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Varèse Sarabande, King of the Soundtrack Labels, Still Keeping Score at 40

Varèse Sarabande, renowned as Hollywood’s preeminent soundtrack label, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, going into its fifth decade under new ownership — Concord Music acquired the label in February — while renewing its goal of presenting the best of movie and TV music, both current and past.

According to label VP and veteran producer Robert Townson, Varèse’s mandate hasn’t changed. It’s all about “focusing on the big picture, maintaining a role in the community and standing by the next generation of composers,” Townson says. “The entire history of Varèse is about taking calculated gambles, maintaining an artistic integrity and releasing scores even when we knew we were going to lose money.”

Townson should know. He has produced more than 1,400 soundtracks since his association with the label began 32 years ago. As an ambitious 19-year-old in Whitby, Ontario, he launched his Masters Film Music label to provide a home for previously unreleased gems by Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, making a deal for Varèse to distribute them.

The list of classic Varèse soundtracks includes score Oscar winners “The Right Stuff” and “A Little Romance”; Emmy-winning scores “Lost,” “House of Cards” and “Game of Thrones”; and audience favorites from “Ghost” (the label’s all-time best-seller) to “The Matrix” and “The Sixth Sense.”

For Concord, “the long-standing history of being the premier film music label made Varèse Sarabande a great acquisition,” says Sig Sigworth, president of Craft Recordings, parent label to Varèse. “Not only was Concord able to step right into the competitive film-music business with a strong brand, but we also acquired a deep catalog of titles across film and TV properties that continue to be celebrated by fans.”

The reported $20 million purchase price for Varèse would have astonished the principals who launched the label 40 years ago. The owners of two small companies —Varèse Intl.’s Dub Taylor and Chris Kuchler, along with Sarabande’s Tom Null — joined forces in 1978, and it was their modest ambition to release obscure classical recordings.

It was in that first year that actor-director Bruce Kimmel offered them the score to his 1976 musical comedy “The First Nudie Musical,” which became Varèse’s first soundtrack release. Kimmel, while not officially part of the operation until the early 1990s, continued to send projects their way in the intervening years, including a much-praised five-volume set of original scores from TV’s “The Twilight Zone,” starting in 1983.

Kimmel was also responsible for a then-unusual promotional mailing that may well have gotten French composer Georges Delerue his Oscar, for 1979’s “A Little Romance.” Kimmel arranged for Varèse to release the album, then persuaded Kuchler to send copies to members of the Academy music branch. The score was nominated, Varèse sent hundreds more LPs to the Academy’s general membership, and Delerue won for his charming, Vivaldi-infused score — over such heavyweights as Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin and Dave Grusin, all of whom had much bigger and better publicized films. Did the Varèse LP blast give Delerue the edge? Kimmel thinks so, as does Townson. (Academy execs remain skeptical.)

Longtime soundtrack collector and future film-music agent Richard Kraft, then just 25, began running the label in 1986. “Back then, the entire company was four people based in a tiny, cockroach-infested office in an industrial warehouse next to an oxygen supply company in the Valley,” Kraft recalls. “I picked the releases, negotiated the deals, collaborated with the composers in sequencing the albums, and designed the covers.”

Kraft arranged for MCA distribution of Varèse product in 1988, a turning point in the label’s fortunes that vastly increased its reach. “We were unusual in the record business, low on hype, knowing our niche, not aiming for hits, just plodding along with beautifully boring consistency,” he says.

“It was a dream job,” Kraft adds. “I got to collaborate with so many of my favorite composers, including Thomas Newman, James Horner, John Barry, Elmer Bernstein, Georges Delerue, Basil Poledouris and most importantly Jerry Goldsmith, who ended up making me his agent when I left Varèse when I was 28.”  Kraft was already representing Danny Elfman and departed the label to take a job as an ICM agent.

Townson succeeded Kraft in 1989, ramping up production; the next year Varèse would release soundtracks from seven of the top 11 summer films. Townson also started Varèse’s CD club, a mail-order, limited-edition series of soundtrack exclusives that now fetch high prices on the collectors market.

In 1993 he launched a series of re-recordings of classic scores with Alex North’s legendary, unused “2001: A Space Odyssey” music conducted by Goldsmith. A long and profitable relationship with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra began in 1995, as Townson produced a series of 40 new recordings of scores by film music greats including Bernard Herrmann (“Vertigo”) and Barry (“Somewhere in Time”). “I was traveling to Glasgow two or three times a year with Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Joel McNeely, John Debney and Cliff Eidelman,” Townson recalls. McNeely’s “Vertigo” won Gramophone’s first-ever award for excellence in film music recording.

The obvious next step was live concert production, which began in 1997 and now occupies a good deal of Townson’s time. He has produced film-music concerts in London, L.A., Ghent, Krakow, Vienna, China, the Canary Islands and other venues, often under the Varèse Live Entertainment banner.

Meanwhile, Kimmel, who had been instrumental in helping Varèse during its early days, shuttered his own Bay Cities label and formally joined Varèse in 1993. He stayed seven years and produced more than 100 albums, primarily of theater music. One of his albums was a Varèse best-seller. “Titanic: The Ultimate Collection,” released in the wake of the James Cameron blockbuster, surveyed all the Titanic-related themes and scores from films, TV and Broadway and spent nearly a year on the classical crossover charts in 1998.

Cary Mansfield also joined the label in 1993 and has long managed the Varèse Vintage side, producing hundreds of pop, rock and country reissues (the Zombies, John Sebastian, Peter Cetera, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, etc.). Lately he, too, has begun producing vintage soundtracks, including an acclaimed, expanded “Popeye” by Harry Nilsson and a series of Dave Grusin classics including “And Justice for All” and “Murder by Death,” launched at the end of November.

Says Kraft, who now runs one of the top film music agencies in Hollywood: “Varèse has lasted 40 years because it has always been made for fans and run by fans. You can feel the obsessive passion behind their product. It exists because the people creating their albums craved owning them themselves.”

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