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New Sounds for New Age Music

Windham Hill Records Branches Out as Its Founder, Will Ackerman, Chooses a Different Path
Bruce Schoenfeld
Posted: October 1, 1999

Published September/October 1999

New Sounds for New Age Music Windham Hill Records Branches Out as Its Founder, Will Ackerman, Chooses a Different Path by Bruce Schoenfeld

George Winston's December, recorded in 1982 on Windham Hill Records, consists of 39 minutes of instrumental piano music as arranged and performed by Winston. It isn't classical piano, though variations on Pachelbel's Canon are included, nor can it be defined as jazz, easy listening, folk music or any other standard musical category.

Instead, December is a psychological sound effect, an evocation of winter without words. Like the cover photograph, a landscape of naked trees at dusk in a field of snow, Winston's music conjures up images of quiet times in the cold months: darkness falling on a December evening, steam rising from a warm mug, smiles exchanged in flickering firelight. It does for popular music what impressionist painting did for art.

"I wanted to create music that metaphorically worked for the season, but didn't make you listen to 'Jingle Bells,' " says Will Ackerman, who produced the album. Without lyrics and vocals, without the accompaniment of a symphony or a string quartet, Winston manufactured an aural representation of New England rural life in winter. He also sold more than 4 million copies.

More than any other recording, George Winston's December--building on the success of his Autumn album--was responsible for popularizing both a record label and a genre. The label is Windham Hill, founded

in 1976 as little more than a hobby by Ackerman in Palo Alto, California, and now run as a multimillion-dollar

division of the Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG) out of Beverly Hills. The musical genre is the amorphous New Age.

This was music to be heard but not necessarily listened to--at least, not at first. It wasn't background music, per se, but it was meditative and essentially complimentary, a soundtrack for the quiet life. It was music that could be played while one read, worked, whittled, chopped wood, made love; played over and over again until it lodged itself in a listener's consciousness. To Ackerman, the lifestyle connotations of the genre were purely incidental, and ultimately annoying. "We weren't selling a philosophy or patchouli oil," he says. "We were just selling music. A lot of people wrote letters to us as if we were a commune, musicians living together under one roof. That couldn't have been further from the truth."

For a long time, Windham Hill Records was New Age music. Record and tape stores across the United States carried only Windham Hill releases in their New Age sections. If Ackerman still disdains the term "New Age" today, it is because he perceives it as a cynical attempt by record companies to co-opt the market Windham Hill had established. "That year of December [1982] was a year that we had 597 percent growth," Ackerman says. "I remember that we spent four-tenths of one percent of our net income on advertising, whereas most record companies spend 25 percent of their gross. It was a lucrative business without George Winston, but with him it became insanely lucrative." Little wonder, then, that the major labels wanted in.

Ackerman had been Windham Hill's only employee from 1976 until 1980. By the early '80s, he had become its chief executive officer, with then-wife Anne Robinson as its president. "We used to joke about titles," he says. "We'd say, 'I'll be the CEO and you'll be the president.' But then the corporate structure formed around what we'd decided and those titles came to mean something."

In 1982, Ackerman and Robinson divorced. "We put a tremendous amount of energy into the music and kind of forgot about the rest of our life," Robinson has said. "If the business hadn't been so successful, we might still be married."

Not long after his divorce, Ackerman--who was also a performing guitarist with successful records on his label--realized he had to resign as CEO to resume his musical career. He negotiated a working arrangement with BMG to insure wider distribution for Windham Hill and started looking for an opportunity to sell the company. In May 1992, he divested himself of his last 30 percent and walked away with an undisclosed, but considerable, nest egg.

Today, Windham Hill president Steve Vining sits in an office in Beverly Hills, with framed gold and platinum CDs on his walls, a balcony overlooking the city, and a Porsche Boxster parked in the subterranean garage. He has extended Windham Hill's offerings from New Age to contiguous categories like easy-listening vocals and instrumental world music in the same way that Procter & Gamble might extend its brand lines for a laundry detergent. "On a day-in, day-out basis, we act more like P&G than we do a record label," he says.

