Producer, director, writer, actor, composer, lyricist, raconteur – any and all of those words could be used to describe Bruce Kimmel. After helping to launch the Varese Sarabande label over thirty years ago and christening its still-ongoing soundtrack series with his score to The First Nudie Musical (which he also wrote, co-directed and acted in), Kimmel founded the Bay Cities label. Between 1989 and 1993, he and his Bay Cities colleagues were among the very first to reissue classic film soundtracks and original cast recordings on CD. Their small label soon got the attention of the majors, many of which began reissue campaigns of their own. Kimmel found himself back at Varese Sarabande, producing a great number of original albums and scoring two Grammy nominations in the process.
Now, as the man behind the Kritzerland label, Kimmel is responsible for some of the most-talked about recent reissues from both Hollywood and Broadway. Most of Kritzerland’s limited edition releases have been near-instant sellouts, from the acclaimed, expanded Promises, Promises cast recording to definitive reissues of film scores by Elmer Bernstein, Alex North, Bernard Herrmann and Andre Previn, just to name a few. Kimmel has also recently authored his latest book, a memoir entitled There’s Mel, There’s Woody, and There’s You: My Life in the Slow Lane.
He took time out of his busy schedule to chat with The Second Disc about the past, present and future of the catalogue music world, touching on mastering, distribution and much more. We couldn’t be more proud to present an interview with one of the pioneers of the field. Hit the jump to read Kimmel’s illuminating and always entertaining thoughts on where the industry’s been, where it’s heading, and what’s coming next from Kritzerland.
Bruce, you’ve had an amazingly diverse career. Could you tell us how you got your start as a record producer?
I talk about this extensively in my new book, but the short version is I’d had a very rough time of it in the ‘80s. I was basically at the end of my rope – and this was right around the time we started Bay Cities. I had what I guess you’d call a meltdown and then an epiphany, and my life turned around instantly. Bay Cities was destined to fail for a whole slew of reasons, but I learned a lot in the three years we were in existence. But my heart was in wanting to record original albums, and Bay Cities could never, ever afford to do so, thanks to our distributor, who basically put the company out of business.
Concurrent with that, Chris Kuchler, who owns Varese Sarabande – a company I’d helped start – called and asked me to close down Bay Cities – he wasn’t happy that we were doing pretty well with soundtracks – and come to Varese. He basically said I could have my own line and do anything I wanted within certain budget constraints. I told him that I didn’t want to dip my toe in the water, that I wanted to come out swinging and that my goal was that within a year everyone would know my name as a record producer. It actually happened in six months, which was a surprise to me and everyone else.
You certainly did come out swinging! And the soundtrack to your film The First Nudie Musical was actually the first soundtrack release on the Varese Sarabande label way back in 1978, right?
The First Nudie Musical was indeed the first Varese soundtrack album. They had been doing obscure classical releases prior to that. While I stupidly did not invest in the company – for $2,500.00 I would have owned a rather large chunk, that was what they offered me – I did get them into soundtracks and, over the years, got them several really great projects.
Who were your influences as a record producer, writer and performer?
As a writer, I certainly loved James Thurber and Ring Lardner, and all the great playwrights and screenplay writers – I especially thought Ernest Lehman was great and one night I found his number in the phone book and called him and told him so. I was eleven at the time. Thankfully, he greeted the call with great good humor. As a performer, well, I loved Anthony Newley, Joel Grey (who I saw do Stop the World), Jack Benny (my favorite comic ever), and Red Skelton, along with the occasional Jerry Lewis movie and the Marx Brothers. As a record producer, there was only one man who in my view was a legend – Goddard Lieberson [the Columbia Records President who broke new ground in the recording of cast albums]. He was the best there ever was.
What about Lieberson’s cast albums makes them endure to this day whereas many albums produced by his contemporaries, at least in my opinion, often don’t?
