Tag: CD labels

Forty Years in New Music

Having produced new music recordings for 40 years, I’ve seen some tectonic shifts in both the welcome expansion of the stylistic landscape of the music itself, as well as huge transformations in how new music is delivered to listeners.

Scene #1:

Mid 1970s, a composition lesson at the University of Colorado. At that point, Terry Riley’s In C and Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain had been recorded. Philip Glass had composed Music in Similar Motion, Music with Changing Parts, and Music in Twelve Parts, performing such works with his ensemble at New York’s Whitney and Guggenheim museums. My professor opines (paraphrased): “Minimalism is just a fad. It’s been done before. Think of the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th.” Poof! Minimalism dismissed. Of course, my oblivious professor was not alone. Minimalism was also severely castigated by Boulez, Carter (who compared it to fascism and Hitler’s speeches), and leading critics at The New York Times (kids nowadays just want to get stoned).

Scene #2

Mid 1970s, a composition lesson at the University of Colorado. Another professor, the inventive Cecil Effinger, mentions his idea that a record label could be a tax-exempt organization, just like symphonies, art museums, etc. This may seem obvious today, but back then no such general purpose label existed. There were just a few nonprofit labels, with built-in restrictions, such as the Louisville Orchestra’s First Edition Recordings (20th-century music by living composers), Composers Recordings, Inc. (contemporary classical music by American composers), and New World Records (American music). Effinger and a few others battled with the IRS for two years, and in 1976 Owl Recording, Inc. became the first broadly purposed tax-exempt label in the United States. With its exceptionally expansive mission of releasing recordings of “high artistic, educational or historical worth not otherwise available,” I sensed a great potential. Owl’s board of directors, seeing my enthusiasm, essentially let me take over running the label.

Owl Recording, Inc. originated as an attempt to save Owl Records, a small local label that was about to dissolve. As I familiarized myself with the existing catalog, I became captivated by the powerful, original musique concrète works from the relatively unknown Tod Dockstader, and I’ve been involved with his music ever since.

Over the next 15 years, I learned about producing, releasing, and promoting new music recordings, as well as how to successfully apply for grants. I worked with such composers as Vincent Persichetti, Morton Subotnick, and Iannis Xenakis. At one point, a talented, environmentally concerned composer from Alaska contacted me, with the result that I released one of the first recordings of John Luther Adams.

While I was proud of the LPs (yes, LPs) I was releasing, I also experienced some growing frustrations. Financial support was generally only available to composers with appropriate “credentials,” which meant being connected to the academic world, and such restrictions clearly limited the stylistic range heard on Owl’s releases.

In the 1980s, the new music world was changing. A vibrant “alternative downtown” scene was emerging in sharp contrast to the “official uptown” scene. Uptown meant The Juilliard School, Lincoln Center, Columbia University, and Pulitzer winners, while Downtown included La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Glenn Branca, Terry Riley, John Zorn, and many more, with performances in alternative, casual settings. In 1987 the highly influential Bang on a Can festival was founded.

Around 1990, several factors converged for me. First, the funding bias toward academic music virtually eliminated music from the promising Downtown scene for Owl. Secondly, CDs were becoming the dominant medium, which did not bode well for Owl’s mostly vinyl back catalog. Finally, Tod Dockstader’s LPs had sold out, and repressing them on vinyl didn’t make sense.

Suddenly, my next step seemed obvious: I’d start my own label, freeing me from Owl’s inherent restrictions in order to cover a wider range of new music that included the invigorating Downtown world, to have full control over design, liner notes, promotion, etc., and to make a fresh start by releasing CDs, not LPs. I’d begin by reissuing all of Tod Dockstader’s classic music on CD.

Tod Dockstader at Gotham 1960s

Tod Dockstader at Gotham in the 1960s

I contacted Tod, who was skeptical there would be any interest. In part, I was able to convince him because CDs present audio a lot more accurately than LPs, such as the deep bass that helps convey the elemental power of his music. For the first time, listeners could hear what Tod had heard in the studio. He agreed to move ahead and provide updated notes.

