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Nippon Columbia Opens U.S. Operation

Billboard, 01.26.02
Brian Garrity

NEW YORK - With an eye on expanding its reach outside the Japanese market, Nippon Columbia—Japan's oldest record label— is establishing operations in the U.S. under the revived Savoy banner. It has tapped two former BMG Entertainment executives to head the effort.

The company has formed the Savoy Label Group—a new U.S.-based jazz and classical division featuring the catalogs of Savoy and Denon—and named former Windham Hill Group topper Steve Vining president of the unit. Steve Backer, another BMG veteran, has been hired as VP of jazz A&R and will oversee the revitalization of the Savoy and Denon catalogs, which have been dormant for the past two years.

Vining, who reports to Nippon Columbia president/CEO Jack Matsumura, will be based in Los Angeles. Backer will be based in New York City. The entire Savoy Label Group is expected to initially comprise a staff of five or six.

"This is a small entity, not a multi-billion company, but it does reflect our appetite at Nippon Columbia to become a worldwide company," Nippon Columbia chairman Strauss Zelnick says. "This is our first step in America, but it is by no means our last."

LAUNCHING PAD

Beyond resurrecting existing assets, Vining is also operating under a mandate to sign new acts and even acquire new labels in a range of genres including jazz, classical, new age, blues, and world.

"We're going to use [Savoy] as a launching pad for new signings and a broader company approach," Vining says. "What we want to create is a specialist marketing force for all the adult formats."

As for Savoy's acquisition strategy, Vining says the company is already in "very aggressive conversations" with potential targets. No specific names have been mentioned.

Still, such positioning is a far cry from previous Nippon Columbia handling of the Savoy catalog. The company, via Denon, previously administered the catalog through a joint-venture agreement with a U.S.-based company called Savoy Entertainment Group (SEG). SEG oversaw the marketing and promotion of Savoy titles in North America, and distribution was handled through Atlantic.

Denon decided to unwind the SEG venture in the wake of New York City-based investment firm Ripplewood's acquisition of Nippon Columbia last year. The Atlantic distribution agreement had already expired at that point.

Nippon Columbia executives say its new strategy, beyond marking a toe-hold in the U.S., enables the company to pursue opportunities in adult-targeted niche genres at a time when major labels are running away from such product areas as part of cost-cutting efforts.

Vining says, "Obviously, we believe that the catalog is very strong, but the real growth is going to come out of the opportunity with new artists."

Still, the first job will be catalog revival, as the company waits for its acquisition deals and artist-signing efforts play out. Savoy—which expects to unveil a new U.S. distribution agreement in the coming weeks—intends to release upward of 60 catalog titles between April and December.

Savoy is home to early be-bop recordings from the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker. Backer says plans are in the works to release in April a range of multi-disc sets and a new mid-price line. Also in the pipeline is a series of classical titles on DVD-Audio set to bow in July.

As for releases by new Savoy acts, Vining says select titles could be available before Christmas but more likely won't be seen until 2003.

Vining was president of BMG Entertainment's Windham Hill Group from 1996 to 2000. Recently, he served as the CEO of Silicon Valley-based Euphonix, a manufacturer of high-resolution digital-audio recording and mixing technology.

Backer—who has previously worked with the jazz divisions of Arista (when it owned Savoy in the 1970s), Impulse, and RCA Records—most recently ran an independent A&R consulting firm.