I remember when the Rumor first started circulating. Kimmel was through at Varese. Varese was out of the Broadway business. Kimmel was, heaven forbid, thinking about returning to acting. As usual, the truth was a little more boring than all the hoopla.
While I actually left Varese at the end of December, I really knew that the Spotlight Series was done several months earlier. The owner simply decided there was too much risk for too little return. The fact that after 106 albums in six years we were in the black meant nothing. As he readily admitted to me on that gray afternoon, he was and always would be a dollars and cents man. And the dollars and cents weren't enough given the budgets, time and effort. Since I didn't own the company, I really couldn't argue with that philosophy. But I argued anyway.
My point was always that the Spotlight Series was a boutique part of Varese and that as long as I kept in the black that was all that should matter (the fact is that I kept in the black not because of theater music but because I produced a huge selling film music concept album which paid for all my "sins"). It didn't matter at all that I'd made Varese one of the most loved theater music labels. The fact that I managed to have a few big theater music sellers is what kept me alive there for six years, but I could see the writing on the wall months before that day in September. It was just getting harder and harder to do projects dear to my heart, and it was becoming all about cheap budgets.
While that conversation was painful I knew in my heart that I couldn't continue working for people who weren't supportive of what I was doing and who, in all the six years and 106 albums, never once said "thank you", not even when that film music album ("Titanic: The Ultimate Collection" - which I'm proud to say spent forty-two weeks on the Billboard Classical Crossover Chart) sold in excess of seventy thousand copies.
Knowing that I would be there until the end of the year, I used those remaining months to do some hard thinking about why the dollars and cents made no sense. I came to several conclusions right away, the most important of which was that at the end of the day what they were taking home, after Universal (their distributor) took their cut and all the various payments were made, was simply not enough. A normal budgeted album really did have to sell eight or nine thousand copies to break even, and even with Universal distribution you'd be surprised how many didn't reach that number.
The one thing I knew was that none of my titles had ever sold less than three thousand copies. And I began to formulate a plan, a 'what if', as it were. What if I could capture those three thousand people and cut out all those middlemen? What if I could create a label which would be heavily Internet based and educate those people (and hopefully others) to come to the website and buy the album? No middlemen, we make more money. More money means the albums break even at a much lower figure. A lower figure means I can keep turning out the kinds of albums I love doing and everyone wins.
I knew it was a dream, but it was a dream that, the more I thought about, the more I believed in. I approached two already existing theater Internet sites with the idea. They both thought it was a great idea. One of them even strung me along for a whopping four months. But, of course, in the end, for various reasons, it didn't happen. At that point, I was beginning to feel very frustrated, and I happened to e-mail a friend about said frustration. To my surprise, she asked me to send her my business plan because she felt strongly that what I was telling her was a viable and worthwhile idea. To my surprise, she told me that she and her husband were very interested in the venture. At that point they were thinking about bringing in several partners, although it ended up being easier and smoother for them to put this together themselves.
Suddenly, I found myself flying to Louisiana to visit them and to go over the details of what I saw in my head - my dream for a new label. This was at the end of March. I came home with a check in my pocket, my first month's salary, and began the arduous task of making a dream a reality. Could we really start up a brand new label, begin to produce albums, hire web designers and make a website that would be everything I wanted it to be, and all within the space of five months? Thanks to an incredible Team Fynsworth effort, the answer was a resounding "yes". It's been an incredible five month journey, but the designers managed to make a website that was everything (and I do mean everything) that I could have possibly hoped for, a site which was both a "store" and a really fun place to visit - with interviews, and sound clips and a three time a week Broadway Radio Hour webcast, even video clips of our performers, a live chat room, everything. And their design was so terrific I almost wept when I saw it. It was like they'd somehow gotten inside my head.
Getting "The Stephen Sondheim Album" prepped, arranged, orchestrated, cast and recorded was a real ordeal - I've never put together an album from scratch that fast. Plus the incredibly difficult negotiation to purchase ninety-five percent of the albums I'd produced at Varese, and making a distribution deal with them for the store sales.
The site has been up for close to three weeks and the reaction has been everything I could have hoped for. We haven't quite gotten those "three thousand" yet, but we're getting there. And every day we get e-mail suggestions of how to improve things and make them even smoother and we take all of those very seriously. I really want it to be a "no-brainer" site - easy, fun, informative and, of course, a place to get our latest recordings. I'm also getting to do things I never got to do at Varese, like my long-standing desire to record plays (we're about to record our first, the Tony Award-winning Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn). Best of all, we're all having a great time, even though we're still going through growing pains trying to get everything to work right.
People have asked what the single hardest thing has been in regards to starting up this new label. And my answer is simple: Coming up with a fershluganah name. We had fifty possible names to start, a nice list of fairly conventional names like SRO Records, Broadwayline Records, that kind of thing. You'd think one of the fifty would fly. But every time we tried to clear a name on the Internet, it was taken. Every single one. Clearing any of them as a trademark was even worse. It seemed every name in the English language was taken. I tried the name of my street. Taken. I tried my initials. Taken. I began to despair that we would never find a name we could clear.
Then it was suggested to me that my Internet posting name, Fynsworth, would definitely be clearable, because it's a name I made up, an alter ego of mine. Well, I balked, I fought, I yelled. What kind of a stupid name is Fynsworth Records? Finally, I called a friend of mine and said, "They're really going to go with Fynsworth Records. How awful is it?" And he said he didn't think the "Fynsworth" part was awful at all; it was the "Records" which didn't sound right. He said "find another word to go with Fynsworth." The minute he said that it all came clear to me. The first thing that came to me was Street and from there it was a short hop to Alley and suddenly that name seemed magical to me. It conjured up something off the beaten track, which I really liked.
And that's how Fynsworth Alley came to be. Everyone asks what it means, and I always answer, "What does Decca mean? What does Polygram mean? What does anything mean?" Ultimately, what I'd like Fynsworth Alley to mean is this: A home for great theater music by the best singers and writers. I really just want everyone to feel they are part of a community, Fynsworth-wise. Just like Talkin' Broadway, which has a real feeling of community. So, come and pay a visit - hopefully you'll find something you'll enjoy and maybe you'll even win our weekly contest (they ain't easy, let me tell you).
Thanks to V.J. for inviting me to write this little Rialto.
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