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Winter 2005


Ken Irwin (right) and Bill Nowlin, with gold and platinum sales awards for one of their recording stars, Alison Krauss and Union Station.
Photo by Webb Chappell
Rounder's Fellow Rebels
Thirty-five years ago they went looking for the soul of American music. Ken Irwin and Bill Nowlin found that and more as they built Rounder Records.

Call it what you will—chance or destiny—Ken Irwin, A66, and Bill Nowlin, A66, were matched as freshman roommates in 1962. At first they shared the usual college student rituals, like seeing how many phone books they could pack into a phone booth. But during forays into Boston and Cambridge they found they shared a deep appreciation of folk music; while not musicians themselves, they became astute observers of the emerging “folkie” scene.

In 1970, with their partner, Marian Leighton, they founded Rounder Records out of a Somerville apartment. From the start, Rounder was a labor of love. Influenced by the counterculture philosophy, they set out to record music not for money, but to preserve a vanishing American music, songs and tunes colored by heritage and tradition, free of commercialism and fleeting fads, songs you might hear on a back porch in a Tennessee hollow. All the while they were holding down day jobs—Nowlin for a long time as a tenured professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. They were, as Irwin once told Billboard magazine, simply looking to “release a record that would be a classic in its field.”

Today, Rounder Records is the third-leading independent record label in the United States. Its catalog has grown to include 3,000 titles that span genres from folk, bluegrass, Celtic, folk, and children’s music to reggae, calypso, jazz, blues, and indie rock. Rounder recording artists are as varied as They Might Be Giants, Madeleine Peyroux, the Cowboy Junkies, the Dry Branch Fire Squad, and Austin, Texas, singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves (himself a Tufts graduate.) Rounder has also issued extensive series of recordings from the Library of Congress and from the archives of the legendary ethnomusicologist and record producer Alan Lomax, and funded the ongoing North American Traditions series of recordings by Mark Wilson. At the same time, critical and commercial successes such as those of the Grammy award–winning Alison Krauss and Union Station have brought the company solid financial footing.

So it’s fair to say that Rounder has made it big—very big. But from their no-frills warehouse/headquarters on a side street in Cambridge near the border with Somerville, it’s clear that they’ve kept a bedrock commitment to music with sincerity and integrity, music that has staying power, just like them.

How did you get involved with promoting folk music when you were at Tufts?
Ken Irwin: We used to go to the Charles Playhouse on Stuart Street, and one time I saw a little sign that read “campus representatives wanted.” They offered free tickets to all of their shows in return for our putting up flyers on the university bulletin boards. We thought that this was a great arrangement, where we would cut down on our dating expenses while getting to see quality theater. After working with the Charles for a while, we expanded our promotion services to include another theater company, a coffee house, and Folklore Productions, the main promoter of folk music concerts in Boston. Pretty soon we were putting up posters all over the campus. And through Folklore, we were exposed to a lot more folk music.

What was it about that music scene that caught your interest?
Bill Nowlin: We had both liked folk music before we came to Tufts. My younger sister had gotten a couple of Kingston Trio records and I had a couple country music records and some Elvis records—the early ones, blues and country music for the most part. Ken had what we might now call some more authentic records or deeper folk, like Pete Seeger and the Greenbriar Boys.
KI: The Greenbriar Boys disc was a high school graduation gift. We initially thought it was funny, with those twangy voices and banjos.
BN: Some of the songs were humorous, too.
KI: “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight,” or “A Whole Lot More Jesus and a Lot Less Rock and Roll.” At Tufts, we had friends who lived above us in Houston Hall. We had a record player, so we hooked up a wire from our record player out the window and diagonally up to their room, and then attached it to the speakers in their radio. And whenever we felt ornery, we’d play this Greenbriar Boys song that started, “Hey, you better call the sheriff, Paw, ’cause Rosie’s gone again…”
BN: We know we alienated a few people. I wouldn’t say we made any friends by virtue of playing our records.

