Label Spotlight:

Rune Grammofon
By Ken Waxman

Helping to define and preserve sometimes uncategorizable improvised music was one of the goals of Norwegian Rune Kristoffersen when he started his Oslo-based Rune Grammofon (RG) label in 1997. “A new scene was forming with young artists doing exciting music,” he recalls. “But they had nowhere to release the music since the majors weren’t interested.” Kristoffersen decided to fill the gap, and by the end of this year RG will have released 176 sessions that touch on aspects of folk, jazz, ambient, electronic and rock. Artists include Supersilent, Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen’s trio and Mats Gustafsson’s Fire big band, with some popular discs like Supersilent’s repressed many times; and with most of the catalogue still in print. That’s a pretty impressive indication of support for novel Nordic sounds from someone who in the ‘80s released six albums as one-half of the fashionable Norwegian pop duo Fra Lippo Lippi.

By the mid-‘90s however, Kristoffersen had become Norwegian label manager for ECM Records. Excited by the local scene, he also wanted to work “with artists from scratch, not just with the finished product, as I did with ECM,” he says. Although the label’s name is made up of combination of his and gramophone, “runes are also ancient language inscriptions,” he explains “so, it has a certain relevant connection to the medium.”

Since the introductory session of Supersilent, RG’s first signing, many artists have been associated with the label, some of whom came to him; some of whom he sought out. Why sign a certain artist? “It will normally be a combination of me liking the music, seeing originality there and feeling that the music deserves to be heard and put out,” he reveals. “Any thread would be my own quite broad taste in music,” he insists.

“Rune is highly professional and dedicated to the music. I love the fact that he says that he has to burn for the music, otherwise it won’t be released,” says Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, who has recorded for RG in small groups and his big band. “We do all the artistic work and the decisions about the music. Then when the music is done, Rune takes over.”

Most of RG’s artists are from his homeland. And while there aren’t hard and fast rules Kristoffersen says “these days there is so much local talent that it’s very unlikely I’ll sign new artists that aren’t from Norway.” Jokes Gustafsson: “Since with Fire we wanted someone that could really focus on us and our music, it was an easy choice to approach Rune and ask him for collaboration. We also thought it would be good for him to not only work with Norwegian groups.”

“Rune Grammofon was the only label in Norway where we wanted our records released,” stresses guitarist Thomassen, whose trio has put out three RG CDs. “We recorded our first album without any record company involved. But I only contacted Rune, no other label. I had met him before working with some of the artists on his label, and knew that he knew about the trio. I e-mailed him, and he wanted to hear what we had, and that’s what’s on the first record.”

What about the idea that many RG artists are considered to be pop, rock or anything but jazz or improvised music? “I never had the intention to be a jazz label, but to release music in most categories that met certain standards set by me,” insists Kristoffersen. “A lot of my artists fall in-between normal categories, which is considered a nightmare for marketing departments. But I never aim for anything in that regard, and I don’t consider how I can market an artist. I just want to release great records.”

“We identify very much with many of the other bands on Rune Grammofon,” explains Thomassen. “Rune also has a deep respect for the artists’ artistic vision. That doesn’t mean that we don't disagree on different matters, but it means that he’s respectful if the band has one unison opinion.”

Seventeen years after its beginnings, Rune Grammofon remains a one-man show. Available on a project-to-project arrangement are a couple of freelance out-of-country PR folks, plus Kim Hiorthøy, who is responsible for RG’s distinctive sleeve design. “RG’s graphic work is amazing, and that Rune works so close with Hiorthøy is very important for me personally,” adds Gustafsson.

In most cases RG’s recording artists are responsible for all expenses until the finished master. Meanwhile RG stays afloat through funding from Norwegian government agencies and catalogue sales. That too has changed in the past little while as physical sales decrease, Kristoffersen notes. While most RG releases are available for digital download, “it’s not a major part of the business as of today”. Another adjustment is the popularity of vinyl, he reports. Starting about a decade ago many RG titles have been pressed as both CDs and LPs. Today some are even available as limited editions on colored vinyl. “With most titles we still sell more of the CD edition,” Kristoffersen reports. “But the gap is closing.”

Over the years the label has released one Supersilent concert DVD as well as two book/CD packages: Money Will Ruin Everything Volumes 1 and 2. Created to coincide with the label’s fifth and 10th anniversary, the books include artwork, sketches, photos and interviews. More recently RG published Johannes Rød’s Free Jazz and Improvisation on Vinyl 1965-1985. “There might well be more books if it feels natural since I feel that the books are extensions of the music,” reveals Kristoffersen.

Ironically as well, for a label which Kristoffersen refuses to classify as a jazz imprint, quite a lot of improvised music will appear on it in the next little while. Supersilent’s first album in four years is scheduled, as well as ones from improv quartet Spunk, vocalist Sidsel Endresen and guitarist Stian Westerhus plus prize-winning jazz duo Albatrosh. Next year will see a new album from the Fire orchestra plus an archival recording of the Detail trio featuring Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad and the late British drummer John Stevens.

Kristoffersen is adamant in stating that Rune Grammofon “has a very strong identity.” Still it seems that its identity comes from a commitment to excellence in diversity.

—For The New York City Jazz Record March 2015