by Erik Espe and Jim Harrington
It was a record label no one, to this day, has been able to label. Was it "New Age," "jazz," "pop"? For 20 years it was, simply, "Windham Hill." And for 20 years, Windham Hill has had a profound effect on the Midpeninsula music scene.
Now, after two decades in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, Windham Hill is leaving to set up shop in Beverly Hills, where its corporate co-owners since 1992, BMG Music, own property.
A skeleton crew at the old Menlo Park office is the only evidence remaining of the label that is so distinctive it has its own section in music stores. The remaining few employees will be gone sometime in August.
"It's the end of an era," says Anne Robinson, the former Windham Hill CEO and president who ran the record label for almost two decades with her ex-husband Will Ackerman. Ackerman, whose acoustic guitar album "Search for the Turtle's Navel" launched the record company, left Windham Hill in 1992.
BMG now owns the label completely, and Robinson is stepping aside to make room for Windham Hill's new CEO, Steve Vining, the marketing director and general manager for BMG Classics in New York.
In a courtyard garden of Windham Hill's offices near Sunset Magazine, Robinson recently took some time out to reflect on the past two decades. Some of her thoughts turned to the company's hometown and the affect the area had on Windham Hill.
"Windham Hill was influenced by this place--the Midpeninsula," she said.
Like many of the companies that sprung up in Silicon Valley, Windham Hill was decades ahead of its time when it formed in 1976. The label didn't mirror the prevailing management styles of most corporate record companies.
"My style was consensual," she says, "finding consensus rather than barking orders. . . . People are managing in a different way today. They use direct marketing, which we've used since 1978. People are more customer-oriented. We were always customer-oriented."
Jeff Heiman worked for the company for about 10 years and was the first employee Ackerman and Robinson hired. He said that part of the reason that Windham Hill didn't follow the traditional forms of marketing was that they didn't know any better. The employees leaned on their passion for the music, since they were anything but experienced promoters.
"We weren't driven by singles. We weren't driven by radio," he recalled. "We were driven by 'Let's try and find as many ways as possible to tell people about this music.'"
Robinson was a 1970 Stanford graduate and later an employee at Plowshare Bookstore, which was located on University Avenue near High Street, before she became involved with Windham Hill. When it began, the label existed primarily to get Ackerman's album "Search For the Turtle's Navel" into record stores. (The label was named after an inn Ackerman had stayed in during his college summers in Vermont.) Then, as similar, peaceful-sounding musicians were signed to Windham Hill, word-of-mouth about the label traveled among music fans. Shows at the New Varsity Theatre (now Borders Books and Music) by Michael Hedges, George Winston, Ackerman and other artists garnered the label a huge following in its hometown.
"This community backed us," Robinson says.
Steve Feinstein, program director for the Bay Area's own smooth jazz/easy listening radio station KKSF, called the early Windham Hill a "cross between new age, folk, chamber and jazz (music)."
"It was a fascinating eclectic blend of those styles," he said.
Although the music wasn't loved by everyone, Windham Hill found a corner of the market that major labels had previously ignored. The upstart company became a record industry phenomenon, garnering press in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time and Rolling Stone. Critics were both kind and vicious. One described the music as good "hot tub" music because of its slow, improvisational style.
"People would say that they could make love listening to George Winston and not worry about being interrupted," said Winston's former manager, Jeanne Rizzo.
Artists like guitarists Hedges and Ackerman, pianist Winston and keyboardist Mark Isham were obscure musicians before Robinson and Ackerman's label started marketing their records. Today, they're known around the world. Windham Hill compilation albums like "Winter Solstice" have become classics.
Former Palo Alto resident Hedges is coming out with a Windham Hill album in the fall titled "Copperhead," and Winston's "George Winston Plays Vince Guaraldi" is due out this year.
A 20th-anniversary Windham Hill compilation is due out in stores later in the year, Robinson said, as is a "Winter Solstice V," another installment in the label's popular holiday season albums.
In many ways, Winston's popular career and Windham Hill's success in the early days mirrored each other. They grew together. Rizzo saw the effect that the new, relaxing Windham Hill sound had in the musical world. She said that the label's contribution was that it made instrumental music more accessible.
"I think what happened with Windham Hill is that it introduced a whole new generation to instrumental music," she said.
And this style of non-classical instrumental music provided material for a number of radio stations that were ready to soothe the airwaves with new tunes. Windham Hill has been a very important force for smooth jazz-type stations--such as the Bay Area's own KKSF--that have grown increasingly popular over the years.
"Windham Hill, from the outset, gave stations like KKSF important artists like Shadowfax, George Winston, Liz Story and Tuck and Patti," Feinstein said. "Even as they have diversified into other styles of music they've continued to bring us artists of high caliber such as pianist Jim Brickman."
Heiman, currently working in artist management in Los Angeles, said the local label's success helped to launch other independents that were geared toward similar easy-listening recordings. Also, he believes, the label sparked the interest of major record companies and caused them to get involved in the Windham Hill type of music.
And that's exactly how these meditative, non-beat oriented, soft tunes were being identified by the mid-1980s: Windham Hill music. The label had become its own musical genre.
The albums--which all had similar cover designs created by Robinson, usually featuring single scenic photographs--were racked together in record stores, instead of being filed with other artists in the rock, pop or jazz sections. Windham Hill had become its own category.
"Windham Hill created its own (record) bin," Rizzo said.
According to Robinson, record buyers knew what they were buying if they picked a Windham Hill album: a quality record by a quality artist. They also knew they were getting meditative music without a beat--making Windham Hill albums highly marketable in health food and metaphysical book stores.
The label hit the big time in 1983, when three of Winston's albums cracked the Top 20 of the Billboard jazz charts, even though many don't define Winston as a jazz artist. That year, Windham Hill signed an agreement with A&M Records to distribute Windham Hill records, giving the label more efficient and wider coverage.
The deal put Windham Hill "where it is today," Robinson says.
"We stepped from being a back room label to being a real part of the music business," she says.
Ackerman left the label in 1992, when BMG bought half the company. Robinson stayed on as CEO and president, keeping her "fingers on the (cover) design work." She says she knew that one day BMG would take over the company completely.
Robinson says that the decision to move the label was strictly business.
"It was a corporate decision made in New York," she says. "It was not anything other than that. The company is managed by what is a huge German entity. BMG is owned by Bertlesman. They're sort of the equivalent of Time-Warner in Europe, but they're bigger than Time-Warner." She says that, although she cannot go into many details about agreements she has made with BMG, the corporation is now the sole owner of Windham Hill.
Even though Windham Hill has left the Palo Alto area, a little piece of Palo Alto remains with the label. Their rock-pop off-shoot label, High Street, is named after the downtown Palo Alto street that was once home to Windham Hill. (The office was located near the High Street exit of the Whole Foods parking lot.) High Street Records is home to pop rock artists like the Subdudes.
Robinson does not plan to retire, and she isn't sure what the next step of her career will be--only that it won't be with Windham Hill.
"I'm an entrepreneur. To work for a big corporation is not where I flourish," she said. "I need to have room around me. I need to have windows that open."
And how will Windham Hill do in this new age, without its parents and hundreds of miles from its old home? Robinson said that the label should do just fine.
"The integrity of Windham Hill will attract some phenomenal musical talents (in Los Angeles)."
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