By all rights, Velocette Records has no business operating out of the upscale downtown address it calls home. Any other record label that has only four unproven bands on its roster couldn't afford to commandeer three floors of a renovated 1916 building it owns in Atlanta's hip Fairlie-Poplar district. Other indie labels can hardly afford postage stamps and wrapping tape, much less the spacious offices, the folk art, the minimalist decorating touch.
Any other indie record label, though, doesn't have the muscle of Phil Walden behind it.
In a career that spans more than 40 years, Walden has introduced the world to Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers Band and, in a bizarre twist, Jim "Hey Vern" Varney; moved from mansions to hovels; endured the deaths of his brightest stars; kicked a near-fatal drug habit; weathered lawsuits; suffered knee-bending depression; and made and lost fortunes.
It's a story better fit for VH-1's "Behind the Music" than Meatloaf's ever was. It even has the obligatory comeback coda: With the demise last year of his legendary label Capricorn Records -- the one that not long ago boasted arena rockers Widespread Panic and platinum-selling acts 311 and Cake in its lineup -- Walden has formed a new record company. Velocette Records -- whose debut release, an EP by Athens indie-rock duo Jucifer, arrives next week -- is largely a family affair, with Walden's two children and nephew managing day-to-day operations (along with five other employees, all Capricorn holdovers). At 61, Walden himself seems content to serve as part-time executive, leveraging his contacts in the music business to give his fledgling label a boost.
"None of us here are plugged-in music industry veterans. We don't have a hotline to MTV or Hits magazine," admits Philip Walden Jr., Velocette's 38-year-old executive vice president. "It's more just a group of people who share a similar musical taste, and think it would be cool to try and get this thing going again. ... We certainly hope it can become profitable, mainly so we can continue doing it. Because this is a great job, you know."
Still, any label's success -- whatever its pedigree -- depends on how well its artists sell. With record sales down across the industry and corporate merges shutting out small start-ups, the climate in which Velocette arrives is more brutal than ever. Its bands have won critical acclaim, but without big-time promotional dollars and corporate backing, what hope is there to produce the breakout hit that will keep Velocette a going concern?
Still, old friends are confident the great record mogul of the South is on the rise again. "He's a true legend," says Harvey Schwartz, a former Capricorn staffer. "Being in the South has kept him from being one of the admired New York/L.A. guys, but I think he's on par ... with Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun and Mo Ostin. Don't bet against the man. The guy's a survivor, and he knows how to win."
Doing so, in part, involves rising above the demons that still haunt Walden. Stung by public struggles in the past -- and with a current legal skirmish threatening to expose more recent dirty laundry -- the Waldens seem more sensitive to criticism than ever. After learning that CL had asked former Capricorn employees about controversial accusations, Phil Walden declined repeated requests to comment for this story and his company later withdrew its cooperation entirely.
But two assets remain unchanged since the start. First, there's the family, which in the music-biz hinterlands of Georgia means the continuity of brothers, fathers, children, cousins and anyone else loyal enough to trust as kin. Second, there's Walden himself, the unsinkable force who has made a career of coming back from ruin. Those constants suggest why the family would bother to give it another go.
Amantha Walden, 28, who now co-owns the company with her brother and father, says, "He's given us this, and we're ready to try and take it somewhere new and keep it up. I think that's what keeps us close -- just sharing this common passion with one another. It's been our whole lives we've been around it, and now we finally get an opportunity to share in it."
"I was a brat, I'm sure," says Philip Walden Jr., sitting behind his desk at Velocette Records. Philip is remembering growing up in Macon during Capricorn Records' heyday of the 1970s. He started working in the mailroom at 13 and rose to executive vice president. "All the secretaries were 18, 19 years old, good-looking hippie chicks. It was wonderful. I had a blast. And of course, I was too young to really get into any serious trouble. I was 13, 14, 15 years old. It's probably good I wasn't 19 or 20. I may not have survived. I wasn't up there snorting coke, having martinis for lunch. I was a fairly innocent kid, more interested in copping a feel off one of the secretaries than the other things that were going on."