In business, anniversaries can have an air of bogus self-importance about them.
That goes double for what’s left of the record industry: Checking out this press release about A&M Records’ plans to mark its 50th year, I became suddenly and irreparably cynical. Sure, let’s celebrate another esteemed logo/ imprint/“brand” that was long ago swallowed and neutered by the wise executives at Universal! Good occasion for a party!
Thing is, as the track listing for the inevitable boxed set The Anniversary Collection quietly argues, A&M was not just another shingle. From its early days in a West Hollywood garage right up to the Universal takeover, the creation of Herb Alpert (of Tijuana Brass fame) and Jerry Moss thrived as an artist-run operation with extraordinarily good taste in talent – and the willingness to allow that talent to develop. As industry commentator Bob Lefsetz and many others have noted, A&M prized vision – its roster included Cat Stevens, Suzanne Vega and Soundgarden – over relentless marketing. The label was responsible for plenty of hits, but it was also a place where musicianship mattered. It was never a massive operation, but it put out lots of records, and an incredibly high percentage of them turned out to be artistically influential. Among the gems are ambitious jazz projects by Paul Desmond and Jim Hall, dizzyingly lyrical Brazilian pop from Antonio Carlos Jobim and Milton Nascimento, clever R&B by Quincy Jones and Janet Jackson and such smash-hit earworms as “Close To You” by the Carpenters and “Don’t You Want Me” by Human League. A&M was the home of Frampton Comes Alive. And Supertramp’s masterfully dramatic Crime of the Century. And the entire output of the Police.
In this age of instant hits and even shorter careers, it’s almost impossible to resist romanticizing A&M. Analyze it with any business metric, and it looks like an uncanny success story, year after year. And then look at its impact on the art, and that’s even greater. Somehow, even as the hitmaking game got more regimented in the 1980s, A&M managed to hang onto its aesthetic. As a label, it trusted artists, and was committed to their longterm growth – even if the sales numbers didn’t always justify that faith. That is an incredible accomplishment, worth celebrating right now, at this moment when many are poring over the wreckage of an industry that’s not going to rebound in present form. Whatever shape the new industry takes, some of the basic ideas that guided A&M – both regarding hitmakers and criminally underloved talents like Joan Armatrading, whose best work was done for the label – deserve to survive. Here’s hoping.
Below are Spotify links to some under-appreciated gems from the A&M catalog....
Jim Hall: Concierto
Paul Desmond: From the Hot Afternoon
Joan Armatrading: The Shouting Stage
Supertramp: Crime of the Century
Edu Lobo: Sergio Mendes Presents Lobo