Tag: independent record labels

Chicago: For Practically Everyone—New Label Finds Our Musical Soft Spots

About halfway through my interview with Matt Pakulski, the founder of new Chicago record label FPE, I asked him to describe the music of one of his label artists, the Miami Dolphins. By coincidence, Pakulski was actually wearing one of the band’s t-shirts.  “They’re kind of noise-rock,” he began excitedly. “They’re from Minneapolis…do you want to hear them?!” He sprang up from the sofa in his Oak Park home—strewn with big tiger stuffed animals and craft supplies for his daughter, Frances—and started looking for the album. “I’m going down to the basement,” he declared, and disappeared for a moment.

Pakulski’s home, and head, are filled with a dizzingly diverse and quirky music collection—and, now that he’s got his record label off the ground, everyone can start listening along. Pakulski is a musician, a largely self-taught composer, and a record enthusiast. Although he now has a work-from-home job in the corporate world, he once owned his own record store and has developed close relationships with Chicago record stores like Dusty Groove and Old School Records.
Matt Pakulski
The acronym FPE—For Practically Everyone—embodies Pakulski’s wide-ranging tastes, as well as his enthusiastic, happy-go-lucky approach to the curation and creation of musical objects. Although his work with FPE means he has less time to blog now, Pakulski’s online persona still reveals his unique passion and unpretentiousness as a record collector. His presence is equal parts perplexing and endearing: at his old blog, Frances Picks, he would regularly let his daughter pull a record off the shelf and then write a blog post about it. One recent post includes photos of the record posed with Pakulski’s pet turtle. Another post begins: “The records pile up. Every month more records. … Listen: each one is special. Each and every one was made for you. I’m lucky I’ve got someone to help me choose: a small person.” His new tumblr, Records are Fun, is a collection of unfussy portraits of records with scraps of commentary that are alternately goofy and rhapsodic.

Pakulski is utterly unique in Chicago’s music scene, and I sat down with him last week to talk about the new label and its first release from Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble. (The Miami Dolphins, and several other acts, have releases forthcoming on FPE.) We were surrounded by several boxes of the album, which had just arrived on Pakulski’s doorstep the day before.

So your first vinyl release is a live recording of Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, in a performance they presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Nicole just won the Jazz Journalists’ award for Flutist of the Year for the fifth time in a row, isn’t that right?

Nicole just keeps doing amazing things. She’s really a force of nature. Her vision is so broad and well-defined at the same time, it’s amazing. There’s a great video that really embodies that: at UC-Irvine, where she teaches, they had a speaker series called “What Matters to Me and Why.” She spoke on the series, and it’s fantastic. It’s really interesting to watch her in an academic context. She has this philosophy she calls “limitless possibility.” She talks about where she came from, and how the likelihood of her addressing a group of 100 students at UC Irvine was about .00001%—but hey, it happened. What I found interesting about that video is that her style of speaking in an academic context is very similar to the way she expresses herself creatively and musically. There is, actually, a solo improv in the middle of the talk—and it’s quite seamless, from talking to improv to talking. Like she just expressed an idea, but in a different language.

Why did you want to be an advocate for Nicole and her music?

Because “jazz flutist” doesn’t encompass Nicole at all. She is a brilliant jazz flutist, but the totality of her talent and vision is much more comprehensive. She’s got multitudes. Being known as a jazz flutist is, in some way, a limitation on her audience: people who don’t know jazz, or don’t pay attention to jazz, might not be aware of her. But I feel she has a potential to cross over, like a Sun Ra or an Art Ensemble of Chicago. People who aren’t jazz people were interested in what they were doing, and I think she has the same kind of potential.

I really hesitate to call it a jazz record. The soloing is minimal—it’s almost all composed. It’s a composition for a chamber ensemble, coming from the jazz world, in the same way that a lot of new music incorporates a jazz language in the statement that it makes. This is maybe a jazz piece that uses the language of new music.

