In a display that once again shows the power of grass roots, two former members of Howard Dean's presidential campaign—Joe Drymala and Ryan Davis, each with a background in the theatre—are turning their attention to the plight of the original-cast album.
Through a for-profit company, Populist Productions LLC, and through a website they own, www.stagespace.com, Drymala and Davis have created a petition to "Keep Broadway on Record," an exhortation to a group of major record-company executives to continue recording and releasing original-cast albums of Broadway shows.
In an interview with Back Stage, Davis said that an article in Grammy magazine last March on the economic difficulties of producing original-cast albums caused him initially to be concerned. When "a friend inside the [recording] industry told me what a catastrophe was brewing in this area, and how there really has been very little written about the decision by record companies to decrease the number of cast albums they produce," he and Drymala became, he says, "very worried."
So Drymala and Davis created a petition—now signed, they say, by more than 17,000 individuals—that is intended to be delivered to a group of record company executives.
Asked specifically which executives the petition will be delivered to, Drymala cited five: Andrew Lack, CEO, Sony BMG Music Entertainment; Jeb Hart, senior vice president, RCA Victor Group; Robert Hurwitz, president, Nonesuch Records; Julie Greenwald, president, Atlantic Records Group; and Bob Cavallo, chairman, Buena Vista Music Group, the owner of Hollywood Records.
In part, the petition states, "Original cast recordings are on the verge of extinction. More and more record executives consider cast recordings a waste of time and money, and have made it clear that the days of recording Broadway shows are numbered."
The article in Grammy, Davis says, proves that there is a need for alarm bells to be sounded in the legitimate theatre community, especially the statement "big recording companies seem to have almost written off niche audiences, regarding them as an extravagance that they can no longer afford to gratify." But perhaps more important, the article includes quotes from Hurwitz who, the story says, "is limiting himself to recording the music of only two musical theatre composers—the ever-popular Stephen Sondheim and the young composer Adam Guettel."
Indeed, the petition cites Hurwitz's views and asks potential petitioners to sign on because "we cannot let the cast album die….for the sake of the industry itself."
The Grammy article also quotes Denis McNamara, senior vice president of Decca/Decca Broadway, a unit of the Universal Classics Group, as saying, "It is very difficult to record a new Broadway show for under $300,000, and quite frankly, it can be much more than that. You really have to sell in excess of 150,000 units to see a profit." McNamara added that very few cast albums approach that number.
One of the tough challenges in creating the petition, Davis says, "is original-cast albums are one of those things that is certainly known about but isn't generally outlined well in terms of how they fit into record companies' economics. So our goal is, first off, to make people aware of what is going on or potentially going on, and second, to get the attention of record company executives and to demonstrate that there will be problems if this [decrease] happens."
Davis freely adds that the petition is just one element of the team's overall game plan. Populist Productions LLC, he says, is a company that aims to show "that great theatre doesn't have to be at odds with selling lots of tickets." The overall purpose of www.stagespace.com, he says, is to create "a large online forum that is moderated and that is going to have networking software so users can share everything from information about cheap headshots in New York City to discussions of the future of the theatre industry itself—really, anything our users want us to include."
The website will remain free to use, he says, as the Populist Productions LLC business plan aims to sell advertising for revenue.