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Grammys ease way for Mass. label

Rounder Records founders, from left, Marion Leighton-Levy, Ken Irwin, and Bill Nowlin were all smiles after their label won the Grammy Awards for album and record of the year Sunday. Rounder Records founders, from left, Marion Leighton-Levy, Ken Irwin, and Bill Nowlin were all smiles after their label won the Grammy Awards for album and record of the year Sunday. (JONATHAN ALCORN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / February 11, 2009
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The three founders of Burlington-based Rounder Records were no strangers to the Grammy Awards, having been rewarded many times for the label's specialties: folk, bluegrass, and roots music. But Sunday night, the former local college students, who started Rounder 38 years ago, stepped out from their niche in the biggest possible way. A Rounder release won the top two awards, for album and record of the year.

The artists who claimed those prizes, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, swept every category in which their album "Raising Sand" was nominated.

"As an independent label, it's one of those things that you dream about," said John Virant, president of Rounder, "and it became a reality."

But when Virant and label founders Marian Leighton-Levy, Ken Irwin, and Bill Nowlin returned from Los Angeles, where they celebrated into Monday morning, they faced the same challenges as do every record company executive.

Even Plant seemed to understand, praising Rounder from the Staples Center stage as "an independent label working against all sorts of stuff, which is terrible, but thank you."

Last year, Rounder cut its staff from more than 100 employees to roughly 75, and at the time Nowlin (a Tufts grad like Irwin) admitted uncertainty about the label's long-term future. "Keeping the record company alive is the main goal," he said.

The remarkable success of "Raising Sand" should go a long way in doing that. Immediately after the awards, it flew to the top of the Amazon music rankings as well as several digital download sites. So far it's sold over a million copies in the United States and another million worldwide.

"There's no question that it will be just a tremendous boon," Leighton-Levy said from Los Angeles on Monday. "It means a great deal at this point in time to have a nice bounce like that come right back to the bottom line."

Rounder has had its greatest success with Krauss, who in two decades has become the most-awarded female artist in Grammy history, with her haul rising to 26. She is the only artist on Rounder to have sold a million copies of a single title in the United States alone.

Matching the country-bluegrass superstar with the legendary voice of Led Zeppelin was an odd notion, to say the least. Seven years ago the pair were introduced by former MTV executive Bill Flanagan, who thought their voices would blend well. Plant and Krauss liked what they heard when working up an old blues number by Lead Belly. They discussed collaborating, but didn't get their schedules to mesh until early 2007, at which point they enlisted noted producer T Bone Burnett.

The vagaries of the music industry, which has been contracting dramatically in recent years, ended up working to the favor of Rounder, which moved in 2007 from its longtime Cambridge home to nondescript offices in Burlington.

"It came to us in part because of Alison being on the label, but, frankly, Robert Plant wasn't under contract with anyone at the time, and his manager as well as Alison's came to us," Clark graduate Leighton-Levy said. "When we heard it, everybody at Rounder thought that it was an incredibly special record. We didn't know what that might mean in terms of the marketplace, because these are crazy times in which we live, but the music is just undeniable."

So undeniable that the label laid out its most expensive marketing campaign to date. It won't disclose a specific number, but the effort seemed to work, bringing a substantial audience to a mix of obscure tunes from the blues, pop, and country worlds. The duo's haunting harmonies and Burnett's quirky arrangements didn't hurt, either.

"There's no question that we gambled far more than we normally gamble, but we did it because we felt the record justified that," said Leighton-Levy.

While the label executives enjoyed the ceremony in Los Angeles - followed by a low-key victory party with Krauss and Plant - six Rounder employees gathered at the Burlington offices to watch the show on television, their fingers crossed. After winning several lesser awards, the duo performed a medley of songs from "Raising Sand" right before the coveted album of the year award was announced.

By then only four Rounder employees were left, along with a boyfriend and a puppy.

"We're freaking out," publicist Sarah Leach said after the members of the band Green Day announced the final award. "It's so awesome." There was no champagne, but there was A&W Root Beer - as well as vanilla cupcakes decorated with the Rounder logo.

Next year they might be able to afford a whole cake. Rounder has recouped its investment on "Raising Sand" and stands to make even more profit as the release benefits from an inevitable Grammy bounce. Some 19 million people watched the CBS broadcast, two million more than last year's show.

Billboard magazine executive editor Rob Levine believes Plant and Krauss are uniquely suited to take advantage of the exposure.

"It's the kind of music that's listened to by people who do buy CDs," he says of the older demographic attracted to the album's musical mix. The fact that the record fell under the radar of many, yet still went platinum, is also a bonus. "You tend to see the biggest bounces for things that haven't been saturation-marketed," Levine said.

Yet for a record label today, music is only one way to boost the bottom line, and Rounder has been challenged to diversify the kinds of artists it releases as well as the products it puts into stores.

Besides "Raising Sand," the label has scored with "tween" vocal group Girl Authority, a series of hard-rock DVDs, and Nowlin's Red Sox-related books.

One artist with faith in the label's future is Bela Fleck, who won a pop instrumental Grammy on Sunday for his holiday release "Jingle All the Way." As a young artist - and neighbor of Leighton-Levy's - the banjo virtuoso called Rounder home for over a decade before trying his fortune at major labels. He returned to the fold last year.

"I've gone back because the record business has disintegrated to where I looked over at Rounder and realized that most of the same people were still working there from when I was there in the '70s, and I liked that," said Fleck.

Leighton-Levy said that's no accident.

"Over the last 38 years, there were so many times that people expected that Rounder's course would be like all indie labels," she said. "That once you had your first big records . . . you would, of course, relocate to LA or Nashville or New York. We always have resisted that, because we love New England and we like being independent."

Independent, and, this week, at the top of the music game - with more good news on the horizon.

Plant and Krauss are back in the studio working on a follow-up, which is why the celebration Monday morning broke up by 1 a.m., according to Leighton-Levy.

"Alison and Robert, and the rest of the band had early-morning flights to get back to Nashville," she said.

Globe staffer Katie Johnston Chase contributed to this report. Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, Bill Flanagan's status with MTV was mischaracterized in a story about Rounder Records on yesterday's Page One. Flanagan is the executive vice president and editorial director of MTV Networks. In addition, because of an editing error, Rounder president John Virant's first name was omitted from the story.

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