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A Matter of Degrees 

Local label Six Degrees weathers the storm of success

Wednesday, May 2 2001
Bob Duskis is beset with allergies. He's congested and sniffly, and things will likely get worse as spring unfolds. But Duskis, the president of Six Degrees Records, couldn't be happier. The San Francisco label he co-founded in 1998 just won the National Association of Recording Merchandisers award for Best Small Label. And then there's the ongoing matter of Six Degrees' first bona fide hit, Tanto Tempo.

Tanto Tempo -- the debut album by Bebel Gilberto, daughter of bossa nova pioneer João Gilberto -- has sold 200,000 copies in North America since its release in April 2000. Combining the breezy vocals and acoustic playing of Brazilian pop with a DJ's palette of electronic beats, the record is musically sensual, beautifully packaged, and accessible enough for hip urban boutiques and Middle American grocery stores alike.

The record has made Gilberto the de facto ambassador for Six Degrees. And she's perfect for the role: Like most acts on the independent label, Gilberto is a born straddler of worlds. Raised in Rio de Janeiro, she moved to New York in 1991 and began mapping the Brazilian music of her past onto modern territory. Tanto Tempo reflects her journey, enmeshing the familiar strains of bossa nova in technophile rhythms by artists such as Amon Tobin and the Thievery Corporation.

In short, the record is the stuff of which hits are made. But as the head of any successful independent label will tell you, having a hit is often the easy part. Staying in business afterward is where things get tricky. Just ask Duskis.

"There's an expression," Duskis says, "that a hit record could be the worst thing that ever happened to an independent label."

It may seem counterintuitive, but the perils of growth are real. When demand surges, small record companies have to play a high-stakes game of catch-up, burning through capital or credit to manufacture more CDs and rush them to booming markets. Overestimate demand, and you're stuck with truckloads of unsold product and a crippling amount of debt. But playing it safe can be just as deadly: Failure to get CDs in stores at the right time can snuff out a hot streak before it really gets going.

"If you don't have the cash flow, it can be disastrous," says Duskis. "All those things can kill a company."

So which of these dangers is Bob Duskis most worried about?

None of them.

"We have people here who know enough about business to make sure we're not getting in over our heads," Duskis says, putting it mildly. With decades of combined experience in the marketing, promotion, and management of independent music, Duskis and CEO Pat Berry bring a level of business savvy to Six Degrees that puts the label in a separate class from most struggling indies.

The duo gained their expertise at an unlikely place. Duskis and Berry first met as regional managers for Windham Hill, the record label best known for popularizing George Winston and New Age music in the 1980s. As they rose through the company's ranks -- eventually becoming the heads of A&R and marketing, respectively -- Duskis and Berry were instrumental in signing big-name folk acts like John Gorka and Patty Larkin. At the same time they worked to move the label in a more ambient direction -- one that dovetailed with Duskis' burgeoning interest in the music then coming out of England.

"When the first wave of U.K. electronica was coming over, the early Future Sound of London, early Orb, the Grid, some of the really pioneering stuff ... I was becoming obsessed with it," says Duskis. "I found it to be fascinating -- really addictive, actually. The more I bought, the more I wanted."

Similarly, when Duskis heard the first results of regional artists reinterpreting traditional music through samplers, turntables, and computers, he knew he was hearing the future.

"It started as European producers taking samples of African music and Brazilian music and using it as little bits of ethnic exotica," Duskis explains. "But as that [sampling] technology got in the hands of African musicians and Brazilian musicians ... that to me is when it started getting really interesting."

Duskis and Berry felt that the genre-tweaking hybrid was something Windham Hill's audience would appreciate, but the label disagreed. So in 1996 the two began pitching the Six Degrees concept to the major labels and eventually left Windham Hill to establish Six Degrees as an imprint at Island Records. The arrangement, which Duskis refers to as "a good learning experience," lasted two years.

