How One Man Turned His Love For Theater Into A Grammy-Winning Company

Originally published on Forbes.com
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“It’s almost like I had a crystal ball,” Van Dean reflected. “If you look at a lot of the things I’ve done over the past 20 years, a lot of the courses I took [in college] were like a road map to that.”

Some of the events on that roadmap would involve studying the music industry, leading grassroots fundraising and producing Off-Broadway and Broadway shows. This would lead to Dean cofounding and serving as President of Broadway Records, a label devoted to producing recordings of Broadway and Off-Broadway cast recordings as well as solo albums recorded by theater stars including Mean Girls star Kate Rockwell and the live recordings from 54 Below of Aaron Tveit and Pretty Woman co-stars and husband-and-wife team Orfeh and Andy Karl.

In its six years, Broadway Records has become one of the most prolific companies devoted to theatrical recordings, releasing 140 albums, including reissues and EPs, and is currently averaging approximately 40 albums per year, including the first-ever album devoted to the season’s Tony Award nominees. The second Tony Awards album, which will be released on CD and digitally June 8, 2018, was just announced.

Broadway Records’ first release was the cast album of the short-lived Frank Wildhorn musical Bonnie & Clyde, issued in 2012. Dean, who was a producer of the show, had been involved with a few other cast recordings and knew if he was going to continue, he wanted to be calling the shots. When the previously-arranged cast album fell through, Dean led a fundraising effort to finance the recording. Everyone from ushers donating $100 to many of the cast members choosing to reinvesting their entire salaries contributed to the album.

Bonnie & Clyde marked the first of many albums produced through Broadway Records, which secured its first Grammy nomination with the recording of Matilda: The Musical, released in conjunction with Yellow Sound Label. Matilda was the third original Broadway cast recording released by the company, and their sixteenth album overall.

Dean believes any show that opens on Broadway deserves to be preserved, which is a costly mission: recording a Broadway cast album can cost an average between $250,000 and $500,000 and caters to a relatively small market in comparison with pop or rock music. To record an album, not only are the performers, the orchestra and recording space necessary, but also relicensing the orchestrations, paying the copyist to issue new copies and paying a week’s salary to cast members for every eight hours spent in the studio. As a result, some major labels have released fewer Broadway albums.

There are exceptions, Dean said, noting the Tony-winning Broadway juggernaut Hamilton, released by Atlantic Records, which, as of February 2018, had sold 1.46 million copies in the United States and is the fifth highest-selling cast album since Nielsen Music began collecting statistics in 1991. And Dear Evan Hansen, also released by Atlantic, winner of the 2017 Tony Awards for Best Musical, debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard chart, the third-largest debut sales for a cast recording in the last 25 years and the highest debut by a cast recording since Camelot in 1961.

And the recording of the 2015 revival of The Color Purple, which won the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, sold more than 40,000 copies – and was released by Broadway Records.

While Dean savors his success, rather than tap into the mainstream pop culture, he hopes to preserve theatrical history – an admittedly niche and expensive market.

“A cast album at its heart is a marketing tool for the show and a preservation tool,” Dean said. “It can be a money-making tool as well, but you need to be selective about that. They don’t all make money. The percentages at least industry-wise are a lot lower than Broadway shows making money.”

“Our track record is pretty strong,” he continued. “Of the albums we’ve raised money for, the vast majority have either recouped or will recoup. There are ones you take on because you believe it deserves to be preserved, but we’re not in a position where we have that kind of money to be able to do anything we want.”

While they can’t record every single album they’d like, Broadway Records devotes its resources to each and every recording. The three-person company, housed in a fourth-floor walkup office in Times Square – a crucial element to keeping its costs low – issues a 32-page booklet filled with photos, lyrics and essays with nearly every cast album. This booklet, Dean said, is a way for the people who aren’t able to see the show in person to experience it and for those who did see a performance, to remember it.

“We never skimp,” Dean said. “A lot of places will cut back on the size of the booklet and we don’t do that. We think it’s worth the extra money that everyone’s getting the full experience. It can be a show that didn’t last long and closed and it gets the full 32-page booklet or it can be the biggest hit on Broadway and will get the full booklet. We’re not playing favorites. We think that every cast album deserves to have the full experience, and we try to give the best possible experience to the listener.”

For some, that best possible experience includes a recording on vinyl – a real labor of love, given that it takes four months to manufacture and its costs ten times more than a standard CD. The Lightning Thief – The Percy Jackson Musical,which ran Off-Broadway in 2017, marked the first vinyl released by Broadway Records, with only 1,000 special editions albums, each individually numbered, released.

Along with musicals and solo albums, Broadway Records has also released the recordings of NBC’s Peter Pan Live! and The Wiz Live!, which garnered 9.21 and 11.5 million viewers respectively. While show’s recordings often take five to seven weeks to release, these albums were turned around in two days and hit the stores in less than two weeks.

Dean encourages many of the artists he works with to release albums as CDs and digitally before making the music available for streaming, a service that has not proven to be lucrative for cast albums. Spotify pays between $0.001 and $0.007 per stream, so with the typical Broadway cast album costing an average between $250,000 and $500,000, 100 million streams are necessary to recoup its production costs – without paying the costs of royalties for the show or songwriters or distribution. Of the approximately 320 million people living in the United States, one-third of the population would have to stream a show to recoup its production costs just from streaming.

“Streaming is a tricky thing because it’s great for exposure,” Dean said. “It’s not great for making money. The problem is because cast albums cost so much, it’s a tricky balance. Unless you’re Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen or one of the ones that’s the upper echelon of streams, you probably can’t make your money back just on streaming. It just costs too much to make. All the streaming services pay, but it’s just so small. You have to have millions and millions of listens to amount to anything.

“If your goal is exposure, it’s great. I tell artists that every time I sit down to talk about their albums: if your goal is to get out there and have people know about you and get some more gigs out of it, then by all means, we should stream from Day One. If your goal is to make some of your money back you put into making this album, we advise you to wait and don’t do it right away.”

Because streaming alone is not lucrative, and to give the recording time to reach its audience that will purchase the album or digital download, Dean said Broadway Records waits at least six months to a year before streaming on Spotify, Apple Music or other streaming services. Early streaming is more valuable for albums with lower costs to facilitate marketing and exposure.

“Part of this decision depends on who financed the recording,” Dean wrote in a blog post. “If the show financed the album via its marketing budget, it is much easier to justify prioritizing the marketing needs of the show. If the album was financed by direct investors expecting to make their money back, then the financial considerations must be given considerable weight. Without investors supporting the cast recordings, these important preservations of a show’s score and performances will become less and less common.”

But it’s not all business for Dean. Along with recordings and releases, Broadway Records has organized and held many charity events, raising money and establishing support systems to help victims of tragic acts of violence throughout the past few years. “From Broadway With Love” was first held at Sandy Hook following the 2012 shootings, and Dean worked to establish a summer theater program for the local children. Most recently, a benefit concert was held for Parkland on April 16, 2018, featuring Broadway artists performing alongside students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

They also took their goodwill to the recording studio. Following the Pulse Nightclub shootings, Broadway Records collaborated with Seth Rudetsky to record 65 members of the theater community, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Matthew Broderick, Bernadette Peters, Sara Bareilles, Carole King and Whoopi Goldberg, singing, “What the World Needs Now Is Love.”

Released as a single five days after its recording, the song topped iTunes within 48 hours of its release and raised more than $45,000 within two days. A concert in Orlando soon followed, which, along with the single and concert DVD/CD and Blu-Ray, raised approximately $200,000. But the purpose of these concerts, Dean said, wasn’t to raise money, given that they gave out many of the tickets to the community for free, but to give back to the community – a labor of love, which could describe much of Broadway Records’ work.

“We believe that any show that’s been on Broadway deserves to be preserved if possible,” Dean said. “So, if there’s a way to do it, we’ll do it.”

For more information on Broadway Records, visit broadwayrecords.com.

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