On Record – An Overview of the State of Contemporary Music Recording (Part 2): Not-Profit Even If Not By Design

[Ed. Note: This article is the second in a three-part series exploring the state of contemporary music recordings which concludes with an exploration of online distribution and dissemination. Part One focuses on labels which still issue physical CDs]

Given that thousands of new CD titles are produced every year across the span of musical genres, it’s not hard to surmise that most discs don’t earn back enough funds to recoup the costs of recording and manufacturing. In other words, it can’t be just classical and contemporary music projects that have modest sales.

It’s a given: money has to come from somewhere before discs get released. It’s just that the need for dough is more on the surface in all realms of the always-struggling little realm of contemporary American music.

At New Amsterdam Records, the ambitious young proprietors may be forging new ground by releasing discs of music that blends popular and classical styles in fresh ways. But during our interview when they addressed finances—making statements like “We don’t want to create a situation where the success of one project supports another one” and “We contribute a minimal amount of funding and are very wary of functioning like a bank” and “We’re not assuming the costs”—they gave the impression of viewing themselves as boldly operating counter to industry standards. Compared to popular music labels that may well be the case.

Yet scraping together the money to produce each new title and more often than not looking to the artists to help with that process—whether from family wealth, university research grants, or credit card debt—is standard operating procedure at almost every independent contemporary music label. On one level, at least, New Amsterdam does acknowledge this, since the company is in the process of becoming a nonprofit organization, which will allow it to receive grants and contributions.

Where the Discs Are

The following labels maintain an active release schedule which includes CD recordings of contemporary American music:

Albany Records
Arabesque Recordings
ArpaViva
Arsis Audio
Azica Records
BMOP Sound
Brassland Records
Bridge Records
Cambria Music
Cantaloupe
Cedille Records
Centaur Records
Cold Blue Music
Crystal Records
Crytogramophone
Deep Listening
Delos Music
Ears & Eyes Records
Einstein Records
EMF Media
ERM Media
Furious Artisans
GM Recordings
Image Recordings
Innova
Koch International Classics
Koss Classics
Lovely Music, Ltd.
Mode Records
MSR
Musica Omnia
Mutable Music
Navona Records
Naxos
Neuma Records
New Albion Records
New Amsterdam Records
New Focus Recordings
New World Records
Newport Classics
North South Records
OgreOgress Productions
Orange Mountain
Other Minds
Peacock Recordings
Phoenix
Pierian
Pogus Productions
Present Sounds
Quiet Design
Skirl Records
Starkland
Summit Records
3Sixteen Records
Table of the Elements
Tzadik
XI Records

“Aren’t we all non-profit?” jokes Susan Napodano DelGiorno of Koch International Classics, which is based on Long Island. Actually her operation is among the labels with a long-term commitment to new music that’s not non-profit, at least strictly speaking. A boutique within the larger media corporation of E1 Entertainment, which purchased Koch Records last year, the classical imprint is in the process of being rechristened E1 Classics.

According to DelGiorno, the label put out 31 new titles in 2007, 21 titles in 2008, and will release 23 projects this year. Roughly half the releases are contemporary music, of one sort or another. Practically speaking, DelGiorno is a sole proprietor. She decides on projects, produces the sessions, edits the masters, and supervises the packaging, even while working with the company’s larger marketing and distribution wings. Recent releases include flute music of Jennifer Higdon and orchestral music of George Tsontakis with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. In the works, among other things, is a disc with the young classical/jazz improvisation trio known as Time for Three.


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A recent Koch International Classics release featuring music from Barber to DBR

DelGiorno hesitated to give a direct answer to the question of whether or not her operation was expected to be self-supporting. She did say, “Other divisions bolster what I do, but I still have the responsibility to make wise decisions, and we approach each project with the idea of making a small profit. We’d like to think of making a million dollars, but we all know that doesn’t happen.”

Fifty miles north of New York City in the small town of Chester, Al Margolis is a one-man record conglomerate. (Yes, that’s a grand distinction, but we’re talking about avant-garde music here.)

