Gareth Murphy meets Andrew Rossiter, boss of ORG Music – the Californian indie reissues label curating, re-releasing and restoring lost masterpieces back to their rightful place in the spotlight…
Ask any record shop owner and they’ll probably have noticed this intriguing success story. It’s called ORG Music, a red-hot reissues label that’s got the music business asking the obvious question: how come a young indie is reissuing so many deliciously packaged and remastered classics from major-signed giants such as Miles Davis, Nirvana, John Coltrane, Johnny Cash, Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk, Weather Report, Sly And The Family Stone, Carole King, Sonic Youth, Chet Baker, Roy Orbison, Sonny Rollins, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Buzzcocks, Porno For Pyros and many others?
Yes indeed, if you’re looking for a small business that encapsulates both the opportunities and the extraordinary contradictions of today’s vinyl revival, you’d be hard-pressed (excuse the pun) to find a better case study than ORG Music. Based in Los Angeles, it’s become the labour of love of a 29-year-old, Andrew Rossiter, who, like most successful label bosses, threw himself into the business before he was old enough to think twice.
Originally a musician from Ohio, Rossiter started out promoting punk gigs as a teenager then, at 19, got a part-time job with WEA, plugging Atlantic, Elektra and Warner records around Chicago’s college circuits. Having lived briefly in New York, he moved to Los Angeles at the age of 22 and landed a full-time job at Warner Bros. Records. It was there that two years later, in 2011, he was invited to manage ORG Music.
The imprint began in 2009, at first as an abbreviated offshoot of Original Recordings Group, and was handled largely by Warner’s former vinyl chief, Jeff Bowers, the man who hired Rossiter. It had been Bowers who set up much of ORG Music’s early framework – dazzling titles from Nirvana and Sonic Youth, and also the original distribution deal with WEA.
When the 23-year-old Andrew Rossiter was handed the baby, nobody was expecting what was to follow. But the combination of Rossiter’s youthful perfectionism and the fluke of getting his break just as the vinyl market was poised for unexpected growth, provided the happy accident that destinies are so often made of.
Andrew Rossiter is now a company shareholder, alongside two other partners, based in Washington DC. Despite a much bigger output than before, it’s still very much a one-man operation: Rossiter is both the A&R chief and general manager, who calls extra hands on deck for the busy periods of the vinyl calendar.
As you’d imagine, reissues are a totally different business model to producing new artists, and Rossiter’s early job experiences inside Warner gave him vital contacts and knowledge of what the music industry calls “licensing” – the legal term whereby a third-party label obtains an agreement to release someone else’s copyright in return for a royalty.
Needless to say, nearly all classic repertoire from the last century has been gobbled up by the last three majors – Universal, Sony and Warner, who collectively control about 75 per cent of today’s record market. Follow the paper trail of any album on any iconic imprint – Columbia, Stax, Island, Motown, A&M, Verve, Decca, Def Jam, Chrysalis, 2 Tone, Impulse, Creation, Virgin, EMI, Parlophone… and it’ll probably lead to the legal division of a major corporation.
It’s nonetheless fitting that ORG Music grew out of Warner’s backyard. Of the Big Three, the Warner group of labels, which includes Atlantic, Warner Bros. Records, Elektra, Nonesuch, Sire, East West and Rhino, as well as America’s biggest indie distributor, ADA, was always considered the coolest of the major corporations.
ADA, which is now ORG Music’s distributor, has become an important indie marketplace for many of the niche labels driving the US vinyl revival. Even Warner’s in-house labels appear to be taking vinyl just as seriously as competitors Universal and Sony.
But to understand why some of the majors aren’t really doing this themselves, one must grasp the harsh complexities of today’s post-crash industry. Much of today’s concentration happened in the gung-ho 80s and 90s, when the CD was booming and profits had never been juicier. Back then, the objective of the publicly floated majors was to keep buying smaller labels, so their share values would keep rising.
Since the CD crash, however, Universal, Sony and Warner have suffered such shrinkage and staff layoffs, they’ve become physically unable to work their enviable catalogues – much of which exists only in digital form. And that’s why a behemoth such as Universal would let the likes of Andrew Rossiter reissue some of its classic titles on vinyl.
“I’m hesitant to make too many assumptions about the intentions of the majors,” explains Rossiter, “but I assume it’s primarily about bandwidth. Through acquisitions and mergers, these catalogue groups have become larger and larger over the years, and it may be that there are simply too many releases for them to handle on their own. Also, vinyl requires great attention to detail and is more costly than other formats, so, allowing a quality-focused independent to reissue their music can alleviate some of that burden. Licensing has also become a way for them to derive revenue from titles that may seem too risky, or not worthwhile to press themselves.”
As the vinyl market keeps growing, that attitude may be starting to change. But for the moment, the majors continue to generate their millions from other sources, notably their 360-degree contracts with teen pop stars, digital royalties, and what their legal departments call “synchronisation” – the term for leasing songs to advertisements, TV shows and blockbuster films. Compared to these types of corporate windfalls that can make upwards of £100,000 for a film, or a million for a big ad campaign, the lowly work of pressing and distributing obscure vinyl is peanut-picking.
