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Rounder Records Corporation Business Information, Profile, and History

music firm label distribution

1 Camp Street
Cambridge
Massachusetts
02140
U.S.A.

Company Perspectives

Despite the massive growth that Rounder has achieved, the three original founders still maintain an active role in Rounder's operations. Whether going over figures in the office; mastering, mixing, or producing albums; or taking to the road to seek out new talent, Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton-Levy, and Bill Nowlin remain at the center of it all. "The reason we remain involved," says Nowlin, "is that Rounder has held true to its overriding ideal--to present good and even important music and to try to spread the word about the music to the broadest audience we can. That remains energizing. We feel we are doing work of real value, truly contributing something of real significance to the broader culture."

History of Rounder Records Corporation

Rounder Records Corporation is one of the top three independent record companies in the United States. The firm's releases range from country and bluegrass to folk, zydeco, reggae, blues, world music, and rock and roll, and appear on a variety of imprints including Heartbeat, Philo, Zoe, Bullseye Blues, Marsalis Music, and Rounder Kids. The company also releases videos and operates a book unit whose subjects range from music to baseball. Distribution of many music and video releases are handled by a division of NBC Universal, while others are sold through independent distributors or by the label itself. Rounder's best-known artists include bluegrass fiddler Alison Krauss, rock group Cowboy Junkies, jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux, New Orleans soul legend Irma Thomas, western band Riders in the Sky, and children's performer Raffi. The firm is owned by its three founders, Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton-Levy, and Bill Nowlin.

Early Years

Rounder Records was founded in Massachusetts in 1970 by friends Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton, and Bill Nowlin. Irwin and Nowlin had met at Tufts University, where they shared a room and a passion for folk and old-time country music. A year after their 1966 graduation (Irwin with a degree in political science, Nowlin in psychology), Irwin began dating Clark University student Leighton, and the three eventually began sharing an apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts.

The trio enjoyed traveling together to folk and bluegrass music events around the United States, and after spending time with the founders of a small record label at one such gathering, they decided to try releasing records themselves. The name Rounder was suggested by Nowlin and chosen for its multiple meanings, which included the shape of a record and a nickname for a hobo or traveler, as well as being a tribute to underground folk band The Holy Modal Rounders. The new label's goal was to document the work of older musicians as well as to record new groups that performed in traditional styles.

In 1970 the young entrepreneurs released their first album, a three-year old recording by septuagenarian North Carolina banjo player George Pegram which they had purchased for $125. When stores in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts, were hesitant to stock it, they decided to begin distributing other small folk labels to boost their credibility, and also started selling albums at music festivals.

Over the next several years more releases were issued by artists including guitarist Norman Blake, while other members joined the loose Rounder collective. A typical release might sell only a few thousand copies, with more popular performers such as Blake reaching the low five figures. The firm was only marginally profitable, however, and all three founders continued to work day jobs, Nowlin as a political science professor at the University of Lowell.

In 1974 the Rounders (as the three were often called) finally began earning enough from the label to pay themselves each $400 a month, and as their catalog expanded they hired a few employees to perform distribution and other chores. In addition to releasing new recordings, the firm was also beginning to reissue rare 78 rpm discs from the 1920s and 1930s, including a compilation of classic Hawaiian guitar songs.

Thorogood a Rock Hit

In 1977 Rounder signed Delaware-based blues-rock group George Thorogood and the Destroyers, who started to sell more records for the label than any previous act. Their second album, Move It On Over, became a national hit and sold over 500,000 copies, which earned the label its first gold record. This success pushed Rounder into the world of national promotion and distribution, and the firm hired more employees and moved into larger quarters in Cambridge, its fifth location to date. After a third album for Rounder Thorogood left for a major label, EMI America, though the company formed a partnership with him that brought it a percentage of his royalties.

In 1979 Rounder's employees decided to form a union, a move that was strongly opposed by the firm's owners. Though having long espoused the left-leaning politics associated with the folk scene, the company hired a Boston law firm to fight the effort. After a heated battle the workers voted to join Local 25 of the Service Employees International Union, after which relations between owners and staff would be strained for some time.

In 1981 an imprint called Heartbeat Records was founded in partnership with Rounder Distribution manager Duncan Browne, which would release both new and vintage Jamaican reggae music. The success of the venture later led the firm to purchase an 80 percent stake in Washington D.C.-based Ras Records, which focused on current reggae styles.

The early 1980s also saw Rounder begin recording zydeco, blues, and rhythm and blues music from New Orleans and elsewhere under producer Scott Billington. In 1982 the label won its first Grammy award for Texas blues guitarist/violinist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's Alright Again album. By this time the firm had also founded Varrick Records to release rock, blues, and folk albums that did not quite fit the Rounder mold.