Goddard had the ability to make his albums sound theatrical in a way few have then or now. When I listened to his albums when I was growing up, I always felt it sounded like I was right there and I could make pictures in my head. No one else’s albums back then could compare – and all I ever did with my cast albums was try to get them to sound exciting and present and theatrical. I listen to a lot of stuff these days and the albums sound small and dry and these techniques, for me at least, don’t do the scores any favors or the performers. Sure, there are some good albums being done, but I’m often disappointed. It’s hard to make a twenty-piece band sound like ten, but on a few recent albums in the last few years, that’s exactly what it sounds like. You listen to Gypsy – the original version before another producer messed with Mr. Lieberson’s work – that’s just one of the greatest albums ever made and, for me, it sounds as sparkling, alive, and fresh now as it did then. Same with Subways Are for Sleeping – those master tapes were unbelievable to hear.
Subways Are for Sleeping is just one of many exciting reissues you’ve produced over the years. You were one of the first to lead the charge in the cast album/soundtrack reissue market, dating back to those days at Bay Cities. I still cherish many of those Bay Cities discs, and kick myself over the ones I missed which now fetch high prices! What are the biggest challenges to reissuing a beloved soundtrack or cast recording in today’s marketplace? How have things changed since those early days?
It was funny that when Bay Cities began there had been no reissues of any classic Capitol cast albums with the exception of, I think, Molly Brown, The Music Man, and Funny Girl…I’m probably forgetting some. One day I just called them and got the licensing person on the phone and within minutes we’d made the deal to do [A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the] Forum, Golden Boy, and Celebration. Later we got Funny Lady and Chicago from Arista. My goal always is to make it sound as good as possible. In the old days especially there were a lot of mastering engineers who really didn’t know what they were doing. They’d transfer the album masters and just do a mediocre mastering job. We worked really hard and people seemed to notice, so that was nice. In today’s marketplace the challenge is just to sell 1,000 copies. Most of the hardcore collectors we could always count on passed away. We used to be able to sell 3,000 of anything – now we can’t get anywhere near that. It’s sad in a way, but the downloading thing and entitlement has really hurt the music business. But I saw it coming years ago.
I completely agree, Bruce, and I think a lot of young people don’t know what they’re missing. And with the proliferation of downloading, many folks don’t realize, or care, that they’re listening to an inferior-sounding product. Do you have a particular approach that you favor when mastering a CD, in terms of the volume, compression, etc.?
Yeah, my approach is to make it sound good. It’s shocking that that simple approach seems to be so difficult. Happily, I started out with one of the best mastering guys ever, Joe Gastwirt, who really taught me about sound and also was very open to what I wanted to hear and what I responded to. I now use a fellow named James Nelson and he’s terrific and “gets” what I like.
You mentioned the 1,000-copy model that Kritzerland has adopted to great success. How do you feel the much-discussed current state of the record industry has affected Kritzerland, if at all?
Not really, because the 1,000-copy limited edition model really took off for us in a major way. The soundtrack labels had started it – actually Bay Cities did limited editions of some Jerry Fielding soundtracks way back in 1991 – and I just saw it was the path to take. Most of our soundtracks have sold out, and the recent ones that haven’t are because there are certain labels who are so glutting the soundtrack market that people cannot take chances on titles they might have even six months ago. I’ve warned everyone, but no one listens. They should.
Your recent 2-CD release of the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Promises, Promises garnered a lot of deserved attention both here at The Second Disc and elsewhere. After the initial 1,000 copies sold out, you announced a second pressing of just the, well, second disc, containing the pitch-corrected and remixed version of the show, which just sounds astounding to my ears. Is an unlimited release in the pipeline?
To do an unlimited release of Promises would have caused the advance to be so high we couldn’t have afforded it. Thankfully, they let me do the second 1000 of the remixed version – so it should be around for a little while.
By the way, I think I can speak for many of our readers and say that we’re very happy to see real pressed CDs coming from Kritzerland, rather than the inferior CD-Rs being offered at full price by companies like Arkiv Music and now Collector’s Choice via their new Tartare imprint. How do you feel about this trend?
