American Gramaphone LLC
American Gramaphone LLC
NAIC: 421990 Other Miscellaneous Durable Goods Wholesalers; 711130 Musical Groups and Artists
American Gramaphone LLC is one of the most successful independent music labels in the United States. Founded by Louis “Chip” Davis to showcase his eclectic music, American Gramaphone reaches millions of fans through its recordings, with distribution mostly outside mainstream music industry channels. The company pioneered what is now known as New Age music. The label’s major group is Davis’s band Mannheim Steamroller, which is best known for a series of hit Christmas recordings. The group has also put out eight recordings in its “Fresh Aire” series, which is classically influenced electronic music on themes of nature and the outdoors. American Gramaphone also produced a series of recordings called “Day Parts,” which correspond to different times of the day, as in “Sunday Morning Coffee” and “Dinner.” Through its catalog, American Gramaphone not only markets its recordings, but also sells a variety of other products, including massage oil, clothing, paintings, coffee and hot chocolate, and other items that tie in to the music. While the recordings are also found in traditional record stores, American Gramaphone distributes much of its music through retailers such as Target, Borders, and Bath & Body Works, and through supermarkets, gift stores, and florist shops. Mannheim Steamroller’s music is most often heard on the radio during the Christmas holiday season. The group also plays well-attended live shows across the country.
Country Hit in the 1970s
Chip Davis was born into a musical family in rural Ohio. His father was a high school music teacher, his mother had played trombone in a group called Phil Spitalny’s All Girl Orchestra, and his grandmother began teaching him to play the piano when he was four years old. Davis went to music school at the University of Michigan, where he majored in classical bassoon and also played drums in the university’s famed marching band. After graduating in 1969, Davis held a variety of jobs in the music industry. He toured with the Norman Luboff Choir and taught music to junior high school students. Davis told People Magazine (December 19, 1988) that there were two things he had said he would never do: “Live in Nebraska and write country and western.” But he broke his promise to himself, launching his success. In the early 1970s Davis moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where he composed jingles for the advertising agency Bozell Jacobs. Working with partner Bill Fries, Davis came up with a witty series of musical ads for Old Home Bread. The ads featured a fictional truck driver, C.W. McCall, and his girlfriend Mavis, a waitress. Radio listeners began calling stations and requesting the ads, and the Old Home Bread television spots were so popular that TV Guide listed them in its regular programming guide. The C.W. McCall campaign won advertising’s prestigious Clio award, and MGM Records approached Davis and Fries and asked them to record the jingle as a pop single. This first song, “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep On-A-Truckin’ Café” made it to the top 20 on Billboard magazine’s singles chart in 1974. The next year, Davis and Fries recorded a whole album for MGM Records. This included the song “Convoy,” which touched on the craze for citizen’s band (CB) radio that was peaking around this time. “Convoy” sold a million copies within two months of its release, and was at number one on the Billboard country music chart for six weeks. The album sold ten million copies by the time it was done. The duo went on tour as the country group C.W. McCall, with Fries as lead singer. The C.W. McCall group eventually recorded nine albums, selling 20 million records. Davis won the Country Music Writer of the Year award in 1976. The group played what Davis called “techno-country,” with a large, lush horn section and lots of backup vocals. But Davis had never intended to be a successful country music writer, and he soon moved on to a different project.
An Independent Out of Desperation
Davis formed his own record label, American Gramaphone (the misspelling of gramophone was accidental, but it stuck), in 1974, while he was working at an Omaha recording studio. Davis had a part interest in the studio, and bought it outright in 1984. Davis’s musical background was quite broad, but despite his immersion in popular music, he never forgot his classical training. He began composing pieces he called “18th-century classical rock,” which used both early instruments like harpsichords and recorders as well as modern synthesizers. Davis claimed the structure of the music was classical, though the rhythms were from rock. The music was experimental, and used many cutting-edge recording techniques. When Davis had enough material, he assembled it into an album-length recording, and then endeavored to get a major music company to produce it. The album was called Fresh Aire by Chip Davis, and Davis soon made up the name of the mythical musical group who had recorded it, Mannheim Steamroller. (The name is a play on Mannheim roller, a musical term for a particular kind of crescendo favored by some 18th-century composers.) Davis claimed that music executives loved the album, but he could not get a sale. He was told repeatedly that the music was enjoyable, but unmarketable, as it did not fit any preconceived categories. Studio executives would order the album for themselves, directly from Davis, but would not take a risk on putting the compositions on their label.
Though he had had tremendous success with his country songs, Davis was not getting anywhere with his new music. Deciding he would probably never land a contract with a music company, he began selling the album himself under the American Gramaphone imprint. Instead of marketing the albums to music stores, he sold them to dealers in fine audio equipment. Sales people used the album to demonstrate the capabilities of their speakers and turntables, because the record had an unusual range of sounds. Audiophiles began buying the record, and Fresh Aire became a cult hit in the United States, Japan, and Germany. Davis went on to put out more Fresh Aire albums based on different thematic material such as summer or winter. The records were lovingly produced, weighing much more than most vinyl records to prevent warping, and with lavish attention to the record sleeve and jacket design. American Gramaphone sold them through audio stores and through mail order as their popularity spread by word-of-mouth. The music got no radio play and only sporadic advertising, but Fresh Aire built a solid fan base around the world.
Building a Niche in the 1980s
After the success of Mannheim Steamroller’s first few Fresh Aire albums, Davis decided to try something else a little different. He decided to put out an album of Christmas music. Davis recalls that everyone he talked to about the project was skeptical. Seasonal albums were not selling well in the early 1980s, and there was no reason to think Mannheim Steamroller Christmas would break the pattern. But the record, released in 1984, sold 190,000 copies in its first year, surpassing everything else in the American Gramaphone catalog. It was nominated for a Grammy award, and eventually sold over six million copies. Davis followed Mannheim Steamroller Christmas with A Fresh Aire Christmas in 1988. By two weeks before Christmas, the album had already sold a million copies and was the most popular Christmas record in the country. Mannheim Steamroller toured for several weeks during the Christmas season, playing live shows at large venues. The next Christmas album came out in 1995. Christmas in the Aire already had 3.5 million orders placed a month before its release, and it joined the earlier Yule albums as multi-platinum bestsellers. The album was the number-one seller at the Borders Books & Music chain, and one of the bestsellers at the department store chain Target. Mannheim Steamroller’s tour for the 1995 album was an immense undertaking. Davis shot a film in England of a Medieval feast. This was projected during the concert in such a way that the live musicians appeared to be sitting among the filmed musicians and playing with them. The high-tech show required three truckloads of equipment and dozens of helpers to set it all up. The idea was to transport the audience back to the time when the traditional Christmas carols were first composed and performed. Davis put an enormous effort into the show, though it only toured domestically and for just a few short weeks.
Mannheim Steamroller took on other projects too. In 1986 the band recorded a soundtrack for the PBS television series Saving the Wildlife. In 1989 Davis took the group on a 22-concert tour that benefited rebuilding at Yellowstone Park. The park had been severely damaged by fire a year earlier, and Davis used the musical tour to raise money for restoration. The show featured Davis and the handful of musicians of Mannheim Steamroller accompanied by an 80-piece symphony orchestra. The multimedia show featured slides and film of Yellowstone projected on four huge screens. Turner Broadcasting contacted Davis in the early 1990s, asking him to compose music for the 1994 Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia. Mannheim Steamroller toured ten cities in the United States with this original music, along with Russian folk songs and classical music by Russian composers, and recorded an album in St. Petersburg called To Russia With Love. American Gramaphone also began a series of recordings called “Day Parts,” which were dedicated to different times of day or particular moods. “Romance” came out in 1993.
For over 25 years, Chip Davis and American Gramaphone have been innovators in producing music, video, and entertainment products that have touched the lives of millions around the world.
Annual revenue at the music company was estimated at about $5 million by the late 1980s. By the early 1990s, American Gramaphone had carved a decided niche for itself. When Davis first began touting his “Fresh Aire” series, the music was un-classifiable. But the music gradually came under the rubric “New Age.” This category encompassed music of a mostly tranquil mood, often with themes of nature, such as the Yellowstone music. Davis himself did not profess to like the New Age label for his compositions, but by the early 1990s there was enough other music of the same general sort that the appellation made sense. Windham Hill was another independent music company founded in the 1970s that sold its records, like American Gramaphone did, outside of traditional music distribution venues. By the late 1980s, some of Windham Hill’s music was getting radio play, and Mannheim Steamroller and other similar groups strongly appealed to a growing demographic of the over-30 crowd. American Gramaphone seized on that demographic in a way few other music companies contemplated, adding many items to its quarterly catalog besides records, cassettes, and scores. “In the last seven or eight years, it became evident that I was selling a lifestyle,” Davis told Billboard (March 30, 1996). “We’re selling a wraparound concept,” he went on, explaining that 1995 catalog sales included some 30 tons of cinnamon hot chocolate. The catalog’s 600,000 subscribers bought hot chocolate, coffee, massage oil, even steak marinade, as accoutrements to American Gramaphone’s diverse musical offerings. The company also sold its music and other products through an increasing array of unconventional outlets. American Gramaphone did a lot of business through grocery stores and gift shops, and began selling in flower shops as well in the mid-1990s.
A Successful Brand in the 1990s and After
When “Romance II,” another of the Day Parts series, came out in 1998, American Gramaphone distributed it in the soap and lotion chains the Body Shop and Bath & Body Works. The company also hawked its “A Mannheim Massage” release that year on the home shopping channel QVC, along with its own brand of massage oil. By the late 1990s, Mannheim Steamroller had transformed into a complex brand, driven by the music but encompassing everything from collectible artwork to children’s books to bags of spices. All this was owned and run by Chip Davis, who had been called the Bill Gates of New Age music by E! Entertainment Television. As Mannheim Steamroller grew in prominence, Davis was able to mastermind bigger live concerts, and also for the first time to broadcast on regular network television. American Gramaphone released a new Christmas recording, The Christmas Angel, in 1998, and put together an ice skating show choreographed to the music. This toured in 13 cities, and was also filmed as an hour-long special program on NBC. Davis bought the hour of broadcast time from the network and then sold advertising space. The next year Davis worked on a Mannheim Steamroller album based on tunes from Walt Disney films, in a break from his earlier themes. American Gramaphone entered an exclusive distribution arrangement in 1998 with Navarre Corporation, which then handled all distribution for the company in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.
American Gramaphone released the eighth recording in its Fresh Aire series in 2000. The record company had only 32 titles in its catalog by that year, though almost all the titles were huge sellers. All the Fresh Aire records had gone gold, meaning that they had sold over 500,000 copies, and the Christmas albums were ranked as multi-platinum, selling in the millions. The older titles in the Christmas series continued to sell well seasonally year after year, and the latest release, 2001’s Christmas Extraordinaire had already sold some four million copies within weeks of its debut. American Gramaphone’s catalog reached some 600,000 people, and in the early 2000s Davis had more ambitious projects, such as a performing arts park, a children’s music camp, and a video travel series, in the works.
Windham Hill Group; Compass Productions.
- Chip Davis founds the company.
- First Fresh Aire album is released.
- Chip Davis is named “Country Music Writer of the Year.”
- Mannheim Steamroller issues its first Christmas album.
- Mannheim Steamroller Christmas special airs on NBC.
Allis, Tim, “‘Convoy’ Composer Chip Davis Traded in His 18-Wheeler for a Solo Ride on Mannheim Steamroller,” People Weekly, December 19, 1988, p. 147.
Brown, Steven, “Composer Chip Davis Runs Gamut of Musical Spectrum,” Orlando Sentinel, December 16, 1993, p. A2.
Cox, Meg, “‘New Age’ Music Wins Wider Following As Many People Grow Too Old for Rock,” Wall Street Journal, April 1, 1987, p. 31.
Flippo, Chris, “Xmas Set Streamrolls Chart for American Gramaphone,” Billboard, November 25, 1995, pp. 1, 113.
Hackett, Vernell, “Davis, Mannheim Steamroller Tour Pays Tribute to Russian Composers,” Amusement Business, August 8, 1994, p. 6.
Heckman, Don, “Steamrolling to Success by Keeping to His Game Plan,” Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1995, p. 1.
Jeffrey, Don, “AG’s Mannheim Steamroller Sales Are Anything But Flat,” Billboard, November 25, 1995, p. 113.
Matzer, Maria, “Davis of Mannheim Steamroller Makes the Most of Holidays,” Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1998, p. 1.
Morris, Chris, “American Gramaphone Broadens Navarre Distribution Deal,” Billboard, July 4, 1998, p. 57.
——, “Branding, Catalog & Vertically Integrated Barbecue Sauce: How Four Indies Prosper with or Without Hits,” Billboard, March 30, 1996, p. 99.
——, “Count American Gramaphone Among the Midliners,” Billboard, February 24, 2001, p. 64.
Newman, Melinda, “American Gramaphone’s 2nd Look at ‘Romance’,” Billboard, January 31, 1998, p. 14.
Zhito, Lisa, “Mutual of Omaha Backs Mannheim Steamroller’s 12-City Tour to Benefit Yellowstone Natl. Park,” Amusement Business, May 7, 1990, p. 6.