which records for Curb Records, adds, “he’s also a very lucky person.”
Curb’s detractors say he has a scattershot approach to selecting his artists and repertoire. (In the music industry, the cliché is, “Throw it up and the wall and see what sticks.”) And they cite his lack of follow-through on the careers of Jo Dee Messina and Jeff Carson after their initial breakthroughs. On the other hand, veteran music producer and publisher Buddy Killen chooses to credit Curb with having “a wide-open mind” that allows him to get “first shot at a lot of things.”
“If you play by the rules all the time, you’ll fall into the pattern of everyone else,” Killen says. “If you want to be big, you have to go over those walls and creatively be different.”
Curb may know how to think big, and he has a reputation for spending promotional money freely. “He’s a marketing genius with an absolute great heart,” says Creative Artists Agency’s Rod Essig, who books McGraw, Wynonna, and Rimes. But Curb’s detractors say he can also act small, especially when it comes time to sign contracts with his artists.
Attorneys and label executives, all of whom demanded anonymity, say that, until recently, Curb had a reputation for paying royalties that were below industry standards. “Curb used to sign acts who could not otherwise get signed, and his royalty structure was extremely low, 6 to 7 percent royalties,” says a music attorney who adds that the norm for the industry at the time was 9 to 10 percent. If the artist had a hit, the attorney says, Curb would renegotiate a higher royalty rate, but only if the act would agree to two more albums with Curb Records.
The same attorney also charges that Curb Records routinely delays making its royalty payments, forcing the artists’ representatives to threaten the label. On the other hand, the attorney stresses that, in the end, Curb’s label always pays in full.
Curb vehemently disputes the attorney’s allegations. “I hope that people feel that I’m fair in my business practices and that I’m practicing religion in my daily life,” he says. “I’m the kind of person that, if I owe somebody money, I can’t sleep. I would look you in the eye and say we would not be here today as the No. 1 record label in Nashville if we weren’t fast with our payments. People are afraid to be with an independent company for that reason.”
What’s more, Curb says his royalty rates have always been fair, and he says he often pays artists more than is contractually required. “There’s no way you can compete with major labels without making your agreements good or better and without paying well or better,” he says.
As a label head, Curb has been bombarded on all sides for his handling of LeAnn Rimes’ career. From the beginning, Curb has gone against Music Row’s con-ventional wisdom in his decisions con-cerning the adolescent singer. Some naysayers warned that the Patsy Cline-influenced “Blue” was too retro for contemporary radio, while “Hurt Me” was too mature for a 14-year-old. As it turns out, the album Blue has sold almost 5 million copies, and Rimes was recently named the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award winner, capping a year in which she also won the Grammy for Best New Artist.
On Music Row, a record label traditionally releases, at most, one album per year for each of its artists. Nevertheless, Curb has released three Rimes albums in 14 months, two of which consisted almost entirely of material previously recorded by other singers. Unchained Melody: The Early Years, the second album to be released, had actually been recorded, for the most part, years earlier, when Rimes was 11. Everything on the disc, except for the title track, had been recorded for a small independent Texas label, and the album was roundly criticized, both for its poor production and for Rimes’ undeveloped stylings.
Conventional wisdom held that, if Curb flooded the market with The Early Years, he would deal a death blow to Blue, which was still selling well and producing singles. Curb defends his decision by saying he was forced to release the CD because of the public demand for “Unchained Melody.” “If we had waited to release it, five years from now would have been too long, so we made it available,” he says.
Then there is the case of the most recent Rimes album, You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs. The title cut is a remake of the 1970s Debby Boone hit, also produced and released by Curb, and Music Row insiders have roundly trashed the collection of religious and patriotic songs, dismissing it as yet another serving of mediocre mush. Obviously, the fans don’t agree. You Light Up My Life was the nation’s best-selling album of any genre two weeks ago, debuting atop three Billboard charts—country, contemporary Christian, and the Top 200. Selling more than 186,000 copies the first week and nearly 205,000 last week, it was Rimes’ best-selling debut ever, making her the first solo female artist to have three consecutive No. 1 titles on the country chart.
