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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 2)

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.

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