You never dreamed of being record producers?
KI: Not at all—but there was nobody there to tell us that it was impossible. It started out as a hobby. I was hitchhiking back from a fiddlers ,convention in the South and got picked up by a couple, and I spent the night at their home in West Virginia. It turned out that the guy had rediscovered a couple of musicians who had recorded in the late ’20s and early ’30s. He had recorded them and put out albums that had just the most basic graphics and no liner notes. After coming back north, I said to Bill, “This guy started a record company, but he doesn’t know anybody who can write liner notes and doesn’t know any graphic artists. Why don’t we start our own record company?” There was nobody to discourage us so we decided to go ahead with the idea.

What has made a friendship also a successful business partnership?
BN: In the business, there’s always been three of us. I think that helped, because there was never a direct one-on-one conflict. And our motives were pure [laughs]. None of us was in it for the money. If we had aimed to have it provide our living, we probably would have had some business disagreement that would have broken us up. As Ken says, though, it was really a hobby at first. We worked other jobs to support our hobby.
We always thought that Rounder was bigger than the sum of its parts—meaning us. If there was a disagreement, we would just remember, well, but there’s Rounder to think about. That would carry us through. It’s similar to a couple considering divorce who might stick together for the kids. And we truly did often conceive of the records as our kids; they are born at a certain point in time, and then you have to nurture them along.

So the idealism you shared helped motivate you and hold things together in the early years?
BN: Very much so. And it never seemed like onerous work—though it was a lot of work! We’d end up going to the airport with our van, pick up 3,500 pounds of records and load them into the back of the van, driving back sometimes at one or two o’clock in the morning because the traffic wasn’t as bad. You’d end up sweaty and exhausted, but it was just something that had to be done. There was always a very strong sense of idealism, and an awareness that what we were doing was culturally important. It felt like a mission or a calling.
KI: We were documenting parts of our culture that were truly dying out. Our fourth album was of Clark Kessinger, an old-time fiddler from West Virginia. We did some recording on one trip and were planning to return to record more when we got a call saying that Clark had suffered a stroke. I went and visited him, and it was so sad; he couldn’t hold his fingers down. His right hand would bow, but he couldn’t play the notes. I think that might have increased our sense of urgency—of mission—we learned firsthand if we don’t do this and do it now, then the opportunity could be lost forever. From our first two records, there were at least two branches to our work. One was the roots musicians—original musicians who had either recorded a long time ago or who just made music for fun off their back porches. The other was the contemporary offshoots, often younger musicians who had learned from the originals and who were still carrying on the traditions.
BN: We were all very committed to preserving this aspect of our culture. I grew up in Lexington [Massachusetts] and I worked seven summertimes studying and talking to tourists about the American Revolution. Marian was a history major. Ken believed just as strongly in the importance of recording the older bearers of tradition. We saw some of these performers at shows; there was no question to us that they were very special. They certainly were outside the mainstream, and to us that meant that somebody has to take care of them. We didn’t have aspirations and still don’t have aspirations to compete with the top music industry groups. We wouldn’t mind having an album go to number one, but that’s not our overriding goal. We want to do the best we can for the musicians with whom we work, but we’re not really out there competing to sign the “next big thing.” We’re still trying to do something that’s different than what the multinationals would be doing.

Ken, you’re a very “in-the-studio” kind of person. What about this kind of work energizes you?
KI: As we became more involved with the music and the musicians, we wanted to learn more and to share what we learned with others. We did a fair amount of research and even received a Youth Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study the early years of bluegrass. We went around and visited a lot of musicians and some people who had run record companies, and learned a lot about how things were done in the old days. In earlier times, you couldn’t fix a recording; you couldn’t overdub or punch in corrections. Everything was recorded mono, all on one track. Musicians told us of instances where they felt they could do better, but [because of the technology] they’d just be told, “Next!” and go on to the next song.
I heard things that could be improved, and started to develop a little bit more of an aesthetic. How could we make what the artists had within them sound better? I think it’s very exciting when you can share what you learn with other people and hopefully make their lives better, and at the same time bring more enjoyment to the people who are going to hear the music.

