Monday, March 28, 2016

The Genesis of New Age Music (Part Seven) - The Hijacking of New Age Music

The Genesis of New Age Music - Part Seven

By Don Robertson

In this eight-part series, I provide the true story of the birth and development of the new age music genre. This series will reveal how we, the new age composers and musicians, began placing the first new-age recordings into distribution, how writers and critics transmogrified what we were doing into some kind of "new-age movement," and finally, when we were beginning to have international influence, how the music and radio industries hijacked the name "new age music," and in order to make money, created a false new age music genre, forcing me and some of my colleges to leave the genre altogether, never looking back.

     In the previous six articles in this series, I described the actual events that took place in the creation of the new-age music genre. In this article, I describe what happened when outside interests took over our home-spun efforts, creating something that was entirely different.

New Age Music Goes National 
     We, the original new-age musicians, wanted our music to be accepted nationally in order to reach a wider audience. We were waiting for two events that we knew would trigger this national exposure: recognition by the mass media, and a radio station that would change its format to one that played new-age music only. 
     The main event that we were awaiting, the event that we knew would trigger what we had been prognosticating for years, was the inevitable article in Time Magazine, the corporate-controlled "news weekly" that at that time was so widely read that it literally controlled the opinions of the masses. Every week it featured something "news-worthy" in its music section. National music trends were begun on the pages of this magazine, and we knew that the rapidly growing new-age music genre would appear in this popular magazine sooner or later. This would be the article that would "put us on the map," moving us from book stores into the national record-store distribution network with our own "new-age" section in every mall record store in America. This inevitable article was rapidly approaching. 

The Big Corporate Ripoff
     In August, 1986, I got a call from Anna Turner of the "Music from the Hearts of Space" radio show. She was excited, telling me that a Time Magazine reporter had just spent several days with her and Stephen Hill and that the long-awaited article introducing new-age music to America was going to appear in the music section of the magazine in a few weeks! 
     It looked like the big turning point had now arrived, the one that we new-age musicians had been waiting for and working towards. 
     Indeed, in a few weeks the article appeared in Time Magazine. However, much to our shock and chagrin, the San Francisco Bay Area new-age musicians and the new-age musicians in the Los Angeles area were almost completely excluded from the article! Even Stephen and Anna and their radio program, the very heart of the genre, were only given a glancing nod.
     Instead, the magazine, based in New York City, presented a completely false story about the genre, featuring musicians from the New York City area that none of us had ever heard of. And the article was not about meditation and healing music at all; instead it completely recreated the new-age music genre, defining it as something other than what it really was. We were shocked and dismayed to watch the power of the press in action. 
     Except for the music of New Jersey synthesizer musician Don Slepian, we considered the New York City area to be a place where no new-age music could possibly exist. New-age music was a Californian and European phenomenon. 
    Here is the opening paragraph of the Time article. It says it all!:
It has been called "aural wallpaper," "music for the Birkenstock crowd" and "yuppie elevator music." Its titles evoke a holistic, hot-tubbing world: Etosha -- Private Music in the Land of Dry Water, Aerial Boundaries, Nirvana Road. Although its composers include musicians prominent in the rock avant-garde, it is marked by a meditative aesthetic whose goal is often creative anonymity. A laid-back synthesis of folk, jazz and classical influences, it is called, by rough convention, New Age music. But what exactly is it?
Sept 1, 1986 Time New-Age Music article (you will need a subscription to view this article)
 Suddenly a Split Personality
     The result of Time Magazine's complete fabrication was the bifurcation of the new-age music genre. There was now the genre being sold in the metaphysical book stores - healing and meditation music - and the genre being sold in the record shops - dozens of Windham Hill records and dozens of rock and jazz newbies flocking to the scene. While perusing the new-age-music section at Tower Records in New York City one day, I noticed that some of these new musicians had been hard-core rock musicians only months before. Clearly someone had taken advantage of us. I wondered what kind of nefarious deal was going on behind the scenes. 

