Little label, big success

Nonesuch's artists have picked up 14 Grammy nominations. Not bad for a tiny record company, says Claire Allfree
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The Independent Culture

When this year's Grammy nominations were announced, the tiny label Nonesuch picked up 14, including Best Pop Vocal Album for Brian Wilson's Smile, Best Classical Album for John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls, and Best Contemporary World Music Album for Youssou N'Dour's Egypt. Admittedly, there are more than 100 Grammy categories, and invariably it's the big artists that dominate. But behind the lights, the success of Nonesuch tells a much more interesting story, since the label operates with a staff of 12 and a small budget.

When this year's Grammy nominations were announced, the tiny label Nonesuch picked up 14, including Best Pop Vocal Album for Brian Wilson's Smile, Best Classical Album for John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls, and Best Contemporary World Music Album for Youssou N'Dour's Egypt. Admittedly, there are more than 100 Grammy categories, and invariably it's the big artists that dominate. But behind the lights, the success of Nonesuch tells a much more interesting story, since the label operates with a staff of 12 and a small budget.

Grammy success for Nonesuch is not unusual: it has regularly picked up nominations and awards for its artists such as the composer Steve Reich and the Kronos Quartet. Its ability to do so in areas of music beyond the mainstream is validation of a creative vision that is both rare and startlingly successful.

Nonesuch is part of the Warner Music Group, but exists virtually independently within the company, and has been run by the same man, Bob Hurwitz, since 1985. Its roster redefines the word eclectic: it encompasses avant-garde classical, musical theatre, pop, world, folk and alternative rock. Its target audience is not iPodding teens or middle-aged adults chasing youthful credibility, but serious music lovers united only by the strength of their curiosity

To understand how Nonesuch operates, it's worth backtracking to 1964 when Jac Holzman first established it as a classical music label. During the 1970s, under new management, the label expanded into world music and launched the Explorer series - one of the first serious attempts to bring indigenous music from around the world to the US. But it wasn't until Hurwitz joined in the mid-1980s that the label really started to punch above its weight.

Hurwitz is a classically trained pianist but his love for classical music extends way beyond the conventional repertoire. In the late 1980s he, along with his vice president David Bither, signed John Adams, Steve Reich, John Zorn, Philip Glass, the musical theatre composer Adam Guettel and the soprano Dawn Upshaw. All are experimental, uncompromising and uncommercial, and all except Zorn are still with the label. He also continued to take Nonesuch beyond the genre: other prominent signings include the Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso and in 2000 the Senegalese artist Youssou N'Dour. Both are now global stars.

He has also cornered a niche in the adult pop market, signing Emmylou Harris four years ago and, recently, Wilco. The latter is a classic example of Nonesuch's ability not just to be loyal to an experimental artist, but also to turn them into something the public wants to buy. An early version of Wilco's 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was rejected by Wilco's original label Reprise for being too difficult. Hurwitz picked it up and the record sold 600,000 - Wilco's biggest commercial success. Their second for the label, A Ghost Is Born (also Grammy nominated), achieved an even greater success: Nonesuch's first foray into the top 10 of the Billboard album chart.

Hurwitz's trick is simple: he signs stuff that intrigues him. "We are interested in music that we like and that is original," he says. "Sometimes there is music that we like, but is not that original; sometimes there is music that is clearly original but we don't like very much. But when both things are working, the decision is rarely difficult."

Many of the its signings have a lifelong relationship with the label, which means some of the bands have been allowed to evolve over a 20-year partnership. "Hurwitz has very strong views on what an artist should be doing, and how that translates into a record that the public wants to buy," says David Jones of Serious Promotions, which has worked with Nonesuch artists for more than 20 years. "The jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, for example, who has recently signed with Nonesuch, has been encouraged to produce an extended piece of work, whereas in the past, his record companies have tried to steer him towards the radio. It's a gutsy approach."

The set-up appears to be working just fine: no one is prepared to discuss Nonesuch accounts, but a recent New York Times article speculated that sales for 2003 were worth $35m.

Nonesuch often breaks acts that go on to be huge. Sometimes this is pure luck: a company daring to trust its audience and being rewarded. In 1992, Nonesuch released the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony, which went into the British pop album charts at number three, a rare achievement for a classical record. Janis Susskind of Boosey and Hawkes points out that because Classic FM had started broadcasting at around the same time and went on to play Gorecki's record heavily, this inevitably helped the record to sell more than a million. "But Nonesuch gave confidence that a million-seller within the classical market is possible," she says. "Nonesuch is one guy exercising his personal taste with enormous confidence."

Other times, it's a case of canny marketing. Another big seller for Nonesuch was Buena Vista Social Club, which it released in 1997. Instead of an expensive marketing campaign, Nonesuch organised a one-night concert at Carnegie Hall, footage of which was then incorporated into Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club documentary. The rest of that particular story is history.

The challenge facing the label, however, is to continue doing as it does in the face of mounting critical and commercial success. But David Jones points out that Gorecki, Buena Vista and Gipsy Kings have presented the label with this sort of problem before.

"The thing about Nonesuch is that they use their position within a big company very creatively," he says. "Normally, when an independent record label has a big success, it kills them." More importantly, perhaps, both it and its music are flourishing where other much bigger, much more powerful record companies are not.

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