Norman Chesky of HDtracks and Chesky Records

Both Chesky Records and HDtracks have a pair of co-founding partners, but the music-minded press has perpetually focused on one of them, pianist and composer David Chesky, while ignoring his younger brother, Norman. Mainstream reporters and photographers did converge on Norman Chesky once, when they spotted him rolling a bulky, rough-hewn, wooden artifact from the 2009 auction at which Bernard Madoff's personal effects were sold for the benefit of bilked investors. Leading newspapers ran photos of Norman with the tree-trunk table he'd bought after happening on the sale, and the New York Times identified him as "a music executive from Manhattan." As the exchange that follows shows, that description was a glaring oversimplification.

David Lander: You were born in 1958, which makes you two years younger than your brother David. He's talked about the influence of your mother, Betty, an award-winning teacher who loved jazz and created a musical atmosphere in your Miami Beach home.

Norman Chesky: There's no question that she played an important role in molding us. When we were young, she was the one who encouraged us to be connected to the arts and take piano lessons—I have to be honest and say that David was better—and if she never gave us those piano lessons, who knows where we'd be today?

Lander: David left home for New York at age 17, and you joined him about four years later, after dropping out of Florida State University. Why didn't you finish college?

Chesky: I ran out of money. I thought I'd go back one day, but I got involved in business with David.

Lander: What course did you pursue in school?

Chesky: Believe it or not, I studied playwriting. I wanted to be a writer when I was younger. Actually, I liked people like Neil Simon; I wanted to do comedy. When I first came to New York, I hung out at the comedy clubs, and I actually wrote for some comedians, like Nipsey Russell.

Lander: Julius "Nipsey" Russell had a long career. He did a lot of TV, and he's credited with being the first regular African-American panelist on a daily game show—Missing Links, back in 1964. How did you get to know him?

Chesky: We both lived at the Henry Hudson Hotel, which had entrances on both 57th and 58th Streets, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. Today, it's an upscale hotel, but when I first came to New York, you could live in a little room there for $40 a week. That hotel was where David and I both started out. I lived there for a couple of years, and from there my brother and I moved into our first apartment, on W. 52nd Street. That came through a musician. My brother used to hang out at a restaurant called the China Song, on 54th and Broadway, where musicians doing commercials would hang out between sessions. We made a great deal; I think we were paying under $400 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.


Lander: Tell us about the music-business ventures that led up to Chesky Records and HDtracks.

Chesky: My brother put together a big band when he was only 18 years old, the David Chesky Band. I was managing the band, which used to play every Monday at Storyville, a famous jazz club, and developed a very good following: Kurt Vonnegut was a fan; Jackie Onassis showed up; George Wein came. I helped my brother get a record deal—he signed with Bruce Lundvall, at Columbia, and came out with an album, in 1980, called Rush Hour. That really started us moving, because a producer at CBS Sports started playing the title cut on shows, and one day I went to the mailbox and found a check from ASCAP for $3000. That was like winning the lottery. I said to my brother, "My God, if we can get $3000 from music being played on TV by accident, maybe we should make a record just for TV." So we took the money and made a record called Chesky Productions. David wrote all these sports themes, and I went to all the network producers and gave it out, trying to sell the music. Those were the early years of ESPN, and our music was featured on many sporting events—it was the theme music played in the background, like a frame for the picture. We also licensed our music to local television stations around the country. So that was the start of our first company, Manhattan Production Music.

Lander: I understand that production music can be very lucrative.

Chesky: More composers make their living with production music than in any other part of the music business. It's a very, very vibrant industry.

Lander: How successful was Manhattan Production Music?

Chesky: We never became the largest, but how do you quantify success? Did we make a nice living from it? Yes. The most important thing is, because we had Manhattan Production Music, we learned how to make a record, we learned how to master a record—this was pre-CD. It taught us, and it also allowed us to make enough money to put out some of the vinyl that David, who was always an audiophile, wanted to produce. Manhattan Music Productions was a very important part of the Cheskys' evolution. We still own the company, by the way. It's still out there, still licensing music, and still a sister company to HDtracks and Chesky Records. At the beginning, David was the writer, but as the company grew, we hired independent writers and salespeople. Ron Goldberg, who has the office next to mine and has been here for over 20 years, runs it. We have a sales team, and we have good accounts. I oversee it.