After forming Starkland in 1991, I released the first Dockstader Quatermass CD in 1992, and the second Apocalypse CD in 1993.

The covers for the 1st two Starkland releases, both of which are devoted to reissues of music by Tod Dockstader

We didn’t know what the reaction would be. After all, we were re-releasing music that was about 25 years old, and technology had greatly advanced over those years. Neither Tod nor I anticipated the more than two dozen rave reviews and robust sales that resulted. One publication ranked Dockstader as an electronic music pioneer on par with Varèse, Stockhausen, and Subotnick. Another, The Wire, claimed that thanks to these recordings “Dockstader will be remembered as the innovative, visionary figure he undoubtedly was.” (Notice the past tense.)

Encouraged, I started to release a variety of new music CDs, typically devoted to a single composer, such as Paul Dresher, Phillip Bimstein, Charles Amirkhanian, and Guy Klucevsek. I somewhat obsessively took over all stages of each release: project development, graphic design, mastering, promotion, and sales. These initial releases were successes, receiving fine reviews in major publications and respectable sales.

A few of these recordings reveal what a small record label can accomplish.

Consider the story of Phillip Bimstein. While he had studied classical music at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, he initially emerged into the music world in the 1980s with his new wave band Phil ‘n’ the Blanks. After moving to Springdale, Utah, one day Phillip chatted with his neighbor, farmer Garland Hirschi, and asked why his cows mooed. Charmed by Garland’s answer and general storytelling, Phillip decided to create an aural portrait of this lifelong rancher by recording their conversations, using snippets of both Garland’s comments and those mooing cows, along with instrumental writing based on Garland’s speech patterns. Shortly thereafter, I met Phillip at a new music festival in Telluride, Colorado, and was delighted by his Garland Hirschi’s Cows piece. It turned out he had more music, and I released his first CD in 1996.

The CD was something of a hit. Airing the title piece often prompted dozens of calls to radio stations. Philip went on to receive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet The Composer, and the American Composers Forum, and his music was performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and London’s Royal Opera House. Later we did a follow-up CD, Larkin Gifford’s Harmonica, which also did well.

The cover for Philip Bimstein's Starkland CD Garland Hirschi's Cows which is a photo of a farmer with a pair of cows.

In 1998, I contemplated doing something special for the upcoming 2000 millennium. Around that time, I became aware of the behind-the-scenes development of a new DVD-Audio format, which, for the first time, would allow high-resolution surround sound to be played in the home. (Standard DVDs, then as now, offered surround sound, but only with less-than-CD quality sound.) Releasing a DVD-A seemed irresistible.

My interest in surround sound began in the mid-1970s, when the industry attempted to put quadraphonic sound onto vinyl LPs and I was connected to a small local company that developed the first digitally-controlled quadraphonic panning device. While both quad sound and the panning device disappeared, a seed had been planted.

But what would be the content of the Starkland DVD-A? The project grew more ambitious: I decided to commission short works from about a dozen composers whose music seemed likely to be enhanced by surround sound. My goal was it would be the first such recording of its kind, though I had no way of knowing if another label was also secretly planning something similar.

I tried to select composers who would use surround in diverse ways. An obvious starting point was composers who regularly worked with technology: Paul Dresher, Pauline Oliveros, Maggi Payne (who had previously composed quadraphonic works), Carl Stone (who had been using quadraphonic techniques in live performance), and Pamela Z.

Other composers were those who used space as part of their music: Ellen Fullman (whose Long String Instrument uses strings stretched over nearly 100 feet), Phil Kline (who used space as part of his massed boombox works), and Bruce Odland (who had created large-scale multimedia installations in public spaces). There were also composers whose music inherently feels spacious: Ingram Marshall (think of his works like Alcatraz and Fog Tropes) and Meredith Monk (with her obvious affinity for the use of space in many works).

Composers whose music was exceptionally dense or worked in polymetrics would benefit from the expanded surround soundfield: Paul Dolden (whose astonishingly layered works feature perhaps 400 individual parts and explore complex polyrhythmic and microtonal tuning relationships), and Lukas Ligeti (who has long worked with polymeters).

