In the fall of 2019, BMG CEO Hartwig Masuch came to his team with a mission in mind: He wanted to make an aggressive move into the Americana recording market. By this spring, the company unveiled its second-ever BMG-launched label, Renew Records. Masuch tapped BMG’s resident roots expert, executive vp David Hirshland, a two-decade publishing veteran, to take the lead.
Hirshland worked closely with the estates of Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters during his 17 years at Los Angeles-based independent music publisher Bug Music (he came on as vp business and legal affairs, later becoming president); when BMG acquired Bug Music in 2011, Hirshland came with it.
He says that Bug’s roster — which in addition to legacy acts includes contemporary artists like Wilco — accounted for “pretty much 75% of what people consider Americana.” So when Masuch started talking about growing BMG’s presence in the genre, Hirshland said, “We could hardly be more involved on the publishing side. The only way we could be more involved is to start a label.” Masuch replied: “Good idea, you do it.”
Last November, BMG launched its first label — Berlin-based Modern Recordings, which focuses on new classical jazz — since the company restarted in 2008. Now, Renew joins BMG’s roster of U.S.-based labels including Rise Records and Broken Bow Records. Hirshland tapped longtime clients for Renew’s first releases: a pressing of Wilcovered, a Wilco tribute album out on Record Store Day (postponed to June 20 due to the coronavirus), and a 1968 Johnny Cash set recorded by Grateful Dead sound man Owsley Stanley.
Hirshland is also excited about an Americana collection of “train” songs featuring Carla Olson, Dave Alvin and I See Hawks in L.A.’s Rob Waller. “The fact that vinyl sales are increasing plays right into what I’m trying to do,” he says. But he is quick to add: “I don’t want to limit us,” which is why Renew is also prioritizing emerging acts in the genre, like singer-songwriter Matt Lorenz who performs as The Suitcase Junket. “People are going to want to stream his music,” says Hirshland. “We’re ready to service a shrinking CD and expanding digital market as well.”
Hirshland — who is L.A.-based and has one Renew colleague in New York — is planning on no more than six to eight projects for this calendar year, partly because he’s still splitting his time between Renew and his “day job” at BMG. “Obviously, if there are [records] we cannot live without, we will go after them,” he says of Renew’s tight focus on special Americana projects. Considering that BMG closed 2019 with a 6.09% share on Billboard’s Top Radio Airplay chart, it’s a pace Renew can afford to maintain.
For now, Hirshland can’t wait to deliver that 1968 gem from the Man in Black. “It’s a key moment in his career,” he says of Cash’s live album, which Renew will release in 2021. “He had just come out of a deep, dark place. He married June [Carter] a month before, so here he was, playing for 700 hippies in San Francisco and just having a blast doing it. Gordon Lightfoot’s in the audience; he previews a few Bob Dylan songs that Dylan hadn’t released yet. It’s a remarkable recording.”