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The Romantic Drift as Path to Success

A “rounder” can be an unsavory character – a hobo, bum, wastrel – but also a romantic drifter. So writes Bill Nowlin in Vinyl Ventures, his self-described idiosyncratic memoir capturing his half-century at Rounder Records, from its founding through acquisition and beyond. The term also describes those who make the rounds preacher-like and over the book’s nearly 300 pages we travel with Nowlin and his labelmate co-founders, Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton Levy, as they roam in search of the sort of folk & roots-oriented music they loved, played by musicians from porches to pubs that up until then had hardly – if ever – been recorded. Recalled and told in remarkable detail, this is a true American success story of three pals pursuing something exciting and unknown with nary a business plan nor relevant experience. It worked on a pretty spectacular level to the tune of releasing well over 3,000 records. Dreamers should note well such inspirational material.

The highlights are many and varied with a common thread: Rounder’s founders appear to be cool folks who weren’t concerned about making money until they had to be in order to remain a relevant company. The 70’s – before the CD with its grotesque original packaging; before over-retailing of the marketplace; before radio-friendly loss-leader unit-shifting drove the final nail into the record store’s coffin; before Napster, iTunes, streaming and the rest, all of which Nowlin chronicles – were about the music. Rounder’s mission was to capture and circulate what is now called Americana (think folk and bluegrass especially) and the label perhaps to a fault erred on the side of the artist in its obsessive tracking of sales and payment of royalties, doled out often at double the industry average. Most impressive are the tales of hauling albums all over Hell’s half-acre, loading, unloading, and selling them 12 hours a day at fairs and shows, with a no-days-off ethos decades before Bill Belichick made it fashionable. Could they have been more efficient? Better organized? More open to a clean corporate reporting structure? No question. But what a snoozer of a book that would have been. These folks were about pure hustle and the lengths they went to in producing the work was exceptional.

And being a cool boss will only get you so far. By 1980, the crew had unionized, in part because some thought the owners were “turning into hip capitalists” so workers stirred the pot with the support of Harvard Square labor organizations. “This sort of thing made us wonder where some people’s heads were at,” writes Nowlin. It’s his warts-and-all manner that makes the author so endearing as he takes the reader through other trials and admissions of naiveté. Ownership catches breaks along the way – reluctantly needing to lay off eight employees in ’84, they got that exact number of volunteers, dodging an awkward event – and gets burned more than once on the robust distribution side of the business. They made savvy real estate deals, expanded their reach & influence, and took their lumps along the way, continuously grinding forward until being acquired ’round about 2010. Lovers of Alison Krauss (solo and with Robert Plant) to artists on the imprint label Zoë Records and dozens of other Grammy winners in between have Rounder to thank for its efforts in overseeing the release of special independent material. It’s easy to claim to be alternative; Nowlin and his mates were the real deal.