With his agreement not to compete with BMG having expired in 1995, Ackerman began running a new record label called Imaginary Road from his mountain compound near Brattleboro, Vermont. Many of his artists--vocalist Jennifer Kimball, perhaps even the percussion-laced instrumental guitarists Rob Eberhard Young and Preston Reed--would fit neatly into Vining's profile for Windham Hill. At the same time, when Ackerman decided to record and release his own music for the first time in six years, he chose Windham Hill, not Imaginary Road. "It made sense," he says. "My whole back catalogue was there. My history was there. There's no hostile break with the past for me. My leaving Windham Hill was nothing more than a guy coming to a point where there's a change in his life." His new relationship with Windham Hill has already proven successful: the CD, The Sound of Wind Driven Rain, recently earned a Grammy Award nomination. And with his decision at presstime to close Imaginary Road, he will also be producing records for Windham Hill on a freelance basis.

Nevertheless, when Ackerman wanders into the BMG Building on Wilshire Boulevard to visit Windham Hill, stepping past the youth of indeterminate sex in the black T-shirt and tongue stud at the front desk, he gets a jolt. This is the company he founded two decades ago, in name and in history, but it never felt anything like this. The label is a business now, a major player in a growing category that employs a team of consummate professionals to sign artists and release music and make money. What was once an ethos has matured into a record company consisting of five divisions: High Street Records, Private Music, Windham Hill Jazz, Peak Records and Dancing Cat Records.

"I adore Will and I love Anne, but they had such a strict paradigm for the label in the old days," says Vining. "They didn't give the artists the room to go where they would naturally go." Vining has persuaded popular Windham Hill artist Jim Brickman to add vocals to his music, for example, and perceives opportunity in creative fusion between genres such as smooth jazz, Latin music, adult contemporary vocals, urban adult contempary (such as Peabo Bryson and James Ingram under the Private Music label) and even show tunes. "Look at the panorama of things we could be into now," he says. "I could be the dominant player in the smooth jazz genre as early as this summer. Eventually we'll get into soundtracks. The bottom line is, if you liked the old Windham Hill, you'll like the new Windham Hill, you really will. It just may play to more aspects of your personality."

At the chic L.A. restaurant Chaya Brasserie, Vining's young troops gather to do lunch. The executives, who range in age from the 30s to the mid-40s, make up a veritable dream team of music executives, assembled to install Vining's vision and carry the successful equity that is Windham Hill further afield. Faithe Raphael has been hired from Rhino Records as vice president of strategic marketing. Nancy Farbman comes from BMG's New York office as vice president for international sales. Ron McCarrell, late of the House of Blues, is the vice president of marketing, overseeing creative services, publicity and radio promotions. Dave Yeskel, the vice president of sales, comes from Island Records, while Grace Newman, the vice president for field marketing, was lured away from RCA Victor. And so on.

The equity with which they have to work is unique in the world of recorded music. From the time Windham Hill came of age in the early 1980s, as December gained radio airplay around the world, consumers have been buying Windham Hill's records, tapes and CDs not merely to obtain the work of a particular artist, but because it was a Windham Hill release. Popular recordings on the label over the years have included Brickman's By Heart, Picture This, and Visions of Love, Yanni's Live at the Acropolis and In the Mirror, and other Winston albums such as Forest, Winter Into Spring and The Music of Vince Guaraldi.

Numerous labels throughout the musical spectrum have come to represent a particular genre--Verve for jazz, Stiff for punk, K-Tel for oldies, to name three--but never, other than with Windham Hill, were the artists of secondary import to the label itself. "We started releasing samplers and concept records in 1981, records with no recognizable name on them except for Windham Hill," says Ackerman. "These were cuts from demo tapes I was getting, cuts from new artists that I wanted to feature instead of punching holes in sample records and sending them out. I figured I'd just make one record of one cut each, and then release it as a way to let radio stations and retail outlets know what we were up to. And these records went gold. They went platinum."