Finally, the outlier: Masami Akita (aka Merzbow). If his noise music assaults listeners with dense walls of sound, how much more effective might this be if we can be sonically pummeled from all directions? (Of course, I knew that many would not enjoy this piece, but I feel part of my job is to sometimes shake things up.)

The project consumed over two years of my life, and at times I thought I’d never make it. I was working on a format that did not yet exist, and no one had ever seen a DVD-A.

Released in 2000, Immersion was a major success, and remains Starkland’s biggest seller, for several reasons. First, there was extensive media coverage; Billboard devoted a full page to it. Secondly, Amazon prominently featured it as an outstanding exploration of this new format. Finally, people were hungry for material specifically created to take advantage of the new DVD-A format.

A delightful surprise happened via Amazon: Immersion was often the #1 bestselling DVD-A during its first year there. The other initial DVD-A releases were decidedly unimaginative. The major classical labels issued standard repertoire, and the pop labels tended to reissue rock classics that were not originally conceived for surround. The bizarre result was that avant-garde music was outselling Fleetwood Mac, Metallica, Deep Purple, Steely Dan, the Doors, Neil Young, and the Beethoven symphonies.

One of the biggest honors Immersion received was when New York’s Whitney Museum selected Meredith Monk’s work, Eclipse Variations, as part of their 2002 Biennial. Along with others, Meredith’s piece was presented in a specially designed “surround sound” installation room.

And to my great shock while attending the gala opening night, I discovered that the score of Meredith’s I had commissioned had been used as the cover art for the Biennial’s catalog.

The cover for the 2002 Whitney Biennial catalog which features an excerpt of a musical score by Meredith Monk

After the success of Immersion, I developed a follow-up project: commissioning a major 60-min. work from Phil Kline, whose piece The Housatonic at Henry Street from the Immersion DVD-A I loved. The result, Around the World in a Daze (released in 2009), is likely the largest work ever commissioned for a hi-res surround sound recording.

Phil Kline and Tom Steenland both wearing sunglasses and standing on opposite sides of a traffic pole on a city street corner.

Phil Kline and Tom Steenland at the corner of Henry and Rutgers streets in lower Manhattan, where “The Housatonic at Henry Street” was recorded.(Photo by Aleba Gartner)

Phil’s use of surround is dazzling. We hear hypersampled Wagner, a mournfully multi-tracked “wailing wall,” a buildup to a massive climax of hundreds of thousands of “falling pennies” that dramatically explores the psychoacoustic possibilities of surround sound, a Bach prelude eerily processed into a Zurich train station, and a concluding work that places listeners inside multiple layers of a field recording of 15,000 chattering, African gray parrots.

My enthusiasm for this double-DVD led me to design a uniquely shaped package, unappreciated by some who value a precisely aligned DVD collection.

The oversized cover for Phil Kline's Around the World in a Daze which looks like a boombox.

How the packaging for Phil Kline's Around the World in a Daze looks when it is opened up: two DVDs nested next to each other.

People sometimes ask how I select the music for Starkland. There’s no simple answer. I suppose I look for music that is distinctive, that has something to say, that conveys something special is going on, even if I can’t quite define it. While I don’t shy away from music that seems simple and readily accessible, like Phillip Bimstein’s cow piece, I also have embraced challenging, not-background-for-your-next-dinner-party music which sounds and feels imaginatively different.

An example is Elliott Sharp’s The Boreal CD (2015). For the title piece commissioned by the JACK Quartet, he developed unique bows, substituting ballchain and metal springs for the traditional horsehairs. The results are otherworldly textures unlike anything I’ve ever heard from a string quartet. Other works reveal a sophisticated intelligence that produce music which is captivating in ways that I initially couldn’t define but felt oddly special. Later, I saw the scores reveal his repeating musical cells that constantly shift their patterns. I learned his organizing principles can be based on fractal geometry, chaos theory, Fibonacci numbers, and bio-genetic concepts. Yet the key point is all this underlying complexity can audible sensed; something elusively distinctive is going on.

