Label Profile: Union Square Music

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The Independent Culture

In the eight years since Union Square Music was founded it has released more than 700 reissue and compilation albums. And although some people turn their noses up at unoriginal recordings, USM has achieved success in both sales and credibility.

In the eight years since Union Square Music was founded it has released more than 700 reissue and compilation albums. And although some people turn their noses up at unoriginal recordings, USM has achieved success in both sales and credibility.

“There are a lot of people who like to have their music pre-selected for them, who like to be introduced to tracks that they might not have heard, or to a musical genre via a compilation,” says Peter Stack, founder and managing director of the label.

“Would you want to listen to 20 Ennio Morricone film scores in their entirety? Probably not. But a compilation with 20 of his best film themes is essential listening inmy view.”

Stack had worked in the catalogue music sector for several years, harbouring a desire to found his own label. In 1999 he prepared a business plan, secured financing and founded Union Square Music. Uninterested by the frontline market and with expertise in back catalogues, there was no question of the label breaking new acts.

“We put out our first release in March 2000,” says Stack. “It was compilation by Lee Perry, the genius reggae/dub producer responsible for the early Bob Marley productions. It was called Lee Perry: The Upsetter – Essential Madness From The Scratch Files and is still in the catalogue seven years later.”

The first releases sold well, but it was licensing rights to entire labels that gave USM a wealth of material for their excellent compilations.

“Early on we licensed the rights to the legendary Seventies and early Eighties UK independent label Stiff Records. This gave us access to recordings by Wreckless Eric, The Pogues, Kirsty MacColl and Madness.”

Egrem, the state-owned Cuban record company based in Havana, was another large licensing boost for USM, and increased their world music catalogue, now best known as the territory of their Essential Guides. The label had rights to the original recordings from the artists later made legendary by The Buena Vista Social Club, including Ibrahim Ferrar, Compay Segundo, Omara Portuondo and Ruben Gonzalez. “

The reissues and compilation market is a less risky area than breaking new acts, which is a bit like gambling: you need to have deep pockets in order to finance the losers while you are waiting for the next win. But securing good catalogue for reissue still requires substantial financial commitment.”

USM made that commitment and it paid off: four years after their launch it was featured in The Sunday Times Virgin Atlantic league table of Britain’s 100 fastest growing private companies. The key to their success, says Stack, is taking relatively niche areas and crossing them over to a wider audience.

“Many people hear various world or roots music and like it – say “Mas Que Nada” from the Nike advertisement, or Cajun music from the film Deliverance – but they don’t easily know how to access it. We release entry points which are both highly credible and easily accessible, that way they appeal to the casual fan as well as someone with a bit more knowledge of the music.”

USM’s Essential Guide series is perhaps the most visible set of compilations. In June 2005, The Essential Guide to Brazil launched the range, whose best seller is the Essential Guide to Salsa.

“People love Latin music, and many people go to salsa dance classes, so this is a perfect example of where a compilation works better than a whole album by a single artist,” says Stack.

2005 was a good year aside from compilations, too. With the release of Walk the Line starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, the music of Johnny Cash hit a new audience. USM had been selling the Legendary Sun Recordings for some time but geared up their marketing to coincide with the biopic. The great success of the film reverberated down to the album sales, which shot up.

Stack likes to think USM uses reissues to recategorise artists where they, and he, perceives their correct place in musical history to be. Last year the label acquired the rights to Slade, generally seen as a singles band.

“We repositioned Slade as the link between The Beatles and Oasis,” says Stack. “And reminded people how great their albums were and how good they were as a live band.”

And USM’s reissues do more tangible things for money-conscious music fans.

“Much of what we reissue has not been available for many years, so we remaster the recordings to enhance the sound, include bonus tracks and add liner notes, with input from the artists. It makes the music available again to the original fans and new ones who might be discovering a certain artist. It’s amazing how relevant and influential many artists are.”

Sixties pop psychedelics, The Move’s first two albums (The Move and Shazam) are just two of USM’s popular current releases. The Big Stiff Box Set, The Very Best of Ethiopiques, focusing on Ethiopia’s Seventies scene, and The Best of Procol Harum are all selling well.

This year USM intends to carry on releasing at the same prolific rate (around 100 albums a year) and looking forward to future rights they might want to track down. The music scene, according to Stack, is as good as it ever was.

“Damon Albarn continues to move forward in lots of interesting directions and Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse have both borrowed from the past but made it something of today,” he says.

“Much of the music I would love to reissue is already tied up by major record companies, but if I could choose a future project it would be working with Deborah Harry on reissuing Blondie recordings. It would have obvious attractions: she made a great impression on guys of a certain vintage.”