Margolis is the label manager for four little independents: Pogus, which he established in 1988; XI Records, founded by composer Phill Niblock in 1990; Deep Listening, launched by composer Pauline Oliveros in 1995; and Mutable Music, started by baritone Thomas Buckner in 2000 (who also ran 1750 Arch during the LP era). Each label is curated by its founder, but once masters are completed Margolis supervises the production process, and also manages the websites and does the shipping. He also distributes product of at least two other labels, the defunct O.O. Discs and the inactive Nonsequitur, curated by Steve Peters.

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Pogus’s 3-CD re-issue of recordings originally published in Source magazine was years in the making.

Asked why there are so darned many labels in the field, Margolis explains, “Every label is a reflection of who’s running it. It’s not egotistical, but it’s their own little space to say, ‘This is what I do.’”

A veteran of the business, Margolis had an eight-year tenure at New World Records, where he rose from shipping clerk to production manager to director of artists and repertoire before leaving in 2001. Though today he has to juggle myriad tasks, he doesn’t miss the two-hour commute to Manhattan and now has time to devote to his own work as a sound artist.

Despite his rather rural location, Margolis is hardly isolated from the trends and economics of the industry. “It’s gotten tougher and tougher, but we’re hanging in there. This section of the business isn’t ready to give up yet,” he says.

Perhaps it’s his time out of the city, but Margolis has a laid-back approach to sales. “I’ve found I make more money the less I try to sell recordings, going crazy with advertisements and lots of promotions. Those don’t sell records anymore. You can have the best review and it doesn’t move ‘em at all. It’s an organic thing that continues at its own pace. For the records that are going to sell, you don’t have to do a damn thing.”

As for the pace of new titles, it depends upon the success of in-house fundraising and initiatives from artists. “We manage to get some grants occasionally. Some money comes from the artists,” says Margolis matter-of-factly.

Another relatively recent transplant to the Hudson Valley is Foster Reed, founder of New Albion Records. Established in 1984 in San Francisco, New Albion often projected a kind of West Coast mystique with early releases of Lou Harrison, John Adams, and Somei Satoh. But also along the way were discs of East Coast denizens like Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, and even Virgil Thomson. A native of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Reed says that he never intended to stay in the Bay Area for the 30 years that he did and about five years ago he finally picked up and moved his family to rural Duchess County.

Last summer New Albion made something of a splash in its new environs by producing a festival of ten concerts as part of the Summerscape series at Bard College. The line-up was a veritable retrospective of important repertoire on the label and included performances by pianists Sarah Cahill and Margaret Leng-Tan, soprano Joan LaBarbara and the Able-Steinberg-Winant Trio, as well as an installation/performance by Ellen Fullman and her “long stringed instruments” in the lobby of the Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. An early celebration of the label’s 25th anniversary, the events may have also been a kind of farewell because last summer, New Albion released what may be its final disc (piano music of Leo Ornstein played by Cahill).

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No new New Albion titles have been issued since Sarah Cahill’s premiere recordings of later Leo Ornstein works was released last year.

“Right now the label doesn’t seem to have the necessity for being that it used to,” says Reed. “Other labels are covering the same kind of territory I was involved in and doing a very credible job. When I started New Albion there was little peer activity. So I’m just not making new records. That used to be a huge activity and so involving, but we are doing occasional productions and actively licensing.” These ancillary activities include a Terry Riley weekend planned for October at Bard and some Hollywood soundtrack deals that are in the early stages of talks. Reed also says he’s “still learning the ropes of the new world,” referring to the vast online universe.

“If music is to be heard and the point of a record label is to help more people hear it, then things have never been more successful. Because of the streaming libraries, there are phenomenal amounts of people listening today. But the business dynamic is worse than ever,” continues Reed. New Albion was started with some family money and Reed emphasizes that in the best of times it barely supported itself. Still, he’s not about to close up shop. Concludes Reed, “The doors are still open and if things change, I wouldn’t be averse to making new recordings. We sell records to whomever wants to buy them still and the licensing is pretty good. And if one of the big publishers wanted to buy us for a million dollars I’d sell it.”

