A Newer Age at Windham Hill

FIFTEEN years and many millions of dollars ago, Will Ackerman was a young guitarist and college drop-out who borrowed $300 from friends to make a record of his music. That first record eventually became Windham Hill, the record business phenomenon of the '80s. Critics reviled the label as pap, but baby boomers gobbled up the mellow, undemanding acoustic sound of pianist George Winston and others who provided a tonal counterpoint to hectic and super-achieving lives.

Windham Hill grew to 50 employees and more than $25 million in sales a year. Small potatoes by record industry standards. But Windham Hill became trapped in its own success, Mr. Ackerman now acknowledges, unable to escape a formula that kept the money rolling in. Top performers like Liz Story, the pianist, jumped the label to escape the ``New Age'' box.

``Somewhere along the way we found ourselves with a corporation, which forces conservatism,'' Ackerman says, sounding as though he's been reading the corporate-rebirth books. ``We fell into some patterns of self-imitation.'' Windham Hill's ``Legacy'' album is a conscious effort to break that mold. Ackerman feels on the front edge again, much as he did when he first tapped the vein of solo acoustic music. Performers who left the label are coming back.

``We decided not to be in the Windham Hill business but the music business,'' he says. ``We aren't listening to solo pianos and solo guitar any more.

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