Lander: How much of your time does that require?

Chesky: It takes probably 10% of my time. Most of my energy today is focused on HDtracks.


Anon2's picture

Like with others, downloads of music still have me on the fence and non-committal.

Those of us who are repertoire and performance-driven consumers of music stay with our CD collections due to the still-unmatched breadth of the catalog in this medium.

I looked in HD Tacks for what I consider to be the finest Chesky Records recording that I have purchased, the Earl Wild interpretation of Rachmaninov's Piano Sonata No. 2, and 18 of the 24 Preludes (Chesky CD 114). Alas, the recording was not to be found in my search of HD Tracks' admittedly broadening assortment.

It will take time, but while it takes time, many collectors of the classical catalog will return to, and continue to purchase, CDs as the enduring definitive repository of the finest interpretations of works in the classical repertoire. LPs probably occupy a similarly prominent place in the priorities of other music lovers (particularly of the jazz and classical genres).

I am confident that music downloads will continue to grow in their offerings. The critical question remains as to whether seminal works in the catalog will make the cut for what gets added to the catalogs of downloadable music.

Many classical fans will take a CD or LP recording of a critical reading of a work over an average interpretation available for download (however great the sond quality), until such definitive renderings figure in the available catalog of download sites.

Yes, there will be future great works; I'm sure the world has not seen the last of artists of the stature of the greats of the 20th century. Building a catalog of downloadable tracks of these yet-to-be-found artists (and downloads, admittedly, do have some greats among their tracks for sale) will take time and painstaking attention to detail.

I'm keeping an open mind; let's see what happens.

ken mac's picture

Norman Chesky is more than a label owner, he's a very kind and thoughtful man. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, Norman -- a friend of great tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene, whose six year old daughter Ana was murdered that horrible day -- paid for all the studio time, office and production costs for Jimmy's forthcoming album, Beautiful Life, an album dedicated to the life of his daughter, Ana Marquez-Greene. And all this for an album that is not even being released on his label.
We need more Norman Cheskys in this world, men working behind the scenes to make a real difference. Thank you.

Gardner Campbell's picture

For the most part, this interview reads like a PR brochure. HDTracks offers some great-sounding downloads, and I respect them for their pioneering efforts, but their practices are not consistently advancing the market for great-sounding hi-res music. The interviewer should have asked at least one or two tough or probing questions, not just "tell us the story of your company and its success." For example:

1. A few years ago there was a scandal involving standard-quality files that were upsampled and sold as hi-res, even though they weren't natively hi-res. Tell us about HDTracks' response to that concern and how you worked with labels going forward to halt that deceptive practice.

2. HDTracks positions itself as simply a "retail store" for whatever the labels provide. At the same time, you pride yourself on "weaning an entire generation off lo-rez MP3 downloads" (Lander) "by letting them hear the difference" (Chesky). There's a strong implicit claim there that HDTracks does do some kind of quality check--otherwise, what consistent "difference" are you talking about? How do you reconcile what appear to be contradictions between the marketing and business practices at your company?

3. Acoustic Sounds has implemented customer reviews and/or ratings for their downloads. Does HDTracks plan to do this?

4. Are you in conversations with labels about issues such as reduced dynamic range in their hi-res titles? Do you have any plans to ask them for more detailed (or any) mastering information?

I don't mean to be combative, but when HDTracks say they stand for higher quality and offer products at premium prices justified by that higher quality, I think they have a responsibility to something other than "hey, we're at the mercy of the labels," especially when some downloads actually sound worse than the original CDs (Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was a recent example). I wish Stereophile's interview had not allowed HDTracks to continue to evade tough questions about their business. Without good investigative journalism, especially when the company involved has garnered criticism and sparked controversy, the consumer suffers and the state of the art languishes.