Fifty years ago, recorded music was disseminated to the public on easily scratchable vinyl LPs that were sold in places called "record stores." Today, without setting foot out of their houses, many people obtain the tunes they want in digital form via downloading -- sometimes legally, sometimes not. The recording industry has changed almost beyond recognition. And the musical theater repertoire, once the backbone of the industry, has become more and more marginalized, with a few stunning exceptions. TheaterMania recently spoke with record company executives Brian Drutman (Decca Broadway), Hugh Fordin (DRG), Tommy Krasker (PS Classics), Kurt Deutsch (Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight), and Bill Rosenfield (Sony/BMG) about the business and art of making cast albums.
THEATERMANIA: Brian, I understand that the Decca Broadway recording of Wicked has sold spectacularly well.
BRIAN DRUTMAN: Yes. As of now, it has sold half a million copies, so it's been certified gold by the recording industry. Very few show albums are that successful; Mamma Mia! is the only other one I can think of at the moment. Spamalot has also done very well, but Wicked is a phenomenon, partly because the show is playing in so many places. That really does help CD sales. The more productions you have, the more opportunities you have to sell the record at the theater, and so on.
TM: Was that album an easier sell -- or, I should say, an easier buy -- than others that Decca signed on to do?
BD: The questions we're always faced with are (1) is the show good and will it play for awhile, and (2) is the recording something that people are going to buy? There are many examples where a show has done well but the recording hasn't. Just breaking even really isn't sufficient for larger companies like Decca, Universal, and BMG because of the money that you're spending not just to make the recording but also in terms of marketing and all that. I do a lot of reissues, as you know, and those are different; because the recording costs are already paid for, if I just make back the cost of remastering an album, that's considered a success. With a new recording, the stakes are much higher -- and so are the expectations. I'm grateful that smaller companies record for posterity small shows that a big company would never touch because the profit margin's too small or the profit won't come for years.
TM: But even a recording of a flop show can make tons of money over time. I very much doubt that, as the decades passed, Columbia was sorry it recorded Candide.
BD: No, I'm sure they weren't. This is a legacy that we have.
TM: In the wake of Wicked, do you think Decca will record more new shows and reissue more of the older cast albums?
BD: I wish! People asked me the same thing after Mamma Mia! That cast album sold a million and a quarter copies. Friends of mine said, "Well, you did Mamma Mia! so now you can do Ankles Aweigh." I think the company trusts my judgment, but I don't think they're going to give me a longer rope. That's just the nature of this beast -- and, in a sense, that's why smaller companies like PS Classics and Sh-K-Boom are doing well. A lot of big shows want to go with a big company because their return will be larger; for example, there was a lot of competition for the recording of The Color Purple, the way there is with movie soundtracks. But the shows that are a little bit thornier may go begging for a recording.
TM: Of course, nothing is certain. Wicked wasn't guaranteed to be a hit.
BD: Absolutely not. It's hard to know what's going to excite people and what isn't. All Shook Up did not do the kind of numbers that make record companies happy. In the case of Wicked, we certainly did not know for sure that it would be a huge hit when we committed to record it. Another show we recorded, Seussical, was touted as the second coming. We were in a bidding war with BMG over that one, and look what happened! The show was a critical and financial failure. The recording has recouped, but only because of the road tour.
MP: What's coming up for Decca?
BD: We're looking, and we're taking all suggestions and ideas -- whatever people think is going to be a big hit. Have you heard of anything?
TM: Hugh, I'm sure I speak for all musical theater buffs when I say that we love you and DRG for putting out so many new recordings and reissues -- even if some of us can't understand how most of those albums can possibly break even, let alone be profitable.
HUGH FORDIN: Well, we had to give up recording the Encores! series because those CDs just didn't pay off at all. The unions were not being cooperative, particularly Equity. They felt that each of those shows should be treated just like a Broadway show in terms of the recording contract. When we did get them to give in a little, it was only because the musicians' union gave in a little -- but not very much. It still became prohibitive because of the very large casts and orchestra.
TM: Do you mean that Equity wanted to stick with the usual rule for recording Broadway shows, where all of the cast members get a week's salary for the session?
HF: It can actually be more than a week's salary. Here's how it works: You get $182 for each solo or duet you do, so if you've got 10 solos, that's $1,820. So even if you're only making $1,350 a week in the show, you're getting $1,820 for the album. And if any song is longer than three minutes and 10 seconds, then it's considered a song and a half, and you're paid accordingly.
TM: What about the reissues? They're far less expensive to do, so I'm assuming that they pay off much sooner.
HF: Yes. For the most part, the label that licenses the recording also manufactures the CD for you; so they're making money both in royalties and in manufacturing the discs, and we don't have to put up anything upfront. The only thing that really costs us is creating the packaging. Sometimes, they don't give us any artwork because it doesn't exist, and sometimes we add to the artwork because it was originally an LP or it was a CD with only a four-page booklet, and now we want to do an eight-page booklet. But, expense-wise, that's not of any great consequence.
TM: Of your reissues, which ones have sold much better than you would have expected?
HF: The Capitol series has done very well: The Gay Life, Top Banana, and Plain and Fancy. Our biggest seller has turned out to be Brigadoon, [the studio cast album with Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy]. I didn't know that there was going to be that big a demand for it, but I wanted to reissue it because I knew how wonderful it was.
TM: And the biggest dissapointments...?
HF: One that was a disappointment to me was The Girl Most Likely. It was supposed to be paired with a 10-inch Capitol album called Three Sailors and a Girl that Jane Powell did with Gordon MacRae and Jackie Leonard. It was a good movie score. It was done in the Capitol studios, but they claimed they didn't own the master. They said, "We have the tape but we don't have the contract."
TM: How do you feel about downloading?
HF: Of course, we do a lot of business in downloading, but we would never limit ourselves to that because there are a lot of older people who will not go out and buy a computer. What are you going to do with those people? You make it difficult for them when you say, "Look, the only way you can get this obscure album is to order it online." I feel sorry for them, but there's nothing I can do; I can't send them a complimentary computer!
TM: Tommy, what's your overview of the cast album industry as it now stands?
TOMMY KRASKER: I think we're all sort of looking for new models to finance the recordings, and I'm sure that's what everybody else has been talking about; I certainly know it's one thing that Kurt [Deutsch] has been very involved in over the last couple of years. We're no longer in an era when the major labels are automatically going to swoop in and pick up any Broadway cast albums, and that's one of the reasons why a company as young as PS Classics is doing them. I didn't start this company thinking I'd be doing Broadway cast albums within two years.
TM: Can you give some examples of new financing models?
TK: We have been able to raise the money for some of our recordings ourselves, but there are others where the theater companies have had an interest in seeing these works preserved, so they have come aboard and helped us finance or raise the financing for the albums. I think Lincoln Center was forthright about it in terms of The Frogs; they very much wanted to see the work preserved. We had just come off Assassins and I said to them, "Quite frankly, I don't have all the money to bring to the table for The Frogs, but I can bring a certain amount if you can bring a certain amount."
TM: For the most part, the major labels no longer seem interested in cast albums because most of them don't sell hundreds of thousands of copies upon their initial release, though they may sell very well over time as more people get to see the shows on Broadway and as they begin to be done around the country in community theaters and schools.
TK: I think that's true. There aren't as many major labels as there were, and there certainly aren't as many major labels that have Broadway divisions. I don't think BMG or Decca Broadway or even EMI are going to leave the cast album business entirely, but -- with the rare exception of something like Wicked -- the recordings are certainly not going to sell the way pop albums do. Maybe Wicked is the exception that keeps us all going.
TM: But aren't the larger companies in a better position to say, "This recording isn't going to make a lot of money right away but eventually, over 30 years or more, it'll make a nice profit." Ironically, it's the smaller companies -- which presumably have less money in the bank and therefore need an earlier return on their investment -- that commit to record the non-blockbuster shows.
TK: I can only speak for PS Classics and say that we have a smaller overhead, so we can afford to be patient. I'm always reticent about speaking for other labels, but it's fair to say that a lot of them have been taken over by their pop divisions in recent years. In the old days, in terms of classical labels, there were always recordings that were prestige items. They might break even, they might lose a little money, they might take three years to recoup -- but they were important and, therefore, they were worth doing. It's different than pop labels, where they expect to sell a couple million units in the first couple of weeks. That's an exaggeration, but you know what I'm saying. It's a different mentality.
TM: How do you feel about downloading?
TK: All of our CDs are available at iTunes, but I don't see any point in the future when we're going to make materials available only for download. If anything, we're trying to make our CD packages as lavish as we can. We think people like to look at those things, especially in the case of Broadway shows. You have to remember, there's an audience outside New York that may never get to see these productions; I want them to relive the experience not only by listening to the CD but also by thumbing through the booklet and seeing the photographs, reading the lyrics and the essays. If something is only downloadable, you lose all that. Ironically, some people have actually said that our packages have gotten too extravagant. I thought, "Well, I'm sorry we gave you a 48-page booklet!"
TM: What's next for PS Classics?
TK: We'll see what comes down the pike. If someone told me that we'd be doing Nine two years in, or that last year we would have done Fiddler and Assassins, I would have laughed at them. But these opportunities keep presenting themselves.
TM: Kurt, can you give a brief description of how the Sh-K-Boom and Ghostlight recordings are financed.
KURT DEUTSCH: Well, what we've been doing for the past year or so is that we've been working with the producers, and they are co-owning the albums. The producer or group of producers will invest in the album the way they invest in the show. I act as executive producer or producer, depending on how involved I am in the studio. Then we distribute the CD and work with the producers to find interesting ways to market it.
TM: You've often made the point that a recording promotes future productions of a show.
KD: Right. Without a cast album, most shows probably wouldn't get done. The Last 5 Years is a perfect example. The album came out three weeks before the show closed. Had we not made the album, people probably would have forgotten about the show -- but now, just about every musical theater student in the country has that CD, and the show has had productions all over the world. It's the same with Amour. That was recently done at Goodspeed, and I think there's going to be a London production. Without the cast album, I guarantee you that the performers wouldn't have been nominated for Tonys and the show wouldn't have been nominated. Gerry Schoenfeld believed in Amour so much that he said, "We have to make an album." And they did.
TM: Is it fair to make the generalization that the major labels are largely uninterested in cast albums nowadays?
KD: I wouldn't say they're not interested, but we're offering a different way to do the recordings. Little Women, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Spelling Bee all had deals on the table from major labels, but we offered a different scenario with different revenue streams and a different model. Marty Bell invested in The Last 5 Years and it actually paid off for him, so he said, "I want to do the same thing with Dirty Rotten."
TM: How are the performers remunerated for their participation in cast albums?
KD: As of yet, I haven't tried to get the unions to change the way that business is done. The performers get a week's salary for every eight hours they're in a studio, and then the way the residuals are determined is very complicated. Basically, the artists get a very, very small percentage of the producer's portion, which is based on a ridiculously slow recoupment schedule. Because a cast album benefits everybody, I think it would make more sense to have everybody make minimum but then pay everybody some kind of percentage from the first record sold. That way, if the album does well, everyone will benefit; if the album doesn't do well and the show doesn't end up succeeding, then at least no one person or group of persons will have lost tons of money, and there will still be a recording of the show.
TM: You've mentioned that there's a studio crunch these days.
KD: It's a bad situation. Right now, there's really only one studio in New York where you can record a cast album. It'd be great to be able to go into the theaters and record live; the technology exists where we could bring a ProTools unit into the theater, isolate the singers and the instruments, record five shows over the course of a week, and then edit the performances together to make a great album. But if we were to do that now, we'd have to pay all of the unions for full eight-hour shifts. It would only work if we could have a blanket payment for the union people.
