In an earlier conversation, award winning banjo player and composer Alison Brown spoke about her career as a musician. There's another side to her musical coin, though: more than dozen years ago, Brown and her husband, Garry West, founded the independent record label Compass Records. "I've learned so much I'm not sure I even know what I've learned!" Brown says. She and West were not exactly novices at business, or at music, when they began the project: Brown had an MBA from UCLA, several solo records to her credit, and tours with Alison Krauss and Michelle Shocked on her resume, while West was a respected producer and bandleader who'd toured the world as sideman to Patty Loveless and Shocked among others. "But we didn't know anything about running a record label," Brown said. They began the company -- on a kitchen table -- with the idea of promoting some of the music they'd heard that was falling though the cracks of genre-driven radio playlists and mainstream label A&R budgets. They still follow that path. "All the music we put out is real accessible. You don't have to be a music fanatic to like it. But it is hybrid music, music that crosses boundaries," Brown explains, reflecting on a catalog that has included Scottish singer Eddi Reader, Irish guitarist and composer John Doyle and his dad, traditional singer Sean Doyle, pop and country hit songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, innovative sax player Jeff Coffin, literate southern tune smiths Pierce Pettis and Kate Campbell, bluegrass singer Dale Ann Bradley, hot Irish band Grada, and dozens of others from Americana, Celtic, bluegrass, jazz, and world music fields.
Since Brown and West started their venture they've seen the number of outlets to market music, in terms of retailers, distributors, and media, shrink by a third or more, due in part to consolidation. They've also seen the number of releases skyrocket. "A dozen years years ago, there were 10,000 releases a year and everybody was saying, "Oh my gosh, where are we going to put all this music?" Brown said. "Ten years later there were around 44,000 CDs released a year." Not to mention, of course, the recent effects of the whole idea of digital distribution and the challenges which have come along with that.
While other small labels have gone under or joined forces with larger groups, Compass has remained solvent and independent. Both musical and practical skills play a part in that. "Running a label in 1995 meant something completely different than it does today," Brown said. "As an example, when we first started I remember shipping out promos about the same time we shipped out commercial product, 'cause you wouldn't be looking to sell much in the first sixty or ninety days. Now you need to fund and manufacture a record months before it comes out," and, Brown said, it's often many months more before any income starts coming in from sales. "If you're not very good at balancing cash flow and running a label as a business, you're going to have a problem."
Though Compass left the kitchen table behind some time ago and is now located in an older building at the edge of Nashville's Music Row, it remains a lean operation, with handful of employees including Brown and West, and several interns from nearby colleges. Brown remains committed to the music, as a touring artist, composer, and as a label owner. "When I'm on the road, I get absorbed in the music," she says. "I have people to help me here, and I just go away for three weeks and concentrate on playing the music."
Her artist's perspective on the realities of keeping a small label afloat in the rough waters of today's music business economy have led her to a conclusion that may not be so different from that reached by those who musical conglomerates -- but to a very different way of going about reaching it. "Because there's so much music out there, and so much competition for the consumers' time and attention, what we try to do is to create musical moments that the listener just has to have, and to do that with artistic integrity," she said.
Such moments might include Andrea Zonn's singing of "One Morning in May" backed by Brown and John Doyle's twin guitars and quiet harmonies on Brown's latest recording, Stolen Moments, or perhaps the musical conversation among Zonn's fiddle, Brown's banjo, Doyle's guitar, mandolin from Sam Bush, piano from John R. Burr, bass from West, and drums from Kenny Malone on the tradition-bending instrumental "(I'm Naked and I'm) Going to Glasgow," also on that recording. Or they might include even more far-reaching collaborations.
"Compass donated the use of our studio [the chance to create a studio was a much anticipated project that developed with move to the current location] for the recording of a benefit project for tsunami relief, Hands Across the Water" Brown said. "The idea was to get Irish and U.K. musicians to collaborate with Americana musicians," Brown said. "What we wanted to do was really use technology as much as we could. Altan, for example, went into the studio in Ireland and recorded this track and they uploaded it and we pulled it down in our studio here and then Vince Gill came in and sang on it. "Every cut on the project didn't come together that easily or that quickly," Brown pointed out, "but it could have. It could have. The technology is there so it could happen.Tim O'Brien sang with Lunasa, Andrea [Zonn, who produced the album] sang a song with Flook -- it's a very musical album. It does create musical moments that just don't exist anywhere else. I think there's a lot of value to that, you know."
As an artist and as a record label chief, Alison Brown knows a good bit about creating those moments, making a space for other artists to create them, and connecting listeners with the results. "Hopefully a dozen years from now we'll still be doing this," Brown said, laughing, "and I'll be in a cleaner office! I feel so fortunate that I get to be able to do this, and to be an artist, and that I've been able to sort of build this career with both business and music."
one of the latest releases from Compass is Scottish group Capercaillie's Roses & Tears
More about the Compass Records Group hereearlier conversation with Alison Brown
Kerry Dexter, Music Correspondent Kerry's credits include VH1, CMT, the folk music magazine Dirty Linen, Strings, The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, and The MusicHound Guides. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at Music Road and contributes to Fred Bals' Series of Tubes.