May 1998

Label Watch: Compass Records

Alison Brown had it made. An MBA from UCLA, an associate at the Smith Barney investment banking firm in San Francisco, she was on a fast track toward financial success. And damned if she didn’t throw it all away to play banjo; a sideman, no less, with country bluegrass singer Alison Krauss’ Union Station Band.

That portrait of sacrifice and commitment—someone leaving behind the corporate world to pursue their love of music—was beamed into millions of homes last year on CBS Sunday Morning. But that bit of national television exposure only began to touch on the challenges that Brown currently faces as a record executive. Along with partner Garry West, bassist in her touring band, she has formed Compass Records, an independent Nashville-based label that is crossing over into the world of hypenated jazz on the strength of two acclaimed releases from electric bass virtuoso Victor Wooten—1996’s Show Of Hands and last year’s follow-up, What Did He Say?.

Brown’s own debut for Compass (her previous four albums as a leader were released on Vanguard) makes the connection to jazz even more convincing. By emulating guitarist heroes Joe Pass and Earl Klugh, she has come up with a banjo album that is decidedly non-bluegrass. The influences of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Wes Montgomery and Bill Evans can be heard on Out Of The Blue. Following the lead of banjo innovator Béla Fleck, she is breaking new ground and winning over folks who think they don’t like banjo.

In her position as a record executive, Alison has had to woodshed on issues that go beyond her favored ax. Now she finds herself dealing on a daily basis with things like marketing, distribution, retail and Soundscan. It’s a consuming task that also has its rewards. “We started the label,” she says, “because we just felt so passionate about a lot of the artists and music we were hearing out on the road as touring musicians, and we wanted to be involved in bringing it to the market.”

Brown and West began their enterprise under the auspices of Small World Music, a company they set up to get U.S. distribution rights to dijeridoo music they had encountered while touring Australia with pop singer Michelle Shocked. After some mild success with licensing the Australian Natural Symphonies catalog, they launched their Compass imprint in 1995.

The Compass catalog is currently up to 26. Alison expects to have another dozen new releases out this year. And while Compass has not exactly cracked through the commercial radioplay barrier, it has managed to garner some exposure on smooth jazz and AAA radio formats. “But by and large,” she points out, “most of the radio support we get on our records is from NPR and specialty shows in a non-commercial format.”

Brown confesses that the business she naively entered five years ago is very different from the one she finds herself in today. “In certain ways we feel like old-timers in this business because you could actually go through a series of regional distributors back in 1993 to get your product to market, and you probably couldn’t do that now if you wanted to. All the regionals have been consolidated. There’s a handful of good national distributors and that’s it.”

Compass Records has recently switched to an exclusive distribution deal in the U.S. and Canada with Koch International. They were previously distributed by DNA. “It’s complicated and it’s ever-changing,” she says of the record business in 1998. “The rules that applied in the ’80s certainly don’t apply in the late ’90s. For one thing, it’s a question of shelf space. There were something like 30,000 releases that came out in 1997. No store can fit one of everything so now people are being really judicious about what they stick in the slots that they have available. You have to give them reasons to bring a CD in, whereas, maybe five years ago it would be more easy to get them to take a chance on carrying your product.”

Given her business acumen, Brown may be more adept than most at understanding the ebb and flow of the music industry. She is in the unique position of wearing two hats at Compass, formulating an artistic aesthetic while also developing a growth strategy for the label. “At least I don’t mind trying to figure out the business end of it,” she says. “I know a lot of artists aren’t interested in that kind of thing but, for better or for worse, music and business seem to be the two halves that make up the whole with me.”

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