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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
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

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.

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