Exploring Across Genres with Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings
This week’s column features Cheryl Pawelski, owner and cofounder of Omnivore Recordings. Not surprisingly, considering her line of work, she’s a fellow music fan who has a wide range of interests.
Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business and when and why?
Cheryl Pawelski: I have always been obsessed with music. Regardless of what I thought I wanted to do, it was inevitable that it would become my life’s work. Like everyone starting out, I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I always ended up moving closer and closer to working in music. The problem for me, when I was younger, was there were no representations of the jobs that exist in music, nor any visible pathway to such a career. In some ways, to this very day, you have to be driven enough to go figure it out for yourself.
After college, I quit a “legit” job to go work at a record store, and that was my entry into the business. I felt like I had to learn more about record labels and distribution, so I got a job at the biggest record store in Milwaukee, a place called Radio Doctors. It turned out to be a tremendous learning experience because there was a separate classical store, a whole area dedicated to servicing jukeboxes with 45s, and it was a one-stop. One-stops are, in essence, sub-distributors for smaller stores that function as a middleman between the big distributors and the mom & pop shops. I learned a ton of stuff I use to this very day. I stayed for a while and then headed out to LA, where I goofed my way into a temp gig at Capitol Records (I failed my typing test, not by much, but I got the job by making the HR person laugh). I wound up staying for 12 years.
What have you done since then?
I was at Capitol from 1990-2002, after which I did a whole lot of consulting, because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back into the business in a formal sense, on the label side, as a day job. I did some programming for Apple, helped run a label called Rhino Handmade (a direct-to-consumer online label specializing in limited-edition, higher-end releases) and produced projects for various labels, big and small. A couple years later, Concord Records called. They had just acquired the Fantasy label group and, with all the great labels like Prestige, Riverside, Stax, Specialty, Takoma, Pablo, etc., I couldn’t resist. So back to the labels I went. I was at Concord for about a year when Rhino came looking for a new head of A&R. I took that job, stayed for three years, and then in January of 2010, my partners and I formed Omnivore Recordings, our own label and publishing company. That’s the long and winding road so far.
How do you describe your business?
These days, I work with my partners running Omnivore Recordings and Publishing. For the most part, we are a “catalog” company, working with older recordings that have never been issued or releasing reissues of things that were perhaps overlooked or never on CD (and thus, never in the digital world), while also getting some new records out. We also have a publishing division and license music for film, television, and advertising uses.
Our label is dedicated to preserving and handing down great music. So, we’re genre agnostic. If it’s music that is important or fun or interesting, and has a story that needs to be told, then it’s fair game. We feel a little like explorers and hope that folks who come along with us enjoy exploring different kinds of music too. It’s in our name — we’re omnivores — and we welcome all musical adventurers!
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
I’ve always had an insatiable appetite for music, and when I was a kid, I was just a giant sponge. Whatever was on the radio, I soaked up, whatever I could afford to buy, I bought, and whatever I could trade for on cassette, well, the packages in the mail were coming hot and heavy. I listened to everything, but I did have a special spot early on for acoustic instrumentation and strong-lyric based songs. So, when I landed on artists like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John Denver, Michael Martin Murphey, and Dan Fogelberg, and dug into their early material (all pre-1980, for sure), I was in love. Now, of course, at the same time I couldn’t stop listening to The Clash, The Jam, all kinds of soul/R&B, Bruce Springsteen, ABBA, Bob Marley, The Cars, Rush, rockabilly, Television, David Bowie, Lou Reed – you name it, I was spinning it. Jazz and more experimental stuff came later — my aptitude had to catch up with my enthusiasm!
Who are your favorite artists of all time?
There’s far too many. I can’t even give you one.
How do you define what Americana music is?
Well, I’m not so sure we need to call anything Americana at all unless you want to segment out a subgenre that is the alternative country/folk vein with artists that don’t fit neatly into, say, country radio or rock radio. I don’t think it’s solely American; though music in the country/folk traditions indeed has deep roots in this country, we all know it came from somewhere else. Seems to me that as radio narrowed its focus from the freeform days of early FM (and some crazy cool AM stations in the ’60s), a lot of artists were orphaned. I guess the artists whose foundations were based in roots music but were a little too rock, too blues, too folk, too whatever to fit in a neat definition became Americana.
