Record  Producer  James  Ginsburg
[Founder of Cedille Records]

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


James Ginsburg (September 8, 1965 - ) was raised in New York City's Upper East Side, where he began collecting classical music recordings at an early age. While attending the University of Chicago, he managed classical programming at the university’s mixed-format radio station, WHPK. Before his undergraduate graduation, he began reviewing classical recordings for American Record Guide magazine.

In 1989, Ginsburg launched a record label, Cedille Records, to record classical music produced by artists and composers in Chicago. The label is based in the Edgewater neighborhood of the city. Encouraged by the critical and commercial response to his early recordings, Ginsburg abandoned law school in his second year to devote himself full-time to Cedille.

In 1994, Cedille became a not-for-profit under the umbrella of an operating foundation, now called Cedille Chicago, NFP (formerly The Chicago Classical Recording Foundation). This change gave Cedille the ability to produce more recordings and pursue more ambitious projects. Cedille Records releases an average of eight recordings per year.

In 2009, the Chicago Tribune nominated Ginsburg as "Chicagoan of the Year," writing, "Let's hear it for James Ginsburg. The Chicagoan is one of the last independent entrepreneurs in classical recording, a man who has stuck to his artistic vision and made a success of it at a time of market shrinkage and industry downsizing."

In 2010, Ginsburg won the Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Charitable Foundation for the Arts Achievement Award. In making the award, the Foundation wrote, "We applaud Jim for seeing that Chicago has an abundance of stellar musicians. With his recording projects, Jim believes he can advance musicians' careers and serve the listening public in equal measure."

Additional recognition and awards include being named a Jewish Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Jewish News in 2011. In 2012, he received the Ruth D. and Ken M. Davee Excellence in the Arts Award from the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2016, Musical America named him one of The Top 30 Performing Arts Professionals of the Year, and in 2017, he was the honoree at the annual galas of both Chicago Opera Theater and the Rembrandt Chamber Musicians. Most recently, he received a 2020 Distinguished Service to the Arts Award from Lawyers for the Creative Arts.

In 2019, Ginsburg was nominated for a “Producer of the Year, Classical” Grammy Award. In addition to this nomination, Cedille Records albums have won a number of Grammys, including the 2008, 2012, 2013, 2016 Awards for "Best Small Ensemble/Chamber Music Performance" for the contemporary music sextet Eighth Blackbird. In 2017, Third Coast Percussion also won for “Best Small Ensemble/Chamber Music Performance" for its Cedille album of music by composer Steve Reich.

As Slate notes about Cedille, "Today it’s one of the most-respected labels in the space, with six Grammy-winning records and 18 Grammy nominations."

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Having spent my entire life living and working in and around Chicago, I admit to being chauvinistic about the area and its immense wealth of musical talent.  I have enjoyed it in performance and on recordings, and was pleased to be able to promote concerts and artists on the radio, and now on the internet.

Of particular interest was the emergence of Cedille Records, since it had the same viewpoint and goals.  The Founder of Cedille is James Ginsburg, and while our paths did not personally cross very often, we knew each other by reputation.

At the end of October of 1999, just as the record company was entering its second decade, we arranged to get together for a conversation.  Parts were used on WNIB, Classical 97, and I am pleased to present the entire chat on this webpage.

Bruce Duffie:   I assume your favorite subject is your record company?

James Ginsburg:   [Laughs]  Right now, it’s my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter.

BD:   Do you feel that each record you put out is like an offspring?

Ginsburg:   I guess that is not an unfair comparison.  Each one takes a little out of you, but the rewards are always worth it.

BD:   They take a little out, but do they put more back?

Ginsburg:   In the end, yes.

BD:   You started Cedille Records about ten years ago?

Ginsburg:   Yes.  Our first release was in November of 1989 [shown at right], so this is officially our tenth anniversary.

BD:   Why did you start it?

