David Bither has something on his mind. Sitting at his desk at the Warner Music Group’s midtown Manhattan offices, he pulls up a recording he heard the night before on SiriusXM’s Beatles Channel: accomplished jazz pianist Brad Mehldau performing his solo interpretation of “I Am the Walrus,” off his upcoming album of Beatles covers out Feb. 10. It’s the last minute of the song Bither keeps coming back to: how Mehldau teases out the melodies, takes the song to new places that seem at once completely disconnected from the acid-infused silliness of John Lennon’s original and at the same time still retaining its pop essence.
It’s a Friday afternoon, which in these post-pandemic days means there are few, if any, others in the building. But Bither is here, as he has been for decades, manning the ship for Nonesuch Records’ eclectic, intensely artistic roster of musicians. His office is bursting with vinyl records, and plaques and posters line the walls and the floor: Emmylou Harris, the Velvet Underground, Steve Reich, artists who have influenced him deeply, on both a personal and professional level. It’s no wonder his focus is, at all times, on the music, which filters out through his open office door into the building’s hallways.
That focus on the music, and the wildly different ways that music can be expressed, has paid off more than ever this year: at the upcoming 65th annual Grammy Awards, Nonesuch — the label at which Bither has worked officially since 1995, unofficially since 1986, and of which he became president in 2017 — received 15 nominations, the most in the label’s 59-year history. And those nominations run the gamut of genres: rock (The Black Keys), blues (Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal), folk (the Punch Brothers), jazz (Cécile McLorin Salvant; and Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride & Brian Blade), contemporary instrumental (Mehldau), chamber music (Caroline Shaw), historical (the 20th-anniversary edition of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) and bluegrass (Molly Tuttle). Reflecting the label’s dedication to presentation, both musical and physical, there were nominations for producer of the year, non-classical (Dan Auerbach), best arrangement, instruments and vocals (McLorin Salvant) and best album notes (Bob Mehr for the YHF box; Fernando Gonzalez for Astor Piazzolla box set The American Clave Recordings). Most shocking of all, there was a best new artist nomination for Tuttle, the first bluegrass artist to ever receive such recognition.
It’s an impressive haul for a label that employs just 12 staffers in the States and three in the U.K., and one that rarely, if ever, traffics in the music mainstream. But it’s also a testament to Bither’s role as a figure who, as his predecessor Bob Hurwitz did before him, stands up and provides a platform for artists to express themselves in many forms, regardless of how many streams they may rack up or records they may sell.
“It’s just keeping your ears open to what’s going on and realizing there’s a lot of doors out there to open, and to be open to that and be casting the net as wide as we can,” he says, reflecting on the breadth of those nominations. “But with the kinds of music we’ve been involved in, I don’t think that 20 years ago we could have been nominated in all those categories. They didn’t all exist then, but we weren’t making records in all those places. Now, I don’t think there’s a category that would be off-limits to us.”
Nonesuch has rarely been beholden to a specified lane. Founded in 1964 by legendary executive Jac Holzman as a budget classical label, the imprint was led for more than a decade by Tracey Sterne, who established its classical bonafides while expanding into indigenous music from around the world. The label was sold to Warner in 1970 and, in 1984, was shifted to fall under Elektra Records boss Bob Krasnow, who hired Hurwitz to run a newly-reimagined Nonesuch — one that quickly expanded into a home for contemporary composers, jazz artists and musicians from all over the world. Bither, who had a background in music journalism and performance arts centers like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, was working at WMG parent Warner Communications at the time and established a rapport with Hurwitz and his marketing chief Peter Clancy — enough so that when Krasnow needed a new head of international for Elektra, Hurwitz recommended Bither, despite the fact that he had no experience in the record business.
“There were a few eyebrows raised for sure, and I give Bob Krasnow credit forever for taking that risk,” Bither says. “They would do conventions every year of all the labels with presentations, and I was at the big international meeting at Montreux within two weeks; I didn’t even know what was coming out on Elektra. We went on a road show to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney, and I was going to be presenting Elektra’s 1987 slate of releases. So that’s how I got started.”
Bither learned quickly, and after a few years running international he shifted to domestic marketing, then to the GM role, working on projects for Metallica, Tracy Chapman and 10,000 Maniacs, among others. But he had maintained an informal advisory role at Nonesuch, with Hurwitz sliding him $1 a year for his input prior to him taking the Elektra job and Bither bringing artists to Nonesuch over the years. So when Warner went through an executive upheaval in the mid-1990s, Hurwitz brought Bither on full-time — a partnership that continues to this day, even as Hurwitz stepped back into a chairman role in 2017 and relinquished the label presidency to Bither.
