Oral Histories

Interview of Robert Hurwitz

President of Nonesuch Records.
Interviews not in a series, part two
Biographical Note:
President of Nonesuch Records.
Cline, Alex
Hurwitz, Robert
Persons Present:
Hurwitz and Cline.
Place Conducted:
Staff conference room at the Young Research Library, UCLA.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, interviewer, series coordinator for music, UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research; jazz musician.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency, and COHR program staff reviewed the transcript to make sure all proper names and specialized terminology were correctly spelled. The interviewee was then given an opportunity to review the transcript and made a number of corrections and additions. Those corrections were entered into the text without further editing or review on the part of the Center for Oral History Research staff. The transcript may thus differ slightly from the audio recording because of the changes the interviewee made at the time of their review.
8.5 hrs.
Interviewee Retained Copyright
Birth and early homes in Los Angeles—Father’s family background—Father’s frustration at being a salesman rather than a musician—Mother’s family background—Prominent among Hurwitz's early joys as a child in L.A. are musicals and baseball—Family’s political and religious identity—The huge impact of father’s death when Hurwitz was eighteen years old—Relationship with mother—Despite feelings at the time that many aspects of his middle-class life in L.A. were “the best,” Hurwitz's ultimate life direction diverged from what might have been expected—Music heard at home while growing up—Neighborhood and schools in L.A.—Subjects in school was particularly fascinated by—Limited experience exploring different areas of L.A. as a youngster—Hurwitz's relatively low level of interest in the popular music of the early 1960s in comparison to his interest in sports and other expressions of popular culture at the time—While a dedicated student of the piano, the study of it left Hurwitz feeling isolated—The impact the film West Side Story had on him—Changes in the perception of what constituted celebrity culture from the 1960s to the present day—The transition from elementary school to junior high school—Hurwitz's happy-go-lucky nature continued even into his teen years—As he grew older he became more aware of the Vietnam War and other developments—Reflections on the anti-war movement of the 1960s—The Cold War—Begins to question and change many of his views as he emerges into his high school years—Views the ten years between age fifteen and twenty-five as being the most critical of his life—The impact of moving to New York at age twenty.
The Watts Riots and an attack Hurwitz suffered at the Watts Summer Festival—Hurwitz's increased awareness of the political and cultural changes taking place during the 1960s—The profound impact the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy had on Hurwitz—After first road trip away from parents after high school, receives a journalism award from the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner—A watershed experience seeing Miles Davis and his band at Shelly’s Manne-Hole—Other landmark concert experiences seeing Jimi Hendrix, attending the Isle of Wight rock festival, and seeing Bernard Haitink conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 9—Broad musical interests during college years at the University of California, Berkeley—While still in high school begins writing sports articles for high school newspaper and then the Culver City Star News, leading to being offered journalism scholarships at three Southern California universities—Chooses to attend the University of Southern California (USC) and takes a job at the Los Angeles Times at the same time—Reasons disliked USC--Begins studying music again—Transfers to University of California, Berkeley in 1969—Culture, community, and education at Berkeley—Professor David Littlejohn's impact on Hurwitz—With a degree in history and an active life as a musician, embarks on another road trip and ponders the issue of his life direction—Hurwitz's band disbands and he decides to head to New York City with some of its members—Important simultaneous cultural events in the nation in 1969—Radio station KSAN and its wide-open musical programming format—Travels around Europe for six months in 1970—Mother’s feelings about Hurwitz's choice to break away from home—The life-changing impact of his European adventure —Experiences with drugs during college years—Upon arriving in New York, meets Lillian Roxon, who provides connections to people she knows in the music business—Begins writing for rock music magazines and record companies—Hired as a writer at Columbia Records and meets many musical luminaries, including ECM Records founder Manfred Eicher.
Manfred Eicher makes a surprising proclamation at first meeting with Hurwitz—The many great artists and staff people at Columbia Records—An unexpected meeting with pianist Glenn Gould in Toronto leads to a life-long friendship—Many remarkable experiences and opportunities Hurwitz had while working at Columbia that he failed to fully appreciate at the time—First impressions of Eicher contrasted with the nature of their relationship once Hurwitz began working for him—Leaves Columbia and works briefly for the Rockefeller Foundation—John Hammond and Columbia presidents Clive Davis and Goddard Lieberson—In 1975 begins working for ECM Records, heading its U.S. distribution through Polydor Records—More on challenging relationship with Eicher—Hurwitz's relationships with many of ECM’s artists—Contentious situations between Eicher and label artists Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny—Learns valuable lessons from tumultuous relationship with Eicher—ECM switches to Warner Bros. for its U.S. distribution in 1978—Elements that can lead to the rarity of a big-selling record—ECM renegotiates with Warner Bros., resulting in fewer of its releases being released in the U.S. annually—Eicher’s sense of possessiveness towards ECM’s artists—Weighing the positives and negatives of the ECM experience—ECM’s trademark aesthetic—ECM New Series and the beginning of Hurwitz's relationship with composers Steve Reich and John Adams—Difficulties surrounding the recording of Adams’ Harmonium—Exposure to many other great artists’ work during years at ECM—Is asked by Polydor to oversee the reissue of many Verve Records jazz recordings—Relationship with Bob Krasnow of Elektra Records leads to being invited to run Nonesuch Records in 1982—The history of Nonesuch Records—Conditions that led to being offered the job at Nonesuch—Eicher’s reaction to the news that Hurwitz was leaving ECM—Recognized Nonesuch job as the biggest opportunity of his life.
