October 03, 2005
Alison Brown Uses UCLA MBA Skills to Start Successful Record Label
Compass Records has 200 releases over ten years
LOS ANGELES - Like a lot of great ideas, this one started on a cocktail napkin.
It was June 1992 in a cafe in Stockholm. Alison Brown, a 30-year-old banjo player, and Garry West, a bassist four years her senior, hunched conspiratorially over the napkin, taking turns with the pen, first drawing the rim of a wheel, then the hub and spokes, then scribbling “record label,” “touring band,” “publishing,” “management,” and “recording studio” along the radiating lines.
The two musicians – both Nashville residents and now husband and wife -- were on the final leg of a two-month tour of Europe backing the folk rocker Michelle Shocked. When rehearsals began six weeks earlier, Brown, the tour’s bandleader as well as banjoist, and West were little more than nodding acquaintances. Brown was known around town as a ferociously talented bluegrass instrumentalist (she debuted at the Grand Ole Opry at 16 and later played with Alison Krauss + Union Station) but a bit of an oddball among her Nashville peers because of her background: a history and literature degree from Harvard, an MBA from UCLA, and a stint as an investment banker in San Francisco. The Atlanta-born West, divorced with a young daughter, was a sought-after record producer and session man who had played with Patty Loveless and Taj Mahal.
Brown is blond and petite, with the genteel manner of a finishing-school graduate. Tall and boyishly handsome, West has brown hair that falls in wisps across his forehead when he’s on stage, a slight drawl and little in the way of academic credentials beyond some studies at Boston’s Berklee School of Music. The Michelle Shocked tour would take the band through the United Kingdom and Western Europe. But even before crossing the English Channel, the two musicians had fallen in love, making what West concedes was “a very unlikely couple.”
Romantic alliances born in the back of the tour bus are not known for longevity but each sensed in the other a soul mate. That spring morning in Sweden, their hair mussed from a night of fitful sleep on the bus, Brown and West sketched out a life for themselves as musicians and entrepreneurs.
“We were kind of building the good life,” Brown says. “For us, that meant getting to make music but also helping other artists make music through a record label, and getting into management and publishing.”
Brown is telling the cocktail napkin story at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, where she and West will perform in less than an hour. The Alison Brown Quartet is ostensibly a bluegrass band but with two instruments not usually found on the hoedown stage. On piano is John R. Burr; David Heyer plays drums.
While West busies himself with the sound check, fans with tickets for that night’s show line up outside. As Brown talks, a blond-headed 3-year-old in pink corduroy pants wanders into the room and the banjoist scoops her into her arms.
“I’m really incredibly lucky that I don’t have to leave my family at home to go out and do this,” says Brown. Hannah Brown West has been on the road with her parents since she was 3 weeks old.
For most of us, life hardly ever follows the playbook. But over the years, Brown and West – both believers in the virtues of hard work – managed to turn their cocktail-napkin jottings into the stuff of real life.
Compass Records, the musician-friendly roots label that the couple launched in 1995, this year celebrates its 10th anniversary and 200th release. Nashville’s “hippest alternative label,” as Playboy magazine has anointed it, Compass signs the kind of artists who don’t get the attention they deserve from the major labels. Compass’s marquee names include the legendary Irish singer Paul Brady, former Men at Work frontman Colin Hay, Australia’s The Waifs, bassist Victor Wooten, Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze fame, the Irish band Lúnasa, and Brown herself. The label started out on the living room table but recently settled into a new home, the Music Row building where Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and friends recorded the classic “Wanted! The Outlaws” album in the early ’70s.
As a musician, Brown, 43, is at the top of her game. “Stolen Moments,” her fourth outing on Compass Records and the 10th in her catalog, came out earlier this year to critical acclaim (“ … as technically awesome as it is melodically seductive,” The Boston Globe rhapsodized). Brown, who writes much of her own music, takes her banjo into territory where you’re not likely to find Earl Scruggs. “Stolen Moments” features a tune inspired by a Gregorian chant and meanders in and out of Celtic, pop and Latin. (Aside from the occasional harmony, Brown doesn’t sing.) While the banjo is a famously macho instrument, Brown coaxes from her five-stringed Gibson a sound that is lighter, softer and jazzier – “more feminine,” she says -- than the bright and clangy plinking evocative of “Beverly Hills” reruns.
Though Brown goes her own way stylistically, she’s won over the country and bluegrass establishment. In 1991, the International Bluegrass Music Association named her banjo player of the year, sort of an Oscar of the bluegrass world. Five years ago, she shared a Grammy with Béla Fleck for “Leaving Cottondale,” a wild ride of a bluegrass breakdown that leaves little doubt that Brown can pick as hard and mean as the guys when she has a mind to.
