Rounder Records sold to Calif. company

Rounder Records sold to Calif. company
April 15, 2010
By Joel Brown
The Boston Globe

Rounder Records, a 40-year-old independent music label based in Burlington, has been sold to the Concord Music Group of Beverly Hills, Calif., for an undisclosed price. Both parties say Rounder’s identity, and its role as a source of American roots music, won’t change.

Founders and owners Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin, and Marian Leighton Levy will remain active creatively at Rounder, and so will its artistic and marketing staff, including president John Virant, both sides said. There will be a handful of layoffs among Rounder’s 35 employees as sales, administrative, and support functions are merged between the two companies, they said. Neither party would reveal a purchase price or comment on whether the deal guarantees that the current management team will continue to run Rounder.

“We felt this was better than simply trying to soldier on alone’’ in a time of turmoil in the music business, Leighton Levy said, adding that the goal is to strengthen Rounder and preserve the company for the long term. “It’s not an exit strategy. Concord acquired Rounder wanting it to continue what it is doing, and keeping the team in place for the most part.’’

Started in 1970, when its founders were college friends, Rounder has been widely praised by fans for its mix of archival and new releases in genres that are often neglected by large commercial music labels, including folk, bluegrass, blues, and jazz.

“I hope you do not buy a label like Rounder unless you intend to keep the eclecticism going on,’’ said Michael F. Scully, who wrote “The Never-Ending Revival: Rounder Records and the Folk Alliance,’’ a 2008 book about the label. “To go to one place and get blues and Cajun music and polka music and singer-songwriter and honky-tonk is really pretty remarkable, particularly as the industry changes in the ’90s and the first decade of this century, as everything was consolidating — and they managed to keep it going.’’

Concord previously acquired such historic labels as Fantasy, Stax, and Prestige and founded its own Concord Records and Concord Jazz labels, releasing a mix of catalog albums and new material. Glen Barros, chief executive of Concord Music Group, cited the classical label Telarc International of Cleveland as a company that, like Rounder, retained independent control after being acquired by Concord.

“Those are the kind of labels we like best, and we think make the greatest music,’’ Barros said. “They have been independent, they have let their artists be who they are, and they have nurtured that. We love that spirit, and we love that approach to music, and we’d love to see it continue well into the future.’’

Rounder had one of its greatest successes last year with the genre-busting “Raising Sand’’ collaboration between bluegrass star Alison Krauss and Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant. The album won five Grammys, including album of the year. It sold more than 2 million units, Leighton Levy said.

“It starts with the music, but it helps to have a team behind it that understands music and bleeds it and loves it just like the audience does,’’ said Catie Wilber, program director of WXRV-FM (92.5) in Haverhill, which plays Rounder artists and occasionally collaborates with the label on concerts and projects. “That is a rare thing, and certainly the case I have found at Rounder.’’

The deal has been in the works for a year and a half, although Concord first approached Rounder four years ago, when its founders were not ready to consider a merger, Leighton Levy said. The struggles of the music business, especially at the retail level, have caused a few layoffs at Rounder since then, she said.

“This seemed to be a better way to save a lot of jobs, frankly,’’ she said, adding that Rounder was not in peril, but for the long term, “this seemed a better way to proceed, a better way for the artists as well as for the team of folks we have been working with for a while.’’

Leighton Levy also said, “obviously, we are all getting older,’’ and the founders might eventually reduce the amount of time they spend at the company.

Concord, which has 120 employees, also runs the Hear Music label in partnership with the Starbucks Corp. coffee chain. The well-known TV producer Norman Lear is among privately held Concord’s owners.

Rounder owners Irwin and Leighton Levy make their homes in Newburyport, while Nowlin, also known as a Red Sox historian, still lives in Cambridge, where Rounder was founded. PBS broadcast a Rounder 40th anniversary all-star concert in March.

Concord and Rounder have a relationship that goes back three decades, according to Leighton Levy. “Back in the old days,’’ she said, “when we were a distribution company in Cambridge as well as a record company, we used to distribute the old Concord Jazz label.’’
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