That period coincided with some of the most significant Nonesuch deals in the label’s history: partnering with World Circuit Records to release three albums from the Buena Vista Social Club that collectively sold millions worldwide, in a deal that came about after Hurwitz asked Bither what music was emanating from his office that particular day; signing Harris and Laurie Anderson, artists from the major label system who needed a creative outlet to explore different forms of expression; bringing on the Black Keys and Wilco, two acts who would make a significant impact on rock and alternative music; and putting out Brian Wilson’s SMILE, the culmination of a 50-year journey to release one of music history’s most mythical projects. Nonesuch became a home for artists who wouldn’t fit anywhere else, who had something to say beyond the ordinary.
“Maybe because of my international background, but the idea of this music coming from all these different places felt like there was a home for a lot of different ideas at Nonesuch,” Bither says. “It was different than what the bigger, mainstream labels were doing. And that was the mission: it was the mission when Bob started, and it’s the mission 40 years later, to try to do those things. We’re not gonna compete with the big labels; it’s not what we do. But I think there are a lot of other opportunities, maybe more than ever now, because of the way that the business has evolved, for music that’s real, that has original voices.”
“The label is that most old fashioned of labels, in a very good way — one that seeks to follow an artist as they grow and change, rather than depend on the quick hit,” says Rhiannon Giddens, who has worked with Nonesuch since the beginning of a career that has spanned country, folk, bluegrass, soul, Gospel, jazz, R&B, operas and ballets. “It’s hard to imagine another home that would let me be me so completely. David has been an incredible support, sounding board and just all-around excellent friend to me, through the ups downs and sideways of my weirdo career, and I simply wouldn’t be where I am today without him.”
Those real, original voices and musicians are on display with Nonesuch’s Grammy nominees this year — beginning with Tuttle, the uber-talented guitarist, singer and songwriter who had recently become the first woman to win guitarist of the year at the International Bluegrass Music Association awards when Bither met her in 2019 in Manhattan. Her album with her band Golden Highway, Crooked Tree, brings bluegrass into the modern conversation, with lyrics that reflect a 2022 reality rather than a century-old art form, and with musicianship that is mind-spinning. (“When I met David Bither, we instantly connected, and I was struck with how much thought and care he puts into the albums that Nonesuch releases,” says Tuttle. “I have loved being part of such a diverse and brilliant family of musicians [and] I’m looking forward to working alongside the Nonesuch team for many years to come.”) But while Nonesuch had hoped for a best bluegrass album nomination, her nod for best new artist came as a shock.
“Did we think she was going to be best new artist? We didn’t think that the day the nominations were announced,” Bither says. “But she had something special, and it’s going to be really exciting to see what comes next. I’ve come to understand — having sat at the Grammys now for many years with artists and others — how much it means to the artists. It’s attached surgically to their names forever after. I think Molly Tuttle’s name will mean something that it didn’t mean six weeks ago, and that will inform everything that happens with the next record. The sky’s the limit, and what she’s now earned is the ability to decide for herself. It’s about her as an artist, not about figuring out a lane for her to drive in and continue driving there.”
There is something to the longevity of Nonesuch’s mission, as well as the long-standing leadership guiding it, that tends to bring artists back. Ry Cooder has worked with the label since the Buena Vista days in the late 1990s; Brad Mehldau has worked with them since 2004. The Black Keys had their pick of any label in the world when they signed with Nonesuch in 2006, and after 17 years, 18 Grammy nominations and seven wins, they’re still here. Wilco spent a decade at the label before heading out to form their own operation, but when it came time to set up the 20th-anniversary box set of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they came back to Nonesuch to get it done.
“There was no way if we had done this ourselves that it would have come out nearly as good, or nearly as expansive, nor would it have gotten the treatment in the media that Nonesuch was able to get,” says Josh Grier, Wilco’s former lawyer and current manager. “They could have made this a lot simpler for themselves and probably still sold a fair amount of records and made some money, and they went a lot further than that. Jeff [Tweedy], like most musicians, doesn’t like looking back; he likes to focus on his new records. David made it seem fresh and showed a lot of energy for the project that got Tweedy back engaged. It’s kind of nice to come back after 20 years and see the same guy sitting at the desk.”
A lot has changed since Bither first worked at Nonesuch; the shift from sales to streaming, for one thing, as well as the tastes of the mainstream. (The nature of streaming services, which cater principally to mega-hit singles, has made it more difficult to break through the noise, he notes.) But the label is still managing to thrive as it comes up on its 60th anniversary next year, and this coming weekend’s Grammys could be a capstone for a place that continues to thrive with its particular sense of artistic taste, in an ecosystem that isn’t necessarily set up to reward it.
“I don’t do interviews very often, because it’s not about us, it’s about all these artists that we’re here to support,” Bither says. “But it did feel now that because of all these nominations, it does say something about us as a label that I think is important to be said. And you know, these are not easy times for the business. We’re all struggling to be heard over the din of the 100,000 tracks a day being uploaded. But I think there will always be a place for what we do. We’ve never looked at it as being a niche, we’ve looked at it as being about a certain kind of quality. And the world of music is a big world.”
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