In what was perhaps an even more daring move this past May, Curb breached all Music Row protocol and released Rimes’ version of “How Do I Live,” on the same day that MCA Nashville Records released Trisha Yearwood’s version of the same song. Disney had orignally asked Rimes to record the song for the soundtrack of the movie Con Air, but producer Jerry Bruckheimer had turned down Rimes’ version, saying her youthful voice lacked the necessary maturity. Yearwood was then tapped to record the song, which MCA decided to release as a single and a video.
Undeterred, Curb released Rimes’ version as its own single and video, knowing that the move might have killed the momentum of “The Light in Your Eyes,” which held the No. 5 spot on the country charts at the time. As it turned out, country radio embraced Yearwood’s version, which eventually captured the No. 1 spot. Undaunted, Curb then took Rimes’ version to pop radio, where it hit the Top 5.
The “How Do I Live” battle has reignited the feud that has smoldered between Curb and MCA, country’s kingpin label, for several years. Before Curb moved to Nashville, he launched most of his acts through production deals with other labels, such as MCA and Capitol, because he didn’t have the marketing or distribution needed to break a national act. The Judds’ career was built by a joint venture between Curb and RCA, while Wynonna’s solo albums, and Lyle Lovett’s recordings have appeared on Curb/MCA.
But Curb and MCA were locked in a legal battle for years. They argued over the handling of Wynonna’s albums and over the ownership of The Judds’ master recordings. EMI, which claimed it also had a right to the Judds’ masters, sued Curb in 1994, bringing an end to their joint venture. The MCA lawsuit was settled and a joint venture called Curb/Universal was formed last year to handle Lovett and Wynonna.
These days, Curb retains many of the interests that have fascinated him for years. He owns a fleet of racing cars that have been driven to victory by drivers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. And he still owns a film company, Curb Entertainment, which produces films that are, for the most part, targeted at the television and airline markets. The clean-living Curb has taken some heat because the company has also distributed a few R-rated films such as Life After Sex, the story of a “wild and passionate female,” and Wishman, “a romantic fable of magic, mystery and mayhem.”
In 1987 Curb told the Los Angeles Times, “There’s nothing wrong with making exploitation films as long as people want to see them.” Now he says that most of the films made and distributed by his company are family movies. “The films we make now for the most part are G films,” Curb says. “If any film gets an R, it’s a soft R. Our company doesn’t make any hard-R films, and obviously we don’t make X films.” He adds that Curb Entertainment is currently reviewing scripts for Rimes.
But Curb insists that all such projects are mere sidelines, compared to the music business, which, to hear him tell it, is his version of a magnificent obsession. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says, “I’m not in this anymore for the money. I’m trying to do something positive. I honestly mean this, I’m not doing it for the money. I already have what I need.
“I’m doing this because of the challenge of it. It’s something I enjoy doing. I love music; it’s not about fighting for pennies. I think when I was younger, I was more interested in how much something was making. I think now I’m interested in the history of it. I am interested in how I’m thought of in terms of being fair and contributing to the community. I wouldn’t want someone to say we succeeded and didn’t contribute to the community. I don’t think I would have said that 20 years ago.”
The words are succinct, and they are politically correct, just as if they had been scripted by Lee Atwater. They do not, however, sound much like the words of a Music Row mogul. They sound more like the words of a man who might once again want to be lieutenant governor of California. But Mike Curb says that is not who he is.
In short, when Mike Curb talks, he sounds like the bundle of self-contradictions he appears to be—a controversial, clean-living man who’s making a mint these days off of a big-voiced 15-year-old singer. He sounds like the Mike Curb one music attorney describes as “an enigma wrapped in a conundrum.” And Curb seems to like it that way.
In short, when Mike Curb talks, he sounds like the bundle of self-contradictions he appears to bea controversial, clean-living man who’s making a mint these days off of a big-voiced 15-year-old singer. He sounds like the Mike Curb one music attorney describes as “an enigma wrapped in a conundrum.” And Curb seems to like it that way.
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