‘If an artist is as singular as we think they are, ultimately, they’ll be heard. It’s about having faith in both the spirit and commitment of the artists.’

Credit: Jimmy Fontaine
David Bither

Here’s a stat for your consideration: Nonesuch Records had the same number of Grammy nominations this year as it did employees: 11.

Those 11 nominations span categories in genres as broad as jazz and Americana, to classical, bluegrass and orchestral, resulting in three wins for artists signed to the 60-year-old Warner Music Group-owned label.

The label’s Grammys success this year, its 60th in the music business, was no anomaly for New York-headquartered Nonesuch. Last year, its roster received 15 nominations (and 5 wins), not to mention the multiple wins across each of the past 20 years.

Those wins have always spanned multiple genres from rock to classical, to jazz and more.

Nonesuch’s continued recognition by the recorded music community is arguably a reflection of the label’s own brand of highly-curated genre-agnostic eclecticism, fine-tuned over 60 years.

“It’s really hard to pigeonhole us in any way,” Nonesuch President David Bither tells us in Los Angeles a few days before the Grammys.

“I don’t think anyone’s ever been able to figure out what Nonesuch is. That’s a real virtue and advantage to us.”

David Bither

He adds: “Some of our peers who I regard so highly, like Verve or Blue Note, who are also within major label systems, are known historically for being a jazz label or a classical label.

“I don’t think anyone’s ever been able to figure out what Nonesuch is. That’s a real virtue and advantage to us.”

Asked to reflect on Nonesuch’s positioning in the business as it celebrates its 60th birthday, Bither muses: “We’ve always been about quality, ambition and intent. But it’s ranged across a pretty broad field, almost from the beginning. The Grammys help to tell that story.”

Nonesuch artists aren’t just Grammy winners, either. A bunch of them are certified geniuses, too.

Here are two more Nonesuch stats for you to take away from this feature:

Stat No.1: Six acts signed to the label have been named MacArthur “Genius” Fellows, including Chris Thile, Rhiannon Giddens, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Jeremy Denk, Dawn Upshaw, and Mary Halvorson.

Stat No.2: If six MacArthur Geniuses weren’t enough to solidify Nonesuch’s place in the canon of iconic American record companies as it turns 60, it also has four Pulitzer Prize Winners on its books, including Rhiannon Giddens, John Adams, Caroline Shaw and Steve Reich.

Nonesuch Records was originally founded by Elektra Records Executive Jac Holzman as a classical label in 1964.

Bither tells us that Holzman used to visit Europe with “a suitcase full of blank contracts” to sign distribution deals for classical records to be released in the US.

Taking inspiration from the less-expensive paperback format in the book publishing business, Holzman repackaged those European-made records and sold them to US audiences.

Those albums featured new and distinctive Illustrated cover art and sold at a lower price point than what classical albums were selling for at the time. The plan was lucrative, and as recounted by Bither, Holzman credits the success of Nonesuch with helping to financially stabilize Elektra, “so that he could then go to California and sign the Doors and Love”.

“I’m not saying Nonesuch is responsible for the Doors,” jokes Bither. “But it was an interesting idea that proved successful.”

“I’m not saying Nonesuch is responsible for the Doors. But it was an interesting idea that proved successful.”

David Bither

Remarkably, for a company operating in a sector of the entertainment industry as prone to disruption and upheaval as music, just four people have been in charge of Nonesuch over the course of six decades.

First, it was Teresa Sterne, hired by Jac Holzman to run the label in the 1960s, and who went on to become a pioneer in bringing ‘World Music’ to the US via the Nonesuch Explorer Series.

Holzman’s brother Keith ran Nonesuch for several years after Sterne’s departure in 1979. He was succeeded by Bob Hurwitz, who joined Nonesuch in 1984 and led the label for 33 years, stepping away from the day-to-day running of it in 2017.

Hurwitz was succeeded by current President David Bither, whose own involvement with the label actually also began all the way back in 1984 when he acted as an advisor to Hurwitz while working for Warner Communications.

In 1986, Bither moved to Warner Music’s Elektra Records division, as Vice President, International, followed by stints as Vice President, Marketing, and Senior Vice President/General Manager.

He officially joined Nonesuch in 1995 as Senior Vice President.

“Everyone Nonesuch works with has this high standard for what they want to put out.”

Molly Tuttle

Bither is responsible for signing some of Nonesuch’s biggest stars, including Emmylou Harris, Laurie Anderson, Wilco, The Black Keys, Rhiannon Giddens, Caroline Shaw, and bluegrass star Molly Tuttle.

“When I was starting out, I looked at what labels my favorite albums were on and a lot were on Nonesuch,” Molly Tuttle tells us in Hollywood a few days before winning Best Bluegrass Album for City of Gold.

“It was always a range of different styles, but the throughline was really good and super interesting music.”

