"We are not in it for the money"
35 Years of Bear Family. Or the thing about the masterplan
Big anniversaries, such as golden weddings, really must be celebrated! If you've managed to put up with someone for 50 years (and they with you!), you should clink glasses. Meanwhile, other anniversaries, like birthdays, can be an opportunity to have a ball or do whatever you want.
In 2010, Bear Family celebrates its 35th anniversary! A wedding and birthday all-in-one: our customers have been related to us for 35 years, buying our records and keeping us on course, and we've been faithful to them, releasing only top quality records. Okay, as anniversaries go, number 35 doesn't sound very glamorous, but at this point (especially in the record business!) you'll take any excuse for a celebration. They might have a blow-out for our 36th and 37th and every other anniversary too, especially now that record companies are under assault from illegal internet downloads, low level aesthetics and the 'pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap' mentality.
Now this raises an interesting question: how do they do it? Music is freely available like never before, and the willingness to pay for it is declining hourly. At the same time, the power of music to define their identity is disappearing. Can there still be a secret formula for success in the music business? Well, they have no business plan except staying in business. But there is a master plan. And it starts with this: "we are not in it for the money". In other words, if you want to be successful, don't care about the profit. The rest is down to chance and good taste. Of course, it's pretty well known among Bear Family aficionados Richard Weize is the guiding presence behind Bear Family, but he'll be the first to tell you that it's all about teamwork.
So here are the four things in Bear Family's master plan: identification, chance, taste and teamwork. This sounds more like a hippie mantra, but let's see what's really behind it...
1) Identification: Objects of desire
For Richard Weize, reissuing the complete and luxuriously packaged recordings of artists he honoured in his youth is not only a matter of passion and respect but a form of obsession. Weize confesses: "I'm a collector, and I'm crazy." This is illustrated by his gigantic archive which stores approx. 40,000 records, piles of music books and magazines (including all volumes of 'Spiegel' magazine since the pilot issue), stacks of posters and collections of master tapes. This completist devotion could have made Weize into a lonely nutter, but the fact that he's so lively and pleasant is due to the existence of Bear Family. While the classic collector in him is trying to catalogue and complete his collection, Weize is utilizing his material. By licensing the recordings, he creates a whole new entity, distributing it as a completely new product through the label. This way he supplies the collector's market with items that become objects of desire for other collectors.
And so old treasures become new ones – anthologies, audio documents, illustrated books, and comprehensive biographies. Bear Family asks no questions about sales potential – projects are realized according to musical taste and historical importance. The packaging and audio restoration are always as lavish as possible (it should be noted, though, that the profitable mail order business acts as a balance for the label).
And so in 2009 Richard Weize was awarded the 'German Echo Award For Special Services To Music' and in 2003 the 'German Music Critics' Award' for "longstanding innovative handling of music products." Internationally, he has been given several awards, including 'Excellence In Historical Recorded Sound Research' from the American Association for Recorded Sound Collections. These (and many, many other awards) appreciate an attitude which uncompromisingly strives for the ultimate product, even if it is uncommercial. The label's maxim is: Bear Family releases music in a way it deserves to be presented (even if this means a six-digit production budget). The music comes first and the sales come second. Fans instinctively know all this!
At Bear Family nobody wants to get rich, but Richard Weize wants to share something that touches him. And so a Bear Family box set gives you the complete rundown on an artist or a subject. Weize's pleasure in creating these sets becomes the customer's joy in owning them.
2) Chance: When you're hooked...
What would have been the outcome if, in 1955, a small record store named Radio Riedel hadn't stocked Rock Around The Clock. As it was, little Richard took Bill Haley's single home. It was his first record, and the start of a lifelong addiction: listening, discovering, exploring and hunting. First with artists such as Elvis and his German contemporaries Ted Herold, Peter Kraus and Conny Froboess. Later came Johnny Cash (Don't Take Your Guns To Town). He just couldn't get enough of rock 'n' roll and country. So the obvious thing for him to do was to make a virtue out of necessity: at the age of 15, Richard Weize started ordering LPs from America. When selling vinyl to his friends he charged an additional Deutschmark for 'fees', which resulted in one free record for every 12 records sold. This small margin ensured that his collection quickly grew to several hundred records... and gave Weize an interest in making a living from music. But 'a living from music' isn't the whole story: if Richard Weize won a million in the lottery, he would simply issue even more records. It took some more time and certain detours until he finally 'by chance' found his personal and ultimate way to do this, founding Bear Family in 1975. That was 35 years ago now, and nobody even dreamed that it could be the start of a successful business.
