What It Takes

A look at Nonesuch Records : The Industry Standard [pdf]. I probably excerpt too much of it below, but it’s really an excellent look at what crafting, rather than commoditizing, could mean for the eventual structure of the music industry in the age of the MP3.

And, when you’re done reading it, for yucks you can compare and contrast it with Who Wants To Be A Simpson.

I’m spending the evening with the staff of Nonesuch Records, the tiny, vigorously eclectic label, housed on the 24th floor of a high rise on the Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan, that has become a kind of American cultural institution. It has an influence far out of proportion to its size, and some think it could be a guidepost for a record industry in desperate need of direction.

One secret to the label’s success is the conviction that the distance between Carnegie Hall and Irving Plaza has shrunk; that, in an age of category blurring, the fault lines in the audience are not between genres like classical, rock and hip-hop, but between sensibilities; that a person might, depending on his or her mood, put on a Beethoven symphony, a compilation of Cuban jazz, some urban rock or a country chanteuse like K. D. Lang. A crucial fact about that someone is that he or she is likely to be over the age of 30. Two further facts flow from this, which Nonesuch exploits: this listener has money to spend on CD’s, and he or she would rather have the packaged product than snag a few songs off the Internet.

“Nonesuch is piracy-proof,” the singer Emmylou Harris — who became the label’s first “adult pop” signing four years ago — said when I asked her to list the things that set her label apart. “Their audience actually enjoys buying a record. When I got into music in my teens, the album was a thing in itself. It was a whole piece of work that had a reason to flow the way it did. You weren’t interested in just one or two songs. Nonesuch is still in the business of supporting album artists.”

[…] Where the big labels often need a record to hit upward of one million in sales in order to turn a profit, Nonesuch operates on a different scale and by a different logic. It has its blockbuster hits — “Buena Vista Social Club,” from 1997, is the label’s all-time best seller, with three million records sold — but it can also do nicely with sales of 100,000, or even 50,000. Of the Warner Music Group’s 4,400 employees, a grand total of 12 make up the entire staff of Nonesuch, which is a part of WMG’s Warner Brothers division. In the past 20 years, Nonesuch’s annual sales have grown from $750,000 to a reported $35 million. Profits have grown while the industry has contracted, and 2004 looks to be its best year yet.

[…] “It’s a complete oasis in the recording business today,” said the New Music composer Steve Reich, who has been on Nonesuch for 20 years. “It is run honestly and candidly and on a very simple principle: If Bob likes it, he records it.”

Bob is Robert Hurwitz, and it would be an exaggeration, but not too great a one, to say that Nonesuch is Hurwitz. In a business now largely run by accountants and M.B.A.’s, Hurwitz is, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, who has made four records with Nonesuch, “one of the few left who practice the making of records as a craft.”

[…] Hurwitz shies away from suggestions that what he is doing could be applied more broadly. “In the commercial world we are really insignificant,” he said. “So we are no model for the broader industry.”

Others, however, disagree. Besides being one of Nonesuch’s biggest name artists, David Byrne is also himself the founder of a record label — he started Luaka Bop in 1988 initially to release Brazilian music in the United States — and he says that what Nonesuch is doing is precisely what the industry needs to get it out of its crisis. A label, he argues, is supposed to be more than a corporate category: “It’s a curatorial effort, a filter. The people who are at the head of it want you to trust their judgment, so that if you like one artist you’ll get to know others. A certain kind of relationship gets established, and it’s based on trust. That’s a very different concept from record labels that go for Top 10 hits. There’s no trust there at all — it’s about that one song. The reason the record business is in trouble is the things they’re selling — the hit singles and the physical records — have become devalued. If people can get those things for free, what do the record companies have left? Whereas what’s incredibly valued and needed is the relationship and trust.”