I was reading the liner notes for your recent James King album, and they describe how a lot of good bluegrass performers know how to tell a story.
KI: Bluegrass is a very broad-based music now. It keeps stretching. But I think in terms of artistry in general, I look for an artist who can communicate what they’re feeling. James is one of those musicians who really wears his heart on his sleeve. When he hears a song that he really likes, he’ll often call me up and he’ll still be in tears. He can make that connection to the song. Then it’s just a matter of getting James not to cry when we’re recording it, or to minimize it. Everybody’s different in how they hear a particular song or a singer, but for James, he can really reach out to the audience. You’re really getting what’s inside him. There isn’t a whole lot of artifice there.

Has Rounder grown the way you thought it might?

BN: Well, we never would have thought it would grow to be what it is, with nearly 100 people working here. Maybe we’d have six or seven people. It wasn’t something that we thought we would try to build a Rounder empire or something like that.
KI: There really wasn’t a vision.

The word “strategy” never really came up?
KI: Not at all, and because of the way we began, I don’t know if there’s a whole lot, at least in the first 10 or 15 years, that people can really borrow from us in terms of learning how to start out. Except for the [importance of] belief and loving what you do and working hard. If we were to speak to another record company about starting out, we certainly wouldn’t tell them to get out there and hitchhike in the South and see who picks you up. We wouldn’t recommend having no plan at all, and just seeing if it all works out. It really was something we did because we loved doing it, not because we envisioned starting a business.
BN: We started in 1970, but it wasn’t until 1984 that we consciously sat down and developed something you could call a business plan. We made decisions on the fly, letting momentum carry us along, and for the most part our instincts helped us make good decisions. Maybe we learned something at Tufts after all!
In 1984, though, we reached a serious crisis. Looking for some assistance, we consulted with some retired businesspeople – volunteers working with SCORE, and the Small Business Administration. They tried to get us to think in a more organized fashion. Somehow we managed to get through that stretch. It’s been a process. We want to survive, we want stability, and certainly these days things are very different. Looking back, I’m sure we would not have thought we would ever have full-time professional people that do things like accounting and bookkeeping and financial planning. It really is an interesting case study of how a business organization can evolve, when challenged both by successes and by crises.

What was going on in ’84?
BN: We had grown too quickly, and without a good enough structure. The SCORE advisers told us we simply had too many people working here. George Thorogood and the Destroyers had been a big and very successful act for us, from 1976 right through 1981. We added staff, but then signed a deal with EMI America Records so the Destroyers would appear on their label. It was the right thing to do for the future of the band. For Rounder, though, the income that had been sustaining a large staff declined sharply. We hadn’t really had a strategy to say, OK, well, we’ve got to have another act like this and so forth. We kept doing what we had been doing, but without the big act, and it couldn’t be sustained at that level.

What was a breakthrough for you in terms of rethinking what you were doing?
BN: Losing tons of money! We were losing $1,000 a day at one point —and we still thought of it in very personal terms. We’d wake up in the morning and realize that the company was going to lose another $1,000 by the end of the day. There weren’t that many thousands to lose, so we were forced to rethink everything.
KI: We economized any way we could. We’d go home to make our phone calls rather than using the business line at work. We always waited until the end of the day to make any calls that we had to make from the office, because the rates were lower after five. We started to look more carefully at what records we were putting out. We tightened our belts. The three of us stopped drawing salaries altogether at that point, for most of a year.

How’d you get out of it?
BN: We knew that salary was the biggest element. We had 24 people working for us. We explained the situation and then we asked for volunteers, people who would like to be laid off. Eight people volunteered. We actually trimmed the staff by one-third, and painlessly. We were very relieved. We thought it was going to be traumatic, but it wasn’t. We had to do the same amount of work, of course, but we found that those of us who remained could handle it by being more efficient.

One of your most successful artists is Grammy award-winning Alison Krauss. It was 1987, I think, when you signed her. What do you remember about that first impression?
KI: I had heard Alison on a demo when I was living right outside of Ball Square on Willow Ave. I brought the cassette player out on the deck over the garage, and was just listening. She didn’t sing or was just barely audible until the fourth song, and then her voice came through, and I really liked it. I got in touch and introduced myself and we talked, and I asked if there were other songs that would feature her singing more. Within a week, she had gone into the studio and recorded a bunch more songs.