In the wake of Thorogood's success Rounder's staff had grown to 24, but without his hit-making power the company's revenues dropped and by 1984 it was losing $1,000 a day. The firm's owners decided they needed professional advice to develop a business plan, and consulted with volunteers from SCORE and the Small Business Administration. They soon realized they would have to cut their payroll, but rather than issue pink slips they asked for volunteers. Eight staffers were willing to leave, and with the three owners giving up their own salaries for more than a year costs were reduced enough to keep going. The year 1984 also saw the firm acquire a bankrupt label called Philo Records, whose output consisted of such singer/songwriters as Utah Phillips, Dave Van Ronk, and Mary McCaslin.

Rounder released its music on long-playing vinyl albums, as well as cassette tapes when that format became popular. With digital technology beginning to gain favor, in 1987 the firm began to issue its recordings on compact discs.

During the 1980s Rounder's best sellers included albums from soul singer Solomon Burke, Cajun group Beausoleil, and Philo folk singers Christine Lavin and Nanci Griffith. As Thorogood had done, Griffith and other popular acts including The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Buckwheat Zydeco eventually left for larger labels. However, many others preferred to stay with the smaller company because of the greater artistic freedom it offered.

Alison Krauss Takes Off

In 1988 Rounder won its second Grammy award for an album of previously unreleased recordings by the late New Orleans piano legend Professor Longhair, and in 1991 the firm took home a third for 19-year-old bluegrass fiddler Alison Krauss's second solo album, I've Got that Old Feeling. The latter spawned one of the label's rare singles as well as several music videos that received heavy exposure on the CMT and TNN cable networks, and the album went on to sell nearly 200,000 copies. Originally signed in 1987, youthful prodigy Krauss was nurtured by the firm and remained loyal to Rounder after achieving national success.

In 1991 the label partnered with musician and producer Ron Levy to form Bullseye Blues, which would release music by such legends as Lowell Fulson and newer acts including Smokin' Joe Kubek. By now Rounder had a total of 75 employees and three warehouses in the Cambridge area, with annual sales approaching $16 million. In addition to its own releases, the firm continued to distribute the recordings of other independent labels to stores and via an extensive mail-order catalog.

In the fall of 1991 Rounder opened a Midwest warehouse in Olathe, Kansas, that had belonged to a bankrupt firm called House Distributors. A few months later Rounder Distribution merged with Rykodisc distribution unit East Side Digital to form the REP Co., though Rounder later pulled out and formed Distribution North America (DNA), which would handle the releases of 400 smaller labels in addition to its own product. The firm was adding more staff to its promotion department and expanding its marketing efforts via monthly genre-centric sales and bargain-priced sampler discs.

The label had continued to release archival projects over the years, and in 1993 it began a series of reissues of the complete late 1920s/early 1930s RCA recordings of the Carter Family, considered by many to be the founders of country music. The recordings were licensed from major label BMG, which had several years earlier allowed Rounder to re-release the catalog of Jimmy Rodgers, another key early country figure. The firm's business model enabled it to make a profit on special projects like these which might sell only a few thousand copies, while larger companies such as BMG needed to move many times that number just to break even. The prolific firm was now releasing as many as 100 albums per year.

In 1994 DNA formed a joint venture with leading "one-stop" operator Valley Record Distributors, which would boost the regional coverage of both. The year also saw acquisition of the distribution arm of Music For Little People, which handled more than 150 children's labels. Renamed Rounder Kids and expanded to 250 labels, it would distribute both music and video titles to toy, book, and gift stores. The firm would later sign Raffi, the best-known children's performer in North America, as well as releasing albums of music based on the popular Arthur series on PBS television.

Krauss Album Goes Platinum in 1995

In January 1995 Rounder partnered with BMG's Nashville unit BNA records to push a new Alison Krauss single, "When You Say Nothing at All," which appeared on her new album Now That I've Found You, as well as a BNA compilation. She was touring heavily (including opening for star Garth Brooks), and the release became Rounder's first top-ten country chart entry and was later certified double platinum for sales of more than two million units. Krauss was later honored with a Grammy and several Country Music Association awards.

In February the company formed a distribution unit in the Netherlands called Continental Records Services, and in the fall bought Chicago-based Flying Fish Records, which had been founded in 1974 by early Rounder associate Bruce Kaplan. It had a catalog of 500 records by artists such as Sweet Honey in the Rock and Doc Watson. The company also celebrated its 25th anniversary during the year by sponsoring a touring package of popular acts Marcia Ball, Beau Jocque, and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, and was profiled in an independently produced documentary film called True Believers.