Tuttle adds: “Artistic integrity is really important and that comes down to who you record with, the album artwork, everything. Everyone Nonesuch works with has this high standard for what they want to put out. It’s really cool to be a part of.”

Bither has also forged successful relationships with other record labels during his tenure at Nonesuch, like Chicago’s International Anthem, home to prolific drummer, composer and producer Makaya McCraven, and experimental musician and composer Jeff Parker.

He was also instrumental in bringing the London-born World Circuit label to Nonesuch in North America in 1997, just before it released the self-titled album from Cuban legends Buena Vista Social Club.

At nearly 10 million sales to date, it is officially the best-selling world music album and best-selling Cuban album in history.

Another one of Nonesuch’s biggest commercial success stories is The Black Keys, signed by Bither in the mid-2000s and who released their 12th Studio album Ohio Players via Nonesuch/Warner Records on Friday (April 5). It features collaborations with various superstars from Beck to Noel Gallagher, and Greg Kurstin.

“I think it’s the best record they’ve ever made,” says Bither. “And for a band who’s been around that long to have done something like that, is rare.”

Patrick Carney credits Nonesuch and Bither as key factors behind the band’s long-term success.

“The unwavering support and guidance we have received from Nonesuch, especially from David Bither is pivotal to our success,” he tells us. “I truly believe without Nonesuch, our career would not have been nearly as successful.”

“I truly believe without Nonesuch, our career would not have been nearly as successful.”

Patrick Carney, The Black Keys

Bither also highlights Nonesuch’s collaboration over the years with Warner Records – led by Co-Chairman & COO Tom Corson and Co-Chairman & CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck – as being central to The Black Keys’ ascent to superstar status.

“The collaboration [between Nonesuch and Warner Records] is at its best and at its peak [with the Black Keys] because there’s so much to work with,” he says. Looking to the future, Bither says that his ambition for Nonesuch is that it “continues to be important to the community of music, and within the Warner Music Group”.

Pointing to the “deluge” of content artists have to compete with every day, Bither acknowledges that “navigating this terrain is not easy, given this kind of music, and the structure of the business”.

“It’s harder than it’s ever been,” he adds. “But this is a company about artists. My ambition is not for us to shine a light on the label, it’s to shine a light on that family of artists.”

One of those artists, Alynda Segarra, aka Hurray for the Riff Raff, tells us that, “Nonesuch has been a home to artists who defy the restrictions of genre and fads, artists who create timeless work and are in it for the long run”.

Here, in this rare and in-depth interview, David Bither tells us how and why he has been in it for the long run at the 60-year-old label…

Listening through the 60TH ANNIVERSARY PLAYLIST on Spotify, you realise how broad genre-wise, the label’s output has been. You said it’s hard to pigeonhole the label, but is it possible to define what a Nonesuch artist is?

I’ll flip the question and then I’ll come back to you. We are often asked who the Nonesuch audience is. And I don’t know, because I don’t think there’s anybody that I can think of, who listens to the Black Keys and listens to Jeremy Denk, the great classical pianist. I mean, I do.

And it’s funny to say that: that ‘I do’. In some ways, we’ve had this incredibly privileged experience at Nonesuch, where we have pursued our own passions. That can seem like there’s a lot of ego attached to it.

“There are a lot of people on the planet, and it’s a big world of music. We’ve been able to find special projects over the years, never knowing they were the project.”

But there’s respect for audiences who share that passion. They may not share it from the Black Keys to Jeremy Denk, but there are bigger circles that you could draw around a group of artists than you might think. We never have underestimated the passion and belief of that audience. They’re there. They’re not the mainstream, maybe.

But there are a lot of people on the planet, and it’s a big world of music. We’ve been able to find special projects over the years, never knowing they were the project.

Some of those passion projects have turned into huge commercial successes. Could you highlight any?

The biggest successes we’ve had have never been something designed to be successful or that we even knew would be successful, like the Buena Vista Social Club.

When we heard that record, it was like, ‘Wow, this is beautiful’ and Ry Cooder is involved in it. We could sell 50,000 copies. And I think it’s up to almost 10 million now.

To go back to what you first asked me about Nonesuch. People ask us, what are you looking for? What we’re looking for is something we’ve never heard, or feels as if there’s an ambition attached to it.

You’ll never know the future, but you can see that this is an artist who’s thinking about, not the next six months or the next year, but a lifetime.

Is there an element of looking for virtuosic musicianship and virtuosic ability in your A&R or signing decisions and planning?

Virtuosic musicianship is both a gift and the product of years of work. Molly Tuttle is a virtuosic guitarist. Two new artists to Nonesuch are virtuosic classical singers: Julia Bullock (pictured), who won a Grammy this year for her Nonesuch debut, and bass-baritone Davóne Tines.

