An Interview with Bruce Kimmel by Doug Raynes
Bruce Kimmel is a man of many talents; actor, writer, director and record producer. Based in Los Angeles he has produced numerous records in the past for Bay Cities and Varese Sarabande. In 2005 he set up the Kritzerland record label and has built up a substantial CD catalog featuring film music soundtracks as well as other genres of music. This interview was carried out on 21 October 2010.
How did you first become interested in film music?
If I’m remembering correctly, somewhere around the age of six I saw THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY at the Village Theater in Westwood on the huge, then brand-new Cinemascope screen. Needless to say, I was crazy about it, and I made everyone I knew – parents, uncles and aunts, brother – take me back over and over again. I think I saw it over ten times at that one theatre. And I was so taken with the music that I made sure I learned the name of the composer – Dimitri Tiomkin. My father owned a fantastic steak house in LA and he also owned several bars – I used to get the cast-off 78s and then 45s from the juke box machines – and the first one I remember getting was the theme from THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, with the great Muzzy Marcellino whistling (as he did in the film). That was the beginning, and it never let up from there. I would frequently stay over for a second showing of a film just to see the name of the composer. Four years later and I could call out a Herrmann score before his name ever hit the screen. I talk about all this a lot in my first novel and its subsequent sequels – “Benjamin Kritzer”, “Kritzerland”, and “Kritzer Time”. That’s the long answer to how I became an insatiable movie score fan-atic.
Aside from the books you mention, I’ve been reading your book “There’s Mel, There’s Woody and There’s Me” which is a most entertaining memoir of your early showbiz career. In the book you discuss your first foray into the soundtrack business when you set up Bay Cities in 1989 with Alain Silver and Michael Rosen, after having seen how well Varese Sarabande was doing. What made you decide to make this career change to become a record producer?
Well, at the time of Bay Cities I hadn’t quite made the complete switchover, as I was still unwilling to give up being an actor/writer/director. Back in 1978 I’d helped get Varese on the road to where they were going – I had a chance to own a third of the company for an obscenely low amount of money and I passed, because they were just doing obscure classical releases – that was their business plan. I convinced them that there was no niche soundtrack label and that they could fill that niche – so, their very first soundtrack LP was to my film THE FIRST NUDIE MUSICAL. Over the years, I got them other projects, stuff like THE TWILIGHT ZONE series, BLOODLINE, AN ALMOST PERFECT AFFAIR and A LITTLE ROMANCE, among others. I received a little royalty position in each of those albums.
After Richard Kraft got Varese their Universal distribution deal and I saw how incredibly successful they’d been, I began thinking about starting what became Bay Cities. If memory serves, just before we began the company, Richard left Varese to become an agent. Chris Kuchler, the owner of Varese, called me and asked me if I would replace him. But I knew it would be a full-time thing and it just didn’t seem like it was the right thing for me – I’d probably feel differently now. So, I passed and Bob Townson came over there to take over for Richard.
Then we started Bay Cities on a wing and a prayer and we had an incredible success with it, at least in terms of albums produced and perception.
Nick Redman joined Bay Cities later didn’t he? What was his role?
Nick’s then-wife Nectar was working for me as a personal assistant. I was working on a TV show for Fox called Totally Hidden Video – I was one of the producers and the hours were so insane that I had to have help keeping things straight (because we were also doing the Bay Cities stuff and a lot of that still fell to me). She brought Nick to our cutting room one day and I just instantly liked him and asked him to come on board to get us more into soundtracks, which he did – he was invaluable and we became very close friends. I love him dearly.
Do you still have contact with Alain Silver. I see that he has a website with quite a few rare Bay Cities CDs for sale?
I talk to Alain every now and then, but not about the record business.
Bay Cities had an eclectic range of releases; an equal mix of classical and film music – some new recordings and some reissues plus some jazz/pop releases. What was Bay Cities’ philosophy in deciding what to release?