Ginsburg:   Originally, I didn’t plan a whole series, although I immediately had to come up with a label name just to put out a disc.  On returning to Chicago, where I had done my undergraduate work, my original idea was to make one recording and put my stamp on the catalogue.  I had worked for other record labels, and that worked out so well that I then took some time off.  I was actually in law school at the time, and I took a sabbatical to make a few more recordings.  Then I took another sabbatical and made a few more and, before I knew it, I had a fully-fledged label on my hands.

BD:   Did you have a law degree, or did that fall by the wayside?

Ginsburg:   That fell by the wayside.  I am officially on my third leave of absence [both laugh], but that’s getting a little old now.

BD:   The label soon became your full-time occupation?

Ginsburg:   Very much so.  Since 1994, the label has become part of a not-for-profit organization called The Chicago Classical Recording Foundation.  We have always sought to promote the efforts of the best Chicago classical musicians through the recordings.

BD:   Does being with an organization give you more or less control?

Ginsburg:   Marginally less, because now I have a Board to answer to.

BD:   But you’re still getting to do what you want to do?

Ginsburg:   Oh, absolutely!

BD:   Is the Board very sympathetic to your ideas?

Ginsburg:   It tends to be.

BD:   Is the Board made up mostly of Chicagoans?

Ginsburg:   Not entirely.  It’s a bit of a mix.  Henry Fogel [President of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra] is on our Board, which is wonderful.   Also, Easley Blackwood, who records on the label, is on the Board.  The most recent person to join the Board is the Archivist of the New York Philharmonic, and there are some people in the legal field.

BD:   Will your legal training come in handy?

Ginsburg:   Not very much.  I do dabble in it in terms of drafting contracts, but I probably could have done just as well without going to law school.

BD:   Does your musical taste enter into these decisions?

Ginsburg:   Absolutely!  As a consumer of recordings, part of my idea for the label was that I wanted to put out the kind of recordings I would want to buy.  I try to come up with programs that are a little unusual, that take a different spin on things than other labels.  I am always interested in finding undiscovered repertoire, whether it’s recent pieces, or works from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  It’s surprising how many discoveries are out there to be found.

BD:   By this you mean things that haven’t been recorded, or at least not in a long time?

Ginsburg:   Or even, in some cases, have not been recorded particularly well.

BD:   So there is an artistic judgment in play?

Ginsburg:   Oh, absolutely!  But I should mention that while I won’t put out something I don’t like, or even consider recording it, almost all the repertoire ideas actually come from our artists.  Our label is really there to serve the artists.  I don’t go round shopping for pieces, and then find somebody to play them.  More often than not, it’s artists who have established relationships, and I already know about them.

BD:   When they come to you, you trust them?

Ginsburg:   Yes, as President Reagan said,
Trust, but verify!  [Both laugh]  They’ll want to do a particular work, or sometimes they’ll come to me with a bunch of different ideas, and ask me to pick one.  That’s how we came up with our recent project with His Majestie’s Clerkes [shown below-right].  They’re an a cappella choral group, and a lot of their ideas were from the Renaissance period.  I thought there’s a lot of that out there, but the one that really sparked my interest was early twentieth century English music, including the Vaughan Williams Mass in G Minor, of which there are only one or two recordings available.  I thought it’s a program that really would add something.

BD:   It sounds as though most of the ideas that come to you get done.
Ginsburg:   Absolutely.  Sometimes there’ll be a general idea, and then there’ll be a bit of back-and-forth, or fleshing out in terms of what the actual repertoire within the idea will be.  This is how Rachel Barton arrived at ‘Instrument of the Devil’, which is a demonic-themed CD of encores, or showpieces.  [CD is shown at left. Also see my interviews with David Schrader, and John Bruce Yeh.]  She wrote me a letter which had almost the entire repertoire of the disc in it.  There were one or two pieces I was not so crazy about, and in one or two places I made a suggestion.  It’s a very fun disc.

BD:   Is it a good seller at Halloween?  [Both laugh]

Ginsburg:   Indeed it is, yes.  Our publicist came up with a nice idea for promoting the disc.  We put it out in September of last year, because it was pretty close to Halloween, and along with the usual press materials which went out to radio stations, and critics, and journalists, we included a box of Red Hots!

