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

When one considers the recording labels most responsible for promoting American music and presenting it to the public, New World certainly ranks among the foremost. But making music available to the record buying public was actually an afterthought on the part of the company, according to label head Paul Marotta… a response to the overwhelming success of its initial efforts and the demand that success engendered.

Some explanation is order. “The label was founded as a Bicentennial project with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation,” Marotta says. “The original purpose was to put together a 100-disc recorded anthology of American music, whose purpose was to tell the history of America through its music. The 100-disc anthology was then to be given away to a select group of institutions, libraries and music schools around the world. 2000 sets were given away for free, and then an additional 5000 sets were sold at cost to the next group of institutions and libraries. And the original intention was not to have the discs available in any retail stores or to the general public.”

Nothing succeeds like success, however, and the recordings in the anthology were so well received, the critical response so phenomenal and the demand so high that New World Records was compelled to enter the marketplace. Once the decision was made, the company lost no time in creating a catalog impressive both for its depth and breadth and for the scope and size of some of the recordings it has been able to produce. In fact, it is quite difficult to come up with a major 19th or 20th century American composer not represented in the New World catalog.

“If there’s one thing we do that stands out,” Marotta says, “it’s that we do large projects. The company was set up with the intention to do what the commercial world wouldn’t do, and usually what the commercial world does is small, inexpensive projects. So that meant that we went out and did the big things. There’s a lot of orchestral works, and there’s the operas. We have [Virgil Thomson’s] The Mother of Us All, we have the only recording of [Rodgers & Hart’s] Babes in Arms, the John Knowles Paine Mass, which is a large work, full orchestra, full chorus. [Samuel Barber’s] Antony and Cleopatra we won a Grammy for, and we won a Grammy for Candide.” One further example of a recent large-scale work that garnered significant attention was the world premiere recording of Hugo Weisgall’s opera after Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author.

New World maintains an extremely active release schedule, issuing 20-25 titles a year. Of these, Marotta estimates that 70% are classical titles, 20% are from a very active and acclaimed jazz series, and the remaining 10% falls under the loose heading of folk and traditional music. That last part of the catalog is often overlooked but should not be underestimated: it includes Native American music of various tribes, music from the American Virgin Islands and the Georgia Sea Islands, New England folk song, Spanish penetential hymns from New Mexico, “Sacred Harp” music and gospel.

In fact, when pressed to select a highlight from the voluminous New World catalog, Marotta points out a non-classical series of tremendous historical importance. “We’ve got a series collecting songs of America that goes back to the Moravians, which would be the early 1700s, music of the Federal period, songs from around the time of the Revolution, Civil War songs, brass band music of the 19th century, Victorian-American songs, songs of protest from the Gilded Age — late 19th century, march songs from the turn of the century, up to early Tin Pan Alley. It’s 14 discs of Americana: if you want the history of America through song, these discs will give it to you.”

Among the highlights upcoming from New World are a Ned Rorem song cycle recording, a disc of Jacob Druckman’s orchestral music featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw, a recording of drummer George Schuller’s jazz band Schull-Dogs featuring acclaimed tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, a Vanguard Jazz Orchestra recording of the music of Thad Jones, and a disc pairing works by Morton Feldman and Stefan Wolpe. And Marotta also eagerly anticipates the launch of the New World website (www.newworldrecords.org) in summer 1999. The site will include the complete liner notes for every recording on the label and a search engine capable of cross-referencing all titles and composers. Eventually it will also feature a streaming audiocast of music from the New World catalog. But like the label itself, the site is primarily designed for educational and informative purposes, as opposed to commercial concerns. Tongue firmly planted in cheek, Marotta notes, “It’ll probably be the only record label Web site out there with absolutely no component for commerce.”

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