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Indie Labels Take a Risk, and Win, with Musicals


In the best original cast recording category for the upcoming Grammy Awards, three out of the five albums nominated were released by Ghostlight Records. The New York-based label isn't a household name, but it is one of a handful of independents that are keeping the cast album alive.

That a big Broadway hit would wind up on a small independent label says a lot about changes in the economics of the recording industry. For years, cast albums were pretty big business. Shows such as Hello Dolly! and Man of La Mancha could make the Billboard charts, right next to the Beatles.

But in the past decade or so, the major labels have released fewer and fewer original cast albums, says Brian Drutman, senior director for Decca Broadway. "The average Broadway cast recording costs about $400,000," Drutman says. "It's not inexpensive... even selling tremendously well, [an album] can take upwards of a year to recoup its initial investment."

The original cast album of Wicked has beat the odds for Decca Broadway. Since its release in December 2003, it has sold almost 700,000 copies. But while Decca and the other majors are looking for the next blockbuster, labels like Ghostlight Records have been picking up the slack.

Ghostlight owners Sherie Rene Scott and Kurt Deutsch began the business in their second bedroom, selling albums over the Internet. Now, they've recorded Broadway hits such as The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Deutsch says he convinced Broadway producers to record on his label by changing the standard business model. While companies like Decca Broadway finance and own their recordings, Deutsch convinced producers to pay for the discs themselves.

Another source of show recordings is PS Classics. Philip Chaffin and Tommy Krasker run that label out of their house in Bronxville, N.Y. After the success of its Grammy-nominated Nine in 2003, Krasker says opportunities to record cast albums began to flow. PS Classics' current bestseller is a revival of Fiddler on the Roof. Chaffin and Krasker have also forged an alliance with the leading composer of the American musical stage, Stephen Sondheim. The Tony Award-winning revival of Sondheim's Assassins earned PS Classics a second Grammy nomination for its recording.

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.