     One of our largest distributors was called "Narada." It hadn't taken this company long to surpass Ethan Edgecombe's Fortuna distributorship to become the largest new-age-music distributor. And, like Ethan, they had started their own record label. 
     Narada had begun telephoning me in 1984 offering to sign me to their label. I didn't jump on the opportunity, but I was considering the possibility. They called quite frequently for a year.
     Finally, I told them that I was considering only signing with them for Europe, where they were operating through a company in Holland. I wanted to release my album Anthem in Europe because, as I have said, I didn't believe that it would be understood or welcomed in America. However, I was still struggling with recording Anthem at that time.
    In the meantime, Narada released my Spring album on LP in Europe, through their operation in Holland. I never received any royalties and had no idea what was happening with my album in Europe, but I was told by friends that the LP and cassettes were available there. (Narada eventually told me that they had sold only 11 copies).
     As I finished up the recording of Anthem, the final part in the recording process was adding the sound effects that open the music on Side One... nature sounds, and the sound of a steam locomotive as it rapidly approached my microphone, ushering in the beginning of the music itself... yes a really different idea. All of these sounds I had envisioned on the album for some time, and I had recorded them digitally with my portable Sony PCM-F1 recorder that Hollywood sound designer Frank Serafine had introduced me to.
     I had been sending Narada bits and pieces of Anthem. However, when I finished the album and sent them the final copy and they heard the sound effects for the first time, they refused to accept the album unless the offending sounds were removed. I refused to change anything, and this was the end of my relationship with that company.
     Meanwhile, I was conversing by telephone with my fellow artist friends who had already signed with Narada, hearing lots of woeful tales about their relationship with the company. Narada was sounding more like a band of thieves every day. I even heard tales of albums that Narada had released in Europe without informing the artists who hadn't even signed with them.
     When a year later I mentioned in a newsletter that Narada had wanted to sign me, and that I had turned them down, I got a call from someone at the company accusing me of lying. I was told that Narada had never had any interest in me, and if I didn't stop spreading lies, they were going to sic their lawyers on me.
     What finally happened to Narada? It was purchased by EMI, the huge music company, to be eventually sucked up by Universal Music Group, now the world's largest music publishing company. 

Higher Octave
     In 1986, I received a call from a new company in Los Angeles calling themselves Higher Octave. They had just released their first album by an artist named Peter Davidson and wanted to sign me next. They flew me to Los Angeles and I spent the day with them. I liked them a lot. They were really nice people.
     I played them the album that I was developing, Castles in the Sun, and they wanted to release it. I just needed to finish recording it.
The Wave

     We, the real musicians of the new-age music genre, had received a big blow when Time magazine decided to create a new record-store-friendly version of new-age music. Now came the second blow, when the first "all-new-age-music" radio station went on the air... an event that we had been anticipating and that several people in San Francisco were actively trying to make happen. 
     The folks at Higher Octave in Los Angeles were really excited as they continued to give me updates on this very first "new-age" radio station that was going to go live in mid-February, 1987 there in Los Angeles. It was going to be called "The Wave." 
     This was news that we all had been waiting for. Finally, people would be able to turn on their radios and hear healing and spiritually transformative music on their radios! We assumed that our efforts would transform music in America, and that the popular charts would soon become influenced by our music. Hard rock would disappear forever while popular music returned to something positive like it had been before. The new age was here! 
      Hey, no counting for naivete.
      As the going-live date for the The Wave approached, we all waited with bated breath. Finally the day arrived. I got a call from Matt at Higher Octave in Los Angeles. He appeared to be in shock! The Wave had gone on the air, but there was no new-age music being played on the station at all. Instead The Wave featured the kind of slow jazz music that by that time had become associated with Windham Hill. Anything slow and jazzy, you would hear playing on this new station. 
    With this latest change in the direction of new-age music, many new-age artists, labels, and radio shows started changing their formats. Even Stephen Hill had to change the format of his "Hearts of Space" radio show just to keep up! Except in the niche market of the metaphysical bookstores, new-age music as we had known it was finished.
     The nice folks at Higher Octave couldn't take a chance with me or Castles in the Sun now. I knew that. Back to that lower octave they would have to go, or at least to the top part of it.
     And so, Higher Octave and Narada both became big labels in the new-age genre and both were finally absorbed into the behemoth Universal Music Group, the giant music corporation that had gobbled up just about everything else.
The Grammies Jump on Board
    The Grammies quickly added "new-age music" to their huge out-of-control lists of genres. For the first year (1987), the new-age grammy award went to jazz harpist Andreas Vollenweider, the next year to jazz musician Yusef Lateef, and in 1989 to the Windham Hill group called Shadowfax. The 1990 new-age-music grammy award went to rock-musician Peter Gabriel for a soundtrack that featured music from the "world" genre. I am in no way discrediting these fine artists, I am simply providing the facts. Our genre was hijacked by the corporate dictators: an example of what happens when gigantic corporations take hold of something, then promote it in their own fashion, feeding the people misinformation, and reinventing history along the way.

