Special Bonus Music Section February 2005:Listen 2 This

Taking Refuge

Who knew Robert Plant was an indie act? Sanctuary Records, that's who—the budding empire where old (and some new) rock stars go to thrive.

''It's so f---ing good, it's outrageous,'' gushes Sanctuary Group CEO Merck Mercuriadis. ''Actually, I should really play you something over the phone.'' He's raving about rock god Robert Plant's forthcoming solo CD, his first disc of original songs in 12 years. And like an excited schoolboy, he preempts our interview for a full five minutes to hold the phone against his stereo's speaker. Receiver buzz and all, the track's robust Led Zeppelin III-meets-Ray of Light electro-lush charms leave a mighty fine impression. In fact, L2T wouldn't be at all surprised if Plant, following Morrissey's triumphant 2004 resurgence, is crowned 2005's comeback king. Believe it, Led-heads.

And though worlds apart musically, these artists share another important bond — a trait they have in common with Billy Idol, Kelly Osbourne, Chaka Khan, Megadeth, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kiss, Blondie, Earth, Wind & Fire, and some 50 others: Their career reboot comes courtesy of Sanctuary Records.

True to its name, the five-year-old indie label (in its large-format U.S. incarnation, anyway; the company actually began in the U.K. 29 years ago — more on that in a minute) has quickly established itself as a safe haven for a tremendous (up to 50 releases per month!) and surreal (Nancy Sinatra, meet Anthrax!) roster. In this era of mass downsizing and consolidation in the music industry, Sanctuary has carved out a successful niche market by resurrecting major-label acts at bargain prices. Which doesn't exactly spell buzz, but the indie got a taste of that as well in 2004 thanks to critically acclaimed discs from mope rocker Moz and boho rappers De La Soul.

Sanctuary is also making noise with its unique 360-degree business model, which includes, in addition to the label, a publishing arm, merchandising, a booking agency, and artist management (the original foundation of the company). With a management lineup that already included rockers like Guns N' Roses, the Who, and Plant, the company added a slew of urban heavy hitters (Nelly, Mary J. Blige, Eve, Jadakiss) to the fold last year — in no small part due to Sanctuary Urban Records Group president Mathew Knowles (a.k.a. Beyoncé's daddy). Not only did Knowles bring his money-makin' daughter and her side project, Destiny's Child, to Sanctuary's management side, but he's helping to make their full-service approach a viable option for even the blingiest of hip-hop superstars.

''We made a conscious decision to build our label in tandem with our management company so they work together,'' says Mercuriadis. ''If you're Nelly, you don't just have Tony Davis as your manager and your core team. You also have our record company's promotion, marketing, press departments, and 150 people across the country to help make a difference on your record. It's a vision of the future.''

The most radical idea driving Sanctuary's success, however, seems to be simple financial sense. Even though Morrissey's You Are the Quarry has sold 188,000 copies in the U.S. and a million worldwide — a modest total by major-label standards — both artist and label stand to make buckets of loot. If Sanctuary makes a record for $250,000, it sometimes needs to sell only 150,000 units worldwide to break even. Knowles, who had an imprint on Sony, notes of majors, ''Spending is such that these artists have to sell a million units [for a company] to break even.''

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