In the 60 years since Gene Norman founded record label GNP Crescendo, the pioneering indie imprint has come to encompass so many different styles, genres, artists and revenue streams that current president Neil Norman — Gene’s son — finds it much easier to describe what the label doesn’t offer than what it does.
“My father purposely wanted a label that had a bit of everything,” he explains. “We have everything but opera and rap.” And it’s not hard to imagine they’d make an exception even to that rule if the right artist came along.
Since its founding in 1954, GNP Crescendo has not only survived decades’ worth or industry upheaval, but it also has forged a path and established a set of principles that have been followed in some way or another by just about every oddball indie outfit to come. With a catalog that ranges from jazz and surf to vintage Latin dance, garage rock, polka, Cajun (zydeco act Queen Ida won the label its first and only Grammy in 1982), an Orson Welles spoken-word album, “Star Trek” music compilations and all manner of otherwise forgotten soundtracks, browsing through the label’s offerings is a reminder that the long-tail sales model is hardly a new one.
Such versatility extends to the career of the younger Norman, who has worn virtually every possible hat during his career in music, which started roughly when he played his first onstage gig at age 12. Since then, he’s recorded more than 50 albums for GNP, as well as worked in its mailroom, producing other artists, serving as its A&R, its promotion department, its publicity department, and finally, its label head.
“That’s the great thing about being a small independent label,” he says. “You get to do everything.”
Norman is in the process of editing his second feature documentary, “Pushin’ Too Hard,” which explores the career of the label’s flagship signing, the 1960s garage-psych outfit the Seeds. Gene Norman, now 92, is busy writing his memoir, and one might imagine he has a wealth of stories to tell.
Operating a record label was not Gene Norman’s first occupation — in fact, it was his last. After hitchhiking from New York to L.A. as a youngster, Norman ensconced himself in the local music scene, eventually promoting concerts at the Shrine and the Civic Center, hosting a popular radio show, and opening his own nightclub, the Crescendo, on the Sunset Strip. The Crescendo hosted a wide swath of jazz legends and comedians, ranging from Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday to Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart and Mort Sahl, with Norman currying favor by often paying acts their weekly asking rate for a single night’s engagement.
Norman sold his nightclub in 1963, though the property lost little cachet in the process. Early releases on GNP Crescendo leaned heavily toward jazz, with Norman repurposing old nightclub recordings, but it didn’t take long before it began expanding into other niches.
L.A. quartet the Seeds had already been turned down by Columbia, Capitol and Elektra before winding up at Norman’s doorstep in the mid-’60s, but under his stewardship the band would manage to notch four singles in the top 100 of the Billboard chart, becoming a steady cult draw for decades following.
“You had to find people when they were just starting, or when they were a little bit down, otherwise the majors would scoop them up,” Norman says, summing up the label’s A&R strategy. “In the early 1980s, Robin Trower had been dropped from Chrysalis, and suddenly here I was in the studio with him making a record for our label.
“The most important skill is to have ears,” Norman says. “There are very few releases on the label that I wouldn’t still listen to and enjoy. We just went with what we liked, and if you do that enough, eventually you’ll hit one out of the park.”
Yet not every success sprang from personal taste. For example, Neil Norman recalls an exec from MCA Canada, who approached his father with a hybrid polka-country-traditional act called the Mom and Dads.
“They were this group from Spokane, Wash., who played very, very square versions of standards. I mean, really square, they made Lawrence Welk look like Pink Floyd,” he says. “The guys at MCA Canada said, ‘Look, we really don’t know what to do with this act, but they’ve sold 60,000 records for us so far.’ My father took them on without even hearing them. When he finally listened to their records, he said, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ But they sold millions for us.” The group even landed at No. 4 on the Billboard Country Albums chart in the early 1970s.
Yet it was Neil’s personal fandom that inspired one of the label’s savviest midlife moves. A lifelong sci-fi freak, Norman founded the group Neil Norman and His Cosmic Orchestra in the 1970s, a costumed outfit that played rock inspired by vintage sci-fi film music. (“It’s a narrow genre, but I’m the king of it,” Norman says with a laugh.) The group’s original material attracted a modest following, but when they recorded new versions of then commercially unavailable sci-fi film and TV scores (“The Outer Limits,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still”), the label suddenly discovered a revenue stream in the making.
Promoting the records at sci-fi conventions, Norman couldn’t help but notice that the most enthusiastic responses came from “Star Trek” fans, who had long traded bootlegs of the series’ scores and themes. GNP reached out to Paramount, which granted the label a license in perpetuity to music from the existing “Star Trek” series, as well as a first-look at future iterations.
“For Paramount to give us a property like that was a very big deal,” Normans says. “We didn’t even give them an advance, but we’ve paid them millions in royalties since then.”
The “Star Trek” deal was the beginning of massive catalog business for GNP Crescendo in soundtrack sales, particularly for genre releases that major labels didn’t consider worthy. Of course, to collect a wealth of niche properties is one thing, but making sure they sell is quite another, and the label was proactive in hitting marginalized fans where they lived. Norman worked the convention circuit with his sci-fi projects, label employees hawked the surf catalog on beaches at surfing competitions, and countless editions of mail- order catalogs and latenight TV commercials kept the pump primed.
The label was also ahead of its time in aggressively pursuing film licensing and download sales. Music supervisor Carol Sue Baker, principal of Ocean Park Music, has worked with the label since 1988, securing high-reward placement for GNP catalog songs in such pics as “Pulp Fiction,” “Almost Famous” and “Godzilla,” though Norman notes that aside from “sudden windfalls” like those, the label has also operated as a sort of de facto production music library for smaller films.
“If you have a film that can’t afford a Chuck Berry song, well, we have a lot of songs from that era that sound very similar.”
Familiarity with the niche-driven dynamics of the catalog business certainly helped GNP react quickly to the digital shift in the new millennium, with the label setting up a 99 cents-per-track download store years before it became standard operating procedure. That move helped win Gene Norman a trip to Cupertino, Calif., to meet with Steve Jobs prior to the launch of iTunes, and GNP Crescendo was one of the first labels to sign on.
“It was great at the beginning, because so many other labels were still a bit wary,” Norman says. “For a while, just about all of the surf music you’d find on the iTunes Store was ours. We put up the first Safaris record (on the service), and all the sudden we’d sell 400 copies of it in a week.”
“The great thing about the download market is that there’s very few returns,” Norman says. “It can be hard enough to get (physical) albums in stores, and then sometimes you’ll get half the shipment sent back. Plus, as things like iTunes expanded, you would suddenly get interest in territories that didn’t used to be worth bothering with. Central America, Norway, Eastern Europe, New Zealand – we get consistent business out of those places now.”
With a publishing library of 5,000 songs and a master recordings collection 800 albums strong, Norman says he plans to “continue to nurture the catalog” while expanding further into film. His Seeds documentary is targeting a 2014 launch, and after that, Norman hopes to start producing Roger Corman-style sci-fi projects of his own.
But there’s still plenty of life left in the GNP Crescendo vaults.
“Just recently, I found an old concert recording that my father had made at his nightclub,” Norman recalls. “It was Miles Davis and John Coltrane — they were the opening act. This is quite early, back when Miles was still talking to the audience between songs. I sent it over to Sony, and we made the deal over email. It took less than 24 hours: I asked for a big advance, and they said ‘yes.’ And that was just sitting there, in a box in my dad’s garage.”
“We may have gotten the crumbs sometimes, but if you collect enough crumbs, you can make a pretty nice cake.”