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Whether or not a label has non-profit documentation is not in itself a barrier to receiving outside support for projects. Artists can channel personal funds to a label and consider it a business expense, or a label can, in effect, co-produce a project with an ensemble, which can raise grant funding and contributions.

A few foundations have come around to understanding the importance of recordings to the field of contemporary music. Starting in the late 1980s, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust ran a program specifically for recordings of New York-based ensembles, with most of the funds going toward contemporary music endeavors. Some years back, the Cary’s recording program and a concurrent commissioning program were rolled into one umbrella program for contemporary music projects. According to tax filings, in 2008 the Cary Trusts gave $1.6 million to 60 music organizations based in New York City. Sadly the Cary Trust, after some 40 years of operation, shut down on June 30, 2009. The fund has liquidated its portfolio of investment holdings and made final awards—larger than normal sums to long-term grantees—which have been posted on Cary’s website. [Ed. note: One of these grants endows a recording component of the American Music Center's Composer Assistance Program (CAP), but it will take a year or two for the endowment to yield sufficient investment proceeds to launch; further details have yet to be announced.]

Over the past five years the Argosy Foundation of Milwaukee has become a major supporter of contemporary music activities nationwide. The fund was established in 1997 by John Abele, an entrepreneur who co-founded Boston Scientific, a manufacturer of medical devices like heart stents and catheters. In 2008 Forbes Magazine named Abele one of the 400 richest Americans. His son, Alexander Abele, is a 40-year-old composer based in Burlington, Vermont. As he is one of only five Argosy trustees (all are members of the Argosy family), it seems reasonable to conclude that Alex Abele was responsible for the launch of the foundation’s grant making for commissions and training, performances, and recordings of new American music.

Argosy’s annual reports do not break down the total giving by area of support (there are seven broad programmatic areas, including education, health, and the environment, in addition to the arts) and while lists of grantees are provided, award amounts are not. But the aggregate is still impressive. In 2006, Argosy made 263 grants totaling about $24.5 million and of these 69 grants were for contemporary music projects. In 2007, the total giving declined slightly to $20.2 million while the total number of grants rose to 346, with 158 grants to orchestras and chamber ensembles, festivals, and record labels.

The contemporary music program operates with semi-annual deadlines and the restriction that recipient organizations are limited to grants every other year. It is the only area where the foundation accepts unsolicited applications; awards can range from $1,000 to $25,000. A foundation officer said that approximately 42 percent of all grants made toward contemporary music to date have included recordings as at least an aspect of the supported project.

The past year’s decline in the stock market seems to have hit the Argosy Foundation particularly hard, and Boston Scientific has also had some struggles with lawsuits and expensive acquisitions of other companies. As a result, the spring 2009 grant cycle for contemporary music programs was canceled and, according to the foundation’s website, the status of the fall program is uncertain but will be announced by late summer. A program officer declined to elaborate further.

Given the permanent departure of the Cary Trust and the at-least temporary absence of the Argosy Foundation, there’s concern in the field regarding the status of the Aaron Copland Fund for Music—the mothership of contemporary music grant makers. Established in 1992 by the estate of the late composer, the Copland Fund supports American music through three separate granting programs: one each for performing organizations, recording projects, and service organizations. Annual giving has been in the range of $2 million. Support for recordings in recent years has been relatively steady, with $500,000 going to 51 projects in 2006; $321,750 to 40 projects in 2007; and $419,800 to 39 projects in 2008. And it is not just nonprofits that can apply to the Copland Fund’s recording program. Just last year Nonesuch Records, part of the Warner Music Group, received two of the largest grants ($20,000 each) for recordings of Steve Reich and John Adams.

According to Foundation president John Harbison, the 2009 recording awards will be be announced soon and the total of grants will continue in the range of recent years. Harbison was reticent, however, to make predictions about the future giving potential of the Fund, saying that the amount dedicated to each program is determined annually by the trustees.

