Rounder Records: The Label That Stayed True to Their Roots
By Kyle Mahoney
In Cambridge, Massachusetts of 1970, three college students, Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin and Marian Leighton-Levy founded a small record label with no previous music business, but only their shared loved for roots music. Rounder Records was founded, specializing in Roots music.
The three college students sought authentic music and original artists who invested their respective musical traditions and new ideas and energy. Ken Irwin was quoted, “We got into the music business because of the music and the artist. When we started out, we weren’t even thinking of making a living. All we had outside jobs when we started, and we didn’t take salaries for the first five years. Our goal at the time was to make one classic record, something that would be cited in a list of the 10 best bluegrass or fiddle or banjo records.”
In the beginning of Rounder Records, the three were living under the same roof as their working environment. All three of them took turns as working outside jobs. Leighton-Levy had a job as a fundraiser for a Greek Orthodox seminary, while Nowlin and Irwin taught different semesters at colleges. At this time, the three of them when they were not working at the their day jobs, took different jobs within Rounder to make the label function. Ken Irwin did Artist & Repertoire, Ben Nowlin handled contracts and Business affairs, and Marian Leighton-Levy took care of publicity and promotion. Nowlin said in Scott Alarik’s article of Rounder’s 20th anniversary, “A lot of growth came from just responding to things. The company really kind of took shape by circumstances.”
Over the years Rounder has become the mothership label of roots music, alongside creating custom labels for specializing in reggae, blues, jazz, folk and recent formation of the Zoe label, independent rock singer songwriters. Irwin said, “Rounder’s strength doesn’t rely on big hit titles but in its diverse and eclectic catalog of folk, blues, country, bluegrass, Cajun, Tex-Mex and reggae.” He also said “We’re a catalog-driven label.” As he discusses his thoughts of a single song driven label, “We sign people who we hope to work for a long time.”
Two years into the labels history, their first breakthrough came as Norman Blake’s 1972 record, “Home In Sulpfur Springs” which sold about 300,000 copies. These numbers were impressive at the time for having one or two small distributors. After the first five years the label was in operation, none of the three founders made any type of salary from Rounder’s record sales until big success and fame came with George Thorogood and & Destroyers. Thorogood made two gold selling albums for Rounder, 1977’s “George Thorogood and & Destroyers” which has sold over 600,000 copies and 1978’s “Move It On Over.” George Thorogood is often credited with the rise and success of Rounder Records. Today both Thorogood records have sold over two million copies worldwide.
The success with George Thorogood and & Destroyers didn’t change the company’s creed but changed their mission within the label, in the sense of their mission that changed was getting a better staff, a more professional promotion and publicity representation for the records and artist.
Rounder created subsidiary reggae genre imprint called Heartbeat Records in 1981. Rounder had reggae artists on their roster like, Big Youth, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Sugar Minott. Heartbeat Records was started right after Bob Marley’s untimely death. After Bob Marley’s death most of the major labels dropped a large majority of their reggae artists. It opened a colossal opportunity for small business’ to sweep in what the major labels had thrown away. Rounding up the dropped artist, it became a great treasure for Rounder.
Rounder was one of the very first labels to become involved with compact disks, in 1985. Rounder was the first of the independent record companies to jump onto the CD bandwagon. The three founders spent so much money (into at the time) a new technology that they believed very passionately. They hoped it would take off, and all three of them didn’t take salaries for a year hoping the risk would pay off in the long run. Nowlin was known to feel so strongly about the release of the CD because Nowlin saw the market realities of CDs. Nowlin also believed CDs would be the new toy for the baby boomers to come back to the music industry, which in the end he was right.
Four years later in 1991, Leighton-Levy over saw the growth of Rounder’s subsidiary label, Blueseye Blues and Jazz, by being involved with in A&R. Blueseye Blues and Jazz was created for the real market and energy for the blues genre after George Thorogood’s second record success. Soon after, releasing multiple blues records from the surviving old blues generational artists and as well as younger artist who were reinterpreting and revitalizing the blues genre. Bullseyes Blues and Jazz signed acts like Marcia Ball, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and The Nighthawks.
