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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

(continued from page 1)

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.

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