The Soothing Rise And Meditative Fall Of That '80s New Age Scene!

Just who do we blame for this whole New Age music thing?

While its origins may have been in the small ma-and-pa network of hippie bookstores of the '60s and '70s mentioned above, like everything else in the 80s, "New Age" seemed to have snorted a few lines and morphed into something leaner, meaner and with an insatiable hunger for market share.

Not long after Mike Oldfield had knocked on Richard Branson's door with a copy of "Tubular Bells" tucked under one arm and received a solid offer, American composer Chip Davis had done much the same thing with his first Mannheim Steamroller album and gotten no takers.

Davis had handed them the blueprint upon which an entire genre could be built, and they had slammed the door in his face. He would respond in kind by issuing Fresh Aire I in 1975 - the same year a song he co-wrote and produced called "Convoy" hit #1, as luck would have it.

It would take another nine years for Davis to become the overnight sensation that, in 1984, unleashed Mannheim Steamroller Christmas upon an unsuspecting populace, thereby causing the quake that created the tsunami that, by 1986, had flooded every record store in the country.

As a humble indie record store geek stuck in a corporate chain store on Chitown's North Side, I saw with my own eyes  as "New Age" quietly went from "that little section in the back that somebody needs to dust off every couple weeks whether it needs it or not" to being the first thing people see when they came through the doors.

I'm talking huge fucking Yanni posters.

Obviously used to seeing large cut-outs of Janet Jackson or Depeche Mode in our windows instead of Yanni and Kitaro, a customer made the mistake of asking another customer "What is New Age music?", to which they responded:

"Imagine grabbing a sleeve of Ritz crackers from the pantry and remembering that you still have a whole brick of Swiss cheese in the crisper. Oh what fun! If only every few bites one could stop and savor the flavor of their wine, their cheese, and their crackers while something else filled the air. Maybe not music, but a close enough approximation that someone is bound to ask 'Who is this?' at which point you get to stand up and stretch your legs while handing them a copy of Andreas Vollenweider's Down To The Moon with a now-satisfied smug sense of superiority. That, my friend, is New Age music."

And you know what? He was right.

The person who had asked immediately walked over to the huge display, grabbed a copy of Down To The Moon and nodded thanks on their way to the register.

Even so, the scene was not without its own version of a Sub Pop or I.R.S. Records - indie labels that acted as taste makers for an entire genre capable of moving millions of units. The first name people think of when they think of New Age is Windham Hill records. Founded in 1976 by guitarist William Ackerman, Windham Hill grew from a gathering of musically like-minded local friends to helping George Winston discover gold & platinum in them thar hills ten years later.

Of course, no mention of Windham Hill is complete without also mentioning local New Age legends Shadowfax, who recorded four albums for the label, headlined at Red Rocks, and won a Grammy in 1989 for Folksongs For A Nuclear Village (their first album after leaving Windham Hill for Capitol Records).

For this lover of more pop-based fare, Private Music definitely had my number the moment they began adding the likes of Patrick O'Hearn (ex-Missing Persons) and Andy Summers (ex-Police) to their stable of artists, which also included Leo Kottke and Tangerine Dream as well as the aforementioned Yanni.

By 1989, major labels had fully embraced the genre, thereby saturating the marketplace. Such was the case with Private's sale to RCA, who immediately set about expanding the label's musical vision and diluting the value of the brand for which they'd just paid good money. Ackerman saw the changing tides and immediately began courting buyers for Windham Hill and finally sold his half of the label to BMG in 1992. Anne Robinson (Ackerman's former girlfriend and art director of the label's strikingly minimalist album artwork) would sell her half four years later.

To say that it was fun while it lasted seems a tad much in hindsight, as the whole point of New Age music in the first place was to never call attention to itself.

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