I hate the CD-R trend, the print on demand titles. While Arkiv provides a good service, frequently, at least to my view, the masters they’re being handed have had little to no work done on them and don’t sound all that good. Of course, people don’t seem to care, so what do I know?
You’ve maintained a very visible presence on line through the Haines His Way and Kritzerland sites, and I’ve always felt your honesty, accessibility and presence on the web has contributed to your success. Do you agree?
With Haines His Way I believe I have the longest-running daily blog in the history of the Internet – no one has proven different – I’ve not missed a day since November of 2001 and I don’t write two lines, I write pages of drivel. I have always tried to be accessible to people who were interested in what I did – whether they wrote me, called me, or e-mailed me. Of course, we all have people who don’t like us, and thanks to the Internet those people get to come after you in a most unpleasant way, but it really doesn’t bother me much anymore. I always try to be honest and I always try to have fun, but some people think I’m a curmudgeon and I’m fine with that.
When I started Fynsworth Alley, no other label had the kind of Internet presence we had. We really led the way, I think, at least in terms of a show label. Our Web site back then was unique and amazing – with perhaps the first DJ’d Broadway radio show, video, and all that stuff. We were really cutting edge, hard as it is to believe. Now everyone does it, including the two labels that sort of used us as their role model. When that all fell apart, I was asked to start yet another label and I didn’t have the heart for it then. And I saw what was happening. So, I waited. And in 2005 I started Kritzerland – with no partners, thank you very much – and did something really sort of brave or crazy or whatever – I refused to have conventional distribution. I would not sell to stores unless they agreed to no returns. Returns are what kill every small label with conventional distribution. So, not many stores bought my stuff – basically it was a few online stores and the Kritzerland site. We did okay – not like the old days but the good news was that no copies were ever coming back to me. Within a couple of years, Tower was gone, then Virgin, then all of them, basically. And we started doing better and better, although I was still moving very slowly in those days.
Between Bay Cities, Varese, Fynsworth Alley and now Kritzerland, you’ve produced a remarkable number of recordings. What albums with your name as producer are you most proud of?
Gosh, I really love all my children. I’m really proud of Unsung Irving Berlin because we got access to all those great trunk songs that had never been heard before. That was a treat. The Lost in Boston and Unsung Musicals series were great fun to do. And the Peter Pan and Cinderella albums, although not that well known, are really good. Of the singer albums, I treasure working with Liz Callaway (three albums!), and the wonderful Laurie Beechman, who I miss terribly. Also, the Toonful album that Michelle Nicastro did – it was actually our biggest-selling vocal album at over 50,000 units.
Those are great choices, Bruce. The Lost in Boston discs are some of my favorite albums; the array of talent you aligned to so many terrific, unknown songs is still pretty staggering today. And your production of Bacharach and David’s “Tick Tock Goes the Clock” is just an essential for any Bacharach fan, period, as these albums are for any musical theatre fan. But I have to ask: If you could do any albums over, would you and which ones?
Lost in Boston 3 for sure – I had a new orchestrator on it, and while he’s extremely talented – he did Jersey Boys – he didn’t really “get” the way we did the albums in those days. I’d love to let him do that album now. And while I’m obviously not mentioning names, there’s at least one singer album I wish I could do over – I was really busy while it was being prepped and I wasn’t quite as involved in the arrangement stage as I usually am – and every time I hear half the arrangements on the album I wish I’d been there to do combat because they’re just not good enough.
It’s no surprise to readers of The Second Disc that I’m a major fan of Bacharach and David; other favorites of yours like Marvin Hamlisch, Henry Mancini and Rupert Holmes are also easily among my Top 10 writers. Our recent feature on Rupert’s work received some nice feedback, too. Are any more releases by these esteemed fellows under consideration? I’ve hoped against hope for years for a release of the complete score to Bacharach and David’s Lost Horizon as excavated for the laserdisc. Would you consider such a release?