Mitchell Intergalactic Beings
Dropping music into genre buckets is a challenging necessity for record labels. What does genre mean for FPE?

Genre is only a concern for me inasmuch as I’d try to avoid doing two things in the same genre. I think a lot of the time, musical expression is silenced because people don’t think it’s for them. Just because you say you’re a rockabilly person doesn’t mean that you don’t have some Herb Alpert records that you like! Everyone’s got their soft spots. People have their guilty pleasures: “I really love this Madonna song but don’t tell anyone.” And I say no! You shouldn’t be afraid to say if you like it.
I’m always debating with people on Facebook about pop music versus serious, versus underground, versus punk. I’m having these debates about authenticity. What I want to do with the label, and the roster I’m selecting, is to find artists that are doing their own thing and expressing it, in some cases, in terms of genre signifiers—but not in a way that is pandering to, or trying to be cool in the eyes of, specialists.

Nicole’s record is your first vinyl release, but you’ve already signed several groups for forthcoming albums. Tell me about some of FPE’s other artists.

I’ve got this great band, Zigtebra. The story is that although Joe and Emily are brother and sister, they didn’t meet until their twenties. They grew up separately, not knowing about each other, and ended up in a dance troupe together called Pure Magical Love. They went out on a date after they met and discovered that they were siblings. At first I wondered if it was a White Stripes thing? They were pretending to be siblings? Anyway, they formed in late 2011 and started making music together. Their first project was a musical about Leonard Cohen. They did a lot of weird performance art when they first started—papier-mâché masks and little operas with a storyline. They have since honed themselves into a brilliantly catchy pop songwriting machine—songs that are nothing but hooks. They have dispensed with everything that isn’t a hook. They’re earnest in a way that I often wouldn’t be able to appreciate, but they’re so damn charming that it’s hard not to appreciate them and kind of love them.

You’re a self-taught composer and a new music lover. Do you plan to have more contemporary classical ensembles on the label eventually?

I’d love to increase the amount of that on FPE. There’s this tension between the stuff that’s really challenging, provocative, and weird and, frankly, sales potential. But I firmly believe that with music that is important, one of the things that makes it vital or important is its ability to communicate to more than just a small group of people.
The ensembles I’m really into have a raw, visceral sound and a very intuitive way of playing. And a way of bringing people in, rather than distancing people.

Another thing which is really important to me, which is a criterion #1 for a band being on the label, is that they have to be energetic self-promoters. It can’t be a group that’s going to break up. They need to be there in two years when I’m still trying to sell the record.

What’s next for you and FPE?

The day after tomorrow, I’m going to Ethiopia to be with this other band on my label, Qwanqa, while they record. My friend in the band, Kaethe Hostetter, is from Massachusetts and she moved to Addis Ababa to start a music school. She’s also in Deboband, an Ethiopian-style brass and funk band from Boston, and they’re incredible live. I can’t wait.

A Qwanqwa tape, photographed in Pakulski's living room.

A Qwanqwa tape, photographed in Pakulski’s living room.

Nicole Mitchell performs her Liberation Narratives in Chicago on May 2. Meanwhile, you can buy Black Earth Ensemble’s new release at the FPE website, as well as in Chicago record stores like Reckless Records. A limited edition of 30 records, with a special art print inside, was created exclusively for Dusty Groove records on Record Store Day. There are reportedly a few copies left.

Sounds Heard: Curtis K. Hughes—Danger Garden

Curtis K. Hughes has been a fixture of the Boston-area new music scene for over a decade. He’s taught at Boston Conservatory, MIT, and NEC. He’s been responsible for fascinating local concert series. But above all, he has composed a unique body of works which demonstrates both the depth of his listening and his ability to synthesize an extremely wide range of influences into an extremely personal and deeply moving sound world.