BD:   I remember they were very good!  [Both laugh]

Ginsburg:   Glad you liked them.

BD:   [With a wink]  I miss them when they don’t come with other discs!  [More laughter]  You’ll have to put a little gimmick with every new issue.

Ginsburg:   I’ll ask about that...

BD:   Seriously, do you want to fight against gimmicky things in your discs, or in their promotion?

Ginsburg:   It depends on what you call gimmicky.  If it’s light-hearted and fun, like including a box of Red Hots with the CD, that’s fine.  I don’t want to slam other discs, but things like ‘Mozart makes you smarter’ is really going a little beyond the pale, and I would not want to be associated with something like that.

BD:   You’re maintaining good taste?

Ginsburg:   I’m trying, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I assume you have more projects being offered to you than you could possibly record.  How do you decide, yes, I want to do this project, or no, we’ll put it off for a while, or forever?

Ginsburg:   It varies, and it depends on the relationship I have with the artist.  I like to keep a good mix.  Our discs range all the way from Lully to contemporary compositions, so I try not to focus too much on any one era.  Then it is often just how things strike me, and how they balance the release schedule.  I do get unsolicited things all the time, most of which I end up not doing anything with.  Every once in a while there’s a gem in there, and I will pursue it.

BD:   Do you get unsolicited suggestions, or unsolicited tapes?

Ginsburg:   Both.

BD:   Do you give each tape a listen?

Ginsburg:   Absolutely.  You have to because you never know.  For example, the duo pianists, Georgia and Louise Mangos were not artists I knew before they approached me.  Their idea for doing Liszt’s own two-piano versions his symphonic poems looked very dubious on paper, but then I put the tape on, and they invited me to hear them play it live, and I was sold.

BD:   Has the CD sold?

Ginsburg:   They’ve done well.  The first volume did especially well because it was the most well-covered by the media.  It’s been hard to get as much critical interest in subsequent volumes, but again, they convinced me.  I originally thought about just doing a set of highlights, but they convinced me it was important to do the full set of twelve [shown at the bottom of this webpage].

BD:   I assume that you’re in this for the long haul, and you don’t mind if a record doesn’t make all of its money back in the first six weeks.  It can go for a year or two.

Ginsburg:   Yes.  The artistic merit of the disc is the ultimate criterion.  There are some discs that I know will never make back what they cost, but I still think they are important.  Then again you never know what will happen if an influential critic picks up on one, as happened with our disc of English Choral works with His Majesty’s Clerks.  It got a wonderful review on National Public Radio, and we couldn’t print them fast enough.  So you just never know, and I honestly feel that could happen with any of our discs, because they’re all of that quality.

BD:   Have you gotten to the point where you’re withdrawing some and reissuing them, or is your catalogue always available?

Ginsburg:   We try to keep our catalogue always available, somewhat to the consternation of our distributor!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Your next disc then will be number fifty?

Ginsburg:   That’s right, and it will be the first disc of the year 2000.  It’s a milestone in our tenth anniversary year.
BD:   You wouldn’t want to have 150 or 1,500?

Ginsburg:   1,500 would be a push.  The important thing is to limit the number of releases each year to the point where I can control the quality.  If we start putting out more than ten or twelve discs a year, we would get to the point where I couldn’t really assure that each one is of the quality that I want them to be.  We need to take time with them in the production and editing process.

BD:   You’re really a hands-on guy, and you get involved in everything.  Is there anyone else in the company that gets involved as much as you do, or is it really just you?

Ginsburg:   Recently, the person who has engineered the great majority of our discs, [Bill Maylone, shown below-left] is now on staff.  I lured him away from a far more high-paying job.  I still don’t exactly know how [laughs] but now he’s involved in every disc.  We work really well together on the musical side of everything.  I also work on the visual side, and the promotional side as well.

BD:   Does it ever get to be too much, or have you delegated enough authority to where you can sleep at night?  [Being aware that Ginsburg knew that my on-air schedule was evenings and over-nights, both laugh.]