It seems remarkable that in an industry characterized by so much tumult, you’ve built an unusually long relationship.
KI: Yes, we’ve built loyalty and friendship. I think especially since Alison moved to Nashville, she’s seen what happens with a lot of other labels and I think she’s very comfortable here at Rounder. We give her complete creative control, and we enjoy working together.
BN: She’s obviously a very loyal person herself. When an interviewer asks her why she sticks with Rounder, she usually asks back, “Why would I leave Rounder? If I left, that would mean there was something wrong.” There isn’t.
KI: Yes. I think it’s also that she knows that a lot of whatever money we make from her work goes into strengthening the company and recording a lot of the artists and types of music that she likes. She believes in the mission, too. So we’re doing more bluegrass, I think, this year than we probably have in the last 15 or so. And we can do that because we’re financially stronger because of our successes with Alison and a number of other strong and developing artists.

What’s the “next big thing?”
BN: I don’t know that there is a “next big thing.” If we can keep on doing what we’ve been doing these last 35 years, that’s a big thing in itself.
In 2004, we started a book division—Rounder Books. Hopefully, it’ll become self-sustaining. Maybe ten years down the road, Rounder Books will have some kind of a hit or something like that. I don’t see it happening the first three or four years, but you never know. Seriously, though, we are always looking to find musicians we believe in, and our whole staff works very hard to publicize and to market the recordings.

How do you pick the books?
BN: Sort of the way we used to pick music—what we like [laughter]. We’d like to do more books that combine—that touch music, that connect there, but it’s been slow getting started. I suspect once we get going—well, you never know.
We are also working to go back into our archives and restore a lot of the unavailable recordings to print. Later in 2005, we’re going to launch the Rounder Archive. These older recordings will all be available digitally. People can download them, and we will also manufacture small runs of CDs. It’s been a matter of working out a way to make very small quantities of records available, yet in a cost-efficient fashion.

Now you’re called the premier independent label. What does that mean to you?
BN: I think it means that we stand out among the other independent labels in one or more ways. Certainly, there are several other independent labels that remain active and that do a variety of things. In certain genres, we’re the leading label—in bluegrass, for instance, both in the number of releases and (though admittedly there is some subjectivity here) in the quality of the releases. We’re probably also “premier” in terms of the variety of our releases. We may have the best in some genres, but also in terms of the eclecticism, I think we’re way up there.

I think of the Grammys and Hollywood and the whole music scene today—the commercialization that’s so prominent. And here you are in Cambridge. How have you stayed clear of it?
KI: We’re both real Hollywood [laughter]. I remember when we were selling records about as fast as we could make them, and most of the other indie labels were looking at us with envy. We were being approached by major labels. During the ’60s we had followed Elektra Records, a label which was one of the leading producers of folk music. They recorded Judy Collins and Tom Paxton and Theodore Bikel, but when they later had bigger commercial successes with Bread and the Doors, their folk music output dwindled. We’ve always been very aware of the Elektra example and made our decision, right from the start, that we became involved in the business for cultural and educational reasons. Money is not the major value. So we pretty much stayed with what we were doing. We have expanded [in terms of music variety]. We keep growing—if somebody comes up with a different area that they’re interested in pursuing—polka music or children’s music, we’re open to that. And it just keeps going.
We have always enjoyed a lot of different kinds of music, and we’re also quite happy to let other people at the company come up with artists they particularly enjoy. It expands our horizons, and also gives us a broader base. Even though sometimes people are surprised at some of the releases, if they look at the offerings in any given year, we’re still very active with bluegrass and traditional music. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to stick to our original mission, and broaden it at the same time. Most people probably aren’t able to work at something they truly love, and be able to continue to do so for 35 years—and counting—and we know that we are fortunate to be able to do so, and to still feel we are doing good and important work.