Several years ago, I noticed most of the composers on Starkland were approximately my age and established. However, I think part of Starkland’s role is to release music from younger, emerging composers who are not so well known. To remedy this, I thought of the outstanding International Contemporary Ensemble, which at that time had already premiered over 500 works, generally by younger composers. I contacted founder Claire Chase about having Starkland issue a CD of ICE performing emerging composers, and she thought this was a terrific idea.

Released February 2016, this On the Nature of Thingness CD has seven works from Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis, both members of ICE.

The title piece is the cornerstone of the CD, and Nathan’s settings of the text are richly evocative. At one point, we hear the soprano Tony Arnold accompanied by a chorus of jaw harps, and in the “Vowels” movement, Tony mesmerizingly intones the text on a just single pitch. Nathan’s other two works, one for solo piano and the other for bassoon and live digital processing, are also convincingly fresh and captivating.

Phyllis Chen imaginatively creates colorful timbres by unconventional methods, employing toy pianos, tuning forks, music boxes, metallic bowls, and tuning rods extracted from toy pianos, all of which results in a magically conjured world of exotic textures.

Remaining flexible has led me down unexpected paths. One example is the exceptionally gifted accordionist Guy Klucevsek. Many years ago, attending his concert in Boulder left me deeply moved and impressed. I introduced myself afterwards and we’ve stayed friends since. (I must admit, when I founded Starkland, I did not expect to release accordion music.)

It’s not hard to be seduced by Guy’s world, which encompasses a cornucopia of styles and approaches. Aside from his technical chops, he’s one of those performers where everything sounds innately musical. Guy’s arrangements are charmingly eccentric. Witness what he does with Burt Bacharach tunes, from his soft, high, ethereal rendition of One Less Bell To Answer, to his wittily worded version of Bacharach’s first hit, The Blob (penned for the fun horror film with the same title).

Then there are the impressively diverse compositions Guy has commissioned. For example, Aaron Jay Kernis wrote a big, powerful piece, Hymn, for Guy, inspired by Aaron’s concerns with the world’s wars and sufferings, coupled with his visits to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Aaron considers the work to have “a central position in my oeuvre.” On the other hand, we have Fred Frith’s humorous, theatrical The Disinformation Polka.

Guy also performs music that is straightforwardly beautiful, without being cloying or clichéd, from Carl Finch’s Prairie Dogs to Guy’s own The Asphalt Orchid (in memory of Astor Piazzolla).

Given this wealth of material, it’s not surprising I’ve now issued four Klucevsek recordings. In September 2016, I released Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy, which presents one gorgeous piece after another. The magic that happens when Guy plays with the wonderful violinist Todd Reynolds is one of those rarities that keeps me going. Here they perform Moose Mouth Mirror at the CD’s release concert at New York’s Spectrum:

Starkland’s most recent release brings me full circle, back to Tod Dockstader and our initial two CDs. The enthusiastic reception of those CDs greatly encouraged him to continue composing. One result was his 3-CD Aerial project (released by Sub Rosa in the mid 2000s). Another result is that, when he died in 2015, he left behind a vast archive of around 4,200 sound files on his computer. With the diligent help of archivist Justin H Brierley, I reduced these to the 15 tracks that appear on Tod Dockstader: From the Archives.

The cover for the latest Starkland CD release, Tod Dockstader From The Archives.

Tod’s music has long seemed original and powerful to me. While determining why any music works is ultimately unanswerable, two factors can help explain the appeal of his music. First, most of the sounds are real-world (i.e., concrète), and therefore have an inherent distinctiveness that is missing in pure electronic sounds. From what I know, he never used a synthesizer. I recall the story from his early composing days, when Bob Moog invited Tod to Bob’s home to demonstrate his new synthesizers. Tod went, listened, pondered, and left – synth-less. Sterile synthesizer sounds lacked the richness of Tod’s concrète palette, and of course the keyboard itself was an anathema to him. The second reason is that Tod worked by instinct, rather than filling out a preconceived formal structure. In his case, being an autodidact instead of having formally studying composition clearly worked to his advantage. I recall Tod describing his process of generating lots of material on tape, and then taking a razor blade to excise the material that didn’t work. He reported that, sometimes, everything simply disappeared under The Blade. Ruthless self-editing was clearly a strength.

