Off the Record! A Hyper-History of American Independent New Music Record Labels

When composer John Cage first moved to New York City, he settled into a loft space on Monroe Street. The media picked up on what was at the time a novel living situation, proclaiming the loft to be a living space for new music. Years later, the notion of such a living space for the promulgation and promotion of new music appealed to recording industry veteran Nora Farrell, who dubbed her own new music recording label Monroe Street in honor of Cage’s domicile and example.

Founded in 1997, Monroe Street has begun slowly and quietly, releasing only three CDs so far: Ten Years of Essential Music, a compendium of live recordings by the important composer-led ensemble; Pick It Up, featuring the Philadelphia-based ensemble Relâche in performances of works by Kyle Gann, Stephen Montague, Arturo Marquez and Michael Nyman; and Sebastian’s Shadow, a Bach-inspired soundscape by electronic composer Tom Hamilton. Currently in the works is a soon to be released collection of the electronic music of Kyle Gann. But ultimately Farrell’s goals are far more ambitious and forward-thinking than the average startup label.

The wife of composer William Duckworth, Farrell came to found Monroe Street via a circuitous path. “I spent the last ten years working in the recording industry on the pop side,” she says. “I started out at RCA, and then went on to startups at Polygram, Time-Warner and Sony. And that was going to be a short-term thing, I didn’t expect to be there for ten years. Basically my goal instead of grad school was to do my own version of grad school and learn about the music industry so I could go on and start my own label.”

Having observed what worked — and perhaps more importantly, what didn’t — in the world of major labels, Farrell turned her attention at last to new music, “’cause that’s where my heart is. And from a commercial standpoint, I always felt that it was a type of music that was misunderstood and misrepresented, and with some care and attention I think it could be big. Basically it’s a situation of knowing how to produce records economically, how to get a very nice package out for not a lot of overhead and money, and how to get the information out in a way that doesn’t go through normal channels.”

First and foremost among the methods Farrell employs to get the information out is the Internet. “It’s an incredible resource, and it basically gives you the ability to level the playing field. I may not have the resources and manpower that Sony has, but I can build a Web site that rivals theirs, and in theory can reach, depending on whose numbers you believe, from 38 to 73 million people, without having to have those resources. And that was never a possibility ten years ago.”

But Farrell is using the Internet as more than merely a sales tool; rather, it is an integral part of Monroe Street’s activities. “I am also an Internet programmer and designer, and what I’ve started to do is to work with individual composers who are so inclined, to take their music to the Internet, and basically provide an artistic home on the Web, so that there’s space for art as well as commerce. It’s a belief of mine that somebody needs to get out there and develop it before all we do is use it for online shopping.

“The first piece that we have up there is William Duckworth’s Cathedral, which is strictly a Web piece, a piece written with the Web in mind, and that’s been developing over five years, the Internet site as well as live concerts throughout these five years, ramping up to a huge 48-hour webcast in 2001. So we have our associate sites around the world, and what we’re going to be doing is having 48 hours of continuous music. Any concert Bill does up until 2001 is a live Web cast, and then those pieces are archived. The idea is that each piece that he writes for the Web also exists in regular acoustic form, and you can choose how you want to listen to the piece, and what kind of a concert you want to have. It’s presently streaming, and that was intentional, because we didn’t want to have any kind of waiting experience. Eventually, as we make the offline CDs available — there will be a five CD set of Cathedral — at that point there will also be MP3 files available for download.”

Ultimately, Farrell believes very strongly in Monroe Street being a collaboration in which the artist is equally involved. “My philosophy is that I want to give something back to the new music community. I’m committed to working in partnership with the composer or with the artist, to develop their awareness and audience, give them a CD that they can sell to their audiences, they can send it to their press lists, I can send it to my press lists, and over a period of time we get the word out about new music and about this individual artist.”

From Off the Record! A Hyper-History of American Independent New Music Record Labels
by Steve Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox