SCOTT SIMON, host:
The Grammy Awards will be presented on Wednesday. In the best original cast-recording category, three out of the five albums nominated were released by Ghostlight Records. Never heard of them? Well, they're one of a handful of independent labels that are keeping the cast album alive.
Jeff Lunden reports.
JEFF LUNDEN, reporting: Broadway star, Sherie Renee Scott says original cast albums recorded by the major record labels were an important part of her childhood.
Ms. SHERIE RENEE SCOTT (actress): For me, growing up in Kansas, going to New York and seeing a show was like asking my parents to go to the moon. I mean, they'd never even flown in an airplane. So hearing a cast album was the only access I had to seeing a show.
(Soundbite of show tune)
LUNDEN: Now, kids in Kansas and everywhere else can hear Sherie Renee Scott in the Gramm0y nominated, original cast recording of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. But the album is on Ghostlight Records, a tiny label Scott and her husband Kurt Deutsch own.
That a big Broadway hit would wind up on a small, independent label says a lot about changes in the economics of the recording industry. For years, cast albums were a pretty big business. And shows like, Hello Dolly and Man of La Mancha, could make the Billboard charts right next to the Beatles.
(Soundbite of Impossible Dream)
LUNDEN: But in the past decade or so, the major labels have been releasing fewer and fewer original cast albums says Brian Drutman, senior director for Decca Broadway.
Mr. BRIAN DRUTMAN (senior director, Decca Broadway): The average Broadway cast recording cost about 400,000 dollars. It's not inexpensive. And it will take, even selling tremendously well, upwards of a year to recoup its initial investments. So the large record companies don't go into these things lightly.
(Soundbite of Wicked)
LUNDEN: The original cast album of Wicked has been defying gravity for Decca Broadway. Since it was released in December of 2003, the Grammy winner has sold almost 700,000 copies. But while Decca and the other major labels are looking for the next blockbuster, labels like Ghostlight Records have been taking up the slack. Owner Sherie Renee Scott and Kurt Deutsch began the business in their second bedroom selling albums over the internet. Now, they've recorded Broadway hits like the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Deutsch says he and Scott don't expect instant profits.
Mr. KURT DEUTSCH (co-owner, Ghostlight Records): I look at it as if it's an annuity in that you've got something that initially is going to be very, very steady seller. And if it's a hit like, something like Dirty Rotten or Spelling Bee, you know, it's going to first start on Broadway. And then it will have a national tour. And then it will play in community theaters. And then students are going to hear it and then it will be done in high schools. And so, it's something that will sell forever.
(Soundbite of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee)
LUNDEN: Deutsch says he convinced Broadway producers to record on his label by changing the standard of business model, where companies like Decca Broadway finance and own their recordings, Deutsch convinced producers to pay for the discs themselves.
Mr. DEUTSCH: Just like they invest in a show, they would invest in their album. So that if money were made from that album, they would reap the benefits from it and they don't have to give it away. It's just another asset that they have.
LUNDEN: Kurt Deutsch says an original cast recording could help a show market itself. The producers of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels gave away 50,000 copies of the cast albums to everyone who came to see the show the first couple of months.
Mr. DEUTSCH: It made the box office jump, I think, like five or six percent. You know, and that's an invaluable tool.
LUNDEN: Ghostlight isn't the only small label recording cast albums. Philip Chaffin and Tommy Krasker run PS Classics out of their house in Bronxville, New York. They started five years ago putting out solo cabaret albums and small musicals. After they released a recording of the songs of Maury Yeston, he called Krasker about an upcoming Broadway revival of his show Nine, starring Antonio Banderas.
Mr. KRASKER: And he said, Well, why don't you put in a bid for the cast album? And we went, oh, come on. We're a little label. We operate out of our home. We're not going to put up a bid. And he, Maury, is very persistent. And he said, No. Absolutely, put in the bid and we'll if other labels put in the bid. So we thought, okay. We had to even find out how you put in a bid.
(Soundbite of Nine)
LUNDEN: Nine earned PS Classics its first Grammy nomination. After that experience, Krasker says opportunities to record cast albums began to flow. Their current bestseller is a revival of Fiddler on the Roof, and they forged an alliance with the leading composer of the American musical stage, Steven Sondheim.
(Soundbite of Assassins) LUNDEN: The Tony Award revival of Sondheim's Assassins earned PS Classics a second Grammy nomination.
Mr. PHILIP CHAFFIN (co-owner, PS Classics): Getting to do that magnificent production of Assassins was an absolute thrill for me. And I confess I get a thrill every time I see it in the record stores.
LUNDEN: Both labels say they're proud, not only of the large productions they've preserved on discs, but some of the smaller like, Jason Robert Browns The Last Five Years. The show itself only ran for a short time off Broadway. But the recording has proved more successful, says Sherie Renee Scott.
Ms. SCOTT: Theater is not forever and ever. It's for the moment. And so, cast albums are particularly important for smaller shows because it's the only thing that lives on. And so, Last Five Years, the first cast album that we did, it's kept that show alive. Productions are being done around the world because of that cast album.
(Soundbite of The Last Five Years)
Tommy Krasker says there's plenty of room for all the labels, big and small.
Mr. KRASKER: As long as there's a Spamalot, as long as there's something coming to town with a giant advance and a real buzz, you know, the major record labels, I don't even mean that to sound crass because it's not supposed to. But the major record labels will always leap to those. That's going to happen. I think where the independents are definitely filling that void, though, is in the things that might not get recorded.
LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
SCOTT SIMON: This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. And you can hear music from Ghostlight Records' Grammy nominated on our website, npr.org.