Well, we’ve just done Romantic Comedy by Hamlisch – a wonderful score. I would do any Mancini, and have done Gaily, Gaily and Married to It already. And I would kill to do a proper Lost Horizon with the songs and the instrumental score, but it’s Columbia [Pictures] and the album is owned by someone else, so it’s a bit of a nightmare.
Might I ask if you have a favorite cast recording and a favorite soundtrack? You’ve reissued many of the all-time greats.
Gypsy is my favorite cast recording ever – again, the original CD release, not the redo where someone felt it necessary to “fix” what most certainly was never broken. Favorite soundtrack – if you mean a recording, I’d say my most played soundtrack ever is [Jerry Goldsmith’s] A Patch of Blue. It may not be the best score ever written and the recording may not be amazing, but I wore out six copies of the LP and have had every CD incarnation. In terms of a gorgeous recording of a gorgeous score, I finally got to reissue it right from the original four-track album masters – Andre Previn’s Two for the Seesaw – it sounds pretty amazing.
Needless to say, we at The Second Disc hope to see the catalogue music industry continue to thrive. What do you see as the future for reissued music on CD in general?
It’s hard to predict. I would, for example, love to issue a whole batch of middle of the road albums that I loved when I was growing up – silly stuff, but, you know, Don Costa, Felix Slatkin, and some weird albums that no one but me would remember. But there’s no market for it and most of them are owned by major companies so there’s no chance to license.
What’s on your Kritzerland shortlist that you’re at liberty to discuss? Can you offer our readers any “scoops” or hints?
Oh, there are some more shows coming…the London Cast Recording of Promises [which has just sold out], and I’m going to do some stuff that will please me if no one else – some classic revues that have never been issued on CD. Plus lots of soundtracks, including a couple of major Holy Grails. [One forthcoming Kritzerland release has been confirmed over on Film Score Monthly’s message board: Mischa Spoliansky’s score to Otto Preminger’s 1957 film Saint Joan. A 2-CD set of a favorite film soundtrack is also in the pipeline, as is another Elmer Bernstein release.]
You’ve worked with many of the greats of Broadway and Hollywood on any number of projects; is anybody left on your “bucket list?”
Oh, there are a lot of singers I’d still love to work with – Bernadette Peters…she did a little bonus track on the Ruthless cast album, but I’d love to work with her. I’d actually love to do something with Liza – but these folks have their people and like to do what they’re comfy with. I like to push things and stir things up. Composers – well, I’ve worked with just about everyone I love – all my heroes. I would have loved to have done something with Jule Styne. There were a couple of albums and singers that got away – Lauren Bacall wanted to do an album with me – and I could not get Varese to say yes – unbelievable. Same with Ann Miller. I would love to have done both of those. And, strangely, Nancy Sinatra came to see me and we were thinking about doing a Broadway album. That one would have happened except Nancy was taught by her dad that she should own her masters. Well, that wasn’t going to be happening. But my consolation was Petula Clark and Helen Reddy, and that was great.
I would have been first in line for those might-have-beens! Are there any albums you’d love to reissue, if rights/licenses/etc. simply weren’t an issue?
Sure – Donnybrook. A Time for Singing. After years of trying, I actually got the license to do the latter late last year – but I haven’t signed it and probably won’t because Kritzerland is not yet in the position to have a loss leader, and the deal on that title is so steep that we would lose money, given what I project the sales would be.
Would the CD boom of the 1990s have seen enough collectors willing to purchase A Time for Singing? And have those collectors of the esoteric film and show albums disappeared or turned to mp3 and download?
I could do it if I wanted to lose money – maybe in the future. In the ‘90s there would have absolutely been enough collectors to have made it worthwhile. I don’t think those particular collectors have turned to mp3s or downloading – I think a lot of them have died. And the young people want it fast, want it now, and want it free, if possible. They don’t necessarily enjoy the tactile sensation of actually holding a CD or a booklet and they certainly don’t enjoy the hunt that I used to love and really miss. But, as Peter Allen said, “Everything old is new again” and I believe things will change; at least I hope they will.