New Age Music Money Machine

Zan Stewart writes for the Times Calendar section.

IT WASN'T WITH THE IDEA OF changing people's tastes that Anne Robinson and her husband, William Ackerman, decided to issue Ackerman's solo guitar LP, "In Search of the Turtle's Navel," the 1976 debut disc on the Windham Hill label..

"People simply like his music and asked him to put a record out," says Robinson, who was working as a manager of the Plowshare Bookstore in Palo Alto at the time. "I didn't have money to invest, but I gave time and energy. I hand-sold a lot of those records."

And, recalls the 38-year-old president and CEO of what is now a $30-million-a-year international business, the records never stopped selling. Windham Hill pressed 30 LPs, then 500, then 1,000; Robinson and Ackerman sold albums through the mail and drove around in an old Volvo station wagon, dropping off records at health-food stores and metaphysical book shops. But both held on to their jobs (Ackerman was a carpenter; the label's name comes from Windham Hill Builders, a firm he ran in Palo Alto) until 1980, when their fifth release, George Winston's "Autumn," took off. Then Robinson told her husband: "Maybe we better start doing this full time."

Today, "Autumn" has sold more than a million copies, Windham Hill has inspired a raft of competitors, and Robinson and Ackerman are divorced. So-called New Age music is so entrenched that it is accorded a separate category in the Grammy Awards, and, after the success of KTWV-FM--"The Wave"--in Los Angeles, New Age radio can be heard in cities all over the country.

Sitting in her Palo Alto office, Robinson has just returned from a three-week trip to supervise the launch of Windham Hill's distribution agreement with Festival Records in Australia. "I'm so jet-lagged," she moans. The full-time job she once envisioned is more taxing than she'd anticipated. "There are occasional 16-hour days. But 12 hours is the norm," she says with a smile.

Its detractors say New Age music is mindlessly soothing, mere "yuppie Muzak" or "audio Valium." Meanwhile, in making it a commercial success, Anne Robinson has worked herself to exhaustion.

WINDHAM HILL WAS THE first label to get the rubric of "New Age," endowed because of early record reviews in Boston's New Age Journal. In the wake of its success, a number of other labels have sprung up, including Private Music, Global Pacific, RCA/Novus and Narada. They have become a showcase for a new slate of recording stars: the impressionistic folk/pop piano ramblings of George Winston and Liz Story; the pop/rock harp of Andreas Vollenweider (winner of the first New Age Grammy Award); the bravura orchestral tones of synthesists Jean-Michel Jarre, Chip Davis and Steve Roach; the gentle jazz/rock fusion of Larry Carlton and Justo Almario; a variety of ethnic-music artists, and musicians whose works are designed to enhance relaxation or to promote mental clarity.

But with so many styles under its umbrella, a precise definition of New Age music is hard to come by. Though it is relatively new as a commercial phenomenon, it can be traced to such origins as the tranquil sounds of nature and perhaps to the delicate works of Debussy and Ravel. Three records are usually named as the precursors of the current trend: clarinetist Tony Scott's "Music for Zen Meditation" (1964), flutist Paul Horn's "Inside the Taj Mahal" (1968) and the Paul Winter Consort's "Icarus" (1972). Purists differentiate between "authentic" New Age--or "consciousness music" that extends feelings of serenity and bliss--and "New Age Pop," which has a jazz or mellow-rock orientation. And even fans of the music now classified as New Age for lack of a better name seem to despise the term.

"I think of monotonal, soporific music. I almost bleed when I hear the term," says Ackerman, who was divorced from Robinson in 1982 but who continues to own half of Windham Hill, running its creative side from his home in Vermont.

On the other hand, his partner and ex-wife embraces the New Age label as not just a musical classification but as a way of life. "For me, (New Age) means an attitude towards business," Robinson says. "Yes, it's a convenience term for retail and for the press, but I think it also demonstrates an underlying current about different ways of doing things. A lot of businesses are starting to be successful because they are paying attention to people--customers and employees alike--and details."

Robinson believes that Windham Hill's people-oriented approach sets it apart from other labels and other businesses. She offers as an example her visit to Australia. "I wanted to work directly with our people, so they understood what the label was, where it had come from. Every time I go out and work with people, I get a response. People feel excited, committed, and things begin to happen.

"A large part of the business is service and attitude," she says. "We want everybody--the artist, the accounting department, the sales staff, consumers--to be happy. If people know it's making money, they put more energy into it." The company devotes so much time to producing each record, Robinson says, that "this builds a relationship that isn't based on the attitude that the items are disposable."

Despite the dent made by its competitors, Windham Hill continues to expand steadily. In 1983, it became the first New Age record label to sign a distribution contract with a major label (A&M;). "That was a very good move," Robinson says. "It got us to places we never had reached before." She expects to see a 15% to 20% increase over 1986 when last year's sales figures are in. "But this isn't runaway growth," she adds. "It's a compounding of energies that build on top of each other. And since Will and I are still sole co-owners, there's not a large outside capital investment that might be looking for major widespread growth. I keep expecting (sales) to level off, but they seem to keep going up."

Windham Hill has diversified, with new label spinoffs for more pop- and jazz-oriented music. Among the most successful is the Recordings for Children From Windham Hill series, which features readings of classic tales accompanied by music. Kipling's "The Elephant's Child," read by Jack Nicholson with accompaniment by Bobby McFerrin, has sold 50,000 copies since September. But the acoustic instrumental music it started with remains at Windham Hill's core, because, Robinson says, "there is big business in this stuff."

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