Ackerman had no marketing plan back then, but he did perceive a gap in the marketplace. Spinning the radio dials in city after city as he traveled the West Coast selling his music, he found very little that he, personally, wanted to hear. The major labels, convinced that nobody but teenagers bought records in substantial numbers, had been willing to let Ackerman's generation move into adulthood without targeting to them. This was the generation that had grown up buying 45s and albums in the 1960s and early '70s, the formative years of FM radio, and they were emerging from college into the real world with new stereo equipment and money to spend. "The labels believed their own shit," Ackerman says. "They talked themselves into the idea that only kids bought records, so they only marketed to kids. And that handed us our audience by default."

Today, the same generation that turned to Windham Hill in, say, 1978 or 1982 because it couldn't bear to listen to the likes of Styx, Meat Loaf or Donna Summer, has gravitated toward the music of its youth. Not merely music with the infectious pop hooks and catchy choruses of '60s pop, but the exact same songs they were listening to in the '60s and early '70s; the same chart-toppers by the Rolling Stones and Blue Swede and the Strawberry Alarm Clock, are now in every radio market in the country.

That's the state of adult music today--except for Windham Hill and a handful of other small labels. Even after two decades, Windham Hill still offers one of the few alternatives for mature consumers who want something lighter than classical music or hard-core jazz, yet more substantive than silly love songs or the grain-elevator music that passes for contemporary country.

It is possible for a CD listener to cultivate a relationship with one or more of the intelligent singer-songwriters around--thoughtful and creative artists such as Tish Hinojosa, Jimmie Dale Gilmore or John Prine, who cross genres and create genuine, unvarnished music that is rarely heard on radio--but it's a difficult and time-consuming process. Or that consumer, perhaps recalling time in his or her 20s spent listening to December or Michael Hedges or an instrumental sampler, can walk into a CD store and ask, "What's new on Windham Hill?"

What gets handed over the counter may provide a surprise, albeit perhaps a pleasant one. "Change the radio; I hate background music," sings Jules Shear on his Between Us CD, recorded on Windham Hill. Shear, the former New Wave singer-songwriter and front man for Jules and the Polar Bears, has made a witty, occasionally poignant album of adult contemporary duets with the likes of Paula Cole, Carole King, Suzzy Roche of The Roches, even Susan Cowsill, whose family's '60s pop group was the working model for television's Partridge Family.

Between Us surely isn't background music, but neither would it have been distinctive enough to warrant inclusion into the old Windham Hill catalog. It could have been released on any of a dozen other labels, as could Brickman's Visions of Love, a collection of ballads recorded with other Windham Hill artists that could serve as a soundtrack to a Julia Roberts movie. But if this isn't high art, it's unquestionably good business: sales of Visions of Love have already exceeded 250,000, and Brickman's next release is targeted to go platinum.

Selling records in America in 1999 is quite different than it was when Ackerman started in the late 1970s, or even when he sold his remaining share of the business in the early '90s. It requires a different vision, a different mindset. With computerized purchasing stock lists and the increased involvement of discount stores such as K-Mart and Target as well as the Internet megastores, volume is of the essence and risk is inimical to profits. If Brickman is going to sell 5 million CDs by mid-2000, as Vining believes he will, he'll do it with a release that Ackerman wouldn't have put out--and with a support staff that would have been impossible with the old Windham Hill.

That becomes apparent when Vining joins the 10 Windham Hill executives assembled at Chaya Brasserie, eight of whom came to the company in July 1996. Asked to discuss the difference between what Ackerman did and what they're doing, they fall into a rapid-fire discussion that could serve as a primer on today's record industry, and evidence of how Windham Hill has evolved.

This is the New Guard, and they consider the Old Guard with a mixture of respect and bemusement. "I liken the philosophy of the old company to those [old] movies," Vining says. "You know, 'Hey, we've got a record company. Let's put stuff out!' " He professes to be well aware of Windham Hill's unique equity. "But what we have here is the chance to pick up a trademark that really means something and then say, 'OK, here's the roadmap,' " he says.