Investment banking is behind her for good but Brown still puts her business degree to work handling Compass’s financial affairs. The label does about $2 million a year in sales and has turned a profit steadily since 1999. On busy days, she’s knee deep in receivables and collectables. “I honestly don’t think I could have done it without the UCLA degree,” Brown says. “Whether you’re selling refrigerators or CDs, you need to know who owes you what and when it’s due and be able to collect it.” She is also an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music. Mixing music and academics “has always been a really good yin and yang thing for me,” Brown says.
Brown followed an improbable road to banjo greatness. She was born in Stamford, Conn. Parents John and Barbara are both lawyers. At age 10, she started taking guitar lessons. Her teacher loaned her a copy of Flatt & Scruggs “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” popularized in the soundtrack to 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde.” After one listen, Brown was hooked on bluegrass, a transformation that even she recognizes as “really kind of bizarre.”
In 1974, the family relocated to La Jolla, Calif. At the time, Southern California was home to a flourishing bluegrass scene and Brown threw herself into it with zeal. (One of the hotspots was the local Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, where the young banjoist headlined from time to time.) Brown found a partner in the fiddle prodigy Stuart Duncan, who was 12 to her 13. Chauffered by Stuart’s father, the teen twangers criss-crossed Southern California competing in banjo-fiddle contests and pocketing the prize money more often than not.
John and Barbara had in mind an Ivy League education for their daughter but the choice of colleges was Brown’s alone. “I – and really, this is true -- looked in the back of Bluegrass Unlimited to see if New Haven or Cambridge had more bluegrass music. The Boston area was, and still is, probably the best market for folk music in the country so I picked Cambridge and I just loved it. I did a bluegrass radio show on WHRB and had a little student bluegrass band.”
Still, making a living as a banjo player seemed far-fetched. In 1984, Harvard degree in hand, Brown returned to California and enrolled at UCLA School of Management. (It would become the Anderson School in ’87.) One of her professors was the finance expert Thomas Copeland, now an emeritus. “He wrote on the board a number with five figures. I can’t remember what it was, but it was a big number at the time. ‘That can be your salary if you do well in this class and go into investment banking.’ After that, everybody wanted to go into investment banking.”
Brown went to work for Smith Barney structuring tax-exempt bond issues. She chafed under the buttoned-up corporate culture. “I really missed music,” she says. “I used to smuggle in my Bluegrass Musician and hide it under my copy of Bond Buyer.” Brown quit after about two years but she wasn’t home long. In 1989, she got a phone call that would dramatically change the course of her life. Alison Krauss’s banjo player had just quit and Krauss, then a fresh face on the bluegrass scene, needed a replacement in a hurry. Brown ended up touring and recording with Krauss for three years, lending a hand on Krauss’s Grammy-winning “I’ve Got That Old Feeling” album and watching as Krauss rocketed to stardom.
At McCabe’s that night, Brown banters between songs. “Any bluegrass fans out there? Well, we’re sorry about everything.” “Who would have thought that a banjo and a piano, which are natural enemies in the wild, would do so well in a guitar shop?”
Halfway through the set, Brown introduces the band’s road manager, “the one who makes all this possible.” Hannah, who has been hanging out with a babysitter in the green room, makes her way onto the stage and heads for a child-sized floor microphone near the front. With her mom plucking her banjo behind her, the tow-headed toddler sings “California Here I Come.” The house is full that night and the audience goes crazy. Hannah stands there wide-eyed, as if stunned. Finally, Brown kneels down and whispers into her ear. In a tiny voice, Hannah says, “Thank you” and walks off stage.
About UCLA Anderson School of Management
UCLA Anderson School of Management is perennially ranked among the top-tier business schools in the world. Award-winning faculty renowned for their research and teaching, highly selective admissions, successful alumni and world-class facilities combine to provide an extraordinary learning environment. UCLA Anderson constituents are part of a culture that values individual vision, intellectual discipline and a sense of teamwork and collegiality.
Established in 1935, UCLA Anderson School of Management provides management education to more than 1,400 students enrolled in MBA and doctoral programs, and some 2,000 executives and managers enrolled annually in executive education programs. Recognizing that the school offers unparalleled expertise in management education, the world's business community turns to UCLA Anderson School of Management as a center of influence for the ideas, innovations, strategies and talent that will shape the future.
Story by Anne Burke. Photos by Reed Hutchinson.