Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Record label formed in 1983 by President Don Rose, VPs Arthur Mann and Rob Simonds, and Doug Lexa, who moved on but had suggested the name: 'ryko' is Japanese for 'sound from a flash of light'. Meeting at an industry convention in Cannes, they combined expertise in all the required areas and decided to form a CD-only company, a bold thing to do then; Simonds and Lexa were in Japanese audiophile import/export at a time when six of the world's seven CD factories were in Japan and not much product was available on CD. They began with anthologies from Rounder and a series of New Age 'environmental' discs ('A Day On Cape Cod'), but sticking to first-class technical quality made it one of the brightest independent labels. They understood that a catalog of astonishing integrity and technical quality could stay in business selling fewer copies of each title and without seeking platinum sellers. Ryko Distribution was soon established to take on indie product.

Frank Zappa understood the importance of good remastering and came along in '86 (Rykodisc subsequently bought the Zappa catalogue outright in '94); The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Live At Winterland '87 was followed by Hendrix BBC1 radio tapes. David Bowie followed Zappa to Rykodisc with his back catalogue '90. Joe Boyd's Hannibal and Carthage labels joined '91 with a superb list including Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Anna and Kate McGarrigle etc, and Boyd became a director replacing Lexa.

Next came Elvis Costello: as Mark Caro reported in the Chicago Tribune in June '96, Costello's CD reissues on Columbia 'had skimpy packaging, and the sound on the first five was so thin and/or hissy that the company redid them and offered free exchanges. Still, the ''fixed'' version of Get Happy (1980) turned out to be as muffled and muddy as the original one was wan. The Rykodisc editions, on the other hand, sound fuller and livelier and contain extensive liner notes by Costello...'

Intelligent compilations included Bowie's four-CD Sound And Vision (won a Grammy '89), Richard Thompson's 3-CD Watching The Dark '93 and Yoko Ono's six-CD Onobox (surprisingly well-reviewed: she didn't sound so avant-garde anymore). Not at all limited to reissues, Rykodisc welcomed Texas country rocker Jerry Jeff Walker aboard with his delightful Gypsy Songman '87 (leading to reissue of his MCA back catalogue); new world music albums on Rykodisc have won Grammys (Mickey Hart's Planet Drum and Ry Cooder's Talking Timbuktu); other signings have been Bob Mould's Sugar, the Boston 'low-rock' trio Morphine, the Roches, Bootsy Collins, Nils Lofgren and much else. In '94 Rykodisc acquired the jazz-funk label Gramavision, bringing along John Scofield, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Bobby Previte, also titles by Bill Frisell, Taj Mahal and the Kronos and Arditti string quartets; releases on the Tradition label were added to the catalogue '96, also including a fair amount of world music and jazz. Indie rockers The Posies, Big Star, They Might Be Giants, The Dead Milkmen, Flaming Lips and The Replacements found a home.

With its distinctive green jewel-box, a firm believer in independent distribution, despising the wasteful American 'long-box' packaging and loyal to customers and artists alike, Rykodisc was a thriving indie outfit. By 2006 it was owned by a group of investors at JPMorgan Partners; it was acquired by Warner Brothers for $67.5 million that year, who said that Rykodisc and Ryko Distribution would continue to operate independently. Let's hope so.