They are both making their debuts at the Metropolitan Opera this spring in El Nino, an oratorio by one of the greatest composers in the world and another Nonesuch artist, the composer John Adams.

Julia and Davóne are undeniable virtuosos. But it is what they do with that virtuosity that has drawn us to them. Both have made records that stray far from the traditional classical repertoire.

In Davóne’s case, he’s making what I think of as an electronic gospel record, built around repertoire associated with Paul Robeson. The singing is stunning, richly virtuosic, but he is addressing the question, ‘How do I say something within this tradition that I’m a part of that you have not heard before’?

That’s the beautiful spot where you have combined virtuosity, vision, and ambition to do something new. And that’s not easy for people to get to, at least initially.

That’s where the patience, and belief in the artists, and the longer-term view comes in. People always talk about the old-fashioned record business, where you could make three or four records, like Joni Mitchell, who made four records before people really got it. This business model is harder than ever, being as inundated as we are by diversions, distractions, and content.

And I don’t mean just music content, just [the] deluge [of content] all around us. How do you carve out a space in that? It’s not easy, but our belief has been that these artists, if they are as singular as we think they are, ultimately, they’ll be heard. It’s about having faith in both the spirit and commitment of the artists. We’ve often been right.

You mentioned earlier that you put out about 20 releases a year. How many artists do you sign?

A couple every year. Especially if you have a roster that in some cases has been with you for decades. There’s only so much a small staff can handle. We do get support from Warner Music Group via Warner Records for certain projects, like the Black Keys especially, within the distribution network and system there.

So it’s not just us. But most of the work that’s put into those records is done by that small [team] at Nonesuch. That means you’re weighing the decision to sign [artists] pretty heavily. We’ve had to pass on all kinds of things that have real quality.

We also have to be realistic about what can we do. How much can we do, given the artists that we worked with, and the artists that we’d love to work with?

I read that one of your predecessors, Teresa Sterne, liked to refer to herself as the Editor of Nonesuch. It’s an interesting idea, because it makes you think of a curator or librarian. Does that ring true for you and your team, being in charge of such a historic library of content?

We certainly stand on the shoulders of the people who built [the label], Teresa [Stern] and Bob [Hurwitz]. There have essentially been three people who have run this company for 60 years. Tracy for the first 15 or so years, Bob for 33. And I’ve now been doing it for seven, although I was there with Bob from the late 80s.

We have collectively curated this label over a long period of time. We feel a real responsibility to the catalog in addition to what we’re doing in terms of new releases.

For a long time prided ourselves on keeping our catalog in print but as the digital era has evolved, it’s become impossible because the physical business is not there in the same way that it was for us. But at least we’re keeping it in print digitally.

Having such a broad range of genres on the label, do you see any specific opportunities in terms of genres that you’re getting an increased interest in from listeners. Stats have been reported over the past 12 months or so about a rising number of younger listeners of classical music on streaming services. What trends are you seeing?

It’s an interesting question about younger listeners, who have grown up hearing everything. I was in an Uber last night and the driver was born in Tehran and he came here when he was 12. He was talking about the music that mattered to him. And I asked, ‘What do you listen to?’ He said he listened to a lot of rap when he first got [to the US]. But his mother, who grew up in Tehran is a huge Grateful Dead fan. How do these things develop? And how do younger listeners hear music? This is not answering your question, by the way, but you’ve reminded me of this: The thing I miss most about the [pre-streaming] era is record stores.

You would go into a record store, and they’d have whatever the new records were on the wall. There was a communal place you could go to. Now that communal place is on your phone and all of the music is there. It can be overwhelming sometimes. But it has given younger listeners visibility, if they’re interested, to cast their net so wide as they figure out where they want to go.

It can open up the possibilities of old styles of music being newly recognized or newly appreciated. As I was saying about Davóne Tines and Julia Bullock, they’re not just making classical recital records. They’re reflecting all of the things they’ve grown up listening to. They aren’t just recreating the past, they are reinventing it for the future. So that’s the ideal. That gets you very excited when you hear something like that.

Black Keys
Photo credit: Jim Herrington
That’s what The Black Keys have done with the Blues right? Could you tell us about their journey, from signing with Nonesuch to becoming the commercial success they are today?

They had made a couple of records for Fat Possum, which then was this Mississippi-born label focused on the blues. Some of their heroes were artists on the label. So it was a dream for them early in their careers to be a part of that. By the time we were talking to them, people knew who they were. They were selling 50,000 or 75,000 records.

But their manager, John Peets at Q Prime South, was someone I knew. He asked if we might be interested in the Keys and at the same time he said to them, ‘You should go talk to Nonesuch’. So Dan [Auerbach) and Pat [Patrick Carney] came to my office. Nobody was with them. They came in, and I’m not sure they knew exactly why they were there.

