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Music To Our Ears: Exploring Westchester’s Record Labels

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When classical pianist Michael Boriskin was recording on an independent record label, the company was bought up by a major label, and, without any notification, all of Boriskin’s recordings were wiped off the library. On another occasion, a European friend informed Boriskin that one of his classical piano tracks—from an album he recorded for a small label in London that was also overtaken by a major—was included on an bizarre compilation featuring a mishmash of genres. He’d had no idea. Instances like this are what propel people to launch their own record labels, giving them artistic and legal control over all aspects of their creative output. 

Copland House in Cortlandt Manor is a creative institution that has been recording classical artists and orchestras, as well as housing resident artists and mentoring up-and-coming young musicians, since 1998. The organization’s label, Copland House Blend, launched last February and features work by multiple Grammy Award-winning producer Judith Sherman, recordings by resident composers and the Music From Copland House ensemble, and re-masters of audio and videos showcasing classical luminaries.  

“Honestly, from the time that the Music From Copland House ensemble began recording in 2004, we had already been thinking of doing this under our own label,” says Boriskin, artistic and executive director at Copland House. “We felt then—and this is really a mark in how the world has changed—that the time wasn’t opportune because there was the very strong need to have the physical product and albums distributed in stores and in retail outlets all over the country and world.” Oh, how times have changed.

Copland House Blend shows how musicians can own and control their own recordings.

Like the organization as a whole, Copland House Blend’s goal is to “champion American music,” to find and tap unexplored, unique talent, primarily of the classical variety. While distribution in worldwide book and record stores is no longer a priority, for Copland House, a physical presence of both the label and of the recordings is still important. “This is a major cultural and societal and generational change that we’re seeing, a movement toward all digital products. But it’s going to take a while for that evolution to continue,” Boriskin says. 

Fred Gillen Jr. operates DYS Records—mainly for his own singer/songwriter recordings and side projects—out of Peekskill. Although the scope of his operation is much smaller than that of Copland House, he also embraces the appeal of physical recordings.

He printed 1,000 compact discs of his album, Wage Love, and distributes downloadable versions on his website and on iTunes and Bandcamp. As with classical music, many people who purchase or listen to Gillen Jr.’s music, which falls mostly under the folk umbrella, prefer a CD in hand.

“In the folk venues, most people don’t have record players and a lot of them have never downloaded anything,” he says, noting the preference for CDs is specific to the genre. “I play in another band—Hot Rod Pacer, kind of late-’70s rock—and at our gigs, we can’t sell a CD. But the next day, we’ll have some downloads on iTunes.”

Ever since 1997, when he launched DYS, Gillen Jr. has had a propensity for charting his own territory. The appeal of ultimate autonomy and decision-making over his art came to a head following discouraging conversations he had with representatives from outside labels. “At that time I was disgusted with the whole thing,” Gillen Jr. admits. “These days I actually feel differently about it because most people who were the music people in the music business have found a way to make a living in the independent world.”

At the end of the day, DYS presents the musician’s most ideal climate for creativity and innovation. “I’m small potatoes. Between my studio and my gigging, I make what I call a living…maybe most people in Westchester wouldn’t call it much of a living. But it works for me,” Gillen Jr. says.

On the bigger potatoes side of the Westchester-based label industry is New Rochelle’s Grammy-winning Bridge Records, which produced its first CD 34 years ago. Bridge’s repertoire is largely classical but also includes jazz, world music, hip-hop, and some rock and pop. Operated by husband-wife duo David and Becky Starobin, Bridge has recorded many of the world’s most famous classical ensembles: the New York Philharmonic, the BBC National Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to name a few. Its best sellers include historical icons Garrick Ohlsson, Leon Fleisher, Nathan Milstein, and Benny Goodman. 

“David and I felt that there was a pressing need for a record label devoted to challenging musical personalities, composer and performer alike, both in terms of musical genre and interpretive style,” Becky Starobin says. “We have always looked for musicians with individual personalities.” 

One of the proudest moments for the Starobins was recording its Grammy-winning “Star-Child,” a huge piece for orchestra, soloists, and choruses and so complex that many other labels and producers had tried and failed for 25 years to make a recording. 

“Even former New York Philharmonic conductor Pierre Boulez called the piece ‘unrecordable.’ Our producer [David Starobin] devised a way of recording the piece in layers, beginning in Warsaw, Poland, with the Warsaw Philharmonic, and then recording sections in New York City with added soloists and bells,” Becky explains. “These pieces of the recording were then layered and edited together in sessions in Los Angeles and New York. The end result is gloriously hair-raising and sounds like everyone was in one room at the same time. It’s a real tribute to human ingenuity and the advancing state of recorded technology.”

Although Westchester’s record label industry is small, it is passionate and proud. Unlike many international labels where mostly businessmen make decisions, each of these Westchester companies is spearheaded and operated by musicians.

“We want to end up owning the material that we spend so much time working on,” Boriskin says. “We’re certainly finding out that what we’re involved with is very much a trend in the music industry—artists and organizations controlling their own recording work.” 

Shauna Farnell writes for a number of national publications, including Men’s Journal, Bike Magazine, and M Music & Musicians. A New York City resident transplanted from Colorado and a huge fan of independent music, Farnell is fascinated with the evolution of the record industry.

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