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Tastemaker savors success Print-ready version

by Phil Gallo
Variety
December 2, 2002

Pop to B'way to classical, Nonesuch dines on diversity

Nonesuch Records has a history of smacking the pop world upside the head with non-mainstream titles. The label is representative mostly of president Robert Hurwitz's taste, and he has established himself as a solid left-fielder, generating gold and platinum albums out of a Polish conductor, Bulgarian singers, Cuban octogenarians and flamenco guitarists. When Nonesuch took over the release and distribution of Joni Mitchell's final album for the Warner Music Group last month, the label signaled once again that its roster extends beyond modern classical composers and musicians from foreign countries.Mitchell's album joins Wilco and Emmylou Harris in the label's changing stable that next year should see releases from T-Bone Burnett, Randy Newman, Ry Cooder and members of the Buena Vista Social Club. (However, Mitchell's "Travelogue" was a one-shot deal; the singer-songwriter was not signed to the diskery and has stated she will no longer record.)

It's not a stretch to suggest that adult-oriented record labels over the next several years will follow the Nonesuch model: a diverse roster of internationally known names combined with music often deemed important, i.e., classical and jazz. It's already being seen in the diversification of the artists recording for Columbia's jazz division, and as Denon restarts the Savoy imprint, it, too, is looking at established artists who may appeal to jazz listeners but don't necessarily play jazz.

Hurwitz shrugs off 2002 as anything special -- there was no Buena Vista Social Club or Gorecki's Third Symphony on the release schedule -- and yet the label opened new doors and saw artists breakthrough as never before. Bringing pop artists into the fold, the label is simultaneously beating 'em and joining 'em.

"Nonesuch consumers are not casual listeners," says Nonesuch marketing VP Peter Clancy. "It's my impression that they are adult, literate audiences."

The first quarter of '03 has the hallmarks of a typical Nonesuch release schedule. Ry Cooder, the guitarist who produced and organized Buena Vista Social Club, teams with Cuban guitarist Manuel Galban for "Mambo Sinuendo" in January, followed by Gideon Kremer's orchestral "Happy Birthday"; February brings a new disc from Bill Frisell and the pianist Richard Goode's Bach Partitas 3, 1 and 6. Italian singer Paolo Conte returns in March with "Reveries." New recordings from Ibrahim Ferrer, Gaby Kerpel, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Steve Reich are also planned for the first quarter.

"There's no prejudice of genre here," says Robert Hurwitz, the label prexy who has nurtured Nonesuch since the mid-'80s. "Our entire foundation is based on composers and new music. There's no distinction between John Adams and Wilco -- on a basic level, they both have a very deep impact."

The increasing diversification of Nonesuch was underlined early this year when Wilco came to the label with "Yankee Foxtrot Hotel," an album Reprise had rejected. Nonesuch's grass roots campaign paid off with debut-week sales of nearly 56,000 units in April. The album started at No. 13 beating out other established acts debuting on new labels -- Michael Bolton, Paul Westerberg and Pet Shop Boys. The album has topped 250,000 units sold, the band's biggest yet, and a second disc is expected in 2003.

The classical world has made '02 the year of John Adams, whose work has long been recorded by Nonesuch. The Los Angeles Philharmonic recording of his "Naive and Sentimental Music" should earn plenty of year-end accolades, alongside Kronos Quartet's Nonesuch disc "Nuevo" and the seven-CD set of the obscure composer-pianist Frederic Rzewski, "Rzewski Plays Rzewski: Piano Works, 1975-1999."

From Broadway came Audra McDonald and Mandy Patinkin, and from film came Jon Brion's score for "Punch-Drunk Love" and Philip Glass' compositions for "The Hours."

Says senior VP David Bither, "There are two types of A&R. The first is based on the project we're presented with and then -- and this was noticeable with Emmylou -- the idea that their best work is still ahead of them. That's the ideal: finding artists who are still challenging themselves."

Senegal's Yossou N'Dour signed a global contract with Nonesuch before the release of his "Nothing's in Vain" disc in October. Fellow world music superstar Caetano Veloso, the brilliant Brazilian composer-singer-guitarist, made a rare U.S. tour in the fall to support his Nonesuch disc "Live in Bahia" and the publication in English of his book "Tropical Truth."

Orchestra Baobab, the West African equivalent of the Buena Vistas, released their first U.S. album Oct. 8 about the same time Nonesuch reissued 13 African titles from its Explorer Series of the 1970s and '80s. (Twelve titles from the Indonesia Explorers are on the January slate).

The label sells records in odd ways. It reaches out at ethnomusicology conferences and book fairs, and two of its biggest accounts are primarily bookstores: Barnes & Noble and Borders. And of its 33 album releases this year, only one, N'Dour's disc will be supported with a video.

"Yossou's a microcosm of the records we make," Bither says. "He had a hit single with Neneh Cherry, which came when he wasn't trying to cross over. Certainly by being more popular, in theory, it opens up the audiences and it means the possibilities are unlimited. The next album had no hit. But if it's about hits and not about sustaining a career, it goes away like lightning. Our interest is in working with artists over long periods of time. We couldn't do the other kind of business (generate hits) if we tried."

The midtown offices that house the 12 members of the Nonesuch staff were just getting settled into late this fall, yet they reflected the label's frugality. The top execs have no gold or platinum records on their walls, a laptop computer sits on each desk rather than a full computer network. Their stereo systems are combinations of their own stuff and vintage components -- equipment left over from the prior Atlantic regime.

Insiders say Nonesuch has been the standard-bearer for small labels operating within a corporate structure, in this case under Atlantic Records' aegis within the Warner Music Group. It is a label whose greatest successes have blossomed via word or mouth rather than extensive marketing. And mention Hurwitz's name to music biz veterans and you're likely to get anecdotes about his honesty and impeccable taste.

Mitchell has said her "Travelogue," a two-CD collection of older tunes recorded with the London Symphony and established jazz musicians, is "not jazz, classical, pop or folk. It belongs to no camp, so no radio station is going to play it." In that way, it's a typical Nonesuch release.

"We're beating our head against the wall at radio," Bither says. "We constantly have to think how do you sell records without radio or video airplay. On the other hand, it takes away a big red line" on an album's ledger sheet.

"A label identity is a gift granted only over time," notes Clancy. "We have acquired a certain reputation, but the label is probably the last factor in (the consumer) deciding to buy an album."

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