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An Indie Label Strikes Gold

Two years ago, Michael Caplan couldn’t wait to be fired. He was working as an executive vice president at Sony Music, where he discovered acts like Living Colour, G. Love and Ginuwine. But he had long been dismayed by the lack of love for actual music in the record business, a problem he watched grow worse as major labels consolidated their share of the business in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I went to my boss and said, ‘I quit,’” Caplan remembered in a recent interview with the Forward. “They thought I couldn’t handle the stress and wanted to go start some quaint jazz label in New Haven, [Conn.]. So they were like, ‘Oh, poor Michael.’”

In fact, Caplan did establish his label, but it ain’t quaint. Or Music, which he and business partner Larry Miller founded only two years ago after meeting at a UJA fund raiser, features an eclectic roster that ranges from Velvet Underground legend John Cale to a new jam band called Particle and to Los Lonely Boys, a Tex-Mex blues band whose sound owes a more than passing debt to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Their self-titled album has been certified platinum, indicating sales of more than 1 million albums. In fact, Or Music has grown into one of the few new independents able to sell a respectable number of CDs this year. Caplan says he chose the name because it means light in Hebrew. “I thought for some reason that it meant ‘Light of God.’ I was studying Kabbalah at the time, before the Kabbalah Centre asked me for 20 grand.”

Or has managed to find success for two reasons: One is good old-fashioned music ears, supplied by Caplan, a veteran of the lost art of discovering and nurturing talent; the other reason is Miller, who has blended a precise mix of marketing heft with indie flexibility that has allowed Or to occupy the otherwise barren space between the last few major labels and thousands of tiny indies.

It is not an easy balance to maintain. For labels trying to stake out the middle ground between the few remaining behemoths, like Warner Music and Sony, and the many mom-and-pop labels that release CDs independently each year, there is little room for mistakes. Miller, whose past includes starting and running Z100, an enormously successful New York radio station, has assembled a small full-time staff that relies on a small galaxy of independent contractors for marketing, distribution and other services that Or is too small to provide by itself, but too big to do entirely without. This year, Or expects revenues of about $4.5 million — a pittance by major label standards, but triple last year’s numbers.

As smart as Miller’s operating style may be, ultimately the label’s future depends on Caplan’s intuition. There is no obvious formula or pattern to the music in which he invests. When he founded Or, Caplan took one band with him — Tower of Power, an aging Bay Area funk group with a storied past and probably not much of a future on MTV. Next, Caplan signed well-respected songwriter Phil Roy, but Roy’s debut, “Issues + Options,” sold a disappointing 10,000 copies. Then in August 2002, something that has become almost unheard of in the world of major record labels happened: Based on a demo tape, Caplan and Miller traveled to a small bar in Austin, Texas, where they saw Los Lonely Boys perform; the two executives offered the band a recording contract on the spot. Most major labels these days either wait for bands to sell several thousand CDs on their own or through a small indie label before spending any money on them, or sign and groom teenage singers whose image, material and career moves they can more or less control.

“We wanted the label to be about artists,” Miller said. “And I think what Michael and I recognized in each other were complimentary skills that were lacking in each other. And it works. No major label would have signed Los Lonely Boys. Out of about 35,000 CDs released each year, there are going to be about 20 platinum records this year. And we have one.”

Dimitri Ehrlich writes for MTV, VH1 and numerous magazines and newspapers. He is also a songwriter whose most recent album, “August,” was released this month.

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