If you aren’t huge, the key to success in any business is to find a niche and run with it. Milt Okun’s Cherry Lane Music publishing company has done just that:
- The big record companies may be losing customers. But 79-year-old former band conductor Milt Okun and his tiny music publishing firm have figured out where America is really listening:
At stock car races. On the gridiron. And during cartoons.
Filling such nooks and crannies with musical themes has become a major business for Okun’s New York-based Cherry Lane Music, a privately held firm that has found cash where the conglomerates of the entertainment world sometimes haven’t bothered to look.
Cherry Lane has secured a stake in the orchestral scores accompanying the National Football League’s programming, including today’s Super Bowl with its more than 80 million expected viewers. And when young hordes tune in to “Pokemon” on the Cartoon Network, they too are listening to Cherry Lane — as will fans of NASCAR telecasts, under a just-concluded deal to provide musical theme songs for the auto-racing circuit.
Music publishers typically make their money by licensing songs from their catalogs to advertisers or other customers, as well as by collecting royalties from albums that include their tunes. But Cherry Lane’s catalog of older songs is relatively small, so it has staked its fortunes on creating original music for TV shows and films.
With album sales on the decline, music giants such as AOL Time Warner Inc.’s record division or EMI Group, which has rights to an estimated 1 million songs, increasingly have relied on their publishing units to provide a cushion. In terms of library size, Cherry Lane is minuscule, with about 50,000 copyrights.
But the company’s growth in recent years suggests that a music industry dominated by a handful of behemoths still can learn from hard-driving entrepreneurs such as Okun and Cherry Lane’s chief dealmaker, Aida Gurwicz.
….By the early 1990s, the firm was looking for a new direction. Okun hired Gurwicz, an executive at a prominent classical music publisher, to restructure Cherry Lane’s international royalty collection system. Along the way, they stumbled into their saving grace: the neglected corners of Hollywood.
Gurwicz discovered that the company’s TV clients, such as the composer of the score for the show “Beauty and the Beast,” hadn’t received proper payment, in part because its producers hadn’t filed the necessary paperwork with royalty agencies around the globe.
“We realized there were lots of shows like that,” Okun said. “There was a hole in the market.”
….Mostly, Cherry Lane has made do with lesser names, focusing on the hunt for unexploited markets.
Such was the case with the “Pokemon” phenomenon, which Cherry Lane discovered early. Gurwicz read an article about the series’ explosive sales in Japan and decided to roll the dice.
“It was an educated guess,” Gurwicz said.
Cherry Lane ponied up a six-figure advance to the program’s U.S. distributor, 4Kids Entertainment, for 50% of any revenue that stems from the music in the series. Just weeks after the deal was signed, “Pokemon” turned into a U.S. smash. [LA Times]
Milt Okun is a fascinating person, I interviewed and profiled him for The Encyclopedia of Record Producers:
- Milt Okun – musician, singer, teacher, conductor, arranger, publishing executive, author – was the most successful popularizer of folk music in the ’60s and ’70s, arranging and producing for the Chad Mitchell Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary; and John Denver, among many others.
Okun’s productions for Denver yielded ten gold and four platinum albums, as well as ten Top 20 hits, of which four reached No. 1 (“Sunshine On My Shoulders,” “Annie’s Song,” “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” “I’m Sorry”). In the ’80s Okun helped expose the talents of opera singer Placido Domingo to a popular audience. In addition, Okun’s music publishing company, Cherry Lane, is one of the more successful players in the field.
Milt Okun was born December 23, 1923 in Brooklyn. He was something of a prodigy as a pianist, starting to play at age 4. Okun was on course to be a concert pianist until he contracted a kidney disease, nephritis, at 16, prior to the advent of antibiotics. Okun couldn’t play piano for the two years of his recuperative period; when he returned to playing he found – to his great dismay – that he had lost the “naturalness and spontaneity that you need to be a major pianist,” and he decided to pursue a career as a music teacher.
Okun graduated from NYU with a degree in music education in ’49 and got his masters in the same from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in ’51, thereafter becoming an NYC junior high music teacher. While he was teaching in the early-
and mid-50s, Okun, a lover of folk music, also recorded nine albums of traditional folk songs as a singer/guitarist for the Stinson, Riverside, and Warwick labels. His subspecialty was playing folk songs with symphony orchestras; he wrote the orchestra arrangements himself, and played a number of concerts with orchestras across the country.
Okun’s friend Robert DeCormier was Harry Belafonte’s conductor; in ’57 DeCormier hired Okun to play piano (during Okun’s school vacation) for a Belafonte summer tour. After the tour Okun accepted a full-time job with Belafonte, first as pianist and then as background singer. Belafonte then organized a 12-man vocal group called the Belafonte Folk Singers, of which Okun became a member; the group toured with Belafonte and recorded three albums of their own for RCA between ’58 and ’61.
In ’58 DeCormier quit and Okun became Belafonte’s conductor and arranger. Okun believes that Belafonte’s late-50s albums weren’t as successful as his mid-50s classics because producer Bob Bollard didn’t have an ear for the right take. “It was a lesson to me that a marvelous singer with the best arrangements in the world could be destroyed by an unfeeling producer,” he says.