We began by specializing in American classical music – that was the point in the early days. It was especially thrilling to be able to release a lot of Robert Ward music – he was a real hero of mine, and I got to be friends with him and several other composers during that time. Then I got us several show reissues from the Capitol catalogue. At every step, I kept trying to take us in new directions. Nick came on board to do soundtracks – we’d already done RETURN TO OZ, and then got THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and others, and Nick began finding us new stuff and it was just great.
Of the Bay Cities titles produced by you, which are you most proud of?
We didn’t do all that many original albums – I was just getting my feet wet as a real record producer back then, but by far the most satisfying of those few original albums was DAVID SHIRE AT THE MOVIES – just so much fun to do, and the result was really good, I think.
Korngold’s ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, conducted by Carl Davis in Munich must have been an expensive recording. How did that come about?
I can’t remember who instigated it – I think Tony Thomas had something to do with it, and Nick, and maybe Carl Davis. Everything just sort of came together – what a wonderful score it is. Not the greatest recording in the world, but we were very proud of it and it was a big step for us. I really don’t know how we afforded to do it.
What sort of sales figures did Bay Cities achieve. I get the impression that discs sold better in those days, with more retail outlets, than today?
We used to complain about our sales figures, but boy, any label today would kill to have those kinds of sales. How times change. We’d usually sell two or three thousand of anything. Some sold considerably more. But remember, in those days labels would get so little from the distributors it was a joke. If something was a $17.98 list price, after all was said and done, we were lucky to clear seven bucks. It was nutty.
In your book you say that the success of Bay Cities was looked on with annoyance by Varese. Soundtrack fans tend to assume that the specialist labels they buy from are all friendly to one another which I suspect is not always the case. Is there much envy and antagonism between labels?
My memory is that Varese was irked because we were encroaching on their territory, soundtrack-wise, and we got a few titles that really annoyed them, like 1941 by John Williams, and MISERY by Marc Shaiman. The latter was a huge bust for us, sales-wise, but a huge step toward letting people know we were serious players. It was the first time, I think, we got our name on the end credits of a film. We all got to go to the premiere. But now? I think we’re all just trying to eke out our own little soundtrack place on the planet. I’m sure we’ve gotten some titles that others would like to have done, and I know that others have gotten titles that we’d love to have done. But I don’t think there’s any rampant jealousy or envy – life’s too short to waste time with that sort of negativity.
Why did Bay Cities eventually fail? I know you had distribution problems. Was that one of the main reasons?
It failed for several reasons, the biggest of which were our distribution problems – not distribution per se, but actually getting the distributor to pay us in a timely fashion. It was horrible. They’d asked to buy half the company and we’d decided not to do that, which was probably our death knell. Instead, they bought into DRG and I think from that moment on they were just intent on killing us, which they did. Plus, none of us were making any sort of real salary – we got a stipend of about $750 a month.
The other problem for me personally was that I was chomping at the bit to produce original albums. I had three great projects planned and ready to do, projects I knew would be really good sellers – but they just kept getting pushed and pushed and pushed because we couldn’t get our money from the distributors and I finally realized we were never going to be able to do them. Then there was some internal crap going on – a lot of game playing and playing people against each other, and I really don’t respond well to that sort of thing. Concurrent with all that happening, I got a call from Chris Kuchler who asked to have lunch with me. We went to his then-favorite place, Coco’s, and he asked me to shut down Bay Cities and come over to Varese, giving me carte blanche to start my own division. It was very appealing, actually, and the timing was very good, as I’d finally left “Totally Hidden Video” after two-and-a-half years and I was ready to not do that sort of thing anymore – I’d just had it. It took me a while to commit, but I did and we shut down Bay Cities. As it turned out, as difficult as that was to do, it was absolutely right – Nick went right on to his job at Fox, where he began his journey to becoming one of the best people in the soundtrack industry. And I went to Varese, where I started a Broadway division and within a year was nominated for two Grammy awards and had achieved the kind of success that I’d always wanted in my other career.
After Bay Cities you went to produce discs for Varese up until around the late ‘90s I believe. These were mainly musical cast recordings. Is your interest chiefly with musical theatre rather than orchestral soundtracks?