"We had never been deep within the belly of the beast of a major label before," Duskis says with a chuckle. "I think we felt pretty tied up."

When their deal with Island expired in 1998, Duskis and Berry decided to go it alone. With the help of venture capital funding (Duskis won't say how much the company received, but he calls it "not a lot by Internet standards"), the two men and their three employees hung out the shingle as an independent label.

Three years later, the Six Degrees staff has swelled to 16 full-time workers. Its Potrero Hill offices, which are undetectable from the street save for a small "Six Degrees" sign by the buzzer, hum with activity. The space seems to be in constant motion, with desks and people spilling out of the offices and into the entryway. An air conditioner keeps a pleasant breeze circulating as the doorbell buzzes in the background. A myriad of Six Degrees promotional posters add bright washes of color to the tan walls.

Those posters -- plugging the late Yugoslavian-born composer and producer Suba, Cuban percussionist Patato, and dance floor techno favorite Banco de Gaia -- tell a lot about the company's fortunes over the past five years. Six Degrees is not only surviving its first hit record, it's thriving. That success is part of a pattern of managed growth that has turned the label into a power player within the niche Duskis and Berry envisioned almost a decade ago.

And what is that niche, exactly?

The in-between stuff, says Duskis. "What really interests us is records that combine a couple of different worlds. Whether it's the old and new, the traditional and the modern, or different cultures coming together."

Take Ekova, a France-based American/Iranian/Algerian trio that sings in a made-up language that evokes a tribal Cocteau Twins performing medieval hymns. Or take Sam Zaman, aka State of Bengal, a London-by-way-of-Bombay native who remixes 100 years of British/ Indian relations by framing frenetic drum 'n' bass travelogues with sitar, tablas, and electric guitar. Or Brazilian turntable/bass/keyboard ensemble Bossacucanova, which reinvents genteel bossa nova as downtempo club music.

As eclectic as these artists are, they're intended to be accessible (and desirable) to a wide audience. Not surprisingly, Six Degrees' emphasis on marketability to mainstream tastes leaves some members of the world music industry uneasy.

Ken Braun handles A&R for Stern's Music, the British-based label that was among the first to specialize in world music. He worries that hybridizing traditional music taints what made it special in the first place.

"I hope that this kind of thing -- where record companies like Six Degrees appropriate traditional music and put it into a modern electronic context -- isn't leading people away from traditional music," Braun says. "I don't think it's true that you have to dress things up with electronic beats and a synthesizer background to catch people's attention."

For Duskis, tailoring the releases for an American mainstream public is just smart business. He denies pushing artists to water down their music, however.

"When an artist comes in here, we're really not interested in shaping them into something they're not because we think it's gonna sell more records," he says. "But that's not to say that we bring people in and say, "Hey, whatever you want.' We have serious conversations where we say, "If you make this kind of record, we think it will sell this [much]. And if you do this kind of record we think it will do this.'"

That blend of fandom and frankness is exactly what Six Degrees artists like Michael Franti of the hip hop group Spearhead appreciate. As a longtime force in the S.F. music scene, Franti spent time on local indie label Alternative Tentacles and major label Capitol Records. Six Degrees, he says, is the best he's found.

"What they've done is assemble a great team of people, where everyone is working towards the goal of selling as many records as possible. They're smart about it. ... Where big labels throw money, [Six Degrees] comes up with great ideas, great looks, and great sounds."

This sort of scrappy business savvy keeps Six Degrees above water, even through the good times. But the same grounded practicality makes Duskis laugh when I ask him if his label is going to build on the success of Gilberto and take over the world.

"No," he says, sounding a little insulted at the idea. "Tanto Tempo opened up some great doors for us. ... It's put us above the radar; it's put us on the map. As far as being able to take over the world ..."

Here he pauses, sniffles, and reconsiders my question.

"Well," he says, "we get a few more like that, and we'll certainly be in a really good position."

About The Author

Chris Baty


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