The reactions of some of ECM’s American artists when Hurwitz left the label for Nonesuch—Marries and has first child shortly after starting at ECM—Places Hurwitz lived in New York City—Experience of parenting—Love of the work of George Balanchine, Stephen Sondheim, and others helps strengthen Hurwitz's artistic foundation as he prepares to take over Nonesuch—Former Nonesuch head Tracy Stern’s firing and replacement by Keith Holzman before Hurwitz takes over in 1984—Initial anxieties upon taking over Nonesuch--Releases many of its artists from the label—How Steve Reich and John Adams came to be signed to the label—Nonesuch releases Philip Glass’ Mishima soundtrack, leading to a relationship with Glass—While endeavoring to honor Tracy Stern’s more “uptown” New York focus, moves the label's focus more decidedly “downtown”—Epiphanies regarding the music of Elliot Carter and John Adams—Feelings about music in concert versus music on records—How conditions at the time Hurwitz assumed the position at Nonesuch proved unique opportunities —Conditions that led to many of the label’s releases becoming big sellers—The key role the New York Times played in boosting the label’s profile—Signs on John Zorn, who stays with the label for a few years before their relationship breaks down—The significance of signing Caetano Veloso to the label—The label taps into the curious and open-minded audience of the time—More on the role the New York Times played in helping the label—How Hurwitz learned of the work of artists inside and outside the sphere of New York City—Signing more “pop” artists and the effect on the success of the label—The importance of maintaining a close relationship with a label’s artists—The challenge of acceptance and rejection in the record business—Elektra Records head Bob Krasnow’s support for Nonesuch and its artists.
The phenomenal success of Les Mystere des la Voix Bulgare and subsequent tours by the Bulgarian State Women’s Choir—Relationship with Astor Piazzola before Piazzola’s death—Realizing recordings of John Adams’ music, including Adams' many very large-scale works—Changes in the music industry after the introduction of Napster in the late 1990s necessitates different strategies for financing recordings—Making the transition from LPs to CDs—The making of the Nonesuch recording of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 and its unexpectedly huge success—The low impact of radio airplay on the success of Nonesuch products—Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer and its surrounding controversy—The often unusual subject matter of Adams’ collaborations with director Peter Sellars—How Adams’ opera Nixon in China plays in the present day—Nonesuch releases video collections of George Balanchine ballets—The huge success of the Gipsy Kings paves the way for more budgetary security for Nonesuch in the 1980s and 1990s—Pop artists accustomed to dealing with big record labels begin approaching Nonesuch—A huge Warner Music Group shakeup in 1994 leads to the firing of Bob Krasnow, a restructuring of the group’s labels, and an increase in autonomy for Nonesuch—The label survives through four owners over the years—The change in the culture at Warner Bros. after Mo Ostin’s departure—The disastrous impact of the change to digital formats on the retail record business—The impact on the music business of independent record labels' absorption into large conglomerates--Nonesuch reaches the audience for high art —Circumstances that led to the release of The Buena Vista Social Club with Ry Cooder, the label’s biggest success to that point—How Nonesuch came to release recordings by Stephen Sondheim during the 1990s.
Nonesuch wins Grammy Awards in a broad range of categories—Business principles the company followed—Label weathers industry changes and experiences success with pop artists like Wilco—Hurwitz's insistence that the label’s artists get paid for their work, despite the trend toward streaming music for free—The current financial crisis in the music business due to streaming—While many labels try to stay alive by reissuing back catalog, Nonesuch continues to release new products--Many pop-style artists experience comfort and satisfaction being on Nonesuch—As a result of managerial shakeups in the label’s ownership, Nonesuch inherits the contracts of some notable jazz artists—Opportunity to meet and work with Bjork—The generous and gracious nature of most of the artists with whom Hurwitz has worked over the years—Hurwitz continues to work with a core of Nonesuch artists while gradually releasing himself from the running of the label—Has less involvement with the label's younger generation of pop music artists—Teaches classes and seminars at the New School in New York City—Factors leading to decision to pull away from heading Nonesuch after the label’s 50th anniversary—In the early 1990s Hurwitz begins keeping a daily journal of his activities—How Nonesuch endeavors to reach and hold a broad audience in the age of streaming and YouTube—Potential strategies for preserving recordings should they go out of print—Hurwitz's two children—Stills plays the piano every day—Hurwitz's appreciation and gratitude for the work he has had the opportunity to do in the record business.