My interest is in both, and while at Varese I did do some film music projects that were a lot of fun – one of them, TITANIC: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION was a huge seller for them – bigger than any soundtrack title the year it came out. It spent close to forty-five weeks on the Billboard Classical Crossover Chart, where it debuted in the number two spot. But mostly, I was the Broadway guy and I had a blast there, doing over 120 albums in six years. I’m not talking about reissues or releasing some extant material, like a new soundtrack, where the real work has been done by others – I’m talking about personally producing from scratch over 120 albums – cast albums, singers, concept albums, jazz – it was an incredible time, usually nineteen albums a year, literally in the studio recording every two weeks or so.
Why did you leave Varese?
Because for one of the only times in his life, Chris Kuchler was short-sighted. We’d had a couple of years where the Broadway division wasn’t selling as well as it had in the past – that happens with every genre and in every company. Mind you, we weren’t losing money, and I liked to say that TITANIC: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION had paid for any sins we may have had, but he just thought that the large costs were too scary against the potential profits – as I said, very short-sighted because every other label was going through the same thing back in 1999. Had he not been short-sighted, three years later everything changed – I created a new kind of business model (that others now seem to take credit for – I’d put a smiley face here if I could) wherein the producers of a recently-closed Broadway show wanted a cast album and I came up with a plan that the producers would, for the first time ever for a major cast album, pay for the recording and own the copyright. And we’d take a distribution fee, but basically it was all gravy and total profit. And because of where Varese was in the Broadway world, we would have owned that market. As it was, at the time that happened, I didn’t have a label, but was thinking about starting what would become Kritzerland – and the producers just took my budget and handed it off to another label that was already in business – that label, by the way, and a few others, had totally used my label’s (Fynworth Alley) business model to begin their companies. I was very flattered because I’ve been taught that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I say this with all good humor, of course, and like those labels very much, but they did use our business model pretty much wholesale. But more about Fynsworth Alley in a minute.
What were you doing between leaving Varese and setting up Kritzerland?
As soon as Varese ended for me (and that was a complete shock – I’d been promised a job for life – I learned part one of a valuable lesson then – get it in writing), I met a wealthy couple – the woman was very enamoured of the arts and musicals and we kind of hit it off. At that point, I’d had this idea to start my own label to continue doing the kinds of things I’d become known for. I came very close to making a deal with a website called theatre.com – it seemed perfect – they were a big theatre site and would have a label that I would run. But then some big company bought into them – this big company had big plans to tape Broadway shows – and they didn’t see investing in our little label. Within a year, the big company had put theatre.com out of business completely.
So, I had some meetings with the wealthy couple, and they decided they would fund my new label, which we called Fynsworth Alley. I had what was then a very unique vision for a label – one that would have most of its presence on the Internet. We created an absolutely amazing website, had signed copies of CDs with an extra track only available through the site, and had distribution through Varese via Universal. We had what was then one of the first online radio shows with a disc jockey, we had video, we had interviews, we had a chat room – it was fantastic. And I brokered a deal for them to buy almost my entire catalogue from Varese for an incredibly cheap price, which they did. Within a year, the company had grossed (not netted, of course) $1.4 million. But apparently that wasn’t good enough and things began getting testy between the couple and me, and then a guy I’d been using as a contractor saw a way to cause further rifts, which he did with quiet precision. And actually, as of now, we are coming up on the tenth anniversary of what I call Black Saturday – a day when I learned all about how evil things can be.
Basically, I was ousted from the company, sued, and accused of all sorts of misdeeds that were completely untrue (and none of these misdeeds actually appeared in the lawsuit – these untruths were just spread around town). Most of this emanated from the contractor guy, who was then handed the leadership of the company – within a year and a half, he’d helped take the company into the toilet and then he was ousted and sued – and funnily he’d been doing everything that I’d been falsely accused of. It would be laughable if it hadn’t been so predictable and ridiculous. Everything was settled and we all moved on with our lives, but it was a very difficult time. It was lesson learned number two – I hadn’t protected myself contractually because I’m a man of my word and honor and I thought everyone was like that. I am naïve sometimes.
Kritzerland started with cast recordings and vocalists but soon branched into soundtracks. Did you have any apprehensions about entering a crowded specialist market?
I’d been asked to start a new label right after the bad business at Fynsworth, but I didn’t have the heart for it. But I did have several long discussions about it with several people and basically I came to the conclusion that I would never want to play the label game without acknowledging what was happening in the world. So, when I started Kritzerland in 2005 the first question was who would distribute. And I had several choices. But I knew I didn’t want to be distributed conventionally – to do so would mean I’d be stuck in that horrible rut of having to put out twenty-five or thirty albums a year because returns (stores can return 100% of whatever they buy the day after the receive it) kill you and you have to always have product to offset them. I also felt that there would be no stores within a couple of years – I saw it clearly. I remember people laughing at me when I said that – well, within a couple of years Tower was gone and soon thereafter every other store, save for places like Target and Best Buy and to me those aren’t record stores. So, we were a little ahead of the curve in 2005 – but I just took my time, did a couple of albums a year and watched what was happening. We weren’t selling anywhere near the kinds of numbers we’d done, but I didn’t care – I was willing to be patient and we certainly were not losing money (Kritzerland has no investors, by the way – another lesson learned).
Then, about two years ago, I began watching the limited edition market – Bay Cites had done that with some success back in the early 1990s. And so I stuck my toe in the water, sold out of a release in days, and thought, hmmm, this might be okay. I was introduced to Joan Schulman at MGM and began licensing from them regularly. At first we did a new release every six to eight weeks. And they all sold out. It was nice to have money coming into the company. Then we were doing one a month, and then settled at two a month. And while not everything sells out anymore (the market has become so glutted with great releases, not that many people can keep up with them or afford them – this has all happened in the last year), we do break even on everything and the sellouts pay for the non-sellouts. There’s just enough profit in it to pay the bills, keep getting new titles, and actually – wait for it – make a living.
What are the major problems you have encountered in acquiring or releasing soundtracks?
I’ve been lucky – I have really great relationships with the people from whom I license. So, there aren’t many problems. Occasionally, there are no elements on certain titles, so we have to do detective work and sometimes we get lucky and find stuff. The big problem is that certain studios only like working with a couple of labels – that’s always difficult, but we’re working on it.
Are there many projects planned for Kritzerland which you have had to abandon? If so, are you able to give titles?
Only two so far. One I thought wasn’t worth the trouble that I knew would come, even though we completely had the right to do it. I was, in fact, bullied, but some battles are worth fighting and some aren’t – so I let that project go. The other one, which everyone knows about, was THE LAST MAN ON EARTH by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter. It was ready to go, and then a certain person who has his own label and who has somehow gotten himself involved in all sorts of composers’ estates suddenly told me that even though I’d acquired the rights to the score, I couldn’t put it out because it was first use and I had to have permission of the publisher, and he represented the publisher. That rule is so archaic and so stupid, but it’s a rule nonetheless. No one EVER enforces it but this guy knew he could. This went around and around for weeks – with MGM asking this guy to do the right thing. But he did not do the right thing. Instead, he told the lady who had the power to say yes or no that because another label had apparently not paid her her royalty, that we would do the same. What that was based on, heaven only knows, since we’d never worked with this woman and had no history like that, and since I’d told this person that I would pay the woman up front. I wrote the woman a letter, and sent her a check, IN ADVANCE, for the entire amount of her mechanical royalty at the full rate. Thanks to this guy, she refused the check and we had to cancel, and it was all because of him, this person who has caused a lot of grief to a lot of people. I mean, we had the rights, and I paid her in advance in full – where was the problem? There was none, save for the spiteful behavior of that person. So, we can all thank that gentleman for keeping a wonderful score unreleased – and, of course, MGM is out a licensing fee, and the woman is out a nice, big check. It doesn’t compute, but that’s the way of the world.
Do you have a philosophy in deciding what to release on Kritzerland?
I think it’s become somewhat obvious that I release things that I like and that I find interesting. So, we don’t do certain things that I know would sell well because I just don’t care for them – other labels do that stuff and seem fine with it, so the music gets out. It’s probably a failing on my part, but I feel that Kritzerland is a boutique label that has a point of view and, for better or worse, that point of view is mine. Happily, a lot of people seem to enjoy what we put out.
What sort of time scales are involved from start to finish on a project?
I think we’re somewhat unique in this regard, but it’s one of the reasons people love to license to us – we put this stuff out pretty quickly. I’ve been known to license something and have it out three weeks later. Sometimes, depending on the elements and who’s involved, it takes a little longer. But I’ve got it down to a science now, and we just move at a pace that makes me happy and keeps me energized.
You’ve released some great scores on Kritzerland. I was particularly pleased to get such rarities as SCENT OF MYSTERY, A CHRISTMAS CAROL/A CHILD IS BORN, TWISTED NERVE and RHAPSODY OF STEEL, none of which I had when they were first released on LP. However, my favourite Kritzerland release to date is ONE-EYED JACKS. Considering the chequered history of the film and the fact that it’s in the public domain, I was surprised that the score was available in a complete form and in excellent stereo sound. How did this release come about?
ONE-EYED JACKS took a long time because it took a long time for Capitol to find everything and make the deal. But once that all happened, everything moved quickly. The tapes were in great shape, and it was a thrill to get it done – it’s one of my all-time favorite scores. And it was one of the few times I felt comfortable in upping the number of copies from 1000 to 1200.
I believe your CDs are mastered by James Nelson of Digital Outland. How would you describe his contribution?
Huge. I’ve been using him from the beginning of Kritzerland. Ford Thaxton sent me to him, which I’m very grateful for. Every label and producer is different and likes different things. It took us a tiny bit of time to get on the same page, as I’m very particular about the kind of sound I want and like. But we found it, and James is just masterful, which is a good thing for a mastering engineer, and it’s now a pretty easy process – I normally have either nothing to say, or just minor things. On things that haven’t been released before or that we’re reconfiguring, I do edit road maps for him, which makes things a lot easier. Very few people understand the importance of mastering – it’s a key step, the final hot fudge on the sundae. James is a great guy and I’m blessed to have him do our stuff.
You obviously have wide-ranging musical interests. Who are your favourite composers?
All genres? Classical – Rachmaninov, Mahler, Vaughan-Williams (and all the Brits from that era – Walton, Finzi, Britten, Elgar, Alwyn, Malcolm Arnold – I just love all that stuff), Robert Ward, Copland, Howard Hanson, Ravel, Milhaud. Film – in no particular order, Bernard Herrmann, Hugo Friedhofer, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Alex North, Mancini and many others. Theater – Sondheim, Jule Styne, Frank Loesser, John Kander, Charles Strouse, and especially Harvey Schmidt
Are there any changes you would like to see in order to make recordings of soundtracks easier to release?
I’d like to see less of a glut, certainly. I’d like more studios to be open to more labels – that would be very helpful.
With so many specialist soundtrack labels is the market for each label decreasing. If so what is the solution?
Only since the glut of 2010. If everyone will calm down, I think this market will be viable for a few more years. If not, who knows how long it can continue.
How easy or difficult is it to set up a record label? Apart from obviously requiring the initial investment I assume it’s very much a case of who you know in the business? Presumably it must also be an enormous benefit to being in LA where most studios are located? What advice you would give to someone who wanted to start up a label?
You have to have passion. Passion is everything. We started Kritzerland with no capital whatsoever. And now we’re in pretty good shape. That was difficult, but I wasn’t in a hurry. And I’d had it with having partners. It does help to be in LA for the soundtrack end of it – a little more difficult for the show end. To someone starting a label I’d say do what you love and have passion.
Thank you Bruce, for your time in replying to these questions.