While he was working for Belafonte, Okun was hired to do arrangements for folk records by artists such as Leon Bibb, Esther Ofarim, Paul Robeson, and Martha Schlamme, mostly for the Vanguard label. Okun then came upon folkies the Chad Mitchell Trio, recently arrived in New York from Washington state and playing at Greenwich Village’s Blue Angel club. Okun brought the trio songs and arranged/co-produced their first album for Colpix in ’60. In the liner notes to Varese Sarabande’s The Chad Mitchell Trio Collection, member Mike Kobluk says Okun was “responsible for any success we had. He was the leveling influence, the coach, the referee, and the person with the musical taste who helped to develop ours.”
Okun then helped the trio get a deal with Kapp Records through Belafonte’s production company, and arranged and/or produced subsequent albums through the mid-60s which included their hits “Lizzie Borden,” “The Marvelous Toy” and “The John Birch Society.”
At the end of ’60, Okun’s contract with Belafonte ran out and it was not renewed – he knows not why. Though he was disappointed at the time, Okun calls this “the best thing that ever happened to me,” because he was forced to leave the Belafonte umbrella and go out on his own.
Okun had a measure of poetic justice: Irving Burgie, aka Lord Burgess, wrote most of Belafonte’s biggest hits including “Day-O,” “Jamaica Farewell,” “Come Back Liza,” “Kingston Market,” and “Angelina.” When his publishing contract with Belafonte’s company ran out in the ’80s, Okun’s Cherry Lane offered Burgie a deal that has increased his annual income five-fold. As a result of Burgie’s success, Belafonte even brought his own publishing to Cherry Lane for a time.
Soon after Okun left Belafonte, manager-producer Albert Grossman hired him to arrange and “direct” (today Okun would be called the producer and Grossman the executive producer) for his new folk trio Peter (Yarrow), Paul (Stookey) and Mary (Travers). “I desperately tried to avoid it because they were terrible when they came to me,” Okun confides. “Mary sang flat, and the two guys didn’t much like her. I asked three different arrangers to take them over from me, but each one said they were hopeless. I thought they were hopeless too. I worked with them for about nine months and they finally got seven or eight songs down.
“Their first show was at Gerde’s Folk City in Manhattan. Maynard Solomon – the head of Vanguard Records and an old friend – sat down next to me and just started laughing at these kids because they really sounded awful; I didn’t even admit that I had done the arrangements, but the audience just loved them. They cheered and cheered. The next day I told Al, ‘Those guys have got to shave their beards and Mary has got to get a decent dress,’ and he just smiled at me. He knew better than I what was happening.”
If they were so bad, why was anyone interested? “There were four folk groups happening at the time and they were all clean cut: Kingston Trio, Brothers Four (for whom Okun was musical director), Chad Mitchell Trio, and the Limeliters. Al thought there was room for a beatnik-type group, and he was right. Peter and Paul were very solid guitar players – that was the foundation of their sound. Although they were slow to learn songs, once they had them down they did them perfectly, which they do to this day. Also, while their voices weren’t ‘musically’ great, they were distinctive and very appealing.”
Regardless of the trio’s steep learning curve, the combination of Grossman’s savvy, Okun’s musical acumen, and their own magical vocal blend led their debut, Peter, Paul and Mary, to No. 1 for seven weeks in ’62, selling 2 million copies and spinning off classics like “Lemon Tree,” “500 Miles,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and the protest song “Cruel War.”
With Grossman producing, Okun arranging and directing, and a sincere commitment to social justice, PP&M became the most popular folk group of the ’60s, recording songs that have come to define a generation including Yarrow’s “Puff (The Magic Dragon)” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
By ’67 Okun was co-producing the trio with Grossman, and they generated more greats in “I Dig Rock and Roll Music,” “Too Much of Nothing,” and the group’s only No. 1 single, John Denver’s “Leaving On a Jet Plane” in ’69.
Meanwhile, when Chad Mitchell went solo in ’65, he was replaced in the now-Mitchell Trio by a young singer/songwriter from New Mexico named John Deutschendorf, who continued with the group until it broke up in ’68 (Okun produced the group’s later records on Mercury). Okun suggested that Deutschendorf change his name to “Denver” and go solo.
Fortunately, Okun was able to secure a four-album deal from RCA, because it was Denver’s fourth album, Poems, Prayers and Promises, led by the singalong classic “Take Me Home Country Roads,” that finally hit in ’71 (although it was included on Poems, “Sunshine On My Shoulders” wasn’t released as a single until ’74). Poems, ’72s Rocky Mountain High , and ’74’s Back Home Again (his most solid studio album with the title track, “Annie’s Song,” “Sweet Surrender,” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”) form the unshakable foundation of Denver’s enormous folk/country-pop career, a career that was often maligned in the cynical ’70s due to the singer’s sunny disposition and earnest environmentalism. But talent will out: since Denver’s untimely death in an experimental airplane accident in late-97, people have begun to remember what he was (a great entertainer and singer/songwriter of high quality), not what he wasn’t (an innovator or challenger of the status quo).
Okun gives an example of Denver’s integrity: when Denver’s first publishing deal with Cherry Lane expired in the mid-70s – at the peak of his commercial success – he chose to renew with Cherry Lane under the same terms as his original deal rather than to exercise his clout and demand a more favorable deal, or to go elsewhere.
In the ’80s Okun’s conservatory-trained sensibilities found their greatest expression in a series of records with the great Spanish/Mexican operatic tenor Placido Domingo (one of the “3 Tenors”). Their first album together, Perhaps Love, went platinum and is representative of their formula: provide a lush orchestral bed over which Domingo’s resonant instrument floats through a collection of newish pop songs (“Annie’s Song,” “Perhaps Love” – with John Denver, “Time After Time”) and standards (“American Hymn,” “Yesterday,” “To Love”).