Fully appreciating what an anomaly the Windham Hill music label really was requires some honest musical history. Think back to the 1980s, when the California-based label achieved enormous popularity. Was there ever a decade when music and recordings sounded more slick, artificial, overly-processed and overproduced? Clearly the stripped-down and natural-sounding Windham Hill, which often featured a single acoustic instrument, offered a much-needed antidote.
It wasn’t just sonics, however, that made Windham Hill stand out, as gimmick-free recordings require real talent. Somehow Windham Hill discovered a crop of previously obscure artists who went on to become names, among them George Winston, Alex de Grassi, Shadowfax, Scott Cossu, Liz Story, Mark Isham, and Michael Hedges. The A-list also includes, of course, guitarist William Ackerman, who created the label as a side project for his work as a carpenter. Windham Hill was, from the start, a labor of love; it just happened to make millions of dollars. Even so, the business side of things eventually caused the experience to sour, so he walked away from it.
He didn’t walk away from music, however. In 1993 Ackerman built the Imaginary Road Studios on a mountain in Vermont. He did so without a blueprint or a backlist of recording artists to keep the studio busy. A new crop of musicians surfaced, however, whose music is very much in the spirit of Windham Hill. So while Ackerman no longer has any interest in running a label, he’s still a force in the music industry, as the new sampler entitled The Gathering confirms. Consisting of selections from projects recorded in Imaginary Road Studios, The Gathering is more than just a taste test; it’s a memorable CD in its own right, with lyrical, colorful, sensual solo performances as well as some fine ensemble work. (To purchase a copy—and learn more about Ackerman’s recent endeavors—visit imaginaryroadstudios. com.)
Given Ackerman’s activities, The Absolute Sound was clearly due to check in with him, and I feel fortunate I was in a position to do that. Where some artists answer with an eye on market share, Ackerman shot from the hip. Restless, probing, and passionate, he gave the interview his all. Readers who fear that all the questions have been answered when it comes to the recording process will benefit from reading this interview, for, as Ackerman makes clear, there is still plenty of room for exploration. Although he’s well aware of what other folks do in the studio, nothing that’s ever been written about recording will ever trump what he hears with his own two ears.
JW: I’m curious about both the end of your involvement with Windham Hill and the beginning of Imaginary Road Studios. Also, what’s different this time around?
WA: From a structural standpoint, the primary difference now is that I work as an independent producer for artists rather than the owner of a record label I produce for. Every single client I’ve had in the last decade or more has recorded his or her project for his or her own label. The end of my involvement with Windham Hill was more personal than anything. I absolutely loved the experience of Windham Hill in the early days. The company grew at ridiculous rates: 700 % growth years, 1000% growth years, independent distribution to branch distribution through the deal I made with A&M records, overseas and domestic platinum and gold records, Carnegie Hall, the Montreux Jazz Festival, The Hollywood Bowl. It was so so swift and so remarkable especially given the fact that I really only envisioned the label as a hobby on the side of my general contracting company, Windham Hill Builders. As late as 1980, my business card still read “Windham Hill Builders/ Records/Music (BMI).” My only regret is that the Grammy Award for New Age was so late in coming. George Winston certainly would have won a slew of Grammys, as would Michael Hedges and, I’d guess, The Winter’s Solstice recordings, among many others. As the label became more corporate I liked the experience less and less. The company was sold probably at just the right time, but, again, my motivations were more personal than financial.
When your recordings were all on one label, it was easy for fans of the type of music you were recording to track down the music. Even though musically what you’re recording now may be every bit as identifiable as Windham Hill, the fact that these recordings are on so many different labels has to make marketing the music more challenging. What are you doing to spread the word?
You’re certainly right in the premise of your question. I haven’t jumped easily back into the record business, but ultimately I felt that I had to do something that would create a “strength in numbers” sort of scenario. I’m not sure how far this will go, but I’m more than willing to find out. I actually loved the recent experience of assembling twenty-one of the artists I’ve produced in the last few years (I put one of my cuts as the 22nd on the CD) in a compilation called The Gathering, subtitled “A new generation of musicians produced by Will Ackerman, the founder of Windham Hill Records.” Somehow just hearing and seeing this compilation assembled awakened something in me that feels like Windham Hill in the early days. The Gathering gives very tangible form to my work and seems to inspire me to work on behalf of all of these artists where the prospect of becoming the manager for all of these people would obviously be too daunting. Somehow we’ve all pulled together in this and already the reviews are so glowing that I know we’re on the right track. I’m not sure how far it will go, but I’ll let it go and accompany it on the ride getting wherever it wants to go and wherever I can help it go. These are greatly talented musicians on The Gathering and they deserve all the recognition they can get and I’m genuinely proud to be a part of it.
It sounds as if the musicians you’re recording and producing are seeking you out. How does word get out there that you’re open for business?
I’m not even in the phone book. The legacy of Windham Hill is still what keeps people contacting me...a fact that seems remarkable to me. I don’t suppose that I’d imagine a label that I sold 20 years ago would disappear completely, but the emotional impact the label had on so many lives is something I couldn’t possibly have envisioned. I’m touched by the amazing amount of e-mail I still get from people. They tell me of hard times in their lives that the music got them through. They talk about everything from simple relaxation to nearly religious revelation. The most touching ones have to do with someone telling me that a loved one chose to listen to our music as he left this world. How could one possibly do more on this planet than to have provided solace and meaning to people? I’m incredibly grateful we offered that and I feel very much that the music I’m producing today with these brilliant musicians is a continuation of that legacy.