Richard Weize issued country albums because he thought that they would sell. Other releases were suggested by his many contacts, friends and collaborators. So eventually one thing led to another: from Johnny Cash to Doris Day, from rockabilly to pop... in other words: the country market wasn't quite as big as he thought, and so Bear Family started to expand into other genres of popular music, releasing now legendary LP-sized box-sets with thoroughly researched coffee-table books, packed with photos, information and a complete discography. In short: precious collector's items, for which there is also a market – what a wonderful coincidence!
So the circle that started in Weize's youth is complete. With his reissues he supplies fans and enthusiasts worldwide with the music that made his life worth living in the first place.
3) Taste: attitude seen as a calling
To become the world market leader for reissues and the "Rolls Royce among country labels" you need to have exquisite taste. And because Bear Family issues only records which appeal to Richard Weize's personal taste or are of historical importance to him, Weize's sense of style is acknowledged throughout the world, and internationally appreciated. Especially in the USA he is honored as one of the leading experts on country music. This is not surprising – decades ago he used to hang out backstage with Johnny Cash; since the '50s he has been an obsessive collector of country albums. What fascinates Weize about country music are the lyrics, the rhythm and the musician's feelings.
Apart from country music, Weize has been obsessed with rock 'n' roll since his childhood. Rock Around The Clock was just the beginning. But Bear Family is so much more than country and rock 'n' roll. What about beat, bluegrass, blues, cajun, country, doo wop, folk, gospel, early German cabaret, songwriters, oldies, pop, R&B, rockabilly, schlager, skiffle, soul, soundtracks, surf, Tex-Mex, western.... and more. At Bear Family, The 'Yodelling Ranger' (5-CD box-set by country legend Hank Snow) can be found next to 'Round The Town' (a 4-CD documentary on British music halls from around 1900), the 'Blowing The Fuse' series (documenting the history of black music from R&B to funk with one CD for every year from 1945 to 1960), a 12-disc anthology of Jewish Music in Nazi Berlin 1933-1938, the saga of Lili Marlene, Eddie Cochran, calypso, and hillbilly. Here many things have found their place – after all, taste is a question of attitude!
If you ever had the pleasure of being woken up on a Sunday morning by a phone call from Richard Weize, asking if you're already back from church, you know it's showtime – a new Bear Family project requires your help. The passion in his voice is sufficient to make you stagger directly to your computer and to let yourself in without hesitation for the next mission. Apart from that, he needs the text yesterday. Weize's enthusiasm is infectious. He is always immersed in his work – Bear Family products are materialized passion. You cannot escape from this – unusual phone calls at unusual times are normal for him. You happily participate in the production. For one thing is quite clear: the quality of the label's output is excellent, and you're happy to be a part of the team.
And the team is big – very big in fact. This is often ignored by casual observers. Let's put it this way: without the help of many specialists and freaks in Europe and the USA who support Richard Weize with their advice and information, the label could not produce all these wonderful releases. These are projects which sometimes require years to mature, but which are produced with utmost care and the need for completion, therefore bearing the imprint "you can always buy a Bear Family product with confidence!" (This 'mission statement' is actually in the booklet of every release). Bear Family does not simply supply a 'product' but it writes history, and it ensures that the music is not forgotten and the sound stays alive. During the creation, the indiviuals stand back behind their work, bringing in their special abilities and knowledge: sound engineers, authors, researchers, artists etc.
Personal things become public things. These premium Bear Family products stand by themselves outside the grubbing of the music business, They are unrivalled, and unique in the music business.
Alexander Belser, Hamburg, March 2010
That's the way to do it: 35 years of Bear Family
Bear Family's 35th anniversary is not one of the really big anniversaries... more an excuse for a celebration in an industry that too often has little to celebrate. If you've managed to keep your customers happy for such a long time, making loyal enthusiasts out of them, and keeping your moral and financial course in the declining music business, you're obviously doing something right. And the last 35 years have proven that Richard Weize and all the members of the Bear Family team identify themselves with what they are doing. Bear Family presents music and artists in a way they deserve to be presented: perfectly.
For the label itself, this means reissues produced with loving care and a high technical standard, compilations full of information, and luxurious box-sets inspiring fans, freaks and experts alike; the mail order service, on the other hand, comprises a unique expert selection of records (and some other products) for collectors.
35 years of Bear Family have proved that people can't live without Bear Family products. Artists and fans depend on Bear Family and its obsessive president Richard Weize. But 35 years is just the beginning. Stay tuned!
Alexander Belser, Hamburg, March 2010