We Often Dream of Blogs

October 5th, 2004 · 1 Comment
by Booksquare

Imagine our surprise when we woke up this morning to discover that not only had we not posted about this New York Times Magazine article — we hadn’t even finished reading it before we fell asleep. Somehow, Emmylou Harris’s words about a record label being “piracy-proof” resonated in our dreams.

The story of Nonesuch, a little label (backed by a corporate giant, which we’ll get to in a moment) that could, shows that art is valued in a world run by marketing and the inevitable projections: if it sells this many units, we’ll make x profit. If it sells this many… truly, you should see the spreadsheets underlying purchasing decisions. And they call it art.

The remarkable thing about his [Robert Hurtwitz] approach to his business is that it’s pretty much the polar opposite of what the music industry at large does. Where the big labels are often out to copy past success, he looks for originality. ”I know within three minutes if I’m listening to something that is truly original and personally striking,” he says. ”Sometimes I’ve heard it in as little as 30 seconds.” When he hears something he likes, he signs it. There is no consultation with a marketing department or wrestling with higher-ups in the corporation.

In many ways, there are more parallels between the music industry and publishing industry than other entertainment industries (which is why we write about music so often). Royalty accounting, the distribution system, the global corporatization… Both industries are facing the same challenges: finding audiences and adjusting to technological changes. Both industries are a bit behind in doing so. Nonesuch became part of urban legend when it released Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (the story behind it remains one of the funniest we’ve heard in years; the album remains one of our favorites), but the final thoughts in the article make us wonder if the label’s heyday is waning:

When I first met Hurwitz in May it had only been two months since the latest corporate shuffle (Time Warner sold Warner Music Group to a group of private investors led by Edgar Bronfman Jr., the former chief of Seagram, which owned Universal Music Group), and he was anxious about how a new management team would view his fief. He flew to Miami, where the heads of all the WMG labels gathered with the new owners. He was quickly reassured, he said. After his presentation of the new Nonesuch releases, several people in the room not only praised his work but also quietly asked him for CD’s for their own collections.

We sit here, fingers crossed, because we like standing up for the art.

File Under: Square Pegs

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