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Jun 19, 2009

Despite a lack of blockbuster sales, Nonesuch Records has been able to keep producing music that matters from all over the world for over 25 years.

By John McAlley

No way to spin it…in a business that, for more than a century, has been built on hits, the numbers at Nonesuch Records have been—what’s the polite word here?—eh. They go something like this: of the thousand or so albums released by the label in its 45-year history, only two have sold a million copies or more. Two.
Mezzo-soprano Alla Pugacheva, the Céline Dion of the Soviet Bloc, has, alone, outsold the entire catalog of Nonesuch by a count of roughly ten-to-one—and we’ve hardly even heard of her.
So how is it that Nonesuch Records ranks among the greatest and most enduring success stories in music industry history? It’s all in the definition of what makes a label.
“We don’t live in that world,” Nonesuch senior vice president David Bither says about the universe of hits-obsessed “majors” like Interscope, Def Jam—even Nonesuch’s sister label, Warner Bros. Records. “And I don’t think we’d be very good at it if we tried. But by maintaining a smaller company with a real focus, everybody here, to a man and woman, feels they’re on a mission to support the kind of music we love.”
What that means is, instead of monitoring the sputtering output and mental health issues of Britney Spears, the folks at Nonesuch are creating a safe haven for such vital American avant-gardists as Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. The energy and money that, at other labels, go into shrink-wrapping Lady Gaga in spandex or keeping the Jonas Brothers stocked with hair gel are channeled, at Nonesuch, into expanding the vibrant careers of world-music and jazz icons like Youssou N’Dour, Oumou Sangare, Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau.
And in the past decade, as those same major labels have, in acts of cost-cutting desperation, shed their rosters of rare pop and rock talents like Randy Newman and Wilco, Nonesuch has, in Bither’s words, “opened up another wing of the house” to accommodate them.
“As someone who pays attention to and respects the past, there was some level of intimidation coming in to Nonesuch,” admits Bob Hurwitz, who, as the label’s president for the last quarter century, has sustained and is substantially responsible for deepening its extraordinary legacy.

Founding to Firestorm

Launched, in a flash of genius by Elektra Records founder and folk music impresario Jac Holzman in 1964, Nonesuch began its life as a budget classical label targeted at financially hard-pressed, but finely cultured college kids. How great would it be, Holzman thought, to price a full album of music at the cost of an average paperback—$2.50 at the time? (The label’s unusual name sprang from a desire for secrecy during its start-up phase. When Holzman was confronted with rumors about his new venture, he’d simply reply, “No such project.”)
Nonesuch’s immediate success prompted the need for staffing, and a year after its debut Holzman brought into the fold a piano prodigy named Teresa “Tracey” Sterne.
Under Sterne’s remarkable stewardship, Nonesuch blossomed from a curiosity label infatuated with imported baroque classics into a cultural force that brought to the attention of American audiences the essential works of neglected homegrown composers like Elliott Carter and George Crumb, and underexposed compositions by established masters Schoenberg and Stravinsky.
Sterne’s passions and patronage didn’t merely extend to the classics; it crossed every conceivable global boundary. The profoundly influential Explorer Series, which Sterne helped shepherd, featured field recordings of indigenous music from such distant places as Bali and Peru, and included Music of the Morning of the World, U.K musicologist David Lewiston’s landmark 1966 recording of the Indonesian form known as gamelan.
When, after 14 years of inspired leadership, Sterne was sacked in a 1979 corporate shakeup (Holzman had, in 1970, sold Elektra and Nonesuch to a company that would eventually become Time-Warner), the cries could be heard in West Java. And in Hurwitz’s office at nearby ECM Records, where he was a budding executive.
“When Tracey got fired, there was a tremendous, almost unprecedented upheaval,” Hurwitz recalls. “Two thousand people sending letters to Steve Ross, the then-chairman of Warner Bros., and all of the [Nonesuch] artists resigning en masse in the New York Times. When you’re younger, you take those things very seriously, so I was very aware that there was going to be some public reaction [to my hiring].”

Nonesuch Too

In fact, it was five years before Hurwitz took the reins at Nonesuch—but only a matter of months before he started making noise. Among his first signings to the label were the progressive and some would consider radical “new music” composers Steve Reich, John Adams and Philip Glass. It was a decision that, Hurwitz says, “ran completely against the grain aesthetically from what Nonesuch had done in the past.”
It may have seemed bold to Bartók and Dvorák devotees, but to Hurwitz it was just an extension of a philosophy and entrepreneurial verve he’d revered, as a lifelong music lover and young employee at historic labels like Columbia Records.
“I admired Nonesuch at a distance,” he says, “but my heart was really at Columbia…As a teenager, there was something about Columbia that spoke to me quite deeply. Here was a company that had, who I considered to be, the most important musicians: Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Glenn Gould, Igor Stravinsky. We’re talking about a folk singer, a jazz musician, a composer, a classical interpreter. What Columbia represented, at their very finest, was a democracy.”
In 1986, Hurwitz’s signing of the Brazilian-pop superstar Caetano Veloso seemed beyond comprehension to Nonesuch watchers, but was, in the label chief’s mind, of a piece with that tradition of greatness and diversity.
“I thought the value of someone like Caetano was no different than the value of someone like John Adams. They just happen to be two great artists living in two different worlds. And that realization gave me a kind of courage.”

The Saving Idea

For 25 years at Nonesuch, Hurwitz has thrived by pursuing the ideal of excellence and making music that will last, while his industry infatuates itself with the fleeting and flyweight. When alt-rock heroes Wilco were dropped by their label in 2002, the band’s decision to sign with Nonesuch was, in part, inspired by the simplest and yet profoundest of gestures. “They sent us the best box of records,” said frontman Jeff Tweedy.
Thanks to its core values, even the gods of technology have gone easy on Nonesuch. The kind of music the label provides to the culture—intelligent, complex, artful, deeply resonant, alive—appeals largely to an audience that still likes to buy its music. Imagine that.
“There remains a core group of people who are passionate about music,” as Hurwitz’s right hand, David Bither, puts it. “It is not simply an accompaniment to their lives. It helps define their lives. Where the mainstream music business is going, I don’t know. But I think there will always be a place for labels who share that passion and vision, and that is the part of the musical world where Nonesuch has always felt comfortable and lives.”

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Thom Goertel
Jul 3, 2009

nice job — i’m loving the transitions and the audio is great! the flash geek in me is salivating.

Khalil Jetha
Jul 2, 2009

very very dope.. It is really not all about a name 🙂

Tisha Carter
Jun 25, 2009

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matin monfared
Jun 24, 2009