An Interview with John Anderson

By · Photography Tommaso Tuzj · Date 03/31/2016

In this issue’s Design Review, we look at several classical album covers, some of which display famous performers prominently. Odradek Records, a label which opposes the “model centered on just a few big names,” however, chooses its performers anonymously, without considering fame, biography, or looks. We spoke with founder John Anderson about his “utopian” project.

VAN: How does the application process for Odradek Records work?

John Anderson: Currently we’re a classical label and a jazz label, so we have two separate applications, one for each. There’s a solicitation form, and the artist uploads his or her demo material. The system randomly assigns each incoming demo to a subgroup on the jury roster. For classical, we have more than 60 people. 33 people receive each demo—a different 33 each time. That maintains a representative sample of the roster, but reduces the amount of work that everybody has to do. Then the system tallies the votes, and once a quorum is achieved, the majority decides.

If the vote is positive, the system tells us who the applicant was. If it’s negative, then the system actually never tells us. It would probably be bad for business: we have musicians with good careers going who might be afraid of applying and being rejected by their peers. So this way it’s safe. There’s plausible deniability all around [laughs].

Have you ever heard a demo that you loved and that got rejected democratically, and did you want to produce it anyway?

It’s happened about once I think. The results are relatively polarized. I tend to agree with or be on the fence about the results. If it’s a questionable call, it’s not like I’m too sad if something doesn’t pass. And I think most people would end up feeling the same way.

What did you end up doing with the one person that you wanted to accept despite the no vote?

We rejected them. I don’t make any exceptions at all, for anybody. Including, actually, even the people who work for the label. They’re planning to do some CDs, because we’re all musicians—including myself, I used to play piano. If I ever get around to it again I’d like to record a CD, but there are no exceptions.

So you would be subject to the same procedure too?

Absolutely, yeah.

Is it possible to have a diverse group of artists on the label if they are chosen anonymously?

I think we have a pretty good level of diversity already. On the classical label, we’re somewhat limited by the given diversity of the classical music field, which is not the most diverse. If there was something more I could do about that, I would try to do it. But we’re not really in a position to. We have one black singer, on one of the albums. She’s half Nigerian, half Austrian. But aside from that, we’re all white [laughs]. Which is unfortunate, but it really is just a reflection of the classical world as it is.

The interesting thing about Anonymuze is that we take demographic data of people who are applying, anonymize it, and see it in aggregate. We compare the results of the selection process with the application pool; you can see if there are any biases. I’ll have to check if we are exactly 50-50 men to women, or one person off. In fact, we hit 50-50.

Several of the recordings on your SoundCloud page are longer, multi-movement modern pieces. Do you see any tendencies in the repertoire that gets chosen?

We have about a two-to-one ratio of 20th century and contemporary to standard repertoire. There are just a lot more recordings of core repertoire, and the bar, artistically, is much higher. It’s easier to get excited about a piece that you’ve never heard recorded before. With the anonymous demo process, we’re not excited by the name of the artist; we have to be excited by either the artistry or the program.

Schoenberg, Suite for Piano, Op. 25, IV. Intermezzo; Pina Napolitano (Piano) Link to full album

The Odradek Records Facebook page says the company has “no fixed location.” What do you mean by this?

The point of that is two things. One is the story of the Odradek by Kafka: it’s this object in the house, you’re not sure if it’s animate or inanimate, and it’s something which has always been there but which most of the time you don’t see. The father of this family asks the Odradek where it came from, and it says “no fixed abode.” So it’s a play on the words from the original story, first of all.

But in our case it’s actually kind of true. We’re a U.S. company, judicially and financially, and the head office is there. But I live in Italy, the label manager lives in Hamm, Germany, the accounts and distribution person lives in Madrid, the photographer is Italian, we have another studio in Rome for jazz, a colleague in Greece does the live events organization, and the person who does all of the text editing and most of the writing is in the U.K. We do the mastering in France, we take our licenses from Austro Mechana, in Austria, and we manufacture in the Czech Republic.

And with the artists, we don’t have any one location that’s more represented than any other. We have people from 24 different nations so far. In that sense, there really is “no fixed abode.” It’s not like we’re a U.S. company or an Italian company. We live on the internet, actually.

Is there an Odradek Records sound?

We do have a house style. We do a couple things from the technical perspective that aren’t what Deutsche Grammophon would do. Our levels are a little bit higher. We tend to bring the image up a little bit, to be warmer and more embracing. And less classical, in the sense of the instrument being far away on the stage. If you take two opposites, such as Deutsche Grammophon and ECM, we’re probably more towards ECM. But I don’t know if people would necessarily be able to recognize one of our albums just from the sound.

Lazkano, Chalk Laboratory, Wintersonnenwende 2 III; SMASH ensemble Link to full album

Do you see Odradek as a rebellion against the way major record labels do business?

I never even tried to record with a label before opening Odradek. But I did look around, and I was very aware of the biases that exist in the world. What really disturbed me here—and I mean, there’s a great amount of subjectivity in terms of what people like in interpretation, or performance—but it also seems fairly objectively obvious to me that there are quite a few artists who succeed vastly more than one would expect, and many artists instead would suffer tremendously, and they eventually have to leave the instrument, leave the practice, because there’s no way of getting a break anymore. This is what really irritated me. It’s not like I resent anybody’s success, but I do resent a world that can’t find a place for the people who deserve it.

What we’re trying to do is give the mechanism of the industry directly to the artists themselves, in a way that secures equality of access and ensures that it’s really merit based. We’re democratic, and all profits that are made through album sales go to the artist whose album made the sales. Between those two things, so far, it’s working.

We have artists who are actually very famous. We have Artur Pizarro—he could go into any label, and they would take him on their roster. We also have artists who have never done anything, in terms of profile or competition wins. But the albums we put out get reviewed. And I think it’s because people who know about us recognize that the filter we apply is high—we don’t make any exceptions based on name recognition, so if we have a level that is set by somebody like Pizarro, there’s no reason to expect that the next CD after his is not going to be at the same level.

Rachmaninoff, Prelude No. 12 in G-sharp Minor, Op. 32 Allegro; Artur Pizarro (Piano) Link to full album

Do you have a special routine when you listen to CDs?

You might not believe it, but I actually don’t own a CD player. My house is falling apart because it has got too many CDs in it, but I don’t have any means to listen to them [laughs]. Basically all my listening is digital and through the computer. To be honest, I spend so much time working with sound that I don’t spend a whole lot of time listening to music for enjoyment.

What about when you listen to demos for Odradek—isn’t it easy to get distracted when you’re listening to music at the computer?

I don’t imagine that everybody listens completely concentrated all the way through every demo that comes in. That would be too utopian to believe. More often than not, you listen to a few minutes, and you start to have an impression and an idea; and then you skip ahead and you either confirm that or surprise yourself.

Esenvalds, Liepaja Concerto No. 4, Visions of Artic Night – Part III; Liepaja Symphony Orchestra Link to full album

At Odradek, the artists choose their repertoire. But if you could “assign” something from the repertoire that you’d love to hear recorded, what would it be?

I’d be very interested in doing György Kurtág’s “The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza,” which hasn’t come up yet. There’s also the Double Concerto. That piece isn’t even in print, you can’t get the score. But I’d love to do it.

More often, there’s an application that’s accepted and it’s not a piece I’m excited about redoing. For instance, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Sonata. It’s a great piece, but now I’ve recorded it three times. That’s enough. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.