What do you get when you take two musically talented brothers, place them into an environment filled with the healing and meditative sounds of nature, throw in a few drums for good measure, expand the vision to include several other talented musicians, and capture it all on recordings? Why, you get Sequoia Records, one of the most consistently excellent and successful of the many artist-owned independent labels that serve the new age genre.
DAVID AND STEVE GORDON: The two brothers are David and Steve Gordon, who share the responsibility of running Sequoia while trying to maintain a clear focus that they are artists first, entrepreneurs second. Both talented multi-instrumentalists with a shared love of spirituality and the great outdoors, they began their journey toward becoming leaders in the new age with a recording called Misty Forest Morning, released in 1982. This album grew out of the Gordons' field recordings of nature sounds in the Sequoia National Forest and their creation of ambient music to complement the sounds of the wild. It was followed by other nature-oriented recordings, including the best-selling Garden of Serenity (1987), as well as more "purely" ambient recordings like the beautiful Music of the Tarot (1993). Then in 1994 the Gordons expanded not only the musical identity of Sequoia Records, but influenced the new age genre as a whole, with their groundbreaking album Sacred Earth Drums, followed two years later by Sacred Spirit Drums. Although artists ranging from Mickey Hart to Gabrielle Roth had previously released meditative drumming albums, the Gordons' albums combined a heartfelt spirituality with truly beautiful arrangements of drums, rattles, Native American flutes, Incan panpipes, keyboards, guitars, and nature sounds, to celebrate the deep spaciousness and contemplative possibilities of the drum as a bona fide new age instrument.
Following the success of the drumming albums, Sequoia has continued to evolve as a label. The Sequoia vision expanded to include other artists besides the Gordons, first with Zingaia's 1997 release Beneath the Veil, and a trio of magical albums of fairy songs by Gary Stadler with vocalists Singh Kaur and Stephannie. Steve Gordon joined forces with Spotted Peccary artist Deborah Martin to release Ancient Power, signifying a deepening integration of drumming with chant and world music sounds. And now, with the arrival of the label's twentieth anniversary, new releases celebrate both the past and the future of Sequoia. In February, Sacred Drum Visions provided a retrospective of the Gordons' drumming albums, including 1999's Drum Medicine, along with three new tracks recorded specifically for the compilation. This was followed by Buddha Lounge, representing two new firsts for Sequoia: it's the label's first sampler featuring both Sequoia and non-Sequoia artists, and marks a foray into the cutting edge world of "chillout" or dreamy dance-ambient tracks thatcombine the best of meditative new age music with the spiritual sensibilities of the contemporary dance world. It's a natural evolution for a label that has consistently represented the most elegant and lovely dimensions of conscious spiritual music.
STEVE GORDON With twelve full- and part-time employees, Sequoia is large for an artist-owned label. Regarding the label's mission, Steve says, "Sequoia Records creates music with vision to inspire the heart, nourish the soul and celebrate life. In art and business, we embrace the principles of integrity, innovation, service, and ecology." But a big part of this mission, at least for the Gordons, is balancing the business and artistic demands of the job. "The best part about running our own label is that we are able to steer the creative and business directions of the company so that it is in harmony with our deepest principals," notes Steve. David adds, "The biggest challenge is balancing the business and the artistic ends."
Yet if the label's ever-growing catalog is any indication, the Gordons have found the balance that works for them. After Sacred Drum Visions and Buddha Lounge, two additional releases are planned for 2002. "Our release for August 2002 is Music for Reiki and Meditation by Reiki-Master Shajan, composed based on his extensive experience with the energetic flow of Reiki sessions," says David. "He does the best music for Reiki that we have heard. It's also great for meditation, yoga and massage." That will be followed by the first solo album by Steve Gordon, < a href="/x622/drum-prayer.html">Drum Prayer, due out in September. Featuring guest artists like Lost at Last's Jaya Lakshmi and Spotted Peccary's Howard Givens, Drum Prayer takes the exploration of the interface between meditation, world music, and drumming even deeper, with chanting, Spanish guitar, and tabla contributing to the album's rich tapestry of sound.
On the business side, David is enthusiastic about the label's commitment to state of the art technology. "We're excited about creating music on our new systems which are Pro-Tools HD2 running on Apple PowerMac G4 1GHz Dual-Processor. These systems have the highest resolution of digital audio currently available (192 KHz). We believe that modern technology if used properly and consciously can better capture the heart and spirit of the music."
Speaking of new technology, I asked how Sequoia is responding to the growth of MP3 technology online. The Gordons appear to be taking a cautious yet open-minded approach to how the Internet will change the business of music. "I do see a time when lots of music is sold by being downloaded online," admits Steve. "But I think that people will still want to do much of their purchasing in stores because there is an appeal of shopping which I don't see ever going away."
David concurs. "For now, Sequoia uses MP3's mostly for promotional purposes such as free excerpt samples on our website, Internet radio play, etc, though we do participate in some selling of online downloads so we can learn as the field evolves. This is all changing very fast. MP3 is only one 'codec' so even the terminology will change soon as MP3 is surpassed. MPEG layer 4 is already now in use for video, with many more new compression methods on the way. Soon we will have better sounding music with smaller file sizes and broader bandwidth to obtain those files. It'll take a few more years and then the migration will begin. No-one knows yet what form the technology or business model will take. Even the major labels mostly do not have clear plans in this direction, though they certainly have whole departments working on figuring it out and are trying various models even now. So, yes, we see it as a significant element in the future, but it'll be several years before it starts to gain momentum and a few more years for the shakedown run."
Obviously, the arrival of downloadable music is a stark example of how the music business has changed during Sequoia's twenty years, but the Gordons have watched other real changes over the years. According to David, "The biggest change has been the acceptance of New Age music by a wider more diverse audience. This kind of music can now be heard everywhere, from movies to dance clubs to resorts, and of course in meditative home environments as always. The changes have been both a blessing and a challenge. It has been particularly hard for the small New Age bookstores who now face serious competition from the superstore chains and online retailers. We have a place in both types of stores. We've clearly benefited from reaching more mainstream listeners, while we have also worked hard to stay loyal to the small independent retailers who have supported our music since we began. They truly understand this music and can offer their customers excellent advice in finding just the right CD for their needs."
"There have been other changes as well," adds Steve. "The proliferation of labels all putting out lots of releases has watered down the market, making things more complex and difficult for everyone from listeners to retailers to labels. For new artists, and particularly for new labels, in today's complicated music environment, it can be very difficult to stand out in the crowd and make an impact. Retailers have a hard time knowing who to trust."
DAVID GORDON Given Sequoia's ongoing success, it's apparent that they are among the most trusted of New Age labels; still, I wondered how Sequoia tries to "stand out in the crowd," especially when selling music that is often created for the express purpose of not standing out! To both Gordons, this is a simple matter of maintaining quality in every aspect of the creative process, from creating music with genuine spiritual feeling to backing it up with a gorgeous album design, to engaging in ethical and conscious business practices. "Retailers know we are a reliable source for the kind of music their customers want," remarks David. "Sequoia artists spend a good part of a year or more crafting their CDs before releasing them. We stand committed to quality; there is no doubt that retailers and customers can hear the difference."
Steve adds, "When we put out a new release, it's great to have our reputation to back it up, but even more important than that is the actual sound and quality of the music. This is why we spend so long on recording our albums and why we continue to upgrade our studios to the current state of the art. When people hear each next Sequoia release, we want to make sure that in the first few moments they are surrounded by the most beautiful, inspiring music, realized with the highest level of sound quality available. More than anything else that we do, this is what we place our faith in and how we strive to make a difference. For us, there is ultimately no strategy as effective as quality."
Another way in which Sequoia embodies quality is in the label's commitment to serving the larger community. "Since our very first releases in 1982, because our recordings were inspired by the natural world and had nature sounds, we felt it was important to do what we can to help the environment," says Steve. "Sequoia has always donated a portion of our proceeds to The Rainforest Action Network. Then when we began doing contemporary world music, we began to donate to The UN Center for Human Rights to help indigenous peoples. Now with the release of Drum Prayer, we will also be helping the SEVA Foundation which works to restore sight to people in places like Nepal."
I asked the Gordon's what their proudest achievement has been over the past twenty years; not surprisingly, it involved recognition from their peers. "Our latest full release, Drum Medicine, won three major awards: The COVR Record of the Year, The COVR Best World album and the NAV Native Heart Award. And of course all the great reviews we have received from NAV and many other publications are wonderful."
STEVE GORDON What about the future? Buddha Lounge seems symbolic of how this label remains vibrant and innovative as it enters its third decade. "In some ways Buddha-Lounge is a new direction for Sequoia," muses Steve, "but if you listen carefully to some of the grooves that David and I have been creating, even as far back as Sacred Earth Drums, you can hear the influence of ambient-dance/chill/lounge music. We have been enjoying this kind of music since it's emergence about 10 years ago, but it is true that with the arrival of Buddha Lounge, it is the first time we have actually put out a release specifically aimed at that audience. We are very pleased about how well it has been received and we are planning more chillout titles in the future." Although an ideal vehicle to reach out to new listeners, David sees Buddha Lounge as appealing to the traditional new age market as much as to the dance market. "It is really perfect for this kind of music to end up in new age stores. It has evolved from the chill rooms at raves and dance clubs where they play quieter music so that people can relax and take a break from dancing. This new 'lounge' music offers a great alternative for new age music listeners who are seeking music which is a little more geared towards socializing, loving, and enjoying than the more 'serious' new age titles. It's a chance for new age listeners to have some music to play at parties and gatherings."
Other possibilities for the future might include DVD releases and even live performance. "We also have been feeling the call to perform music live," says Steve. "In some ways, live performance is where the magic really happens. Because of the nature of the music that we make it would take quite a large group of musicians to perform. We are currently exploring how our music could be performed with a small group of great musicians, assisted by the current technology and hope to perform by next summer."
As for upcoming releases, Steve notes that 2003 titles are nearing completion. "Our first release for 2003 will be in February, Chakra Healing Chants, a collaboration between David and the singer Sophia. A new artist for Sequoia, Sophia has designed a series of chants for each of the charkas to heal and balance their energies." David notes that, following the success of Buddha-Lounge, plans are underway for Buddha-Lounge II to drop in 2003. And looking ahead to 2004, the label plans to release a remastered, repackaged ten-year anniversary edition of Sacred Earth Drums, which even now is approaching Gold Record status.