A Matter of Degrees

Local label Six Degrees weathers the storm of success

Those posters -- plugging the late Yugoslavian-born composer and producer Suba, Cuban percussionist Patato, and dance floor techno favorite Banco de Gaia -- tell a lot about the company's fortunes over the past five years. Six Degrees is not only surviving its first hit record, it's thriving. That success is part of a pattern of managed growth that has turned the label into a power player within the niche Duskis and Berry envisioned almost a decade ago.

And what is that niche, exactly?

The in-between stuff, says Duskis. "What really interests us is records that combine a couple of different worlds. Whether it's the old and new, the traditional and the modern, or different cultures coming together."

Bob Duskis of Six Degrees
Akim Aginsky
Bob Duskis of Six Degrees
Bob Duskis of Six Degrees
Akim Aginsky
Bob Duskis of Six Degrees
Bob Duskis of Six Degrees
Akim Aginsky
Bob Duskis of Six Degrees
Bob Duskis of Six Degrees
Akim Aginsky
Bob Duskis of Six Degrees
Bob Duskis of Six Degrees
Akim Aginsky
Bob Duskis of Six Degrees

Take Ekova, a France-based American/Iranian/Algerian trio that sings in a made-up language that evokes a tribal Cocteau Twins performing medieval hymns. Or take Sam Zaman, aka State of Bengal, a London-by-way-of-Bombay native who remixes 100 years of British/ Indian relations by framing frenetic drum 'n' bass travelogues with sitar, tablas, and electric guitar. Or Brazilian turntable/bass/keyboard ensemble Bossacucanova, which reinvents genteel bossa nova as downtempo club music.

As eclectic as these artists are, they're intended to be accessible (and desirable) to a wide audience. Not surprisingly, Six Degrees' emphasis on marketability to mainstream tastes leaves some members of the world music industry uneasy.

Ken Braun handles A&R for Stern's Music, the British-based label that was among the first to specialize in world music. He worries that hybridizing traditional music taints what made it special in the first place.

"I hope that this kind of thing -- where record companies like Six Degrees appropriate traditional music and put it into a modern electronic context -- isn't leading people away from traditional music," Braun says. "I don't think it's true that you have to dress things up with electronic beats and a synthesizer background to catch people's attention."

For Duskis, tailoring the releases for an American mainstream public is just smart business. He denies pushing artists to water down their music, however.

"When an artist comes in here, we're really not interested in shaping them into something they're not because we think it's gonna sell more records," he says. "But that's not to say that we bring people in and say, "Hey, whatever you want.' We have serious conversations where we say, "If you make this kind of record, we think it will sell this [much]. And if you do this kind of record we think it will do this.'"

That blend of fandom and frankness is exactly what Six Degrees artists like Michael Franti of the hip hop group Spearhead appreciate. As a longtime force in the S.F. music scene, Franti spent time on local indie label Alternative Tentacles and major label Capitol Records. Six Degrees, he says, is the best he's found.

"What they've done is assemble a great team of people, where everyone is working towards the goal of selling as many records as possible. They're smart about it. ... Where big labels throw money, [Six Degrees] comes up with great ideas, great looks, and great sounds."

This sort of scrappy business savvy keeps Six Degrees above water, even through the good times. But the same grounded practicality makes Duskis laugh when I ask him if his label is going to build on the success of Gilberto and take over the world.

"No," he says, sounding a little insulted at the idea. "Tanto Tempo opened up some great doors for us. ... It's put us above the radar; it's put us on the map. As far as being able to take over the world ..."

Here he pauses, sniffles, and reconsiders my question.

"Well," he says, "we get a few more like that, and we'll certainly be in a really good position."

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