"We did a trade campaign to let the industry know about the new Windham Hill," says Newman. "We had [a picture of] Rottweilers ripping apart Birkenstocks. The slogan was, 'No More Sandals and Candles.' "

"There's a danger, though," warns Vining. "As soon as you become a blip on everybody's radar screen, a lot of labels will come in and try to steal market share from you. It's gotta be about adults, that's all. We're the only label in the country not based on a musical genre."

"Steve has a very clear vision," Raphael says in an aside. "We all knew it as soon as we arrived here two and a half years ago."

Newman, who is part marketing whiz and part unreconstructed hippie, overhears. "My psychic actually told me six months before I moved to L.A. that I was moving here," she tells Raphael. "And I said, 'No, I'm not. Talk to me about something relevant.' I could not conceive of ever moving to L.A.. I had always wanted to go work for Windham Hill, the old Windham Hill, but I forgot to specify in San Francisco [near the former Windham Hill facility]. That's the thing about wishing for something, you have to be so specific!"

"To me, I totally underestimated when I arrived here that we were rebuilding a company," Raphael says. "I mean, every section in my area was wildly unprofitable. It's because it was poorly managed." She gestures toward her coworkers. "Right now, you're looking at a table where the combined music experience is about infinite," she says. "Most of the people who worked at Windham Hill originally were in their first job. They'd never had a job. You were a fanatical fan of an artist or of the label and then you just sort of started working for it. They did some truly visionary things, but vision is only part of it. We're professionals."

Newman leans forward and speaks softly. "Most of the others who are here now weren't fans at all," she says. "I'm actually one of the few people here who could tell the difference between the artists at first. It was really scary. I remember thinking, 'This is Windham Hill?' "

A continent away, Will Ackerman slides into a chair at the Townshend Dam Diner in West Townshend, Vermont, and orders breakfast. He's wearing work boots, a dark turtleneck and a leather jacket, optimal attire for a day that will include some woodchopping, some sanding and lathing, and some record editing. There are no Porsche Boxsters at the Townshend Dam Diner, nothing but pickups and sedans and the working-class customers who drive them. "I left California because I got tired of driving on the freeway every day," Ackerman says, pulling out his own tea bag from his pocket.

In Vermont, Ackerman works on three or four projects simultaneously. He clears land on his 600-acre estate outside Brattleboro, where he lives with his second wife, artist Michaela Harlow. In the state-of-the-art recording studio he constructed plank by plank, he produces music and daydreams about surfing. He purchased the first 12-acre parcel in 1982 and has been buying up contiguous land ever since, building a compound for living, working and music making while traveling the world. "It's all about my search for a home," he says.

Now approaching 50, with the easygoing mannerisms of a Californian and a certain manic intensity sharing space in his soul, he is still working his way through the psychological mechanics of how to live a life. An orphan who was born to unknown parents in November 1949, Ackerman came to the United States from what was then West Germany at age nine. His adoptive father, Robert W. Ackerman, was an English literature professor at Stanford. As a teenager, Will was sent to a Massachusetts prep school and worked at the Windham Hill Inn, a bed-and-breakfast located a short drive away from the Townshend Dam Diner. "That became home to me," Ackerman says. He's speaking metaphorically--he never lived at the Inn--but his existence since has been marked by a search for that same comfort and serenity. He enrolled at Stanford at 16, then dropped out a few credits short of graduation to enter an apprenticeship with a Norwegian boatbuilder-turned general contractor. He later named his record company after the inn so it, too, might seem like home.

For Ackerman, who can't even read notes on a music staff, Windham Hill was about creating music that listeners would ultimately react to with great emotion. In the studio, he positioned microphones closer to instruments than they'd ever been before--actually inside pianos, for example--so performers could be heard striking the keys, shifting pedals, even breathing. "I wanted that intimacy," he says. "The illusion, if it is an illusion, is that I was sitting there and you were sitting there and I was playing for you. I didn't want a concert, but an emotional attachment."

