CRI, R.I.P. (Three years belated)

Right now, I’m listening to The Music of Lou Harrison, an album part of the American Masters series from the defunct label, Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI).

I spent a year in New York City on a college exchange program, and I worked for CRI that entire year. Back then, I had aspirations to be this avant-garde composer proletariat enough not to scoff at pop music. Working for CRI gave me a nice glimpse into the machinations of a non-profit record label.

Yes, there are non-profit record labels — New World and Tzadik being the most visible. (Of course, it could be joked that no independent label actually makes any money …)

CRI started in 1954 for the sole purpose of recording the music of modern American composers.

CRI had a policy that no title would ever go out of print, and in the early ’90s — when I worked for the label — the label had begun a reissue campaign, repackaging its older titles, while reaching out to the downtown scene for newer works.

CRI ran its artist and repertoire operations by committee — composers would submit their works to the label for considertaion, and a committee of peers would evaluate them and decide what to record.

Throughout the ’90s, CRI released some interesting projects. The Gay American Composers series dovetailed the major label marketing ploy at the time of reaching gay consumers with sexually evocative covers. Tribute albums to Mozart and Schubert commemorated anniversary events for both composers.

Bang on a Can issued its first recordings with CRI, before jumping to Sony Classical for a spell, then launching its own label.

CRI shut its doors in 2003, a victim of the record industry downturn. The label’s catalog is now under New World Records, and Qualiton Imports is selling CRI’s remaining inventory.

I was a donor for a number of years after I moved from New York City — I have a newsletter somewhere that lists my name with Stephen Sondheim on the same page — but gradually, my attention was drawn away from modern classical composition.

I feel a bit sad about the loss of CRI. I remember when I interviewed for my internship, I was asked whether I heard of the label, and much to their surprise, I said yes. I read about CRI in Pulse! magazine (also defunct) and encountered the label’s acronym every time I looked up a modern composer in a Schwann guide to classical music.

At the same time, I didn’t patronize the label as I probably should have. College money was pretty sparse, so I couldn’t go as crazy as I would have liked. At the same time, CRI’s releases struck me as so esoteric, they demonstrated what I didn’t want to be as a composer.

I’ve been meaning to write something about CRI for a while, but I never got around to doing it. It wasn’t until I ripped my entire CD collection to MP3 that I ran across The Music of Lou Harrison. And lucky for you, New World reissues the recording this month under the title Chamber and Gamelan Works.

I think a review in the near future is in order.

It’s probably tough to understand the impact of CRI’s closure, so here are a number of obituaries for the label, published at the time of the label’s closure.