They knew a little bit about Nonesuch, because the first question Dan asked was, ‘So what’s it like working with Ali Farka Touré’, who is the great, great Malian guitarist, kind of in the blues idiom, going back to the real roots of that music. And I thought, ‘Okay, we have something to talk about here’.  They’ve gone deep.

“They knew a little bit about Nonesuch, because the first question Dan asked was, ‘So what’s it like working with Ali Farka Touré’, who is the great, great Malian guitarist, kind of in the blues idiom, going back to the real roots of that music. And I thought, ‘Okay, we have something to talk about here’.”

They left the office and John Peets, who is still a good friend of mine, told me later that he got a call from them saying, ‘Hey, Nonesuch has posters of Philip Glass on the wall. What’s the idea here?’ They were being courted by a lot of labels [at that time]. And Peets said he told them, at Nonesuch, in addition to me knowing the people there, you will be the only one of you. You’re not going to be one of five rock bands elbowing each other for position inside the label.

That will mean something in terms of the work that’s put into it. But it’ll also mean something in terms of the context in which you’re seen. And that goes back to your question about a curatorial vision.

So many times, I’ve had these conversations with artists, either who have come to talk to us or who are on the label. That this context, this family, this idea of what music can be, the broad playing field that it represents, and the quality of the artistry, is such an appealing thing.

The Black Keys first release for Nonesuch, Magic Potion
Did you think that the Black Keys would become as big a commercial success as what they’ve become?

No. We certainly imagined them continuing to grow and evolve beyond where they were at that time. They had released Thickfreakness and then Rubber Factory. It had gotten a fair amount of recognition and they came in, we talked, and we ended up signing them.

The next record was Magic Potion – their first record on Nonesuch and the Warner Music Group. It didn’t do much better than the last Fat Possum record. So what does an artist think at that point? Do they say this label’s not so great? Or do they think “all right, we’ve got to up our game.” Magic Potion was the last record they made in the basement.

I think they realized that ‘Okay, we’ve done that. We need to take this to the next level. If we’re going to be a part of this label and a part of this bigger company, we need to deliver.’ And from that came Attack and Release and from that came working with Danger Mouse. From that came this bigger idea; this expansiveness.

That’s what you hope will happen when you sign an artist. That you’re not resting on your laurels. Even to this day, this new record, Patrick told me a year ago, ‘This next record is going to be something special. We are really working hard on this. We want to deliver a record that has more than one hit on it.’ Maybe that speaks to the conversation that started 20 years ago about what their ambition was. I would never think something we’re going to do is going to sell millions and millions of records. I’d love it if it could. But that’s a hard thing to see when they’ve sold 50,000.

How does it work between Nonesuch and Warner Records, with the Black Keys for example, and a record like Ohio Players? How does the division of labor work?

That is where the collaboration with Warner is at its most meaningful. The history is there in terms of the Keys’ success. It’s interesting; back when we started with Magic Potion, we began the relationship with the idea that Warner Records would be an important part of the campaign, and that they would contribute to it. But in truth, for the first record, there wasn’t a lot for them to do.

There was the track Your Touch that remains a staple for the band. But it was the next record, Attack and Release, where the Warner team heard it, and said, ‘Okay, we think we can do something.’ And then certainly, as we moved into Brothers, their involvement has only expanded over the years. At this point, almost every aspect of their team touches this record in some way.

Our head of marketing, Dan Cohen, is still overseeing it, but he is working with the heads of at least half a dozen departments at Warner Records on this, from video, to digital to sales, to sync and licensing. All of those different components of the company are involved to see what the possibilities are and are excited about the record.

And for International, Matthew Rankin [Senior Vice President] runs our London office. They handle the marketing and the press for all of our records in the UK as well as overseeing all aspects of our international business. With international, we plug in literally through Max [Lousada, CEO of Recorded Music for Warner Music Group] and the whole international marketing team on the Keys. I was on a call with him and the heads of many of the international Warner companies a month ago, playing some music, and talking about where this was going.

Warner also handles all of our legal work, as well as the financials and all of the promotion. We don’t have a promotion team, so when that opportunity exists, Warner Records is a key part of that. With the Black Keys, there are calls every week with Warner Records people, some Nonesuch people, and management; It’s very integrated.

What does success look like or mean to you?

The most meaningful thing to me is making what I consider to be a great record. It’s about artistic success. What does that mean? Sometimes that’s reflected in terms of a critical response. Sometimes that’s reflected in terms of an audience response. To create an aesthetic, artistic success helps to pave the way to whatever comes next.

It’s not like you hit a wall and go, ‘Oh, you know, this record is not as good as the last one. And what do we do next? Is there an audience out there for it or not?’ It goes back to what we were saying earlier. The whole purpose of signing somebody is about a creative vision. It’s about that vision continuing to expand and evolve. The Black Keys are a good example of that with this new record.Music Business Worldwide

Related Posts