In January 1997 Rounder sold its stake in the DNA distribution joint venture to partner Valley Record Distributors, though its labels would continue to be handled by the latter firm. Spring saw the release of the first in a series of compact discs documenting the work of legendary folklorist Alan Lomax, who had recorded musicians around the world since the 1930s. More than 100 discs would be released over the next decade. In October Rounder General Counsel John Virant was named president and CEO of the firm, though all three founders remained heavily involved with its management. For 1997 the company had sales of approximately $24 million.

Mercury Distribution Pact Signed in 1998

In June 1998 Rounder signed a distribution agreement with major label Mercury Records, whose PolyGram Group Distribution affiliate would handle more than a third of the firm's catalog of 2,500 titles. It was expected to help boost sales of new releases by such artists as country singer Heather Myles and folkie Juliana Hatfield, who would appear on newly launched Rounder pop music imprint Zoe. The firm would continue selling lower-profile titles via DNA and another distributor, Bayside.

In April 1999 the company signed an agreement with Liquid Audio, Inc. for digital distribution of its music over the Internet. By now Mercury parent PolyGram had been acquired by Universal, Inc. (later NBC Universal), whose Universal Music and Video Distribution unit would handle Rounder's bigger titles.

In 2002 Rounder signed a deal with Provident Music Distribution to sell Rounder products to Christian retailers, and began marketing the recordings of jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis's Marsalis Music label, whose artist roster included its founder as well as New Orleans pianist/vocalist/heartthrob Harry Connick, Jr. The firm also had another smash during the year with a live Alison Krauss album that sold more than two million copies. Popular acts of the early 2000s included former Geffen act Cowboy Junkies, quirky pop group They Might Be Giants, Canadian folkie Sarah Harmer, Texas honky tonk singers Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, multi-Grammy winning polka singer Jimmy Sturr, and cowboy act Riders in the Sky, who had started out on Rounder in the 1970s but left for larger labels before returning in 1995.

In 2003 the firm signed a licensing agreement with online music listening service MusicMatch, Inc., and released a music/DVD hybrid disc on Zoe, which contained live concert videos by Kathleen Edwards on one side and music tracks on the other. Rounder was now releasing videos by traditional musicians as well as stars including Alison Krauss and heavy metal rockers Rush, whose live concert DVD sold more than 200,000 copies in 2004. That year also saw formation of a new division, Rounder Books, to publish titles on a range of topics from music to baseball, including some written by cofounder Bill Nowlin.

In 2005 the company launched the Rounder Archive, which offered limited edition CDs of out-of-print albums from the label's now 3,000-plus title catalog. They could also be downloaded over the Internet for a fee.

Rounder artists had been awarded a sizable number of Grammy Awards since the 1980s, and 2006 saw the firm win six including three for Krauss and two for a Lomax recording of jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton, produced in partnership with the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Music. The year also brought "Rock for Relief," a various artists album whose proceeds were earmarked for hurricane, earthquake, and tsunami relief efforts.

In just over 35 years Rounder Records Corp. had become one of the top independent record companies in the United States. Its large roster of artists included some of the most popular and critically-acclaimed performers in a variety of different roots-music genres, while its extensive archival offerings kept musical treasures available for new generations to discover.

Principal Subsidiaries

Heartbeat Records; Philo Records; Zoe Records; Bullseye Blues Records; Flying Fish Records; Rounder Books; Rounder Kids; Rounder Archive.

Principal Competitors

Shanachie Entertainment Corp.; Welk Music Group; Arhoolie Productions, Inc.; Rykodisc, Inc.

Chronology

  • Key Dates
  • 1970 Rounder Records is founded to issue country and bluegrass recordings.
  • 1979 George Thorogood and the Destroyers win label its first gold record.
  • 1981 Heartbeat Records is formed to issue reggae albums.
  • 1984 Singer/songwriter label Philo Records is acquired.
  • 1987 Bluegrass violinist Alison Krauss is signed; first compact discs are released.
  • 1991 Bullseye Blues is founded; Krauss wins her first Grammy award.
  • 1994 Music For Little People distribution is acquired and renamed Rounder Kids.
  • 1995 European distribution unit is formed; Flying Fish label is purchased.
  • 1997 A 100-disc reissue series of historic Alan Lomax recordings is launched.
  • 1998 Distribution pact is signed with Mercury (later Universal); Zoe imprint is founded.
  • 2004 Rounder Books is formed.
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