Nonesuch At 50: A Record Label Without Borders

Sep 10, 2014
Originally published on September 11, 2014 11:08 am

Sometimes good things come in small packages. Nonesuch Records, which started as a tiny independent budget classical label in 1964, is celebrating its 50th anniversary with three weeks of concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The label became a force in the recording industry by pioneering electronic music and world music, launching the ragtime revival and becoming a place where contemporary classical composers had a home. Now an industry powerhouse, Nonesuch still operates like an independent record company.

Tucked in a corner of the Manhattan office tower that houses the giant conglomerate Warner Music Group, the 13 staffers who run Nonesuch quietly release about 25 albums a year. Robert Hurwitz has been leading the company for 30 of its 50 years. He says when he got the job, he knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

"I recognized that if I was going to fail," Hurwitz says, "I wanted to fail on my own terms, which was I wanted to fail not because I took a safe way and did what people thought I should do, but that I was going to fail because we actually had the courage of our convictions and people just didn't buy the record."

When he released Henryk Górecki's Third Symphony in 1992, Hurwitz figured it would sell about 25,000 copies. Instead, it sold more than 1 million. "All that did was reaffirm to me that there was a public out there that was just like me," Hurwitz says.

In many ways, Hurwitz was following the philosophy of label founder Jac Holzman. When Holzman launched Nonesuch 50 years ago, he had already created Elektra Records in his college dorm room. Elektra was home to such popular folk artists as Judy Collins and Phil Ochs. Holzman wanted to make classical music available to record buyers at budget prices, so he licensed European recordings and sold them for the price of a paperback, about $2.50.

But Holzman knew the licenses would run out, so he took a chance on contemporary electronic music. He and his partner Teresa Sterne commissioned Morton Subotnick to create the first completely electronic composition for records. Silver Apples of the Moon became a big hit.

"Then we did the Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music, sitting on the Billboard charts, midway on the Billboard charts, for 26 weeks," Holzman says. "And then Josh Rifkin walked in one day and he said, 'You know, we really ought to do an album of [Scott] Joplin rags.' Well, that started the whole Joplin craze."

Then Holzman and Sterne heard from David Lewiston, who'd been traveling round the world recording indigenous music.

"So, I came back to New York, with no idea of getting involved with a record company," Lewiston told NPR in 2000. "I just knew I had these great recordings. But then I was rifling through the stacks in Sam Goody's on Third Avenue and discovered there was this company called Nonesuch, which actually put out records of this sort of stuff."

The Nonesuch Explorer series introduced world music to American audiences long before it was called world music. Holzman says Nonesuch — with its distinctive logo and album covers, and its own bins in record stores — reversed industry trends in the 1960s.

"Large record labels like RCA and Columbia financed their serious music-making out of their pop successes," Holzman says. "Nonesuch was so successful at the end of its first year that suddenly I had an extra half-million dollars in cash with which to finance the Butterfield Blues Band, The Doors, Queen, etc. And so Nonesuch provided the financial kindling for the explosion that Elektra became."

In the years that followed, Hurwitz's Nonesuch has enjoyed huge success with the Gipsy Kings and the Buena Vista Social Club. He also signed the Kronos Quartet and composers Steve Reich and John Adams, and broadened the label's scope to include Emmylou Harris and songwriter Randy Newman.

"Bob is a music man," Newman says. "He leaves it alone, creatively. I mean, he has things that he likes and things that he doesn't like and he makes his opinions known. But it isn't for commercial reasons, in any sense, that he likes things."

It was artists like Newman and Wilco who attracted a young Chris Thile to Nonesuch. "I've wanted to be on Nonesuch since I was a little kid," Thile says.

Thile has since become one of today's most respected mandolin players. He says he's always surprised to find out who's on the label: "I kept hearing just all sorts of different musical aesthetics represented." Like pianist and fellow MacArthur genius grant winner Jeremy Denk.

"I love the way in which there isn't this wall at Nonesuch between the classical and the other worlds, that if it's interesting, then it's part of the collection," Denk says.

Nonesuch continues to defy expectations. One upcoming release will feature Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood playing music by Reich.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Over the course of 50 years Nonesuch Records has become a force in the music industry. What started as a tiny, independent, budget, classical label in 1964 went on to pioneer electronic and world music. It launched the Ragtime revival and became a place where contemporary, classical composers found a home. This week the label is beginning an anniversary celebration at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Jeff Lunden has the Nonesuch story.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Tucked in a corner of the Manhattan Office Tower that houses the giant conglomerate Warner Music Group, the 13 staffers who run Nonesuch Records quietly release about 25 albums a year. Robert Hurwitz has been leading the company for 30 of its 50 years. He says when he got the job he knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

ROBERT HURWITZ: And I recognized that if I was going to fail, I wanted to fail on my own terms - which was I wanted to fail not because I took a safe way and did what people thought I should do, but that I was going to fail because we actually had the courage of our convictions and people just didn't by the record.