But the vagaries of Wall Street probably aren’t having the same dire effect on the Copland Fund’s ability to make grants in the near future as they have at other foundations. This is because Aaron Copland’s will left the majority of his copyrights to the foundation. According to tax returns for 2006 and 2007, roughly $2 million in royalties was received each year—a sum roughly equal to the amount of grants made. Contrast this to how most foundations operate, which is by divvying up grants from the earnings on investments. Nevertheless, the Copland Fund does also have investments, which were valued at about $20 million at the end of 2007.

Thus, when label managers put on their fundraiser hats, they can take heart that the Copland Fund should be continuing apace with its support for recordings. Harbison, by the way, added, “the reason that the average amounts of grants may have gone down somewhat is because the number of applications have increased. We’re always quite administratively pressed to respond to the volume of requests.” While he was probably speaking of all the Fund’s programs, this still underscores the point that there remains in the field a strong desire to produce recordings.

The kind of endowments held by cultural behemoths like the Metropolitan Opera and some major orchestras are unheard of among record labels as well as within the entire realm of contemporary music, for that matter. But three well-established labels, each in a different region of the country, have reliable internal or closely aligned sources of support that serve as hedges against changes in the economic environment and shifting trends in the marketplace.

In 2002, the American Composers Forum received a $1 million gift from the McKnight Foundation as a permanent endowment for innova Recordings. According to innova’s Philip Blackburn, every recording project still needs outside support, but the associated costs for administration are covered by income from the endowment.

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Margaret Lancaster’s collection of maverick flute music is hot off the presses from New World Records.

Founded in 1976, New World Records had for many years as its chairman of the board Francis Goelet, a real estate heir and treasured friend to American composers. Goelet died in 1998, but the label still places Goelet’s name at the top of its list of trustees and the funding credits for nearly every New World disc include the Francis W. Goelet Lead Charitable Trust. According to New World’s Paul Tai, support from the Goelet Fund is the final cap that makes many new releases possible.

Finally, there’s Cedille Recordings, founded in Chicago 20 years ago by James Ginsberg, who at the time was a 24-year-old law student. Within a few years, the organization became a non-profit under the name Chicago Classical Recording Foundation with the mission of “promoting the finest musicians, ensembles, and composers in the Chicago area” through high-quality recordings. “It seemed like all the labels were based in New York or the West Coast, and so the artists out here were being ignored.” Last year Cedille produced seven new discs and ten are slated for 2009. Ginsberg estimates that about half of the label’s catalog of nearly 120 discs are of contemporary music.

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Cedille Records’ just released collection of David Diamond chamber music.

Cedille’s Chicago focus is broadly interpreted. For example, there are solo and ensemble performances by members of the Chicago Symphony and discs of the Grant Park Orchestra playing music of Aaron Jay Kernis and Robert Kurka. But Chicago conductor Paul Freeman also records for Cedille with European orchestras, and there’s a series of recordings of violinist Jennifer Koh, a Chicago native who lives in New York.

Besides drawing on musicians and composers of Chicago residency or origin, Cedille receives support from many local funders. But approximately one-third of the label’s annual budget of roughly $1 million comes from Ginsberg’s father, Martin D. Ginsberg. The senior Ginsberg is a tax attorney and co-author of an authoritative guide to mergers, acquisitions, and buyouts. A new and updated edition comes out annually and Ginsberg has assigned half his royalty income to Cedille. The mother of the family, by the way, is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s said that Cedille recordings are regularly passed along the halls of the highest court. Now there’s a word of mouth network no other label can provide.

[Continue reading here.]

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Joseph Dalton
Photo by Timothy Cahill

Joseph Dalton has been covering the arts scene in New York’s Capital Region since 2002, primarily writing for the Albany Times Union. Many of these essays have been collected in the book Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region, published in 2008. Dalton is the former executive director of Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI), where he produced about 300 recordings of contemporary music. He was also director of a research project on the effects of AIDS on American music which was published in an online report by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS.