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Entrepreneur keeps his classical label on a steady course

By John von Rhein Tribune Critic

Let's hear it for James Ginsburg. The Chicagoan is one of the last independent entrepreneurs in classical recording, a man who has stuck to his artistic vision and made a success of it at a time of market shrinkage and industry downsizing.

Look what he has to show for it: Cedille Records, the label he launched out of his Hyde Park apartment during his first year of law school at the University of Chicago, is celebrating it's 20th anniversary. Cedille (pronounced "say-dee") remains Chicago's only home-grown classical label, save for the Chicago Symphony's in-house imprint, CSO Resound.

Although Ginsburg saw a number of classical imprints come and go during that time, his business acumen and respect for the needs of both the record-buying public and the Chicago musicians whose careers his label has helped to advance have never wavered.

Cedille's 44-year-old founder, president and producer points with pride to a CD catalog of 115 titles, ranging from solo keyboard works, to chamber music to complete symphonies and operas. The label's roster includes some the cream of Chicago's classical musicians, including violinist Rachel Barton Pine, the Pacifica Quartet, eighth blackbird, the William Ferris Chorale, Chicago a cappella, and Chicago Opera Theater.

Because disc sales alone can't keep the label afloat, Ginsburg has set up a nonprofit foundation to solicit grants and contributions from corporate, private and arts-council sources, although those have taken a hit this year because of the recession, he observes.

On the positive side, 2009 marks the third straight year in which one of his recordings — a disc of the complete Elliott Carter piano works played by Ursula Oppens — was nominated for a Grammy Award. That's no mean achievement for a nonprofit indie label that releases only seven new titles a year, employs a staff of four, and operates out of two modest facilities (one of them Ginsburg's home) in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood.

Composer Aaron J. Kernis, who's represented on Cedille with a disc of his orchestral works played by the Grant Park Orchestra, says, "I have never worked with as tireless, meticulous, dedicated and quality-driven a producer" as Ginsburg. Keyboardist David Schrader, a label mainstay since its inception, says Cedille "does an invaluable service to its artists in giving us an audience cache, as it were, outside of our customary performance venues."

In the early years, Ginsburg solicited project ideas from local musicians. Nowadays, they come to him with repertory they're keen to record. "I'll often help by refining concepts, or [they'll] propose a range of projects so I can say which one I think will be the most valuable to the catalog," he explains. "We are here really to bring out the music these artists are passionate about, that's commercially viable, and that will be a genuine contribution to the catalog."

Ever eager to stay ahead of the consumer curve, Ginsburg has been supplying digital downloads to online retailers for more than four years. In May 2008 he began selling downloads directly from the label's website, cedillerecords.org, offering sound quality far superior to the industry standard. Earlier this year he struck a deal with Naxos of America to distribute Cedille's releases in the Western Hemisphere. Next year he plans to introduce loss-less, CD-quality downloads specifically geared to the audiophile market.

As long as the savvy Ginsburg is in charge, it seems certain that his unique Chicago record company won't soon be hurting for interesting artists and projects, or interested customers.