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Concord Music Group marches to its own beat

The record label isn’t looking only for the next platinum album, a strategy that has allowed it to survive and thrive.

May 01, 2010|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times

How's this for a novel strategy in the beleaguered record industry: Forget the hits; aim instead for modest sales over the long haul.

That's essentially what's allowed Beverly Hills-based Concord Music Group to thrive in what in many corners is a bleak business.

The company, born nearly four decades ago as a jazz label, has become one of the most robust independent labels in the world, one that last month scored two big additions: Paul McCartney's entire post-Beatles catalog and the esteemed Cambridge, Mass.-based roots-music label Rounder Records.

McCartney's trove of albums as a solo act and with his group Wings includes several multiplatinum titles, including "Band on the Run." Concord will reissue the album as a deluxe package in August, the first of what will be an ongoing project.

The recent acquisition of the 40-year-old Rounder label is expected to create a company that will generate roughly $100 million in annual revenue, according to Billboard, and a combined business representing a 1% share of the total market for recorded music.

Concord is cannily adhering to the advice many a baseball coach has offered a team when the game was on the line: Don't swing for the fence.

"They're not looking for the next big hit, although they have nothing against hits and they've had a couple," said Jim Urie, president of Universal Music Group Distribution, which distributes all Concord releases. "We distribute a lot of labels, and there are a lot that are just hoping they can have the next hit and cash out. That's not what these guys are about."

McCartney's decision to take his post-Beatles catalog to Concord just weeks after regaining control of it from EMI Music reflects his satisfaction with the way the company handled his latest releases — 2007's "Memory Almost Full" and the recent live CD-DVD "Good Evening New York City" — and signals his desire to distance himself from the uncertain financial future of the struggling EMI.

It also expands on the relationship between Concord and the ex-Beatle, who left EMI when the contract expired in 2007 to join Concord's Hear Music label, a joint venture with Starbucks whose first release was "Memory Almost Full."

"I was bored with the old record company's jaded view," McCartney told The Times shortly after the 2007 deal was announced. "They're very confused, and they will admit it themselves: that this is a new world, and they're a little bit at a loss as to what to do."

Over the years the Concord family, whose executives declined to be interviewed for this article, has expanded to encompass nearly two dozen labels that have issued numerous Grammy-winning recordings from a slate of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members. Along with McCartney, Concord labels have put out new music by Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, the Chieftains, John Fogerty and John Mellencamp.

Concord-owned labels also represent thousands of vintage jazz, folk, blues, R&B, soul and classical recordings. The acquisition of Rounder brings a four-decade backlog of roots-music titles from a widely respected name. The label is perhaps best known for the Grammy-winning Robert Plant-Alison Krauss album "Raising Sand." Rounder executives declined to be interviewed for this story.

Concord was born in 1973 as the Concord Jazz record label. In 1999, the company was bought by veteran TV producer and writer Norman Lear and business partner Hal Gaba, through their Act III Communications, with backing from the New York-based Tailwind Capital venture fund.

With the influx of capital, Concord started signing veteran artists such as Barry Manilow, while also opening its doors to younger-skewing acts such as L.A. Latin funk rock group Ozomatli and R&B singer Macy Gray. The company has also been signing acclaimed acts who haven't connected with a broad audience yet, including singer-songwriters Alejandro Escovedo and Tift Merritt.

In an e-mail Friday, Merritt said she was introduced to Concord when the company's vice president of A&R artist and content development Robert Smith called her. "We immediately fell into conversation about Eudora Welty stories and Robert Frank photographs. I thought, ‘Wow. This is different. This is where I want to be.' "

Concord Music Group merged with Australia's Village Roadshow Pictures Group in 2008 to form the Village Roadshow Entertainment Group. Lear is chairman of Concord Music Group, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Village Roadshow encompassing nearly two dozen record label imprints, including Stax, Fantasy, Pablo, Prestige, Takoma and Telarc.

The various acquisitions have one thing in common: "They don't buy catalogs that don't come with a brand," Urie said. "A Concord-Fantasy record is an easier sell than another old rock record on some [little-known] label."

In 2004, Concord partnered with Starbucks for a Hear Music series of compilation CDs sold in the chain's national network of coffeehouses — opening up a market outside the conventional music retail world.

Hear Music is responsible for one of Concord's biggest successes, "Genius Loves Company," the 2004 album by Ray Charles that generated eight Grammy Awards. But platinum sellers are a small part of the overall strategy.

Company President Glen Barros, who started at Concord Jazz under label founder Carl Jefferson, recalled in 2007 that for Jefferson, "success was defined as ‘Can I sell more records this year than last year?' " That philosophy remains in force today.

"The means to reach different communities is slowly emerging on the Internet," Lear told Fortune magazine the same year. "And what I love about this is the opportunity we're on the verge of."

randy.lewis@latimes.com

Times staff writer Todd Martens contributed to this report.

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