Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Right Direction

Local label finds success with eclectic output

By Michael McCall

MARCH 29, 1999:  Compass Records operates out of a nicely kept home only a few blocks from the heart of Music Row. But the ideals and passions driving this small business suggest that it resides worlds apart from the corporate labels that dominate the Nashville music scene.

Because Compass doesn't rely on radio stations to sell its music, it doesn't worry about fitting into specific genres or narrow programming formats, nor does it bother molding performers into marketable commodities. Instead, label owners Garry West and Alison Brown bank on a seemingly old-fashioned notion: They sign artists they admire and respect, then allow them the freedom to create without interference. They issue records because they love them and because they think other people will like them as well.

That may sound quaint, but by adhering to these principles, Compass is rapidly expanding at a time when most other record companies are downsizing and consolidating. With 24 records scheduled for release in 1999, Compass will double its output from last year. That's a feat that few, if any, other significant record companies can boast in 1999.

"We're doing very well," Garry West says. "We're about as busy as we can be, but we're happy that's the case. We feel that we're busy for all the right reasons, and that there's a lot of positive energy flowing through the company, which is how we like it."

Best of all, Compass' prosperity proves that money can be made without cutting corners or condescending to record buyers. As small as the label may be, it issues excellent-sounding albums in elaborate packaging that compliments the music inside.

Part of the reason for the label's success can be traced to the unusual backgrounds of its primary partners. Brown is a world-renowned banjoist whose acclaimed records straddle jazz and folk idioms, but she's also a Harvard graduate with a master's in business administration from UCLA. She was working as an investment banker in the San Francisco office of Smith Barney when she decided to make music a full-time pursuit. Before forming her own band and creating her own solo albums, she was a member of the brilliant Alison Krauss & Union Station, and she toured the world as a member of Michelle Shocked's band.

It was while touring with Shocked that she met West, who was playing bass in the band. Over coffee one day in Stockholm, Brown and West talked about all the great music they heard while traveling the world that hadn't received decent U.S. distribution. Through those discussions, they decided to embark on a business plan that led to the formation of Compass.

From the outset, they planned to run the company in a manner that greatly differed from the model set by most other record labels. For one thing, they planned to be centrally involved in the day-to-day business of Compass Records. Most labels these days are run by accountants, marketers, or music producers; few of these businessmen, if any, have actually put out records under their own name. Those labels that have been started by artists--John Prine's Oh Boy Records, David Grisman's Acoustic Disc--usually have an administrative staff that takes care of daily operations.

At Compass, however, Brown and West run the company and are involved in every aspect of its management--even when they go out on tour to perform as members of the Alison Brown Quartet. "That was part of our motivation from the start," Brown says. "We wanted to provide something different. We wanted a record label where you had artists sitting behind the desks, doing the contracts, the accounting, the cash-flow projections, and the year-end evaluations. That's a rare thing."

When the label formed in 1993, Brown and West set up a five-year plan. It has worked to the best of their expectations, they say. As the company starts its sixth year, and as it prepares for what will be its biggest and busiest year yet, the founders continue to adhere to the same principles with which they launched the firm.

"The main goal is to keep it running lean and to keep an eye on the bottom line," Brown says. "Because of the economic environment, we want to keep it very tight from an accounting standpoint. We always make sure that the books are very accurate. As artists, we feel one of our utmost responsibilities is to be as accountable as possible in our dealings with the artists on our roster. That's something a typical administrator might not recognize."

Compass may keep its bottom line tight, but its artistic scope is wide. From the start, Brown and West set out to run an eclectic label that ignored musical niches. That philosophy was established with the first two releases: an album of literary-leaning acoustic folk tunes by Southern singer-songwriter Kate Campbell, and another of spirited, gypsy-flavored acoustic instrumentals by a Northern California-based fiddler, Kalia Flexer.

Since then, the roster has remained diligently unpredictable: jazz bassist Victor Wooten; progressive acoustic bassist Todd Philips; the moody, roots-flavored rock band Farmer Not So John; English singer-songwriters Clive Gregson, Boo Hewerdine, and Kate Rusby; English pop singer Eddi Reader; American folk-pop singers Judith Edelman, Dana Cooper, and Leslie Tucker; New Orleans jazz band Astral Project; and Berkeley-based jazz pianist John R. Burr.

Recent releases include a stunningly beautiful album by an all-female Celtic band, the Poozies, a delightful new Kalia Flexer collection, a joyous African pop album by guitarist-singer Samba Ngo, an intriguing collection by the Czech bluegrass band Druha Trava, and another by Druha Trava's banjoist, Lubos Malina.

"It really comes down to what we like as fans," West says. "It may not all be music we live with everyday as listeners, but it's music we're happy to live with as label owners. It's a pretty adventurous and eclectic group of recordings, but I think there's a twisted kind of thread that runs through our releases. It all kind of fits. It doesn't at all sound alike, but I think it by and large appeals to the same demographic."

Indeed, part of Compass' success lies in reaching the right audience. In general, a Compass customer would be more likely to visit a bookstore than an arena concert, more likely to listen to National Public Radio than to a Top 40 station. The company has directed its selective advertising and marketing to reach just such people, and to build a reputation through press, through discerning radio outlets, and through word-of-mouth support.

"Our motivation is personal," West says. "We hear certain records and say, 'I have to have this.' Well, we want to be the people who bring that kind of music to others. We feel like we're providing something that might not otherwise be available to people. That's very satisfying."

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