Common record companies chase public taste.
Uncommon ones create it.
Nonesuch Records falls into the latter category, having anticipated an improbably consistent run of musical movements. They’ve ranged from electronic music to minimalism to world music to freak folk.
“There are people who try to guess what the audience likes,” says Bob Hurwitz, Nonesuch’s president for the last 30 years. “But companies like Columbia, Warner Brothers, Blue Note and Nonesuch were built by people like myself, who aren’t professional musicians but who have good taste. They tend to sign artists who appeal to them, only to find there are a lot of other people who feel the same way.”
Enough of those people exist to have sustained Nonesuch for a half century now. To mark this milestone, a venue long associated with Nonesuch, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, will host a series of 50th anniversary concerts. The shows start this Tuesday with a show featuring label stars and new-music catalysts Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Twenty-one other concerts will follow, scattered through September, showcasing the breadth of the label.
The productions range from long-runners like the Kronos Quartet, Youssou N’Dour and Laurie Anderson to relative newbies Devendra Banhart, Rhiannon Giddens and Iron and Wine.
They’ll even be two brand-new bands, albeit ones led by seasoned stars. There’s the new act from Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy (named Tweedy, on Sept. 23) and the latest from Led Zep’s Robert Plant (the Sensational Space Shifters, who will close the fest on Sept. 27 and 28).
With such a range of genres represented, it’s fair to ask: what principles guide the label?
“You look for artists who have the creative DNA that will last a lifetime,” Hurwitz says. “They have that ‘no one else like them’ quality.”
That’s obvious from recent signings like Giddens, who, with Carolina Chocolate Drops, is re-creating historic African-American string music. Ditto for Chris Thile, who has blown out the boundaries of bluegrass.
The label’s deepest roots lie in the classical realm. Music executive Jac Holzman, who earlier created Elektra Records, started the label in 1964 as the first to sell budget classical records. He thought that just as college students were buying cheap paperback books, they might buy inexpensive string music. “He went to Europe and bought 35 classical masters for $ 1,000 dollars apiece,” Hurwitz says. “Jac picked some very good records, which were not that well disseminated at the time.”
In the mid- to late 1960s, when the company was led by Teresa Sterne, it began releasing some of the first Moog records, like Beaver & Krause’s “The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music.” That one spent 26 weeks on the Billboard charts. Nonesuch also began the Explorer Series, one of the first imprints to expose American listeners to music from around the world. The imprint issued classic albums by Brazil’s Caetano Veloso and, in the ’80s, the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. The latter became a shock hit, selling over a quarter-million copies. Hurwitz discovered the music on a trip to Europe, where he heard the group on a small label. He tracked down the owner of the recording and made a deal.
The label also made huge scores with world acts like the Gipsy Kings (from Spain) and Buena Vista Social Club (via Cuba).
Hurwitz became a prime promoter of the emerging minimalist movement of Glass and Reich. “It was music that started in the classical tradition,” he says, “but they had different role models for how they built their music.”
Later, the label expanded into singer-songwriters (from Emmylou Harris to Randy Newman), theater music (putting out key Stephen Sondheim shows) and rock (the Black Keys and Wilco). When Wilco’s record company, Warner Brothers, rejected its album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” Nonesuch scooped it up and made it a hit.
Hurwitz says the label has benefited from not dumbing things down.
“The audience found its way to our music,” he says. “It’s word of mouth, very good press and some really strong records. It doesn’t always work. But if you’re lucky, lightning strikes.”
Nonesuch Records At BAM
(For detailed info, go to BAM.org)