LOST IN THE LABEL LABYRINTH
You step into your friendly neighborhood record store. You’re after a copy of Philip Glass’ latest album, “Songs From Liquid Days,” but since it’s been out a few weeks now, you don’t find it immediately.
A slight bewilderment comes over you as you scan the bin markers: Top 40, Adult Contemporary, Easy Listening, Country, Punk, Post-punk, Heavy Metal, Classical, “Pops” Classical, New Age, Salsa, Fusion . . . and on and on. Radio programmers, record company executives, critics, journalists and even some musicians might use these terms as a way to describe the tremendous volume of music created, recorded and released every year, but they’re just words to you.
In fact, you don’t even know what kind of music “Songs From Liquid Days” is, since you haven’t heard it on the radio, either: the classical station hasn’t played it, and neither have the pop stations. All you know is the artist’s name.
Welcome to the Label Labyrinth, into which musicians and artists whose music doesn’t fall within the neat, established boundaries of the easily marketable get lost or--as is happening more frequently in the free-form ‘80s--stake out a place outside the normal genre territory.
Some of these labels are transitory: Acid Rock, Progressive Rock, New Wave, Third Stream. Some seem permanently etched in the cultural consciousness: Avant-Garde, Be-Bop, Rhythm and Blues. Many musicians resent being “imprisoned,” as composer Steve Reich put it, within these categories; but to buck the preordained, label-laden delivery systems--radio and records--means risking whatever potential audience the musician hopes to reach.
Or does it?
There are portents that the traditional pop/classical dichotomy may be undergoing a metamorphosis. Philip Glass and Steve Reich have upped the electronic and loudness antes--thereby removing themselves from the “contemporary classical” caste--and play now to increasingly larger and more devoted audiences. And these audiences resemble no particular classical or pop gathering; rather, there are strong elements of both.
Windham Hill--a multimillion-dollar record company that founder/guitarist William Ackerman created with $300 and personal taste as his only guide--offers an array of artists whose music is as slippery to pin down as a freshly caught salmon; the company sells more LPs with each passing year.
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (and, nowadays, his sax-playing brother Branford, who was a member of rock singer Sting’s “crossover” jazz/rock band) records and performs jazz and classical works with almost equal aplomb--and record company demographics show the same audience is buying both kinds of records, though not in equal amounts.
Are we really becoming less label-conscious? Is public taste changing in the way it selects its music? Are pop and “serious” musics joining forces into one broader discipline?
The answers, based on conversations with musicians and record executives, seem to be: yes, sometimes and perhaps.
Michael Stearns, a synthesist/composer with seven records to his credit, has made his career in what has been dubbed “space music,” electronic creations that contain as much silence as sound.
But the music itself is what Stearns calls “a metaphor of what it means to be a human being--and human beings can do many, many things.” He checks off the influences he’s absorbed: surf music, psychedelic rock of the late ‘60s, classical music of the early 20th Century and trance meditation music. Like most musicians, he dismisses the “space music” rubric specifically and labels in general.
“I make a point of not labeling myself,” he says. “And when other people do it, I let it roll on by. When the sound track to ‘Chronos’ (for which film Stearns supplied the music) came out last year, the San Diego classical FM station started playing it, even though they didn’t really know it wasn’t at all a classical LP. They just thought it sounded good, so they played it. I wish more radio stations would relax a little and do that.”
Stearns feels categorizing labels originated and now exist in the marketplace specifically to “satisfy the minds of the marketing types--to set them at ease that they’re dealing with something quantifiable.” He adds: “They’re concerned with how to get the music into the record stores and onto the radio, so I can understand part of that. I mean, I want to get my music out there, too.
“But this ruthless categorization, this rounding-off of corners. . . . It’s something peculiar to this country, I think. If it doesn’t fit into the prescribed categories, they call it ‘fusion’ or ‘New Age.’ But overseas--on the BBC, for example--they tend to play a wider gamut of music, and they don’t ghettoize it. They just give it equal time.”
