Joseph Dalton
July 8, 2009

“I am distressed about my CD sales, which have completely tanked. I talked to the head of my label about this, and he told me, ‘No one’s buying CDs.’ In effect, he said, ‘What makes you think you’re special?’ Everybody’s collapsing.”
- composer John Adams, Newsweek, February 5, 2009

“The recording industry is kaput.”
- violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Times Union (Albany, NY), February 8, 2007

You’ve heard the talk from lesser lights than these. It’s said over and again: recordings are over and done with…except for all those CDs that keep getting released every month. It’s similar to the even more familiar drone that nobody ever listens to contemporary music…except there’s so much of it around all the time.

Certainly record stores are almost a thing of the past, with Tower Records and Virgin Megastores shuttered. Oh sure, there’s still the music departments at Barnes & Noble and Borders, but just try to find much of a selection of contemporary music there. And the big multinational labels, which stars like Adams and Salerno-Sonnenberg once counted on, have indeed cut their artist rosters, slashed their recording budgets, and drastically curtailed their release schedules. Those operations, of course, are arms of corporations far more dependent upon mass sales of pop music to iPod-toting, file-sharing young people than on the always modest-sized audiences for symphonies, concertos, and string quartets, whether of new or old vintage.

But in the less heady realm of small independent labels that are devoted exclusively or primarily to contemporary music, there are still plenty of new titles coming out every month, and still primarily on CDs. In fact, a characteristic sense of perseverance and sometimes even some guarded optimism came through in recent interviews with a dozen managers of these plucky outfits.

The sense of the field garnered from researching this story brought to mind some recent casual conversations with small business owners in upstate New York, where I’ve lived for the past eight years. Because the economic boom never really came to this rather removed territory, the bust isn’t being felt too strongly either. So it is with the recordings of new music.

“Business is booming and crackling,” says Philip Blackburn, the composer who runs Innova Recordings, the 25-year-old recording arm of the American Composers Forum, based in Minnesota. “My desk is covered in submissions and my spare time in and out of the office is spent listening to them as well as catching up on infrastructure things.”

Rather than looking to sales, Blackburn’s barometer for business is typical of many who run independent labels: the demand from artists who want to make recordings. Innova is actually one of the surprisingly few labels with nonprofit status. But whatever their legal structure, most labels dedicated to contemporary music have as their first business focus the regular production of new titles; the subsequent sales of those discs is a secondary concern. Thus, a continual flow of new projects and the obtaining of funding to make them happen are essential. At Innova, 28 new titles were released last year and 23 are in the works for 2009. And the sales? Iffy, as always.

“It’s a scramble to keep up with how things are changing,” continues Blackburn. “Getting reviews and radio play that will get people to buy something, that’s always been a long shot.”

“Business is going very well,” says Becky Starobin, who with her husband, the guitarist David Starobin, founded Bridge Records in 1981. “Orders are increasing, and our distribution network is expanding. We’re getting more inquiries from different countries, which is quite remarkable in this climate. In addition to the major markets, we are now entering into agreements with smaller countries.”

Starobin says that roughly 40 percent of Bridge titles are devoted to contemporary music, with the remainder consisting of baroque, classical, romantic, early 20th century, jazz, and world music. For 2009, there are 38 CDs slated for release. Just two years ago the annual release schedule was 30 titles.

“There has been a steady growth of interest,” says Starobin. “I don’t think we have experienced a boom since the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but Bridge has certainly not experienced a bust. There are different avenues of distribution opening up, and it’s our goal to make the music available to more and more people.”

“We’re holding our own,” says Susan Bush of Albany Records, which was founded by Peter Kermani in 1987. Bush gets a palpable sense of the need to make recordings from artists, when eight to twelve submissions arrive just about every month. The label accepts about 60 percent of what comes in, she says. But that rate is nearly double what it was a few years ago because so many artists are returning to make second, third, and fourth projects with Albany. “We are working with people that we already know, who are sort of our stable of composers and performers,” explains Bush.

Of course not every label operating today is sure and steady in its operations. Many are sole proprietorships dependent upon occasional grants and contributions as well as on the founder’s continual infusions of time and interest.

Keeping an eye on new music recordings has always included watching the labels come and go. For a trip down memory lane, check out American Music Recordings: A Discography of 20th Century U.S. Composers, a nearly 400-page tome edited by Carol Oja and released in 1982 by the Institute for Studies in American Music (recently renamed The H. Wiley Hitchcock Institute for Studies in American Music). Along with numerous citations of recordings on Victor, RCA, Columbia, and MGM—ah, the glory days when major labels cared!—there are also some long departed smaller operations like Desto, Turnabout, and Orion.

The last decade has also seen its share of failures in the field, including the venerable Composers Recordings Inc., which had an honorable run from 1954 to 2003. (Full disclosure: I ran CRI from 1990 to 2000.) The catalog of CRI, including about 400 LPs and 300 CDs, is currently administered by New World Records. New World has thus far released eleven CD reissues of CRI titles, and the remainder of the CRI CD catalog is available through burn-on-demand CDs via the New World website.

Some labels born during the CD era have already come and gone. Composer Joseph Celli founded O.O. Discs in the mid-’90s and once maintained a rather active production schedule, but it was shuttered a number of years ago. And last year composer Richard Brooks brought to a close his Capstone Records, which he founded in 1985. In a brief recent email exchange, I asked Brooks whether his action was a retirement or just giving up. “A little of both,” he replied. The Capstone imprint and its back catalog have been picked up by Parma Recordings, which also has two others labels, Navano for classics and Soundbrush for jazz and world.