Danger Garden (2006), the composition which opens a new disc devoted to Hughes’s music and also lends its name to the CD’s title, is an extraordinary aural rendering of the zeitgeist, an era offering more opportunities than any other heretofore albeit at the risk of information overload and attention deficit. The first movement (“excitedly burgeoning”) begins with a confrontational freneticism reminiscent of some of Michael Gordon’s early pieces, but within thirty seconds it completely morphs into something very different. While in the ensuing minute it clearly suggests what was once-upon-a-time the official sonic vocabulary of contemporary music (the piece is even scored for the ubiquitous Pierrot plus percussion configuration), it also hints at free jazz in its not-so-careful interplay of solo lines, each one seeming to vie for center stage. Then a gong is struck that seems to come straight out of Peking Opera, but it’s in a context that has nothing to do with Chinese music. From time to time thereafter it returns to its initial stance of aggressive post-minimalism, but it never quite allows you to get comfortable even with a regular dose of discomfort. A seeming calm ushers in the second movement, despite percussive eruptions filled with quiet desperation. Hughes has appropriately titled the movement “with repressed intensity.” Halfway through, however, the percussion takes over and propels the music forward with an insistent rock groove. But, similarly to the way that the Peking opera gong came totally out of context, the music that groove is supporting has nothing to do with rock. Then a couple of minutes before the piece ends, the other instruments gradually find grooves as well that not only evoke rock but also disco and other dance music. But don’t assume it ever becomes steady-state; Hughes’s aesthetic is too restless for that. It’s a totalism for the 21st century and it’s arguably an even more inclusive melding of styles than the kinds of pieces that have been seeping out of New York City and Los Angeles since the early 1990s. That such a style feels natural and effortless might be the best proof yet that the paradigms of web browsing and channel surfing have become internalized for many of us.

That said, in contrast, Myopia 2 (2003) comes across as far less schizophrenic. In part that’s because of its timbral homogeneity, because beneath its immediate surface it too is constantly changing textures by stratifying ranges and contrasting the density of instruments used at any given point. The work is scored for an ensemble of 12 saxophones evenly parsed with three each of soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. (The overall impact of such an ensemble is quite different from the trio of clarinet, viola and cello that was brought together for Hughes’s earlier Myopia 1 (2001), a work which appears on Hughes’s previous portrait CD released in 2003, Avoidance Tactics.) If the saxophone quartet is something of a contemporary wind parallel to the string quartet (both of which ensembles Hughes also put to great use in compositions featured on Avoidance Tactics), this larger amalgam of saxophones functions somewhat like a string orchestra. While individual voices jump out of the thicket from time to time, this ensemble is at its most exciting when all twelve players sound in tandem.

National Insecurity explores what is perhaps the most heterogeneous instrumentation herein—flute, bass clarinet, trumpet, vibraphone, violin, cello, and bass. It is strikingly similar to the ensemble that Eric Dolphy assembled for his final American studio date as a leader (which resulted in Out To Lunch), wherein Dolphy’s multi-winds (including flute and bass clarinet) are accompanied by trumpet, vibes, bass and drums. But while the sonorities occasionally echo that landmark Blue Note album, the music that Hughes fashions for this group is by far the least jazz-like music on the present collection. Composed in 2002, and according to Hughes’s extensive notes on his website inspired by the “anxiety and uncertainty of the time and place it was written in,” despite his “aversion to writing music that purports to carry any sort of political message,” National Insecurity evokes the general malaise of our collective consciousness as we progressed from fear and shock to knee-jerk jingoism in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The concluding measures of the piece, which Hughes has described as “a ghastly passage of pure parallel motion (‘united we stand’), a final confrontation and a disintegration” capture that strange time—now a full ten years into the past—far more viscerally than words ever can.

