By JIM LOWE
The Lowe Down
Hidden in Brandon, unknown even to most locals, an international classical recording company celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017, and its 500th release this month. It’s come a long way since its first attempt.
“It was in order to raise funds for a church organ restoration where we lived in northern England, a remote little village,” explains Stephen Sutton, founder, director and general factotum of Divine Art Recordings Group.
“That’s how it all started, by getting a team of people together, all working for free, to make a fundraising tape cassette of this organ,” he said recently by phone. “That was 1992, and we sold 700 recordings or thereabouts.”
Since moving their recording company from their native England to Brandon in 2009, Stephen and Edna Sutton have created a bit of a local music empire. In addition to the record company, Brandon Music, an intimate concert hall and café in the restored Warren Kimble barn offers regular performances, and the nonprofit Compass Music and Arts Center is a multi-arts facility in the old Brandon Training School.
Divine Art Recordings, the couple’s commercial enterprise, is actually a small group of labels dealing with classical music in all varieties.
“We deal with everything from 15th century to works written last month. And we specialize in new music, rediscoveries and rarities,” Sutton said. “When we started the label the ethos was that every single album had to have a world-premiere recording on it. Now we’ve grown too much to do that, but among 500 releases, I would say probably 85 percent of the albums have premiere recordings — or certainly the only available recordings.”
The customer base has become broad both in taste and geography.
“It’s very wide, because the people who come to buy Chopin piano music aren’t the same people who come to hear a modern piece of chamber music by a contemporary composer,” Sutton said. “We distribute all around the world with our own website and direct mail. We have customers in a lot of different countries, and that’s expanded since the advent of digital music because people, say in Tonga, instead of buying a CD can download a digital album. I say Tonga because we just sold an album there.”
Interestingly, Sutton has no formal music training, and his parents had little interest. It took his half-brother, 10 years older, who went off to sea at the age of 15, to ignite the flame.
“He brought back all these wonderful 45 singles of Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers, all of the rock ‘n’ roll people,” Sutton said. “I, just starting elementary school at the age of 5, was left with his phonograph and his bag full of records. I started to just find them interesting as objects. I was allowed to play them, but just enjoyed them as ‘things’ with colored labels on them. That sort of stuck in my head, even though he went away and took it all with him.”
It wasn’t until Sutton was 14 that his parents purchased their first phonograph.
“My mum bought me a lot of pop albums, but amongst them also was (Handel’s) ‘Water Music’ and Holst’s ‘Planets.’ I just didn’t think they were any different. I started picking up records at random, and got to know a lot of music over a fairly short time. It was random — I didn’t know what I was buying at the time.”
That was the beginning of Sutton’s untrained but eclectic taste in music.
“I didn’t know any Beethoven symphonies until I was about 25,” he said. “I knew Mahler, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and people like Malcolm Arnold, Charles Ives, all of the fringe stuff. So I got this sort of eclectic, catholic taste in music.”
After Sutton produced his fundraising recording in Simonburn, where he and his wife were living, he was asked if he could produce a CD for the early-music festival he was helping to run at the same church.
“So I researched it, and I could produce a CD. That was our first commercial release, of a little Baroque group in 1994,” Sutton said. “Twenty-six years later, it’s working the same way. That first disc attracted the attention of another ensemble, and they introduced us to someone else. That led to maybe three a year.”
Divine Art is now producing an average of 40 to 45 discs a year.
“It’s all people coming to me saying we have a proposal, we have a project, will you release it for us?” Sutton said.
The musical artists or organizations produce the master recording, but Sutton often acts as a consultant.
“I can work with the engineer, but we are supplied with the finished audio master, liner notes for the booklet, biographies, photographs, everything that we need on that side,” he said. “My job is to collate everything, compile it, do the artwork, design, legal work, copyright clearance; and then, after that, the promotion, marketing and sales.”
However did the Suttons and Divine Art end up in tiny Brandon?
“It’s a lot bigger than where we used to live,” Sutton said. “When we got married, we moved into a village with seven houses. We then moved to a metropolis of 25 houses, and eventually moved to Yorkshire.”
Looking for a personal vacation property to invest in in the much more affordable United States, the Suttons found a mountain home in Rochester. Shopping in Brandon, they met artist Warren Kimble. When Kimble moved downtown from his Country Club Road home and barn, the Suttons jumped at the chance.
“I came over in March 2009 with Divine Arts,” Sutton said. “Then we set up Brandon Music, called the Harmony Tea Room to start with. So we were presenting music and providing English teas, and Edna was selling English china and antiques on the side.
“And that’s how we arrived,” Sutton said. “Looking back, you can’t see any logic in it, ever.”
Divine Art Recordings Group
For information about Divine Art Recordings Group, go online to divineartrecords.com.