December 6, 2016
By Ken Waxman
After nearly 20 years in the music business, Andreas Risanger Meland, label manager of the Norwegian imprint HUBRO, admits that he must deal with a paradox. “The streaming revolution is definitely threatening the economy of the business, but I feel that we’re living in a golden age when it comes to art and music. There’s so much creativity and so many great acts to discover.” So despite the fact that digital accounts for about 80% of Norway’s total domestic market, HUBRO continues to release attractively designed CDs and LPs as it has since the label’s founding in 2009. “The number of releases each year has been plus or minus 15 over the past two or three years,” he relates. “I can’t release more than that, but I also find it difficult to release less than that. Presenting music I love and that challenges me has always been the driving force for me, both when I organized the first Safe as Milk festival in Haugesund in 1999, and in the day to day work with HUBRO,” he adds.
Located in Haugesund, on Norway’s west coast, 45 minutes by plane – or an eight hour drive – from Oslo, the label, which has so far released 80 productions, is a serendipitous compromise among Meland’s musical enthusiasm, the support of a larger entity and his desire to relocate in his hometown after more than a decade in Oslo
Originator of the now defunct Safe as Milk festival and record label while still in his teens, after moving to the Norwegian capital, Meland first worked part time for Rune Grammofon, then in 2004 became local ECM label manager for Grappa Musikkforlag AS, the country’s largest independent record company. After moving back to Haugesund in 2009, he decided that “it was getting very tempting to work more directly with artists and their projects from scratch. I asked my boss if I could start a sub label for jazz and improvised music, and he said ‘yes’ immediately. It’s a huge benefit being a part of a bigger, but still quite small, system when it comes to distribution, media attention, and of course, economy.”
Still part of his work at HUBRO is applying for grants. “Because of the political model we have, the government actually does support a lot of ‘marginal’ art and culture,” he notes. “That’s not something we take for granted, but it makes a big difference.” HUBRO’s first signing was the band Splashgirl, which is still with the label, and since that time it has put out discs by about 50 other artists. In Norwegian “Hubro” means Eurasian Eagle-owl and the name was chosen because Meland wanted a short name and distinctive logo. HUBRO’s art direction, including its stylized owl-symbol, is handled by design office Yokoland. “Having a strong and personal visual identity has helped the label reach a bigger audience and more recognition,” explains Meland.
“I feel a great commitment to the scene in Norway,” declares Meland, “So far all the leaders of HUBRO discs have been Norwegian, but it’s not an absolute rule. I live in a quite remote place in Norway and travel a lot to Oslo to meet the musicians, so I want it to be easy for my artists to get a coffee appointment with me. Working with artists living outside Norway would make that more challenging.” As HUBRO’s only full-time employee, who still performs other functions for Grappa Musikkforlag, Meland produces some albums, but often receives a completed project from the artist. “Some albums we finance from A-Z, but we also do licence deals, where the artist finances everything up to a finished master and we take everything from there,” he elaborates.
“With my projects, Andreas usually doesn’t get involved until after the recording is done. So sometimes the first time he hears the music, is when he gets the finished master recording,” explains Bergen-based drummer Øyvind Skarbø, who has recorded eight discs for HUBRO with both his Bly de Blyant band and his 1982 trio. “Most times though, I'll send him the rough mixes, and ask for his feedback on selection and track order. I feel I have pretty much free reign and don’t feel he wants to veto anything, if I believe in it.”
HUBRO artists can also release sessions elsewhere. Oslo-based keyboardist Christian Wallumrød, who has four recent HUBRO CDs, has also recorded extensively for other labels. “At present it feels both very natural and somehow urgent to follow all possible directions that catch my interest,” he explains. “The various ways of making music with various great people really is a big privilege and to collect these works on one label feels very good. Andreas is a passionate and competent listener. He shows a tremendous openness to music and a great trust in our work, which makes it easy to propose, discuss and collaborate.”
Posits Skarbø: “I know Andreas was a fan of the group, having heard our 2009 LP. But once I saw how his operation worked, how much back-up he gave us, the number of reviews he was able to get, there has never been other options. Economically, the deal was way better than any other option I know of. Not that releasing experimental music is a gold mine, but Andreas really respects musicians and tries to make it financially acceptable for everyone. HUBRO is also willing to put money into other stuff that needs to be done like getting a photographer to get some decent band photos.”
HUBRO discs are available on streaming services and as downloads. “I prefer listening to LPs and CDs myself, but most of the listeners in Norway use streaming,” Meland notes. “And we need to be available where people are.” Although HUBRO aims to release discs in both CD and LP formats, about a dozen are only available as vinyl. When it comes to a particular disc, “sometimes we sell more LPs than CDs,” he adds. Usually 1,000 to 1,500 are initially pressed, but with repressing almost the entire catalogue is available. Among HUBRO discs scheduled for 2017 are Chromola by 1982 which includes Skarbø; Stephan Meidell’s Metrics; Ishihara by Cakewalk; and Phosphoresence, a Dans les Arbres session with Wallumrød.
A couple of years ago Meland relinquished the position of ECM’s Norwegian label manager in order to devote more time to HUBRO. When it was five years old, the imprint was conclusively established as a force on the international music scene, remembers Meland. “In a way it felt like it had reached a new level,” he recalls. Two years and 30-odd releases later the label continues to evolve.
—For The New York City Jazz Record December 2016