Charting Celtic Music’s Way Forward

Alison Brown Compass co-founders, Photo courtesy of Compass Records
Alison Brown Compass co-founders, Photo courtesy of Compass Records

By Tara Dougherty, Music Editor
October / November 2011

Nashville-based Compass Records has grown to become the most reliable and exciting source for new Celtic music.

While it seems there is no conventional story of musical success, Irish American Alison Brown’s path was particularly unique. A former investment banker, Brown is now recognized as a premier banjoist and has recorded such critically acclaimed solo albums as Fair Weather, the 2000 Grammy winner for Best Country Instrumental Perform-ance. She is also the co-founder of Nashville-based label Compass Records, the staple in Celtic music in America.

Compass Records is housed in an historic building in Music City, the walls practically pulsating with the sounds of decades of legendary visitors. Willie Nelson and Jimmy Buffett are just two frequenters of the address that Compass Records now boasts. Throughout the offices, the walls are lined with black and white photographs of Nashville greats. Upstairs, a state-of-the-art studio is housed, and just down the hall, a playroom for Alison and her husband and business partner Garry West’s two young children Hannah (9) and Brendan (4).

A Hartford, Connecticut native, Alison Brown initially put a stop to her musical ambitions and pursued a career in investment banking. After earning degrees in history and literature from Harvard University and an MBA from UCLA, Brown worked in San Francisco for several years before taking the hectic life of touring. She first made a name for herself nationally in the summer of 1978 touring with fiddler Stuart Duncan. In 1989, her life would change dramatically when she was asked to join then bluegrass and country up-and-comer Alison Krauss. Brown followed Krauss, now a 26-time Grammy winner, to Nashville in the early 90s as the banjoist in her Union Station band. She met bassist Garry West through their mutual musical endeavors – and together they went to found what is now one of the most globally respected independent music labels.

In the world of do-it-yourself musicians, it is hard to imagine a time when the business side of the music industry was run entirely by the businessmen. Though certainly no slouches when it came to knowledge of distribution (Brown’s MBA from UCLA being nothing to scoff at), Brown and West considered themselves primarily a musician-run label.

“The artist-owned label wasn’t a concept at the time,” West explained. But the vision the two expressed to me was just that: artists helping lift other artists to the surface of public consciousness. It started with their friends, but soon the label branched out to include inspiring acts the pair did not previously know.

“And I felt, probably the same way that you do: If people heard this music, how could they not love it?” Brown summarized.

The couple has a habit of doing this – finishing each other’s sentences, completing stories and clarifying. They speak like a perfect musical arrangement, full of give-and-take, never outshining the other for too long.

Most interesting is the way they manage to throw in what I came to call “Compassisms” – perfect sound-bites, summing up entire promotional philosophies in clipped sentences.

In 1997, Compass artist Kate Rusby released Hourglass, which went on to become widely successful, even outside of traditional folk listening circles. “That album became our calling card for English folk,” Brown said. Compass continued to branch out into different genres, and Celtic music soon became a regular category on the release list.

Brown’s background was primarily in bluegrass music, but she discovered a connection to Irish traditional music. “The acoustic nature of the music, as well as the excitement of it, made it a natural pairing with bluegrass,” she said.

In 2006, Compass Records Group acquired the 30-year-old Green Linnet label, making it the largest label for Irish and Celtic music in the U.S. and adding a list of well-known Irish traditional artists such as Mick Moloney and John Doyle to its stable of artists.

When I asked about the changes in distribution as the music industry, and every industry, turns digital, Brown responded: “It’s harder to turn the Titanic than our little barge,” by way of explaining that since the label’s focus is primarily on niche music, there is a much more personal connection to the buyer than one finds with larger labels. Their movement into the digital world will be gradual, and according to these two, the music industry will never go completely digital.

“You can’t autograph a download,” West added ruefully, a favorite Compassism. What Compass seems to understand, with particular regard to Irish traditional music, is the significance of a relationship between band and listener. It’s face-time, not the download count, and what brings fans to concerts and festivals is what nurtures that most enviable quality in a musician: longevity.

“The artists need to be pedaling the bike. There needs to be a certain amount of buzz around an artist for us to make the case to promote them as needed,” West said. With acts like Compass’s widely successful Beoga, word had traveled. The Celtic quintet is comprised of accomplished and experienced musicians who paid their dues in the genre.

Brown admitted that, at the time of the label’s inception, their initial idyllic dream was just the opposite of their current philosophy. As an artist-run label, Brown wanted to take an artist no one had ever heard of and bring them to the world stage.

“You can’t lead through promotion anymore,” West said, adding another Compassism: “The best sales tool is word of mouth.”

West went on to say that an estimated 85 percent of Celtic music sales are still physical. Whether bought at Celtic specialty shops or more likely at venues after a concert, Irish traditional music remains a CD-in-case genre primarily.

While technology has come to suggest that musicians are becoming more and more independent, West and Brown say that the existence of record labels is more important now than ever.

“We are looking for the best of the genre. We are more likely to sign a band out of Northern Ireland than Nashville,” Brown said. Compass’s goal is to take that music, already abuzz with dedicated fans, and promote it in a way in which the artists cannot.

With record stores collapsing throughout the country, the best way to get records to fans for roots music is through touring. “We still get handwritten requests for CDs in the mail,” Brown said. “And people call [Compass] and ask ‘What’s good now?’” West added.

With recent releases from Irish bands Beoga, Altan and John Doyle, there’s a lot ‘good now’ coming from Compass.

One Response to “Charting Celtic Music’s Way Forward”

  1. [...] Dougherty also contributed many fine pieces on music and entertainment, including interviews with Alison Brown and her husband Garry West , the founders of Compass Records. Sláinte columnist Edythe Preet is one of our most popular [...]

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