Stearns, who grew up in Arizona and now bases himself in Santa Monica, has found during the course of his career that “word-of-mouth advertising” has been on the rise recently: “It might just be beginning to supplant the ad barrage we get every day,” he says. “And word of mouth is really the bottom line; for me, it’s often been the only line.
“When my wife and I started the Sonic Atmospheres label in 1977, we could only sell our records in esoteric-type bookstores,” Stearns recalls. “But now the marketers are finding all these sophisticated means of marketing non-formatable music. They’re finally beginning to find out that listeners feel many different things, and rock, or jazz, or classical just touches part of them.
“I got into this discipline because certain musical things were happening to me that I just had to express, and I didn’t really know whether there was an audience for it. I’m finding there is. To me, it’s a little bit of a mystery, but one doesn’t investigate a mystery too closely.”
Another mystery to many modern listeners is the phenomenal rise in popularity of the music of Philip Glass and, to a slightly lesser extent, his contemporary Steve Reich. Glass’s most recent LP, “Songs From Liquid Days,” offers six “songs” that sport lyrics by such unlikely collaborators as Paul Simon, folk/rock singer Suzanne Vega, Talking Heads leader David Byrne and performance artist Laurie Anderson. Each of these selections, while unmistakably Glass, is a far cry from such mammoth music dramas as “Einstein on the Beach” and “Satyagraha.” In this case, at least, Glass--never known to linger in one musical genre for too long--has moved slightly closer to the pop music audience that has come to embrace him.
Reich, meanwhile, has moved in the opposite direction in terms of scale. Last year saw the premiere of “The Desert Music,” Reich’s ambitious setting of William Carlos Williams texts that employs a full orchestra and chorus.
Both composers, having endured 20-plus years of being tagged “Minimalists” and sundry other attempts to label their output, are well aware of the nature of the phenomenon; yet both agree a blurring of the lines of demarcation between “pop” and “classical"is taking place.
“Labeling is an easier way of describing the mountain,” Reich says somewhat cryptically. “It’s a kind of shorthand. But (labels) are increasingly unable to describe any real musical condition, I think. I don’t think of myself as a jazz or a pop composer, but I’ve certainly been influenced by the pop and jazz I grew up hearing. How could I not be?
“I would say we’re returning to a healthy state, like it was in Bach’s day. Back then, and for about a century afterwards, formal music related to things people were playing on the street corner, and the things they were feeling as they played. This state nowadays seems like a natural reaction to the ivory ghetto contemporary classical composers had locked themselves into for about 40 years--but maybe it’ll stick around a while.”
Glass, too, sees the reconnection of the formal musician with the individual’s musical upbringing as central to the composer’s own current cross-cultural audience awareness.
“Fortunately, what seems to be happening is that we’re beginning to be left alone with the personal experience of spending time with the artist,” he says. “I don’t think we have to take this too seriously--as if it’s some kind of epiphany. That’s healthy, I think, because it takes music away from fashion and trend.”
Glass pauses. “It’s funny how history confers status on things. Maybe pop and classical, now having something of a shared history as well as individual histories, can come a little closer. It would be very nice if that’s the way it turned out.”
“I’ve known David (Byrne) and Laurie (Anderson) for a long time now, so there was nothing at all strange--or epochal, really--about (working with them). There were no real walls to break down there.”
Walls were something Windham Hill founder William Ackerman was very familiar with before his starting up the label in 1975 with $300 he had saved from his free-lance carpentry business to get several dozen copies of the album he had recorded (as guitarist and producer) out into the stores.
These days, Windham Hill is a thriving specialty label; “Windham Hill Nights” at large-scale venues (such as the Greek Theatre, where Ackerman, guitarist Michael Hedges and Shadowfax will appear June 21) are a regular feature of many cities’ musical landscape. Though he takes pains to distance himself from standard record company operating procedures such as demographic surveys, Ackerman speaks as a person well acquainted with his constituency.