Releasing Castles in the Sun
     Now that Higher Octave wasn't interested in my music, it was up to me, my ex-wife, and our "DBR Music" home record label to release Castles in the Sun ourselves. And so we did... on compact disc and cassette in 1989. We hired a promoter in Los Angeles to plug the album. Castles in the Sun then went national, with hundreds of radio stations across the country playing the album. The song "Melissa" from the album even became a favorite on the Los Angeles Wave station, receiving heavy rotation at one point. 
     We also were selling thousands of CDs. One big order from a major distributor in California alone was for 900 units. I remember stacking box after box into the UPS truck outside of our door and realizing how big of an order that really was. Another order for 300 CDs went to the Hastings Department Store chain. Our album was a success.
Radio and Records Chart, May 8, 1989

     But when I listened to my music in the context of the other music on The Wave, I realized that I was out of the game, a game that I simply was not interested in playing anymore. I put away my studio equipment and went to work on Kopavi, my ballet for chorus and orchestra.

The Battle of Yawn Knee
At this time, the musician known as Yanni was living in Minneapolis and had released his first album of synthesizer music on his own “basement” label in the mid-1980s. This album was an altogether different kind of electronic music than the music that the new-age musicians were creating, and he was selling it independently, just like us. It was not healing music, nor was it uplifting in my opinion. 
      When he sent copies to the new-age-music distributors, they didn't know what to do with it. It wasn't "new-age" music, but they began distributing it anyway. One of my distributor friends had talked with Yanni on the phone. Yanni, the distributor told me, was quick to explain that his music was in no way new-age music at all. In fact, he talked scornfully about new-age music. Yanni believed that he was just about the greatest musical genius ever, or something to that effect, I was told. 
    Quickly, the music industry got a hold of Yanni. We learned that he had moved his equipment to a fantastic home in Los Angeles, was living with a beautiful Hollywood TV star, and Mr. Plastic had now suddenly been transformed into Mr. New Age himself!

It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
     The major labels and record distributors had created new-age music sections in mall record stores across the country and began dumping "new-age-music" CDs by unknown artists who had suddenly appeared out of nowhere into them. 
    This created an interesting phenomenon where the record stores in America had sections of "new-age music" that had little or no resemblance to the music that was still being sold in the metaphysical book stores, now known as "new-age book stores." Thus there arose two types of new-age music: the metaphysical book stores retained the more "meditative and healing" music, while the record stores, along with radio, turned the genre into a new, and more lucrative, style of music.
     Disgusted and discouraged, I left the scene and never looked back. I have no idea what has transpired in the "new-age music genre" after I left it in 1989. That is for others to write about….

Making Up for Past Transgressions
     In Part Six of this series, I talked about how I had created three tracks on my Castles in the Sun album that were totally contrived, going against everything that I believed in. In 2008, I re-released Castles in the Sun without these three pieces of contrived music, and replaced them with the three original tracks that I had recorded for the album in the first place but had set aside. This 2008 version of the album is now "the one true version."

Next, the last installment in "The Genesis of New Age Music" - Part Eight "My Last Stand." 

© 2005, 2016 by Don Robertson - Originally published in 2005 as a part of "Music Through the Centuries” by Don Robertson on This material was revised and expanded in 2016.