In 1995, with music conglomerates like Universal, Sony and Warner buying smaller independent distributors, Rounder was left cutting back their releases. The slow declining independent blues and rock record sales forced Rounder to cut back. The business cut sent Rounder selling 500 titles in 1994 to about 75 titles in 1995, and half of what they made in 1994. Soon after, the roots label discontinued their relationship with the outside distributor, which filled orders for them. But since that split Rounder now handles all orders through their Cambridge headquarters. Former Rounder catalog director of marketing Leland Stein used cost cutting experiments, saying, “We’ve had about four years of declining sales. Our intent is to cut back and start all over from where we began.”
At this time Bill Nowlin’s job at Rounder was working alongside Rounder CEO & President John Virant to ensure the longevity of the label. While working with Virant, Nowlin was dealing with various issues, working to ensure royalties get paid on time, overseeing many international releases, a profound involvement with Heartbeat. Ken Irwin job was doing the principal A&R in bluegrass, folk and Cajun areas. Ken Irwin signed acts like Slaid Cleaves, Bill Morrissey, Alison Krauss and Cheryl Wheeler.
In 1997, Rounder released the historic and famous Alan Lomax Collection, which consist a series of 100 disks recorded by American folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. The series features different styles of music from around the world featuring artists like: Mississippi Fred McDowell,Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Son House and Jelly Roll Morton. The collection also featured songs of the southern roots music, prison songs and authentic music from around the world.
In 1998, a major distribution deal between Rounder Records and Mercury Distribution (now owned by Universal) allowed 1000 releases of Rounder’s 2500-title catalog to be distributed by Mercury while the remaining two thirds of their catalog continued to be distributed through independent distributors. The distribution deal would heighten Rounder’s profile in the public world and help develop artists.
In May of 2004, Rounder Records co-founder Nowlin expanded Rounder’s brand, creating a book division, Rounder Book Publishing. Nowlin had written six books and over 100 articles before the creation of the expanded label. The first book that was published by Rounder Books was Nowlin’s biography of famous Boston Red Sox player, Johnny Pesky, Mr. Red Sox-The Johnny Pesky Story, which included a foreword by Ted Williams.
As of April 2010, Concord Music Group, which is today’s largest Independent Record Mogul, bought Rounder Records. The acquisition of Rounder and its collection of over 3,000 masters raised Concord’s status as one the world’s largest independent record company. Concord also announced Rounder’s creative and marketing functions will continue to be in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rounder’s owners and founders Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin and Marian Leighton-Levy decided to remain active with the company in a creative and advisory position. Rounder’s President John Virant would not be replaced but remain, same result goes for Sheri Sands as General Manager.
There are many issues we can solve today within the music industry when looking back at Rounder Records. Rounder started from the ground with the love and passion for music itself. Rounder wanted authentic, real music that’s not pampered, put in a box, or even been processed in a cookie cutter shape. Viewing music without that love or passion has shown to be the wrong path. Rounder also has taught us through Scott Alarik’s article to adapt to certain situations. Not every situation is the same and you must do whatever if it takes to survive. Rounder stayed in business through cost cutting experiments that may or may not of worked. When Rounder was in financial trouble, the company basically started all over again, starting from scratch. They weren’t afraid to do it but willing to change with the times. The Non-single business plans or catalog driven artists are known to survive unlike a single driven business plan. It has proven longevity in the music industry, which is one of the reasons why Alison Krauss choose to stay with Rounder and not move to a major record label. The major labels today are having trouble grasping this concept. Unlike the majors, Rounder wanted to stay away from the controlling the music and allowing Rounder’s artists to express their artistic side. Another comparison from the majors would be embracing new technology when CDs where released, much is like the same today with MP3s. Major labels are resenting a similar new wave of technology like MP3s and the internet, whereas independent record companies are on the front lines learning it, promoting it and selling it.
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Henderson, Richard. “Well-Rounded Labels: The Family Tree of Genres Grows Far Beyond Its Roots.” Billboard 2001: 22-24. Print.
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