In fact, the majors have become such copyright agencies, many of their legal departments have adopted the revealing title of Special Marketing. Beehives of jurists sift and dispatch a constant flood of email requests from advertisement agencies, compilation labels, film and TV producers, website designers, mobile-phone operators – anyone and everyone who needs one of
The majors are doing what they can with what they have. But anyone who’s ever worked for one of these industry leviathans is not expecting Universal, Sony or even Warner to navigate the music business back to market recovery alone. That mission is also in the hands of younger, more versatile independents who are taking the biggest A&R risks and addressing the most discerning tastemakers in society.
And this rule even applies to vinyl reissues, because the meticulous work of remastering from tape to vinyl and rebuilding lost artwork, requires a certain kind of perfectionist. And the purists, collectors and musicians who buy these types of records, really do expect the highest
“We’ve reissued three of Thelonious Monk’s Columbia albums; Criss-Cross, Solo Monk and Underground, for which Sony/Legacy provided analogue tapes, our preferred source,” explains Rossiter. “As we do with many of our jazz releases, we had Bernie Grundman master from tape, which we then pressed on 180-gram vinyl at Pallas Group in Germany.”
For those who don’t recognise the reference, Bernie Grundman is a Hollywood-based titan who began his long career at A&M in the 1970s and went on to master Thriller, Purple Rain and just about every major artist in the business. He’s probably the most respected and experienced mastering engineer in music history.
Diamonds and pearls
As for Pallas, it’s a highly reputed plant in north west Germany, albeit a rather complicated choice of manufacturer for a Californian indie such as ORG Music.
“We go to great lengths,” Rossiter emphasises. “When it comes to making great-sounding records, Bernie and Pallas has become our winning combination. As for the artwork, we found mint-condition copies of those old Thelonius Monk pressings, we took high-resolution scans and had our designer rebuild the covers to match the originals as faithfully as possible.”
The Grundman/Pallas formula has restored a string of old pearls back to their former glory. In fact, these reissues are arguably better-sounding than ever. For example, there are four John Coltrane classics: Coltrane Jazz, Coltrane’s Sound, My Favorite Things and Olé Coltrane. From Ornette Coleman, there’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Free Jazz and Science Fiction.
From Freddie Hubbard, there’s First Light, Red Clay and Straight Life. Others include There’s A Riot Goin’ On by Sly And The Family Stone, Odyssey by James Blood Ulmer, Concierto by Jim Hall, Black Codes (From The Underground) by Wynton Marsalis, and Weather Report’s self-titled 1971 début.
One Grundman/Pallas title happens to be one of my all-time favourite Desert Island Discs: Stone Flower, the 1970 classic by bossa-nova pioneer, Antônio Carlos Jobim. For curious spirits unfamiliar with tropical jazz, I should warn you that its tangy mix of Brazil and California may at first taste like melted cheese. But once you get inside Jobim’s ingenious soundscapes, Stone Flower becomes a feast of pocket sunshine.
Rock aficionados may recognise its stirring title track from Santana’s cover version on Caravanserai – an indication of Stone Flower’s major influence on psychedelic jazz-rock. My favourite track, however, is Children’s Games – it’s guaranteed to skip around your heart for life.
You really can’t fault ORG Music on its A&R credentials. For such a young and small label, their catalogue is already a connoisseur’s emporium. But of course, in today’s shrunken market, such extremism presents its own challenges.
Although indie stores remain ORG Music’s primary outlet, Rossiter has had to find audiences in different ways. For example, America’s biggest book chain, Barnes & Noble, stocks many of these highbrow jazz records simply because bookworms recognise what these titles mean and can afford the sometimes hefty price tags.
“We always have to keep pricing in mind,” sighs Rossiter. “Some customers have come to expect a level of quality that is simply not possible without charging a premium. It comes down to the master source, the engineer, the pressing plant and even the printer. We have to make these decisions on a title-to-title basis; not every release is going to appeal to that same audiophile customer and not every customer is willing to pay for that level of quality.”
For the last three editions of Record Store Day, ORG Music had issued a new Sun Records compilation of deep cuts from the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Rufus Thomas, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Alvin Robinson and others. Store owners vote for the tracks, the RSD organisation helps with the concept artwork, and as a community, they launch the finished record together.
For these types of special editions, ORG Music sells out all 4,000 records – healthy numbers in today’s economy. Sun Records is one of the few independently owned catalogues left – a factor which may explain why they’ve become one of Rossiter’s most loyal collaborators. The same applies to Black Lion, an old jazz catalogue that’s also managed to stay independent. From Black Lion, Rossiter has reissued various beauties such as Outer Spaceways Incorporated by Sun Ra, or At Storyville by Billie Holiday.
As with all record labels operating in today’s complex and depressed market, ORG Music has no choice but to look wide and adapt each project to its own special needs. Whatever the actual title or target audience, the overarching objective is always to go further than just reissuing out-of-press vinyl. Fully utilising state-of-the-art analogue technology and a more specialist approach to A&R and publicity, all these records are meant to sound, feel and play better than their original ancestors.
As such, Andrew Rossiter does not see his daily work as junkyard surplus or tawdry reproduction. He’s more like a specialist antiques dealer who recognises, restores and organises the music-business equivalent of openings, exhibitions and auctions. It’s the expensive, high-risk business of saving masterpieces from obscurity by giving them a new lease of life. The mission is to return sunken treasure to its rightful audience.