On Nov. 18, when BMG’s emerging jazz and classical imprint, Modern Recordings, announced it had signed jazz legend Pat Metheny to a recording contract, it became the the guitarist and composer’s first new label home in over 20 years.
Metheny’s signing was the biggest yet for Modern Recordings, which was established in November 2019 under the leadership of senior vp Christian Kellersman, who served in the classical and jazz department at Universal Music in Germany for over 13 years. Now, the label is gearing up for Metheny’s first release under the deal, Road to the Sun, out March 5. The album will feature two new compositions by Metheny, performed by guitarist Jason Vieaux and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.
“The album that Pat is doing for us is nothing [anyone] ever heard [from] him before — he steps on new ground,” BMG executive vp, global repertoire and marketing Fred Casmir tells Billboard. “He redefined classical guitar literature and brought it to the next level, and once again he’s proven that he is a really groundbreaking artist who’s never looking back.”
Adds Kellersman: “He’s not regarding himself as a jazz musician or as a classical musician or as a pop musician or whatever. In a way, that’s also how we see music…we are ‘genre-open.’ It’s more about the quality and the vision of the artist.”
Modern Recordings was born out of conversations between Kellersman (who was previously creative director at the independent record company Edel AG) and BMG Management, which was then looking at “the repertoire we didn’t have, that we should have, that has a global relevance, is streaming-relevant, licensing-relevant [and] that fits to the world of television and film,” says Casmir.
Now, with the infrastructure in place to sign such talent, Kellersman believes the timing couldn’t be better to discover and establish new composers who are stretching the form of the classical genre, which up until recently had been dominated by traditionalists, particularly in Europe. “Attracting a wider audience [was] regarded as ‘crossover’ or something cheap,” Kellersman says. “This is changing.”
Since launching in Nov. 2019, Modern Recordings has released albums by emerging and established artists including Berlin-based composer and pianist Meredi (Stardust); composer Arash Safaian and pianist Sebastian Knauer’s joint album This Is (Not) Beethoven (featuring modern interpretations of the composer’s work); and pianist/producer Thomas Bartlett (Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent, Rufus Wainwright), whose first solo album under his own name, Shelter, arrived in June.
Looking ahead, Modern has releases on tap from composer and arranger Vince Mendoza (featuring the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, soprano Julia Bullock and The Roots member Black Thought); London Contemporary Orchestra conductor and violinist Robert Ames (“perfect for sync and for the film world,” says Kellersman); a joint album from film/TV composer Van Dyke Parks and Mexican singer Verónica Valerio; and, of course, the new album by Metheny, who was lured from his longtime label home after learning of Modern’s commitment to stretching the boundaries of jazz and classical music. “I think he was very convinced [by] our approach,” says Casmir, “to move forward with projects that are really out of the box.”
Based in Berlin, Modern Recordings currently has a total of 10 employees, most of whom have shared functions on BMG’s global recordings/international team. Chart hits for the label to date include Craig Armstrong and Calum Martin’s The Edge of the Sea, which peaked at No. 13 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Albums chart, and Safaian and Knauer’s This Is (Not) Beethoven, which hit No. 15 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover Albums chart. Apple Music additionally named Safaian and Knauer’s track “Adagietto” as one of the 100 best songs of 2020 in its year-end recap and accompanying playlist.
With Road to the Sun just two months out, the marketing campaign behind the album is firing on all cylinders, with a strong focus on social media. Because the album is a jazz-classical crossover, the campaign is aimed at fans of both genres, including Metheny’s existing devotees in the former and Vieaux and the LA Guitar Quartet’s popularity in the latter.
With widespread coronavirus vaccinations of the horizon, they have also begun speaking with Metheny about touring when it is safe to do so. Also on the live front, the label plans to stage a series of Modern Recordings-branded boutique events showcasing its artists as coronavirus restrictions begin to lift in the second half of this year. “We actually wanted to start the label with that,” says Casmir, adding they planned to incorporate visual projections and 3-D components, “but as we all know, to set it up this year has been impossible.”