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Label Watch: Siam Records

After a long association with GRP Records, music industry veterans Mike Landy and Frank Hendricks felt a need to become involved with music that they felt more passionate about. This desire to branch out led to the formation of Siam Records. A small independent label based in Manhattan (ironically housed in the former offices of Larry Rosen and Dave Grusin on West 57th Street), Siam made its initial splash last year with a high level of quality in its packaging and presentation. Landy and Hendricks also set some lofty goals for the label when it started up operations in September of 1998.

“The idea behind Siam is that you can start a label without committing spiritual treason,” says Landy, president and founder of the label. We believe that our society depends on art. Art is inextricably linked to survival of humanity…not the physical survival but the survival of our consciousness. So Siam is trying to create great art. We’re not just trying to look at the marketplace and see what sells. We’re trying to find artists and create works of art that have something meaningful and lasting to say.”

The initial releases came in October of 1998 from bassist Bakithi Kumato, perhaps best known for his distinctive work on Paul Simon’s Grammy Award winning Graceland, and from the team of guitarist Steve Khan and keyboardist Rob Mounsey. Kumato’s San Bonan is an exuberant blending of his native South African sounds with Latin and jazz, featuring such guest artists as saxophonist Donald Harrison, percussionist Don Alias, accordianist Tony Cedras and guitarist Chieli Minucci. Khan/Mounsey’s You Are Here is similarly informed by world musics and jazz, highlighting Khan’s acoustic guitar work.

The second batch of Siam releases came last February and included the uncompromising compositions of downtown improvising cellist Erik Friedlander (Topaz) along with the smooth vocalizing of Armstead Christian (The Wave Is Coming ). Then in May came some exotica from Indonesia (The New Jakarta Ensemble ). With the exception of vocalist Christian, an easy bet for NAC radioplay, these Siam releases defy easy categorization.

“We look for artistic depth of vision,” says Landy. “If that takes us to South Africa or Indonesia or jazz, so be it. If there’s a deep spring of vision and talent within an artist, then they fit the Siam criteria for building a catalog.”

Hendricks, who had a long period at Sony before engaging in international marketing for six years at GRP, believes that he and Landy make a good team because they come from different backgrounds. “I think what makes it work is the experiences we had are completely different and at the same time we’re both looking to do something that’s a lot different in terms of the artists and the talent that we’ve dealt with in the past. We’re not trying to recreate our past but form something new for the future.”

Landy enthusiastically concurs. “As the great philosopher once said, ‘Anyone who fights for the future lives in it today.’ We are fighting for the future furiously. Frank and I were brothers in arms with the GRP recording company. We go back to when they were a small independent label, before they were sold to MCA. I have tremendous respect and trust in Frank. We were there in the trenches in the beginning and now we’re back in the trenches. And it’s a comfort to be working with someone so experienced. You don’t have to look over your shoulder because you know you got somebody backing you up who is capable and talented.”

Along with its musically eclectic vision, Siam will be focusing heavily on the growing DVD market. “We hope that people will come to see us as a unique content provider on that format,” says Landy. “For instance, The New Jakarta Ensemble has a DVD with dance footage and performance footage, where they are playing instruments from all over the world. They suit themselves uniquely to the DVD format.”

There is a danger, he warns, of jumping into new technology like DVD just to be on the cutting edge. The danger is if you just go for the technology and don’t focus on the content, you end up with a book with blank pages,” Landy maintains. “Content is most important. We’re striving for highest content and we’re going to be adapting it to cutting-edge technologies, no doubt. But the primary thing is the content itself.”

From humble beginnings, Siam moves into the new millenium with high hopes. But don’t expect GRP-size revenues. Rather than pushing for blockbuster sales, as majors are often obliged to do, Siam intends to experience gradual growth while nurturing its smaller roster of artists. “What’s happening today is artists get a deal and they put out a record, and if it doesn’t immediately finance their overhead that artist is gone,” Landy says. “If it doesn’t immediately break even or come close or make a big profit, they get dropped. But we’re going to stick with the artists we sign and start trying to build a catalog.”

Originally Published