For more than 18 years, North Star Music has done little tinkering with its success formula: selling jazz, classical and world music CDs by low-key and or little-known artists, primarily through boutiques, gift shops and bookstores rather than record stores.
"We started out as a singer-songwriter label and ended up getting involved in the gift market, not by choice, but by happenstance. Jazz was a natural for our market, though we do more romantic jazz than progressive jazz," said label owner Richard Waterman from his office in a small, bustling clapboard building just down the hill from Main Street.
"We were one of the pioneers of getting into the gift market. We started with a Christmas recording that we budgeted for 500 sales. We took it down to Brick Marketplace in Newport (R.I.) and we sold it one at a time to individual stores as background music. We got back to the office and the phones were ringing off the hook from storeowners saying: 'I can either sell this Christmas music or I have to take it off my cassette player. Can we sell it in our store?' We then evolved from traditional to classical to jazz."
Freelance publicist Ginny Shea recalls working for North Star in the mid-1980s while in college. "We'd literally load up a station wagon with LPs and cassettes, and then convince shop owners to take a few on consignment. The 'New England Christmastide' recording had record sales of a quarter of a million," she said.
The label's resident jazz band, the North Star Jazz Ensemble, has produced a wide range of theme-driven light jazz recordings for the label. Its first, "Romancing the Sax," has sold more than 40,000 copies and is still going strong. The group's 11 recordings have a combined total of more than 200,000 unit sales. Unless you are the current jazz heartthrob, like Norah Jones, or Diana Krall before her, those are astonishing numbers.
"We're lucky in that we have somewhere in the range of 2,500 to 3,000 accounts across the country that we deal with directly. We have a great relationship with our customers. They basically trust us and will take in what we think is good, and generally we have tailored our music to be something that will sell well in the gift market," Waterman said. "We give them in-store play demos and the music sells.
"Most of our artists are not household names. In today's world, it is so hard to try to establish a new artist. We had tried some of that in the past and had some moderate success but we also had some pretty big failures. We are content to sell in our niche. If we have something that we feel will do well outside our niche, we'll put it out there and give it a try. Sometimes we are successful and sometimes we are not. We do put our music in Borders and Barnes & Nobles and places like that with large music sections, but you won't find us at Strawberries or HMV."
The North Star Jazz Ensemble's latest is "Sax Across America," an instrumental tribute pairing the group with the Hawthorne String Quartet, a group of Boston Symphony Orchestra virtuosos.
It includes recent classics like "New York State Of Mind" and "Wichita Lineman," along with time-honored chestnuts such as "Old Cape Cod," "Shenandoah," "Georgia On My Mind" and "I Left My Heart In San Francisco." The album is book-ended by "America the Beautiful" and the early Simon and Garfunkel hit 'America."
"For us, a great song is a great song, whether it was written in the '20s or the '90s. People say they can hear the lyrics in their head as they listen to our records. It's no accident. Our main goal is to make these melodies sing," says drummer Paul Mason, the ensemble's resident leader.
The next planned North Star Jazz Ensemble recording may bring the label full circle by taking familiar classical pieces and arrange them for the jazz group.
"We choose songs that really fit our concept - and serve each one as respectfully as possible," Mason said. "While we make them accessible for the casual listener, there are plenty of engaging soloing for jazz aficionados."
By day, Mason is the label's vice president and production guru. The other ensemble members are saxophonist Bruce Abbott, pianist Ron Fournier and bassist Marty Ballou.
North Star also has a "Discovery Series," which features recordings "that I hear and feel are so good that they should be heard," Waterman said, such as Sarah Brooks' "What Is My Heart For?" The Connecticut singer has vocal depth, range and quality comparable to the late Eva Cassidy. Her recording was licensed from Whaling City Sound, a New Bedford, Mass., independent that released it last year through traditional jazz channels.
Its "Lifestyle Series" of music for people's everyday life is compiled from the label's jazz and piano albums. "We have been trying to find themes that reach to people's hearts or reach to people's lives and that they can identify with. That helps us sell the music," Waterman said. "The series began about three years ago with a CD called 'A Cup of Sunday.'"
North Star's "Vintage Masters Series" licenses tracks from vocal legends of the past, including Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, the Mills Brothers and Rosemary Clooney.
"Until we started doing that, the gift market was pretty closed to having vocalists in their stores," Waterman said. "It was a reach but it is beginning to take off."