Rounder Records is probably the most recognizable independent record label today. With artists like Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck and Rush, the scope of musical genres is diverse. Rounder Records continues to deliver music that covers all styles and genres for music lovers of all stripes. For an independent label, Rounder has grown into one on the largest labels and had dominated many categories in the Grammy’s for many years.
Started by music loving university students, Rounder began as many small business’s do. Simply because it was something to do, and they loved music. Founded by Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin and Marian Leighton in October of 1970, it had humble beginnings. Their first release was by a banjoist by the name of George Pegram. Rounder actually didn’t record this record, but bought the master from a friend for $125. They produced 500 copies and developed the packaging themselves. The other group that they released was called, The Spark Gap Wonder Boys. What a great name! With these two records they began to shop them around to local and regional record stores. Some were willing to sell the records on consignment but many others only wanted to buy from a distributor. So, they started Rounder Distribution. They got several records from a couple different labels and began the process of getting some accounts regionally.
Well, the business really took off and by the early eighties they were distributing records for over 300 labels and had warehouses in Kansas City, and Boston. Eventually they grew to 400 labels but the consensus was that they wanted to get back to being a record label. They wanted to return to making great music.
Even though they had the reputation of being a bluegrass and folk label, blues rock was about to change Rounders future. Through the persistence of a local bus driver, John Forward, Bill Nowlin finally heard George Thorogood and the Destroyers play at a local VFW and signed him soon after. George’s first self-tilted record went on to sell 100,000 records. But it was his second ‘Movin On Over’ that brought Rounder its first gold album. The success and notoriety of George and the attention Rounder was getting with the first three records it was becoming evident that a change needed to happen. So, with the the forth album already recorded a deal was struck with EMI and he moved over. “It just… it seemed evident that we had gone as far as we could go at the time” recalls Bill Nowlin.
Rounder Records success is really a common sense thing. Let great musicians make great music and the fans will come and support it. Alison Krauss is this type of artist. Growing up playing traditional fiddle music she has been able to lead her listeners where her heart is going. She by far, is the face of Rounder Records today. She has to date won a staggering 26 Grammy Awards and sold 10 million albums. She continues to branch out and take new risks. In 2006 she produced Alan Jackson record and helped to discover new comers Nickel Creek. Another great artist that I love listening to is Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. The connection between Rounder and Bela is a easy one, roots music with a brand new approach, every time!
Rounder has also been involved with the reissue of many early recording. Working in conjunction with the Library of Congress they have released many works from new Orleans Jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton, folk songwriters Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly as well as many recording by the famed engineer Alan Lomax.
What ever it is that has made Rounder one of the largest independent labels today one thing is for sure, the ingredient is fantastic music. Just like an old buddy of mine back home said “If you like it, someone else probably will too!”