Sandwiched between these three instrumental pieces, nevertheless, are two very effective vocal works, the two volumes of The Beck Journals composed in 2005 and 2006 for a group of four singers and a solo soprano respectively. Never resorting to lyricism, Hughes finds an alternative path to crystalline prosody in the settings of entries from the journals of the figurative painter Rosemarie Beck (1923-2003) who attempted to carve a place for herself in the male-dominated New York art scene of the 1950s. A memorable precedent for Hughes’s approach to text setting is the kind of melodic shard Charles Dodge created back in the 1970s around the poetry of Mark Strand. But Dodge was writing for music performed by a computer made to sing. An amazing feat no doubt. But the fact that Hughes can get a similarly crisp accuracy from real singers in real time is an equally formidable accomplishment, one that is further enhanced by the stellar performances of the singers, in particular soprano Jennifer Ashe who navigates the second volume, with the assured instrumental accompaniment of the Firebird Ensemble who shine throughout the entire disc.

Simultaneous with the release of this CD of chamber music is the release of Hughes’s 2009 chamber opera Say It Ain’t So, Joe (available both on Amazon and from iTunes.) It’s an entertaining and irreverent take on the 2008 Vice Presidential debate in which the singer portraying Joe Biden also appears briefly as another Joe, the Plumber. ‘Tis the season.

On Record – An Overview of the State of Contemporary Music Recording (Part 2): Not-Profit Even If Not By Design

[Ed. Note: This article is the second in a three-part series exploring the state of contemporary music recordings which concludes with an exploration of online distribution and dissemination. Part One focuses on labels which still issue physical CDs]

Given that thousands of new CD titles are produced every year across the span of musical genres, it’s not hard to surmise that most discs don’t earn back enough funds to recoup the costs of recording and manufacturing. In other words, it can’t be just classical and contemporary music projects that have modest sales.

It’s a given: money has to come from somewhere before discs get released. It’s just that the need for dough is more on the surface in all realms of the always-struggling little realm of contemporary American music.

At New Amsterdam Records, the ambitious young proprietors may be forging new ground by releasing discs of music that blends popular and classical styles in fresh ways. But during our interview when they addressed finances—making statements like “We don’t want to create a situation where the success of one project supports another one” and “We contribute a minimal amount of funding and are very wary of functioning like a bank” and “We’re not assuming the costs”—they gave the impression of viewing themselves as boldly operating counter to industry standards. Compared to popular music labels that may well be the case.

Yet scraping together the money to produce each new title and more often than not looking to the artists to help with that process—whether from family wealth, university research grants, or credit card debt—is standard operating procedure at almost every independent contemporary music label. On one level, at least, New Amsterdam does acknowledge this, since the company is in the process of becoming a nonprofit organization, which will allow it to receive grants and contributions.

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

“Aren’t we all non-profit?” jokes Susan Napodano DelGiorno of Koch International Classics, which is based on Long Island. Actually her operation is among the labels with a long-term commitment to new music that’s not non-profit, at least strictly speaking. A boutique within the larger media corporation of E1 Entertainment, which purchased Koch Records last year, the classical imprint is in the process of being rechristened E1 Classics.

According to DelGiorno, the label put out 31 new titles in 2007, 21 titles in 2008, and will release 23 projects this year. Roughly half the releases are contemporary music, of one sort or another. Practically speaking, DelGiorno is a sole proprietor. She decides on projects, produces the sessions, edits the masters, and supervises the packaging, even while working with the company’s larger marketing and distribution wings. Recent releases include flute music of Jennifer Higdon and orchestral music of George Tsontakis with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. In the works, among other things, is a disc with the young classical/jazz improvisation trio known as Time for Three.

A recent Koch International Classics release featuring music from Barber to DBR

DelGiorno hesitated to give a direct answer to the question of whether or not her operation was expected to be self-supporting. She did say, “Other divisions bolster what I do, but I still have the responsibility to make wise decisions, and we approach each project with the idea of making a small profit. We’d like to think of making a million dollars, but we all know that doesn’t happen.”