Tod also had a spot-on sense of shaping materials: when to move away from a rhythm he’d set up, when to introduce new material, when to return to earlier material in a section, how densely layered a section should be, and how to satisfyingly end a piece.

Released November 18, 2016, the music on this new CD ranges from the powerfully pulsating Super Choral, to the lulling rhythms of First Target, to Anat Loop’s spasmodic juxtapositions, shifting from electric arcing to a xylophone trapped in a hurricane. We also hear driving unnatural machines, organ clusters, meandering buzzes, a slowed-down animal roar, violent whooshes, some ominous German, and garbled, underwater murkiness. The CD ends with a shocking coda, music unlike anything else in Tod’s repertoire.

What is the future for record labels? The simple answer is: I don’t know. The first step is to note what value labels can offer. Some of the recordings I’ve described above suggest the benefits labels can provide.

A typical Starkland CD serves to document and preserve the compositions with high quality recordings approved by the composers and their notes on the music, along with the widespread dispersion of the release and permanent availability from the label. (Starkland has never had a recording go out-of-print.) And in a case like the Dockstader CDs, the updated notes written for the CD became the definitive commentary on the music; he never prepared notes for concerts (because there weren’t any), and he never set up a website.

CDs can significantly advance the careers of composers and performing ensembles. Starkland’s two Bimstein CDs helped him attain widespread exposure, receive numerous grants and commissions, and end up with performances at venues like Carnegie Hall and wonderful reviews in publications like The New York Times. Because of our track record (pun intended), the media is likely to pay attention to the 100-150 promo CDs we send out. We also help draw attention to new releases by having liner notes written by established figures such as John Adams, Laurie Anderson, Claire Chase, Kyle Gann, Allan Kozinn, David Lang, Meredith Monk, Bill Morrison, Pauline Oliveros, and John Schaefer.

Labels can generate new works by commissioning composers (possibly with visual artists) to create content exclusively for a new release. I’m proud to have commissioned over two hours of surround-sound music that premiered on two first-of-their-kind releases.

Finally, labels can help the listening public discover new music they might otherwise miss. How do listeners decide what to buy (and hopefully not steal)? The astute critic George Grella recently answered this question, writing: “That is precisely where record labels matter, have always mattered, and matter now more than ever… The process of gathering critical opinion from friends, critics, and one’s own ears begins with the label, the most important gatekeeper.”

For all these reasons, labels have value, and that makes me think they will continue to exist in some way. The two key questions for the future then become:

  • How will labels deliver music?
  • How will new music recordings be financed?

Today’s au courant prediction for future delivery is streaming will rule and CDs will disappear. Not everyone agrees. Many like physical objects, held in their treasured collections. My guess is that in the foreseeable future, we will continue to see CDs released by major artists, those who value a CD’s high quality sound and documentation, those who want to sell something at their concerts, and those who want to be taken seriously by the major media. Today, there are likely “more labels than ever,” as Grella recently wrote. Starkland currently receives more project submissions than at any point over the last 25 years. Of course, streaming will continue to play a valuable role in discovery. But while we have extensive digital distribution by Naxos, the starting point for all projects is still a physical CD and we haven’t yet done a digital-only release.

It’s hard to predict what we will end up with farther down the road. The public accepts the crappy sound of mp3 and earbuds because of the convenience. This may change. Mp3 thrives because of the limitations of data transmission and storage. With rapid advances of technology along with clever encoding (such as the nascent MQA codec and the Mastered for iTunes format), we may well end up with high quality digital delivery and storage. If it’s well organized, that could change everything.

Future financing will be a challenge. Unless you’re Philip Glass, sales of new music recordings won’t cover the production and promotional expenses. There will still be some grants available, and the emergence of crowdfunding is a healthy approach that I think will grow.