Ginsburg:   Like you, I do more of my sleeping towards the morning, but it can be overwhelming at times.  I recently went on a very much needed vacation after putting out our last three discs in succession.  It was the shortest space of time I’ve ever put three discs out, but I got a little bit behind earlier in the year, and these things sometimes happen.  I am hoping in the future to be able to spread things out a little bit more.

BD:   What is your general schedule
one disc every two or three months?

Ginsburg:   Some times are compressed.  There’s not much point in releasing anything after November, and then one doesn’t release any more until February or March.  So that already compresses it to three-quarters of the year, and within that time, I’d say right now we’re doing about six to eight discs.  In the last two years, there have been seven each year.  I keep trying to make it eight, and I think this year I’ll be able to do it.

BD:   That way you can keep the quality up in each one?

Ginsburg:   That’s the trick, yes.

BD:   Are you the advocate for the performer, or for the listener, or do you have to really be both?

Ginsburg:   Both, really.  That’s important, and the fact that I am not a musician helps in some ways.  In the editing process, it’s very interesting that the things which will jump out at me as problems are not the same ones that the musicians notice.  What they notice is certainly valid, but other things that I think are far more obvious can be very mundane to them... things like heavy breathing in the middle of a take, or noises that they don’t even notice they’re making.  These are extra-musical things, but sometimes it’ll be something musical, which to them happens in a performance all the time, so they don‘t worry about it.  But on a record, if someone’s going to listen to this many times, they’re going to start noticing whatever it might be.  So, having the concerns of the lay listener in mind really can help.

BD:   Do your records, even the early ones, stand up to repeated hearings?

Ginsburg:   I think so.

BD:   You don’t need to be specific, but do you have any regrets?

Ginsburg:   That’s a tough one.  There are always little things I’ll regret, so I’ll just give you one silly example.  Sometimes in a recital-type disc, where you have a wide range of music, one of the last things you have to do in the production process is make sure that the levels of the various pieces match up.  If you just tried to put it all out at whatever level it was recorded, some pieces will have more dynamic range than others, and so they will jump way out.  Then, others in the mix will sound really quiet.  This is an example of the lay concern.  You don’t want people having to constantly fiddle with their volume knob while they’re listening to your disc.  Sometimes that means bringing one piece up a little bit more than another.  There’s one piece on one recital disc on which, in absolute terms, I’d say the levels are about right.  But I forgot the fact that the piece is marked triple-p [pianississimo, or very very soft] for most of it, and even though it would sound quiet in the mix, I now think maybe I should have made it a little quieter.  Little things like that will always nag me, and there’s always going to be a typo somewhere in the booklet that gets by.  But overall I’m very happy with the quality of what we’ve done.

BD:   Is it right that we expect any or all of these discs to be perfect?

Ginsburg:   I don’t know about
perfect, but one has a right to expect a certain quality, and frankly there are often times I’m disappointed.  Many discs which I buy are just wonderful, and then there are others, where maybe because I’ve done this for so long, I can be a little harsh.  I can hear edits in recordings because I know what a bad edit sounds like, and sometimes I am disappointed by other discs where I feel they didn’t take the time to do what was necessary to make the final result really a good listening experience.

BD:   Were they just being sloppy, or was it just a little place where they dropped the ball?

Ginsburg:   It can vary, but I find simple things, like keeping the level consistent.  Maybe this is because they’re so focused on the minutia.  I can get that way with myself in the production process.  When you’re editing a disc, you get very focused on it, sometimes even on individual notes.

BD:   As the old saying goes, you can’t see the forest for the trees?

Ginsburg:   Exactly right.  What you have to do at the end of the process is take that step back, know that the editing is done, so you’re not going to listen for that anymore.  I know the edits are good, so I come back and listen to the whole thing.  I listen to the whole general listening experience of the disc, and never mind the individual notes.  Sometimes producers forget to do that.
BD:   You’re listening for the musical sweep of the piece?