I’m never comfortable putting something like music into a box, giving it a name or a tag for this very reason. It disallows growth, and if the definition does grow, it becomes meaningless, it becomes everything, then you’re back to where you started. I know why we give types of music genre-based names and how these tags are useful for some folks, but I really find them limiting. I’m in the “There are two types of music: good and bad” camp (a quote usually attributed to Duke Ellington).
Where do you see radio going in the future?
From my vantage point, I think radio’s going to continue to function as it always has, whether it’s terrestrial or streaming online or whatever may come next. It will modify and change as the technology changes, and just like records, television, magazines, newspapers, movies, books, etc. – all of these now have to function in both worlds. The good news is all of them are valued and all are migrating over to new platforms, as painful as that may be. The basic function, though, why we turn on the radio or read a book, remains the same.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
The new The National – Sleep Well Beast, I really like the new The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding, anything and everything Wilco-related, like the new Tweedy-produced Mavis Staples album If All I Was Was Black. I’m enjoying the new Shout Out Louds record – Ease My Mind and the new Kamasi Washington – Harmony Of Difference. I’m waiting on the new Waterboys album to arrive, Out Of All This Blue, and I’ve got the Dylan box, Trouble No More, to dig into as well. Also, just picked up the new Beck, LCD Soundsystem, Protomartyr, and more.
What are your most memorable experiences from working in the music industry?
Well, winning a Grammy was fun. It was for best Historical Album, for Hank Williams’ The Garden Spot Programs, 1950. I would have to say that was crazy and definitely memorable. But for the rest, it’s really been one big amazing ride. Getting to work with so many artists and producers, having these people become friends and/or mentors, the whole thing has been remarkable and beyond my wildest dreams. Again, too numerous to mention, but spending time with Aretha Franklin, Robbie Robertson, Joe Boyd, Richard Thompson, Jac Holzman, the Wilco guys, Nils Lofgren, Brian Wilson, John Fry, Trip Shakespeare, Peter Case, Andrew Gold, Peter Asher, Rod Stewart, The Smithereens, Emmylou Harris, Judy Henske, the Jellyfish guys, Stephen Stills, Marvin Etzioni, Willie Nelson, Terry Adams from NRBQ, The Posies, Pete Welding, JD Souther, the Chicago guys, the list goes on and on and on … teenager Cheryl’s mind blown!
What projects are you working on next?
We have a release a week, or more, so just tons and tons of projects. Plus, we consult, so we just finished producing a Nina Simone project that will be coming out early next year on BMG, and the Wilco reissues I’ve produced for A.M. and Being There have just been released on Rhino. Those follow two other Wilco records I produced: the Alpha Mike Foxtrot rarities boxed set and their first-ever “best of” collection called What’s Your Twenty from a few years ago. I’m working my way through releases from two labels that we acquired at Omnivore: Ru-Jac Records was a mid-’60s soul/R&B label that we have four releases on coming in January, and Nighthawk Records, a roots reggae label has its first releases coming in December. Getting that music back out in the world is a priority right now, and we have great upcoming projects from The Searchers, Big Star, Jeffrey Gaines, and more. 2018 is going to be a lot of fun!
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
Curiosity. The thrill of discovery. Sharing great music and watching people discover it for the first time. I’m continually inspired by the preservation and handing down of music. When we release a record, it means the music is engaging with the world and not just sitting on a shelf somewhere. It’s an honor and a privilege to work with all these recordings, and it’s also a responsibility we take very seriously. We’re in a time where we’re chasing technology, and if we’re not careful, we’ll lose parts of our history. That’s inevitable, but it’s something we think about all the time at Omnivore.
Also, on the super-personal side, every time my partner Greg sends over cover art for one of our releases, it’s like Christmas morning for me. I love it so much. Sometimes I work for years on a record, and that’s not hyperbole, so when it finally has visuals attached to it, well, that supercharges me.
What are your most proud accomplishments?
I’m most proud of the situations where I’ve been of service or have gotten to be a teacher or mentor to someone. I’ve had the honor of serving on several boards, and they provide many opportunities to give back to our community or bring newer folks in the business along. I’ve been a governor for the LA Chapter of The Recording Academy, as well as a trustee on the national level. I’m presently working on the Development Advisory Council for Farm Aid and serve on the Board of Directors of The Blues Foundation. It really is such an honor to be asked to serve in this capacity. More than any award or record produced, to be respected in the community for what you’ve learned, who you are, and the influence you’ve had is beyond humbling. It is great work.