We have to admit the major labels missed the boat on the digital revolution, and tech companies like Apple, YouTube, and Amazon have taken over music distribution. But in my opinion they don’t care about the music like labels do. It’s just another way to get people to buy their products and visit their websites. Standalones like Spotify are different since they only sell music, but they currently lose millions and have no viable business model. What these giants all have in common is the power to pay smaller labels virtually nothing.

Reality check: when someone streams a Starkland track, we typically receive about $0.0043.

Despite this dismal situation, I think composers and musicians will continue to see value in professionally produced recordings, and will find a way to make that happen.

Finally, let’s return to the most important part of this “business” – the music itself. Today, the new music world is healthier than it’s ever been over the last 40 years, a truly unexpected and exciting state of affairs. Today’s audiences meaningfully connect to a lot of new music, a sharp contrast to yesteryear’s dry, academic music that alienated so many listeners. Universities cover a broad range of styles and are far less insular than decades ago. Old school dichotomies such as Uptown vs. Downtown have mostly disappeared. There’s no “official” style for composing. There are outstanding ensembles devoted to new music, and there’s a substantial audience. Music can be heard, more readily than ever, around the world.

Over the years, the once irrelevant and exclusionary Pulitzer Prize changed direction (e.g., David Lang’s award), and the historically conservative Grawemeyer Award has presented its 2017 composition award to the 37-year old Andrew Norman for his nontraditional, rambunctious Play. Props to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which not only commissioned and performed the work, but also recorded it on its own label, which greatly increased the work’s prominent stature and widespread acclaim. (Alex Ross remarks he has “listened to Play at least a dozen times.”)

I feel lucky to have participated in this evolving world over the last 40 years, and look forward to more in the future.

Tom Steenland

Thomas Steenland is the founder and Executive Director of Starkland. “A new music force for 40 years” (Sequenza21), he has released dozens of albums, presenting world premiere recordings of over 160 works by more than 80 composers. Tom studied physics at Johns Hopkins, music theory at Goucher College, composition at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and recording engineering at the University of Colorado at Denver. He lives in Boulder.

On Record – An Overview of the State of Contemporary Music Recording (Part 1): Still Spinning

[Ed. Note: This article, which is the first in a three-part series exploring the state of contemporary music recordings, surveys labels which are still issuing physical CDs. The second installment looks at the current economics for recording labels; and the third and final installment explores digital distribution and dissemination.]

“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.

A recent innova disc featuring solo piano works by 13 American composers

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.

Where the Discs Are

The following labels maintain an active release schedule which includes CD recordings of contemporary American music:

Albany Records
Arabesque Recordings
Arsis Audio
Azica Records
BMOP Sound
Brassland Records
Bridge Records
Cambria Music
Cedille Records
Centaur Records
Cold Blue Music
Crystal Records
Deep Listening
Delos Music
Ears & Eyes Records
Einstein Records
EMF Media
ERM Media
Furious Artisans
GM Recordings
Image Recordings
Koch International Classics
Koss Classics
Lovely Music, Ltd.
Mode Records
Musica Omnia
Mutable Music
Navona Records
Neuma Records
New Albion Records
New Amsterdam Records
New Focus Recordings
New World Records
Newport Classics
North South Records
OgreOgress Productions
Orange Mountain
Other Minds
Peacock Recordings
Pogus Productions
Present Sounds
Quiet Design
Skirl Records
Summit Records
3Sixteen Records
Table of the Elements
XI Records

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.

The most recent installment of Bridge’s ongoing George Crumb series

“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.

Other Minds’ latest rediscovery: chamber music of Marc Blitzstein

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, Amikhanian’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’s larger than usual CD packs offer more room for graphics and booklet notes

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.

One of New Amsterdam’s “alt-classical” releases

“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.”

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Joseph Dalton
Photo by Timothy Cahill

Joseph Dalton has been covering the arts scene in New York’s Capital Region since 2002, primarily writing for the Albany Times Union. Many of these essays have been collected in the book Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region, published in 2008. Dalton is the former executive director of Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI), where he produced about 300 recordings of contemporary music. He was also director of a research project on the effects of AIDS on American music which was published in an online report by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS.