By Eric Paulsen Special to Published Apr 03, 2002 at 5:53 AM

When you think of a record company's headquarters, some place in Los Angeles, New York or Nashville may come to mind. While Milwaukee has produced some notable music artists, with Al Jarreau, BoDeans, Jerry Harrison, Violent Femmes, Liberace and Eric Benet among them, rarely does one believe that a major record company or music label operates out of the Brew City.

Enter Narada.

Founded as an independent record label in 1983 after four years as a mail-order music service designed to meet a growing demand for eclectic forms of instrumental music that were hard to find in stores, Narada strives to provide a quality alternative to traditional music options and an outlet for artists with a wider variety of musical styles.


The diversity of these styles draws inspiration from around the world: jazz, new age, Celtic, new flamenco, Cajun, acoustic guitar styles, various piano genres and international sounds from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America are but a sampling of what Narada offers to its worldwide listeners.

Emergence of the "New Age" genre of music in record stores in the mid-1980s led to radio stations that adopted the New Age format, with names like The Wave (Los Angeles) or The Oasis (Dallas), or even Milwaukee's Breezin' 100.7. The term "New Age" is actually a general, sweeping term for a wide variety of worldwide music that is contemporary, yet tends to emphasize melody and structure while retaining an eclectic feel. Narada, arguably, has influenced the New Age style more than any other record company, from the genre's inception to this day.

Subsequent distribution deals with MCA and EMI and a 1997 purchase by Virgin Records America allowed the company to expand its reach throughout world markets. Despite being wholly-owned by EMI, Narada maintains its own staff and artist deals; EMI's distribution channels are where the parent company comes in handy.

Today, Narada Records hosts a variety of labels with noted artists, including:

  • Narada Jazz, featuring artists like Ramsey Lewis, Urban Knights, Keiko Matsui and Alex Bugnon.
  • Narada World, featuring Jesse Cook, Vas, Oscar Lopez and Lila Downs.
  • Narada New Age, featuring Troika and Kazu Matsui.
  • Back Porch Records, a major force in roots and Americana music styles. The popular group Cracker is on the Back Porch roster, as are emerging artists Garrison Starr and Luther Wright & The Wrongs.

Narada handles distribution for Peter Gabriel's Real World and former Talking Head David Byrne's Luaka Bop imprints. Gabriel's most recent release on Real World includes his popular "When You're Falling," a song performed with the Afro Celt Sound System that gained airplay on Adult Album Alternative, Modern Adult Contemporary, and similarly-formatted radio stations across the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe.

The Grammys last month recognized Narada with two awards: one for Freddy Fender's CD "La Musica de Baldemar Huerta," and one to the Blind Boys of Alabama for Best Gospel CD.

Narada Vice-President Rich Denhart explains what sets Narada apart.

"Most major labels target the big, big artists -- the Britneys, the 'N Syncs. Narada serves as a hedge against that by targeting niches. Our audiences tend to be older and wealthier, or college-age students with a taste for alternative, International, blues or jazz styles. The music tends to be for those past their turbulent years when teenage angst was the driving force in their life.

"We started out with instrumental music," Denhart says. "The upsurge of Celtic and World music brought a new market. Americana music is emerging, as well as the styles reflected by Cracker and Garrison Starr."

Of Narada's increasing popularity, Denhart says, "The music styles we offer tend not to have a 'lifespan,' based on radio airplay and music charts. We still sell thousands of CDs that were released years ago. The effect of this is that while our new artists are gaining popularity for the first time, many of our long-established artists are also gaining new fans, and this accumulates."

Narada itself is named after a mythical, musical figure found in Hindu literature. The company itself lives and breathes its music almost as a religion, aspiring to have its music positively influence the lives of its audience. Narada donates portions of its revenue to non-profit groups that assist wilderness protection groups, conservation and horticultural groups and the U.S. Olympic Team. Though the company is active in a number of organizations, it does not endorse any specific ideology.

Narada's Milwaukee base and local presence will only get stronger. This summer, Narada will sponsor three weekends at the wildly popular Jazz In The Park in Cathedral Square, with specific dates to be announced based on the artists' touring schedules.

And the future? Denhart says, "A lot of Baby Boomers are getting older now and their tastes are getting redefined. Our jazz label is getting stronger and better. I see a resurgence of the New Age music, and further growth in Americana and roots music. I believe the two Grammys this year are a harbinger of things to come."

More information on Narada may be found on the company's Web site at

So when you think of Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, and other cities that host strong record companies, add Milwaukee to the list.

Eric Paulsen Special to
Eric Paulsen is a Milwaukee native but also grew up in Chicago, Detroit and Dallas, which means he’s never lived in a decent climate. Paulsen works as the Communications Officer for the Greater Milwaukee Committee, serves as a writer and contributor for commercials and a national TV show and pops up on 103.7 Kiss FM on weekends, doing his share of overplaying Top 40 hits. Previously, he was a business partner and director in a start-up online research company that began in 1998 and reached the Inc. 500 list by 2005. He was an early contributing writer for, dating back to 1999. He got his MBA from UW-Milwaukee in 2007 and also holds a BS in Consumer Science (a degree he can’t explain, either) from UW-Madison and thus cheers on the Badgers with reckless abandon. Eric is a graduate of the Future Milwaukee Leadership Program and participates in many community-minded events and initiatives, invited or not. When he’s not working, Paulsen enjoys running, road trips and practicing for a future career as a beer connoisseur.