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

Composer Richard Brooks never had it in mind to start a record label at all. The chairman of the music department at Nassau Community College and an active participant in the Society of Composers, Brooks more than had his hands full already when, in 1985, he and a colleague, composer Reynold Weidenaar, decided to self-release an LP of their music.

Weidenaar had some experience as a recording engineer, recalls Brooks, “and I had been doing some production work for what was then the American Society of University Composers, which had had a series of LPs which I produced. Basically we were just doing this one thing for ourselves, and we wanted it to be nice and professional and so on and so forth, hence the label name. I remember we spent an afternoon going through the dictionary looking for a catchy word that we could use for a label name, and settled upon Capstone.

“A year or two later, we gave a presentation what’s now the Society of Composers — I think it was still the A.S.U.C. back then — at their national conference at Northwestern, on how to produce your own recording, which was very well-received and lots of people were interested,” Brooks continues. “But the curious thing is that not so many people were interested in doing it themselves, but somehow getting out on ‘our label.’ And I kept saying, Well, one record doesn’t really make a label.’” But the seed was planted and Brooks opted to pursue it, with Weidenaar bowing out but giving the label his blessing.

Funding for Capstone releases comes from a number of sources, but all production costs are essentially absorbed by the artists themselves. “The artists provide a studio-ready CD-R master or a DAT, and they provide camera-ready artwork and material for the booklet notes,” Brooks explains. “Sometimes I help assemble that. Unfortunately, the label doesn’t provide enough income for me to be able to subsidize the production costs. But sometimes the artists are able to get funding from their universities, or from small grants.”

The cornerstone of the Capstone catalog is the series of recordings dedicated to the Society of Composers, Inc. (or SCI), a large national organization of some 1200 composers from the United States and Canada as well as a handful of foreign members. “They do a large conference and festival every year, usually taking advantage of a university facility, says Brooks. “They present concerts, give a few papers and have an ongoing CD series — 13 in that series so far — which is produced on Capstone, and I do that work for them free of charge. They also have a publication series which has 20-some volumes of music from the members. Both the recording series and the publication series are selected by a peer review process; it’s a competitive selection process.”

Asked to name for the newcomer some of the more important recordings in the catalog, Brooks mentions the album Celtic Connections (CD 8640), which features music by Jane O’Leary, Hilary Tann and Nicola LeFanu. “All three of these women are either natives of Wales or England or Ireland, or have lived there for a substantial period of time. The music is wonderful and it’s very well produced.” Brooks also singles out for note a series of CDs by the McLean Mix (CDs 8617, 8622, 8637, “which is a husband and wife composing team, Barton and Priscilla McLean, both very inventive and creative people using a lot of the more current technology that has been applied to music. And of course,” Brooks continues, “I think the SCI series is an excellent cross-section of styles and approaches and compositional techniques being used over recent years.”

Brooks says his goals for Capstone are quite simple and clear: “I’m very devoted to the concept of helping American composers — I will not do a CD that doesn’t have a substantial portion of it devoted to American composers, preferably living ones. I have sometimes stretched the definition to cover composers who we generally don’t think of as American but who actually lived here for a long time, for example Hindemith, who actually was an American citizen while he lived here. But generally that’s my aim… it’s a labor of love, I’m a composer myself, and I know so many talented people out there whose music needs to be heard.”

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