‘Canteloupe’ sweetens the biz

The future of concert music is the independent record label. The days of big labels have seen their end as composers and musicians create niches more and more highly individualized. Musicians, like any public artists, want the fruits of their labor to be marketed in a way that fits with the profile of the music and its target audience. Marketing Britney Spears recordings in the same style as Bob Dylan or Radiohead recordings seems not only inappropriate, but ineffective. Large labels create these kinds of tensions by the plain necessity of standardizing corporate processes. With hundreds of artists in dozens of genres, Sony has no time to properly develop a strategy for promoting each client on an individual basis.

As with the extinction of the dinosaur, however, it is the small creatures who crawl out of the cracks and gain the eventual domination of the planet. Cantaloupe Music is one such creature. It is a record label created for “music between the cracks.” There is a stylistic range in the artists they record, but the artistic vision and tone of the music remains uniform, and it is this unity that allows the label its success. It has the look and feel of a family organization, but the talent, energy and success of a major contender.

As an organization of vision and passion, it is not hard to believe there is a Yale connection. Canteloupe’s founders are Michael Gordon MUS ’82, David Lang MUS ’83 and Julia Wolfe MUS ’83, the three founding composers of the now world famous New York new music collective, Bang on a Can (www.bangonacan.org). Each of the three studied composition at the Yale School of Music with Martin Bresnick, and each synthesizes the energy of rock with the craft and intelligence of art music. They began the Cantaloupe label in March of 2001 after realizing that their previous relationships with larger labels (Sony and Universal) lacked the personal attention and care that the promotion of their music required.

Their first record, a compilation of the music of five different downtown New York composers entitled “Renegade Heaven,” immediately set the tone for the label’s success. Its driving rhythms and grinding harmonies led Alan Kozinn of the New York Times, as well as Mark Jenkins of the Washington Post, to name it the No. 1 CD of 2001. For such a little creature, Cantaloupe’s voice was strong and clear. Since “Renegade Heaven,” the label has produced over twenty albums, each one receiving the careful attention of a family organization eager to give the right face to a type of music that is creating its own genre. Composers represented on these albums include such heavy hitters as Louis Andriessen, Glenn Branca, Terry Riley, Frederic Rzewski and Steve Reich, as well as Bang on a Can composers Gordon, Lang, Wolfe and Ziporyn.

This new genre is something well worth exploring no matter what your musical background. Its proponents come from both the rock and art music worlds, as the language is strongly grounded in both idioms. Much of the instrumentation involves such welcome newcomers as the electric guitar and drum set. Even old friends like the cello and violin have a new, grittier role to play in the ensemble. Many of the albums contain pieces written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, a sextet of clarinet, cello, double bass, electric guitar, piano and percussion. This raucous group is a perfect example of the wild and wonderful things that happen when the soul of the rock star is merged with the chops of a virtuoso.

One of the latest additions to the Cantaloupe family is a band with more energy than an atom bomb — Gutbucket. Having seen them perform, I have trouble imagining a CD large enough to hold them. Their explorations are a fusion of acid jazz and wild, crazy rock music. Band member Ken Thompson described signing on to Cantaloupe as a decision the entire group was happy to make: “We sat down with Michael [Gordon], and he said it would be great to have us. Everyone felt good about getting together and it has worked out really well.” Gutbucket, which could so easily have been misrepresented in a larger corporate system, is now able to reach a wide audience their own way. Their album, “Dry Humping the American Dream,” comes out this April.

For a small label, Cantaloupe’s distribution is impressive. Their CDs are on store shelves in nine countries, as well as being available through their website, (www.cantaloupemusic.com). Though indie labels rarely received such wide distribution in the past, Cantaloupe’s success shows the future is wide open for others to follow on its path — even if they haven’t gone to Yale.

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