The archival label Numero Group is as much research historian as it is music label: It plumbs the nooks and crannies of America's musical past to find should-have-been hits that never had a chance at the pop charts, whether due to financial inequities, managerial ineptitude or simple bad luck.
Founded in 2003 by Ken Shipley (a former Rykodisc label exec) with partners Tom Lunt and Rob Sevier, the Numero catalog spans from soul to gospel to folk-rock to salsa. Each release is packaged with consummate care and attention--stuffed with detailed liner notes, vintage photos and related ephemera.
"Consumers who buy Numero Group releases are buying something more than music--they're buying an experience," Shipley says. "Our business model is to make great records."
The strange story of how an unknown soul band called Penny & the Quarters achieved cinematic immortality illustrates the Numero Group ethos. In 2005, a box of long-forgotten studio recordings originally cut at Columbus, Ohio's now-defunct Harmonic Sounds materialized at a local estate sale. One of the songs salvaged from the tapes became part of a 2007 Numero Group soul retrospective. Actor Ryan Gosling heard the song--Penny & the Quarters' "You and Me"--and ultimately convinced director Derek Cianfrance to feature it in the 2010 film Blue Valentine. The song resonated with moviegoers, and decades after their performance was committed to tape and promptly forgotten, Penny & the Quarters suddenly had a hit.
"['You and Me'] became a character in the movie," Shipley says. "We licensed it super cheap, and it's been an absolute lift for us. The iTunes downloads on that song have been huge."
Eight years since it was founded, Numero's commitment to quality is so much a given among the music-buying cognoscenti that many sign up as label subscribers, forking over $100 each to reserve copies of all new Numero releases that will appear within the calendar year to come--even if the details of those projects remain unknown to the public.
"Don't get me wrong--the money from the subscriptions is great, and it ensures a certain number of products will be bought in a year," Shipley says. "But for us, it's also about getting a new release to people early, so they can play it and love it."
Collectors aren't the only ones paying attention. Late last year, the Numero Group's Light: On The South Side, a book of photos and an accompanying soundtrack album documenting the Chicago nightlife culture of the mid-1970s, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package category. (It lost to the White Stripes' Under Great White Northern Lights.) The project exemplifies why the Numero Group appeals to its target audience: Equal parts entertainment and education, it's something to hold in your hands and cherish. Let's see an MP3 do all that.
"There are always going to be people who want to buy music," Shipley says. "We never feel like anything we make is hard to digest, but to survive, you have to go your own way. I'd rather make a million left turns than play it safe."