Fifty miles north of New York City in the small town of Chester, Al Margolis is a one-man record conglomerate. (Yes, that’s a grand distinction, but we’re talking about avant-garde music here.)

Margolis is the label manager for four little independents: Pogus, which he established in 1988; XI Records, founded by composer Phill Niblock in 1990; Deep Listening, launched by composer Pauline Oliveros in 1995; and Mutable Music, started by baritone Thomas Buckner in 2000 (who also ran 1750 Arch during the LP era). Each label is curated by its founder, but once masters are completed Margolis supervises the production process, and also manages the websites and does the shipping. He also distributes product of at least two other labels, the defunct O.O. Discs and the inactive Nonsequitur, curated by Steve Peters.

Pogus’s 3-CD re-issue of recordings originally published in Source magazine was years in the making.

Asked why there are so darned many labels in the field, Margolis explains, “Every label is a reflection of who’s running it. It’s not egotistical, but it’s their own little space to say, ‘This is what I do.'”

A veteran of the business, Margolis had an eight-year tenure at New World Records, where he rose from shipping clerk to production manager to director of artists and repertoire before leaving in 2001. Though today he has to juggle myriad tasks, he doesn’t miss the two-hour commute to Manhattan and now has time to devote to his own work as a sound artist.

Despite his rather rural location, Margolis is hardly isolated from the trends and economics of the industry. “It’s gotten tougher and tougher, but we’re hanging in there. This section of the business isn’t ready to give up yet,” he says.

Perhaps it’s his time out of the city, but Margolis has a laid-back approach to sales. “I’ve found I make more money the less I try to sell recordings, going crazy with advertisements and lots of promotions. Those don’t sell records anymore. You can have the best review and it doesn’t move ’em at all. It’s an organic thing that continues at its own pace. For the records that are going to sell, you don’t have to do a damn thing.”

As for the pace of new titles, it depends upon the success of in-house fundraising and initiatives from artists. “We manage to get some grants occasionally. Some money comes from the artists,” says Margolis matter-of-factly.

Another relatively recent transplant to the Hudson Valley is Foster Reed, founder of New Albion Records. Established in 1984 in San Francisco, New Albion often projected a kind of West Coast mystique with early releases of Lou Harrison, John Adams, and Somei Satoh. But also along the way were discs of East Coast denizens like Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, and even Virgil Thomson. A native of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Reed says that he never intended to stay in the Bay Area for the 30 years that he did and about five years ago he finally picked up and moved his family to rural Duchess County.

Last summer New Albion made something of a splash in its new environs by producing a festival of ten concerts as part of the Summerscape series at Bard College. The line-up was a veritable retrospective of important repertoire on the label and included performances by pianists Sarah Cahill and Margaret Leng-Tan, soprano Joan LaBarbara and the Able-Steinberg-Winant Trio, as well as an installation/performance by Ellen Fullman and her “long stringed instruments” in the lobby of the Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. An early celebration of the label’s 25th anniversary, the events may have also been a kind of farewell because last summer, New Albion released what may be its final disc (piano music of Leo Ornstein played by Cahill).

No new New Albion titles have been issued since Sarah Cahill’s premiere recordings of later Leo Ornstein works was released last year.

“Right now the label doesn’t seem to have the necessity for being that it used to,” says Reed. “Other labels are covering the same kind of territory I was involved in and doing a very credible job. When I started New Albion there was little peer activity. So I’m just not making new records. That used to be a huge activity and so involving, but we are doing occasional productions and actively licensing.” These ancillary activities include a Terry Riley weekend planned for October at Bard and some Hollywood soundtrack deals that are in the early stages of talks. Reed also says he’s “still learning the ropes of the new world,” referring to the vast online universe.