Although a few early Windham Hill tracks included vocals, Ackerman gravitated to instrumental music. Such music worked passively on a listener at first--the dreaded background music--but ultimately demanded more attention and interaction than songs with lyrics. It's the difference, in a sense, between a self-help book and a novel. "Listeners have incredibly intense relationships with this music," he says. "That may be because it doesn't trap you in the literal."

That music, from artists such as Winston, guitarist and pianist Michael Hedges, and Ackerman himself, ultimately came to define the Windham Hill sound. That the music had a certain commonality to it was less the result of any grand marketing strategy than the fact that Ackerman was the sole creative filter at the company. He was finding new acts, sifting through tapes that had come in over the transom, nurturing artists. He found himself doing more of that than making music, one reason he decided to sell the company. When he divested himself of all his Windham Hill equity, not wanting to have "one foot in and one foot out," he signed a three-year commitment not to compete with Windham Hill and looked forward to days of contemplation: chopping wood, adding rooms to his house, making his own music.

That lasted a matter of weeks. "What I love is producing music," he says, "and I missed it much more than I ever thought I would." Ackerman waited out the length of his agreement by creating Gang of Seven, a CD label devoted to spoken-word recordings. He has since sold it, but the projects he did with Spalding Gray, Andrei Codrescu, Tom Bodett and others remain close to his heart. As soon as he was legally able, however, he returned to music and started Imaginary Road with Dawn Atkinson, who had been the principal producer at Windham Hill. He signed the label to a joint venture with Polygram Classics and Jazz, mostly because of the presence of Chris Roberts, its president, who happened to have worked at a record store in Portland, Oregon, when Ackerman was peddling his music along the West Coast from a Volkswagen bus. (A merger earlier this year turned Polygram into Universal Classics Group. Roberts is now the chairman of Universal's U.S. division and, internationally, president of Universal Classics and Jazz.) He hadn't seen Roberts in the quarter-century since, but he felt comfortable working with a familiar face. "He really knows my history," Ackerman says, "and that's very important to me."

The music is less pastoral, more percussive, than his Windham Hill releases. Sitting in his studio, Ackerman choreographs each track in his mind. In the same way that he can build a new room on his house without blueprints, he can envision what he wants the music to sound like. He's after cleanliness of lines, just as in his own architecture. "I want to feel the presence in the room of everybody who's playing," he says. "I want to be able to point to exactly where I think they are."

The music and the carpentry feed on each other. While an assistant sets up the cut he wants to mix, Ackerman takes a moment to walk out the front door and around the back of his studio, where he has a workshop a level below. There, he takes an unfinished plank of wood and feeds it into a lathe. "Incredible, isn't it?" he says. "It starts off like this and comes out as smooth as that." Then he heads back upstairs to do the same for one of the cuts on Preston Reed's next release.

The record business has become more corporate, and Ackerman has become less so. "What I want to do is be able to experiment wildly," he says. He punches a CD called songs from einstein's violin by a little-known singer-songwriter named Frank Tedesso into his machine and implores a visitor to listen hard. Tedesso's from Chicago, Ackerman says, "but the record was described by someone as the first-ever use of a Martian accent. I'm as proud of it as anything I've ever done in my life."

The music starts, and Tedesso's singular mix of Caribbean inflections and Irish intonation fill the room. "Margaret went all the way with Vincent," Tedesso sings. "They went to a ballgame for their honeymoon. They had a baby girl by Christmas."

It is clearly extraordinary, unusual stuff, and by most standards utterly unmarketable, but that is what makes it so compelling. Unlike the commercial suavity of Brickman, this is chewy, difficult material that requires hard work to listen to. Nevertheless, the reward is palpable. The lyrics work in much the same way that George Winston's instrumentals created winter in a listener's mind: subliminally at first, and then slowly, and then suddenly, with a flood of emotion.

"There's a ghost in my future, there's a ghost in my past," Tedesso is singing. Ackerman mouths the words along with him, and his eyes are filled with tears.

Colorado-based writer Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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