LUNDEN: When Hurwitz released Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony in 1992, he figured it would sell about 25,000 copies.

(SOUNDBITE OF HENRYK GORECKI'S "THIRD SYMPHONY")

LUNDEN: It sold over a million.

HURWITZ: All that did is reaffirm to me that there was a public out there that was just like me.

LUNDEN: In many ways Hurwitz was following the philosophy of label founder Jac Holzman. When he launched Nonesuch 50 years ago, Holzman had already created Elektra Records in his college dorm room. Elektra was home to such popular folk artists as Judy Collins and Phil Ochs. Holzman wanted to make classical music available to record buyers at budget prices, so he licensed European recordings and sold them for the price of a paperback - about $2.50.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

LUNDEN: But he knew the licenses would run out, so he took a chance on contemporary electronic music.

JAC HOLZMAN: I believed deeply in electronic music, so I decided to commission works from people like Morton Subotnick.

LUNDEN: Holzman and his partner Teresa Sterne commissioned Subotnick to create the first completely electronic composition for records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILVER APPLES OF THE MOON")

LUNDEN: "Silver Apples Of The Moon" became a big hit, says Jac Holzman.

HOLZMAN: And we did the "Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music," sitting on the Billboard charts - mid-way on the Billboard charts at 26 weeks. And then Josh Rifkin walked in one day and said, you know, we ought to really do an album of Joplin rags. Well, that started the whole Joplin craze.

LUNDEN: As in Scott Joplin.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOPLIN SONG)

LUNDEN: Then Holzman and Sterne heard from David Lewiston, who'd been traveling around the world recording indigenous music.

(SOUNDBITE OF INDIGENOUS MUSIC)

LUNDEN: As he told NPR in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVID LEWISTON: So I came back to New York with no idea of getting involved with a record company. I just knew I had these great recordings. But then I was rifling through the stacks in Sam Goody's on Third Avenue and discovered there was this company called Nonesuch that actually put records of this sort of stuff. So I sent a brief query to Nonesuch asking, you know, are you interested in listening? I got a prompt response saying yes, please bring them in.

LUNDEN: The Nonesuch Explorer series introduced world music to American audiences long before it was called world music.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

LUNDEN: Jack Holzman says Nonesuch - with its distinctive logo, album covers and its own bins in record stores - reversed industry trends in the 1960s.

HOLZMAN: Most large record labels like RCA and Columbia financed their serious music-making out of their pop successes. Nonesuch was so successful at the end of its first year that suddenly I had an extra half-million dollars in cash with which to finance the Butterfield Blues Band, The Stooges, The Doors, Queen etc. So Nonesuch provided the financial kindling for the explosion that Elektra became.

LUNDEN: In the years that followed, Robert Hurwitz's Nonesuch has enjoyed huge success with the Gypsy Kings and the Buena Vista Social Club.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: (Singing in foreign language).

LUNDEN: Hurwitz also signed the Kronos Quartet and composer Steve Reich and John Adams and broadened the label scope to include Emmylou Harris and songwriter Randy Newman.

RANDY NEWMAN: Bob is a music man. He leaves it alone creatively. I mean, he has things that he likes and things that he doesn't like, and he makes his opinions known. But it isn't for commercial reasons in any sense that he likes things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELS LIKE HOME TO ME")

NEWMAN: (Singing) Feels like home to me. Feels like home to me. It feels like I'm all the way back where I come from.

LUNDEN: It was artists like Randy Newman and Wilco who attracted a young Chris Thile to Nonesuch.

CHRIS THILE: I've wanted to be on Nonesuch since I was a little kid.

LUNDEN: Thile has since become one of the most respected mandolin players today.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

LUNDEN: He says he's always surprised to find out who's on the label.

THILE: I kept hearing just all sorts of different musical aesthetics represented, you know, so finely by what I would eventually find out were Nonesuch artists.

LUNDEN: Like fellow MacArthur genius grant winner Jeremy Denk.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

JEREMY DENK: I love the way in which there isn't this wall at Nonesuch between the classical and the other worlds - that if it's interesting then it's part of the collection.

LUNDEN: Nonesuch continues to defy expectations. One upcoming release will feature Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood playing the music of classical composer Steve Reich. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.