“If music is to be heard and the point of a record label is to help more people hear it, then things have never been more successful. Because of the streaming libraries, there are phenomenal amounts of people listening today. But the business dynamic is worse than ever,” continues Reed. New Albion was started with some family money and Reed emphasizes that in the best of times it barely supported itself. Still, he’s not about to close up shop. Concludes Reed, “The doors are still open and if things change, I wouldn’t be averse to making new recordings. We sell records to whomever wants to buy them still and the licensing is pretty good. And if one of the big publishers wanted to buy us for a million dollars I’d sell it.”


Whether or not a label has non-profit documentation is not in itself a barrier to receiving outside support for projects. Artists can channel personal funds to a label and consider it a business expense, or a label can, in effect, co-produce a project with an ensemble, which can raise grant funding and contributions.

A few foundations have come around to understanding the importance of recordings to the field of contemporary music. Starting in the late 1980s, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust ran a program specifically for recordings of New York-based ensembles, with most of the funds going toward contemporary music endeavors. Some years back, the Cary’s recording program and a concurrent commissioning program were rolled into one umbrella program for contemporary music projects. According to tax filings, in 2008 the Cary Trusts gave $1.6 million to 60 music organizations based in New York City. Sadly the Cary Trust, after some 40 years of operation, shut down on June 30, 2009. The fund has liquidated its portfolio of investment holdings and made final awards—larger than normal sums to long-term grantees—which have been posted on Cary’s website. [Ed. note: One of these grants endows a recording component of the American Music Center’s Composer Assistance Program (CAP), but it will take a year or two for the endowment to yield sufficient investment proceeds to launch; further details have yet to be announced.]

Over the past five years the Argosy Foundation of Milwaukee has become a major supporter of contemporary music activities nationwide. The fund was established in 1997 by John Abele, an entrepreneur who co-founded Boston Scientific, a manufacturer of medical devices like heart stents and catheters. In 2008 Forbes Magazine named Abele one of the 400 richest Americans. His son, Alexander Abele, is a 40-year-old composer based in Burlington, Vermont. As he is one of only five Argosy trustees (all are members of the Argosy family), it seems reasonable to conclude that Alex Abele was responsible for the launch of the foundation’s grant making for commissions and training, performances, and recordings of new American music.

Argosy’s annual reports do not break down the total giving by area of support (there are seven broad programmatic areas, including education, health, and the environment, in addition to the arts) and while lists of grantees are provided, award amounts are not. But the aggregate is still impressive. In 2006, Argosy made 263 grants totaling about $24.5 million and of these 69 grants were for contemporary music projects. In 2007, the total giving declined slightly to $20.2 million while the total number of grants rose to 346, with 158 grants to orchestras and chamber ensembles, festivals, and record labels.

The contemporary music program operates with semi-annual deadlines and the restriction that recipient organizations are limited to grants every other year. It is the only area where the foundation accepts unsolicited applications; awards can range from $1,000 to $25,000. A foundation officer said that approximately 42 percent of all grants made toward contemporary music to date have included recordings as at least an aspect of the supported project.

The past year’s decline in the stock market seems to have hit the Argosy Foundation particularly hard, and Boston Scientific has also had some struggles with lawsuits and expensive acquisitions of other companies. As a result, the spring 2009 grant cycle for contemporary music programs was canceled and, according to the foundation’s website, the status of the fall program is uncertain but will be announced by late summer. A program officer declined to elaborate further.

Given the permanent departure of the Cary Trust and the at-least temporary absence of the Argosy Foundation, there’s concern in the field regarding the status of the Aaron Copland Fund for Music—the mothership of contemporary music grant makers. Established in 1992 by the estate of the late composer, the Copland Fund supports American music through three separate granting programs: one each for performing organizations, recording projects, and service organizations. Annual giving has been in the range of $2 million. Support for recordings in recent years has been relatively steady, with $500,000 going to 51 projects in 2006; $321,750 to 40 projects in 2007; and $419,800 to 39 projects in 2008. And it is not just nonprofits that can apply to the Copland Fund’s recording program. Just last year Nonesuch Records, part of the Warner Music Group, received two of the largest grants ($20,000 each) for recordings of Steve Reich and John Adams.