TM: Why should you have to pay them extra? You'd just be recording performances that they're already being paid to work. It sounds idiotic.
KD: Yeah, but the whole business is based on a lot of archaic rules that were made when major labels were paying for everything. There's a rule that says you're not allowed to use production photographs in your CD artwork unless you pay the stagehands, because they were there working when those photographs were taken. In our CD booklet for The New Moon, we couldn't use pictures of the singers in their costumes because we would have had to pay an astronomical amount of money to the stagehands' union. Of course, that prevents the photographer from earning more money, and it makes the CD package look not so good. We can't pay $10,000 to the unions in order to use those photos. It's a shame, but I hope things will change as people become more educated about the music business and understand that there's a way for us all to benefit from it.
TM: Record piracy is a huge problem. Would you like to say something about that?
KD: Yes. Piracy affects cast albums more than other types of music because the number of people who buy those albums is getting smaller -- so if you copy them, it really hurts. That's the thing you have to stress in your article: If people like musical theater albums and want these things to continue, they should plop down the $15 or whatever it costs to buy the CD and tell their friends to do the same.
TM: How severely is the market shrinking?
KD: Well, Wicked has sold a lot of records, whereas "art shows" don't sell as much. I think The Light in the Piazza is an incredibly beautiful score that, over the long term, will make its money back as an album -- but, initially something like that is not going to sell as many records as Wicked. Little Women has the potential of selling a lot of records because of Maureen [McGovern] and Sutton [Foster], but also because the show is now on a 60-city tour and it's going to be done in every high school for years to come. So the market really depends on what the show is
TM: Bill, it goes without saying that Sony/BMG has a huge back catalogue of cast albums that were originally released on the RCA and Columbia labels -- everything from Hello, Dolly! to All American. What's the future of those recordings in terms of availability?
BILL ROSENFIELD: it seems pretty clear that everything that has been previously digitized by RCA and Sony will be downloadable in the future, because it costs the companies so little to make that material downloadable. The most popular recordings will also be available on CD, but I think recordings of more obscure shows will only be available as downloads and not as hard discs to buy in a store. I would be hesitant to say what we might consider to be "obscure."
TM: What is your position with the newly merged Sony/BMG company?
BR: I'm a consultant, at least until the end of December. I've been working as a consultant to BMG since they fired me from the position of senior vice president of shows and soundtracks. It's been great. When was the last time you were fired from a job and they continued to pay you some money four years later? I'm a lucky guy that way.
TM: What's the future of cast albums?
BR: I think it's very bright because the realization that they're specialized items meant for a limited audience has finally kicked in -- not just with the big record companies but also with the theatrical producers, composers, and creative artists involved. They no longer look at their show albums as having potential radio hits; they look at them realistically as souvenirs of the shows and as marketing tools. Now that there's some sort of perception of reality, the smaller labels like Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight and PS Classics can step up to the plate and do quality work with major shows, rather than being relegated to only doing the minor shows. Sh-K-Boom's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a great example where the record company, the show's producers, and the composer-lyricist were all of the same mind as to what to do about the album. They were all utterly realistic, and I admire that.
TM: Do you regret the fact that so many shows nowadays are not recorded by the major labels?
BR: The truth is that those labels work on a fiscal system where an album has to show a profit within six to 10 months in a given year; if not, they write off the cost of the project and it's considered a failure. Because big record companies are now owned by major conglomerates, they can't afford to take the long view, since everyone's job is on the line every year. Your boss doesn't want to hear, "We spent $600,000 on this album and, even though we only sold 50,000 copies this year, over the next 10 years we're going to sell 800,000." They want the sales now. This is what I was up against when I was working for RCA. What makes the smaller labels ideal for these projects is that they actually care about the repertoire and deal with it in a realistic, affectionate manner.
TM: One final question: Is there any hope of getting people to stop calling cast albums "soundtracks"?
BR: None whatsoever. It's over! I fought it so hard for so many years, but at this point, it's silly. We just have to let go of it.