“We’re dealing with a group of people who don’t want to be told what is hip,” he says. “To them, the whole notion of dividing music up into a bunch of categories is a big waste of energy. (The early 20th-Century French composer Erik) Satie, for example, is very popular because he doesn’t really fit in anywhere yet his appeal is modern. Debussy is another one like that.”
Of late, even Windham Hill, the label that “slips through the marketing cracks,” has been generating some marketing tags of their own. The past three years has seen the rise of Magenta, Open Air, Lost Lake Arts and other spin-offs from the parent company, each sporting their own identifiable look and sound.
Ackerman is well aware of the irony.
“It’s funny: We have to deal with fighting off tags all the time, but you look at Windham Hill and see this ‘specialty’ kind of expansion going on. . . . The thing is, the label’s really evolved laterally as well as forward since we started making money, taking on a bunch of new acts we really didn’t have the places for. I’d like to have all these separate labels implode and collapse back into Windham Hill. That’ll happen--any day now.”
On the other hand, Branford Marsalis says, it’s probably the record companies who are responsible for the label confusion in the first place.
“Labels make it convenient for the record companies to direct garbage at people--it allows them to target us better,” asserts the saxophonist, who is himself the recent veteran of three very different gigs: playing with his own modernist jazz quartet; serving as Sting’s No. 1 Sideman on the “Dream of the Blue Turtles” pop/jazz album and the subsequent tour (and film); and recording an LP of classical selections, with full orchestra, for Columbia.
“It’s the old divide-and-conquer thing once again,” continues Marsalis. “Most record companies and radio stations don’t want to give your average listener a chance to pick and choose, so they split the audience into arbitrary segments and force-feed them. They’d love to dictate everything that goes into our ears; that’s why these formats are what’s choking everything up. It’s a good thing not everyone is paying attention to all those guys; otherwise a lot of us would just pack it in.”
Marsalis cites Prince as an example of “the musical consumerate speaking up.”
“That guy’s really a record company’s nightmare,” he says. “He does what he wants to do and what seems appropriate to him, and he says to hell with the rest of it. He sells millions of records but doesn’t seem to fit into any of the prescribed categories. They try to sell him different ways to different people, but everybody winds up hearing the same record, you know? He’s getting the final word.”
Marsalis is hopeful for a day when “music doesn’t have to be sold like breakfast cereal.”
“There are folks out there really listening now; that makes me feel a little optimistic,” he continues. “That’s why some interesting stuff is out there now. But I think the labels will always remain. Most of the critics and the journalists will do the label thing for their egos’ sake, to keep rowdy musician types in line with what’s acceptable to them. And so long as people are willing to be led, labels are going to go on shutting people out.”
In spite of what might be expected, Roger Holdredge, vice president of marketing for CBS Masterworks Records, agrees with Marsalis: Labels do indeed shut people out, and he feels a need for “at least a suspension of them.”
“We on the marketing end, in spite of what you may have heard, actually fight the labeling process too, as our talent is doing,” Holdredge asserts. “We basically feel they don’t adequately describe what the artist is doing. Either the label is just plain wrong or it’s too generic to depict what this music sounds like.”
Holdredge also sees labels withering in their ability to control musical consumerism, but not necessarily, he says, “because the audience has wised up.”
“It has,” he adds quickly, “but it seems to me that’s because those artists that are basically classically trained--Glass, Andreas Vollenweider and some of the Windham Hill bunch--are trying some experiments and are in fact creating audiences. It’s an exciting process.”
But the marketing people still get involved in labeling, Holdredge states, because the retail industries they serve “ultimately decide how to file it, how to display it--basically, they decide how it’s sold. And with all this new music out, they feel straight-jacketed unless they have clear means of merchandising the product. And that’s where labels come in.”
How does Holdredge describe a non-labelable musician, such as the “New Age” electric harpist Vollenweider?
“Well . . . that’s a hard one,” Holdredge replies. “He’s, um, an electro-acoustic harpist that is, er, classical while still being young and, um, having a pop accessibility . . . no, that’s not it . . . I’m looking for the right word . . . . “