In preparing the list of labels that accompanies this article, email inquiries were sent to about 60 labels in order to ascertain their level of current activity. At least half the companies never responded. Overly stringent email filters and the busy and distracted lives of composer/performer/entrepreneurs are understandable, so if the label had a relatively current website, we included them on the list. Still, some companies seem to be missing in action or dormant. The Santa Fe Music Group, which was primarily devoted to reissuing on CD the analog era recordings of the Louisville Orchestra couldn’t be found. Opus One has a shell of a web site. And the “new” releases on Newport Classic’s site appear to be two to three years old, based on cross references to Amazon. So it goes.

The steadfastness, both emotional and financial, necessary to keep a label going may be hard won, but the artistic vision and ambition to start one are easily had. Likewise, the learning curve to produce presentable discs and booklets is not steep. Thus, the menu of labels continues to expand.

There have always been record collectors who, late in life, spend some of their savings to finally take their crack at being “record men.” And plenty of composers have set up shop over the years, including Gunther Schuller with GM Recordings in 1981, Max Lifchitz with North/South in 1992, and John Zorn with Tzadik in 1995.

Many of the latest entries into the field emerged from an existing music organization or emerging artistic scene. In San Francisco, Other Minds Records was launched in 1998 as an outgrowth of the then six-year-old Other Minds Festival. Composer Charles Amirkhanian uses an oft-repeated term when describing the value of recordings: “The CDs doubled as calling cards,” he says, adding that they were first used as premium gifts for donors. Beyond its use a promotional vehicle for the festival, Amirkhanian’s rationale for the label is also a familiar refrain among those who decide to start their own shop: “We realized that a number of really interesting kinds of music were falling between the cracks and that no one else was going to release them.” While the Other Minds Festival presents living composers, often performing their own works, Other Minds Records, now with 17 titles, has hewed toward rare and out of print repertoire, such as recordings of the late George Antheil performing his own music, the player piano rolls of Conlon Nancarrow (reissued from 1750 Arch), and the most recent release featuring early works of Marc Blitzstein.

Last year conductor Gil Rose and his 12-year-old Boston Modern Orchestra Project decided it was time to strike out on their own after making some 20 recordings for other labels. “We were conceiving the CDs and raising the money, doing the rehearsing and performing, as well as the recording and post production, and then handing off the masters for nothing or very little compared to what the costs were in cash and blood, sweat, and tears,” says Rose. “The final straw came when we started doing the cover designs, which we asked to do because we were getting some unattractive covers.”

BMOP/sound already has 12 titles, each attractively presented in cardboard packaging, and each presenting the work of a single composer. They include music of Charles Fussell, Derek Bermel, Lee Hyla, and David Rakowski. And the label is committed to an on-going release schedule of one new disc per month. While Rose likes the comparison to the Louisville Orchestra’s trenchant recording work during the LP era, he concedes that not every project features big orchestral pieces, though the growing catalog already includes operas by John Harbison and Eric Sawyer. “[The label] mirrors the BMOP mission. I stuck this word ‘project’ in the name and I still get flack for it, but I wanted to convey that we’re fluid and flexible. At BMOP performances, sometimes there are 90 people on stage and sometimes 15, and sometimes that’s in the same concert. It’s a very chameleon-like ensemble,” explains Rose. “You can send CDs all over the world, but you can’t get everyone into Jordan Hall. The label has expanded our network and visibility in almost every way.”

From the latest generation of composer/performers in New York comes New Amsterdam Records, founded by William Brittelle, Judd Greenstein, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, all composers in their early 30s with advanced degrees in music. They’ve been busy, releasing 16 discs in less than two years. Some of the latest titles include Darcy James Argue’s Infernal Machines, featuring his 18-piece “steampunk big band” Secret Society, and Brittelle’s own Mohair Time Warp, with the composer singing above a hyperactive mix of amplified chamber ensemble and wailing electric guitars.

“The idea to start a cool record label mainly grew out of this developing genre of music that was coming from people with great educations in composition but who were also influenced by pop music and jazz and didn’t fit into any strict marketplace,” explains Greenstein. “The music industry is a place where you’re either popular or classical. Everything forces you to one side or the other. We want to stay in the middle.”

Greenstein recalls telling composer Michael Gordon, co-founder of Bang on a Can, which has its own label, Cantaloupe Music, of the plan to start New Amsterdam. “He tried to convince me it was a terrible idea, that it would take a lot of time from composing,” says Greenstein. “He was coming from a positive place and he was right. Our careers have suffered because of much less time to write music. But the (industry) system we’re operating in is broken from our perspective. It doesn’t meet our needs.”

“I thought there was more risk not [to start the label],” says Brittelle. “When I got out of school, I wanted to spend all day writing music and anything else was a distraction. But coming into the office every day, even on my flexible schedule, has been great for me as a composer. It keeps me in touch and bombarded by great ideas. And there’s a healthy sense of competition because you’ll hear a great record by a friend and it helps you stay in reality, and to know what it takes to really get something out there in the market place. You’ve got to pack up a van [for a gig] but also pack up recordings and mail them.”