Ginsburg:   Musical or sonic, yes.  Both, actually.

BD:   Is it possible to get a disc to be perfect?
Ginsburg:   I don’t think there is such a thing, no.  There’s note-perfection, but often the artists are the hardest ones on themselves.  They’ll say to me, I could have done that better.  I know you put together the best version you could, but it’s just I could have played it better.  I sit there thinking, I can’t imagine how it could be better, but I’ll take your word for it!  It sounds pretty good to me.  Go ahead and play it better for me sometime.  I’d love to hear it!  [Much laughter]

BD:   Is there any chance that they rely on you too much?

Ginsburg:   I hope not, but it’s important.  A record really is an idealized version.  It’s not like a concert where it lives in the moment, and if a note here or there is out of tune, it goes by.  Maybe on the first hearing on a CD it goes by, but on the third hearing or the tenth hearing it doesn’t go by anymore.  So it is important, but at the same time you can’t just worry about it too much.  Sometimes when musicians do their own production editing, I wonder if they get too bogged down in that, and worry about note-perfection.  At least some have this tendency, and they forget about the sweep.  You talk about the sweep of the whole piece, and it’s important even in a single session.  Very often we just do two or three takes of something, and move on.  Then there’ll be one spot which is difficult, and that needs extra takes to get that one spot note-perfect.  Then I’ll suggest that since we’ve concentrated on that spot, how about playing the larger section, or the whole movement again, so that you can get it note-perfect and in context.

BD:   I assume, though, that you wouldn’t let it out if you weren’t pleased.

Ginsburg:   Oh, no, no!  There’s no question of that.

BD:   In the end, is it all worth it?

Ginsburg:   It is absolutely worth it.  It’s very hard work at times, but I couldn’t imagine doing a job I would enjoy more.

BD:   Are you where you want to be right now?

Ginsburg:   I just turned 34, and I’d say so, yes.

BD:   Is it still
your record company?

Ginsburg:   I still feel like it is.  It’s my baby, although now that it’s attached to the Foundation, and I am thinking about ways to expand the mission of the Foundation, I would like to get involved in other areas of music and musical production, and other ways of assisting musicians.

BD:   But you are still driving the bus?

Ginsburg:   Yes, no question, but I would like it to get to the point where there are other people who can occasionally take the wheel on some things.  Right now, it’s not at that point.  I still ultimately have to approve everything.

BD:   Do you want to get involved in video?

Ginsburg:   I have no intention of that.  I’m not a video person.  We just got a new assistant in my office.  My previous assistant went back to school to study and get his Master’s in Early Music, Voice.  The new assistant already has her Master’s, and she’s very visually orientated.  In the first couple of months on the job she’s already done incredible things, including simple little things to improve the look of some of our products.  This involves the printed materials that go with our discs, and our ads, and some of our promotional materials.   She has a much better eye for that kind of thing than I do.  Also, it is important to have an engineer on staff all the time who can address concerns that I would not have thought of.  That’s the kind of input I want, because I cannot think of everything.  As our output and our mission expand, it’s going to be more and more important to have people who can really contribute things that I can’t.

BD:   Thank you for bringing this record company into existence, and allowing the Chicago artists this platform to be able to present their musical ideas.

Ginsburg:   It’s an incredibly gratifying thing to do, so no thanks are necessary.

If I may, several other artists who appear on the Cedille label have also been my guests, and they include Gail Quillman, Jorge Federico Osorio, Jori Vinicour, Menahem Pressler, Ramon Salvatore, Ursula Oppens, Hopkinson Smith, Jaime Laredo, Jennifer Koh, Sharon Isbin, Alex Klein, Eric Mandat, Larry Combs, Mary Stolper, Sara Watkins, Jennifer Larmore, John Shirley-Quirk, John Vorrasi, Nancy Gustafson, Thomas Hampson, Alexander Platt, Carlos Kalmar, Lawrence Rapchak, Paul Freeman, and William Ferris.]


© 1999 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 27, 1999.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB a couple of weeks later.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

*     *     *     *     *

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.