Smaller music labels shake up cast album biz

NEW YORK — The cast albums industry is trying to split in half. And it’s the boutique labels, with their alternative business models, that are shaking up the majors and putting their imprint on the biz.Big labels like Decca Broadway (part of the Universal Music Group) and Nonesuch (owned by Warner) have been banking for years on the traditional strategy of opting for highly commercial products instead of risky artistic choices, a philosophy often required by companies in deference to stockholders and corporate overhead.

With a cast album’s budget averaging $300,000 for Broadway records (slightly less for Off Broadway), majors often need to sell at least 100,000 copies of a tuner just to recoup.

As a result, most would-be cast albums don’t make it to market. Corporations have limited their risk by slashing output, focusing on high-profile products like “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “Hairspray” or “Wicked,” which recently went gold. Betting on favored horses can be a boon for the labels — most of Decca Broadway’s albums, for instance, recoup.

When producers who don’t rep such surefire hits negotiate to get their albums on powerhouse imprints, they’re generally restricted to small, per-unit royalties on sales made after an album has recouped. With this model, the road to profit is impossibly long. Just ask producer Scott Prisand, who has worked on tuners like “Brooklyn” and “Bombay Dreams.” “Everybody always says you can’t make money on a cast album,” he sighs.

That’s where the independents have come in, singing their own tune.

Of late, smaller labels have been making names for themselves, such as Sh-K-Boom (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Altar Boyz”) and P.S. Classics (the “Fiddler on the Roof” revival).

The companies use a model that invites producers — as well as songwriters, independent investors and even record distribution companies — to share the upfront cost of making an album. Since they are directly investing, participants are entitled to an immediate share of the return, not a royalty to be paidonly after breakeven. This bodes more profits, faster.

The cost-sharing strategy also limits the labels’ spending.  And such thrift — along with the reduced overhead of having, say, two employees in a tiny office — frees the imprints from needing major sales. “The Last Five Years,” a recording of Jason Robert Brown’s marginally successful Off Broadway show, has sold only 35,000 copies, but for Sh-K-Boom, that’s a hit. (On average, the boutique outfit’s releases sell roughly 20,000 units.)

This makes it possible to do quirkier projects, a fact that pleases Sh-K-Boom president Kurt Deutsch. “I’ve created a service,” he says. “If producers have a show they want recorded and distributed, I can do that for them.”

Thus, while Broadway’s critically lauded “Sweeney Todd” revival is almost a no-brainer for cast-album treatment (recording was done Nov. 14 for Nonesuch), a smaller Off Broadway show like “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” is a far less automatic choice. But while it may not be a strong candidate for platinum sales, the Sh-K-Boom release will still be able to share shelf space with the “Rent” CD.

As far as Decca Broadway’s senior director Brian Drutman is concerned, that’s a boon for everyone. “I’d like there to be a continuing interest in smaller companies recording smaller shows.”

Producer Prisand says cast albums can help sell tickets for a production or aid in getting future runs financed. “It’s about having a marketing tool,” he says.

Meanwhile, budget concerns hound big and small labels alike. Among the provisos execs bemoan is a stipulation from Actor’s Equity that cast members receive a full week’s salary for every eight hours of recording. To cut costs, albums are made in grueling one-day sessions, but bills still skyrocket because of factors like the “reuse fee,” which pays orchestrators for every bar of music recorded.

As for the majors, Drutman muses, “If there were a way to bring down the cost, more big companies would get involved and release more albums.”

That suggests Broadway is shooting itself in the record player, negotiating its way out of product that could benefit the productions it represents. Artists, of course, would likely resist changing their compensation as much as labels resist more spending. So industry transformations, whoever may desire them, may be as likely as “Trailer Park” climbing to the top of the charts.

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