According to Foundation president John Harbison, the 2009 recording awards will be be announced soon and the total of grants will continue in the range of recent years. Harbison was reticent, however, to make predictions about the future giving potential of the Fund, saying that the amount dedicated to each program is determined annually by the trustees.

But the vagaries of Wall Street probably aren’t having the same dire effect on the Copland Fund’s ability to make grants in the near future as they have at other foundations. This is because Aaron Copland’s will left the majority of his copyrights to the foundation. According to tax returns for 2006 and 2007, roughly $2 million in royalties was received each year—a sum roughly equal to the amount of grants made. Contrast this to how most foundations operate, which is by divvying up grants from the earnings on investments. Nevertheless, the Copland Fund does also have investments, which were valued at about $20 million at the end of 2007.

Thus, when label managers put on their fundraiser hats, they can take heart that the Copland Fund should be continuing apace with its support for recordings. Harbison, by the way, added, “the reason that the average amounts of grants may have gone down somewhat is because the number of applications have increased. We’re always quite administratively pressed to respond to the volume of requests.” While he was probably speaking of all the Fund’s programs, this still underscores the point that there remains in the field a strong desire to produce recordings.

The kind of endowments held by cultural behemoths like the Metropolitan Opera and some major orchestras are unheard of among record labels as well as within the entire realm of contemporary music, for that matter. But three well-established labels, each in a different region of the country, have reliable internal or closely aligned sources of support that serve as hedges against changes in the economic environment and shifting trends in the marketplace.

In 2002, the American Composers Forum received a $1 million gift from the McKnight Foundation as a permanent endowment for innova Recordings. According to innova’s Philip Blackburn, every recording project still needs outside support, but the associated costs for administration are covered by income from the endowment.

Margaret Lancaster’s collection of maverick flute music is hot off the presses from New World Records.

Founded in 1976, New World Records had for many years as its chairman of the board Francis Goelet, a real estate heir and treasured friend to American composers. Goelet died in 1998, but the label still places Goelet’s name at the top of its list of trustees and the funding credits for nearly every New World disc include the Francis W. Goelet Lead Charitable Trust. According to New World’s Paul Tai, support from the Goelet Fund is the final cap that makes many new releases possible.

Finally, there’s Cedille Recordings, founded in Chicago 20 years ago by James Ginsberg, who at the time was a 24-year-old law student. Within a few years, the organization became a non-profit under the name Chicago Classical Recording Foundation with the mission of “promoting the finest musicians, ensembles, and composers in the Chicago area” through high-quality recordings. “It seemed like all the labels were based in New York or the West Coast, and so the artists out here were being ignored.” Last year Cedille produced seven new discs and ten are slated for 2009. Ginsberg estimates that about half of the label’s catalog of nearly 120 discs are of contemporary music.

Cedille Records’ just released collection of David Diamond chamber music.

Cedille’s Chicago focus is broadly interpreted. For example, there are solo and ensemble performances by members of the Chicago Symphony and discs of the Grant Park Orchestra playing music of Aaron Jay Kernis and Robert Kurka. But Chicago conductor Paul Freeman also records for Cedille with European orchestras, and there’s a series of recordings of violinist Jennifer Koh, a Chicago native who lives in New York.

Besides drawing on musicians and composers of Chicago residency or origin, Cedille receives support from many local funders. But approximately one-third of the label’s annual budget of roughly $1 million comes from Ginsberg’s father, Martin D. Ginsberg. The senior Ginsberg is a tax attorney and co-author of an authoritative guide to mergers, acquisitions, and buyouts. A new and updated edition comes out annually and Ginsberg has assigned half his royalty income to Cedille. The mother of the family, by the way, is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s said that Cedille recordings are regularly passed along the halls of the highest court. Now there’s a word of mouth network no other label can provide.

[Continue reading here.]


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.