Brandon-based Divine Art Recordings earns international success

BRANDON — For Stephen Sutton, running a record label was a childhood dream ignited in England in the late 1950s, an era he remembers fondly as the “golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.” His older brother traveled frequently and would often bring records home from the United States, and young Stephen was enthralled both by the music he heard and the album art he saw on American rock ’n’ roll records.
“My brother used to come over on the transatlantic line and he used to bring back bags full of singles, all the new rock ‘n’ roll of the time,” Sutton said. “He would leave this stuff around and I used to just play with these and appreciate the different label designs. That planted a seed: Wouldn’t it be great to have a record label?”
Now, unbeknown to many in the area, Sutton and his wife Edna own a record label based in Brandon that has quietly gained prominence on classical music’s international stage, weathering a storm of challenges that have beset the music industry. The Suttons have run the Divine Art Recordings Group from its current location, tucked inconspicuously into the cavernous former infirmary of the old Brandon Training School, since they moved to Vermont in 2009. They made the move after falling in love with the state while vacationing a few years earlier.
And as labels everywhere face myriad challenges brought on by a rapidly shifting distribution landscape — streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify have pushed CD distributors into obscurity, calling on record companies to re-evaluate old business practices — business is chugging along steadily for the Suttons: Divine quietly celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and released its 500th recording this past May.
The Divine Art Recordings Group got its start in Northumberland, England, in 1992 when Stephen and Edna walked away from well-paying jobs in law and education, respectively, to begin their dream business running a record label. Although Stephen Sutton’s music industry dream may have been inspired by the hard-rocking acts of his youth, Divine solely produces classical and jazz recordings. Divine Art has even expanded in recent years to include six sub-labels that each cater to niche classical and jazz markets: the Métier Jazz label releases exclusively contemporary jazz, for example, while Historic Sound releases re-mastered vintage works. All told, the six labels put out albums at the rate of an operation much larger than Divine’s three-person staff.
“It sort of grew exponentially to where now we’re issuing over 40 releases every year, which is probably the average for a 10-to-20 person company,” Sutton said.
Administrative work is done in the Brandon offices, while artists record music in a variety of international locations and Divine’s CDs are pressed at a Sony plant in Austria. The company works with distributors in 25 locations around the world, with its main distributor in Germany, and the labels’ buyers order from in all over the world.
All releases fall within the categories of classical and jazz, but that isn’t to say that the Suttons are only a fan of those genres — their personal musical tastes stretch from Taylor Swift to the Rolling Stones. With a staff as small as theirs, though, it’s easiest to stay away from pop and rock acts considering the exhausting amount of touring, radio publicity and other advertising these artists demand.
“Professionally, we limit ourselves to the wider classical field, a bit of light jazz as well,” Sutton said. “From a personal point of view … I listen to everything from operas to chamber music right down to hard rock to heavy metal to light pop and easy listening.”
Sutton said that it’s difficult to predict exactly which releases will go over well and which will flop, and he’s often taken aback by the results: recently, Divine released a five-disc Chopin box set that Sutton didn’t exactly expect to blow sales records out of the water. But when the set came out, he was pleasantly surprised.
“It was Chopin, lovely piano music, but everyone’s done it before and there are the great masters who have recorded Chopin in the past. Nobody’s going to meet their standards,” he said. “The physical disc sold average quantities, a few hundred in the first month. But strangely enough when we put it on the digital system it went absolutely viral. It had, I think, 3 million streams in two months. Massive.”
Sutton points to two simple operating principles that have helped Divine weather the challenges the industry has faced in recent years:
“We keep the business small and we don’t take any pay,” he said.
The operation is run entirely by a staff of three: Stephen, Edna and Executive Assistant Kathryn Marshall. Stephen writes out contracts, designs album art and submits the huge amounts of data that platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music ask for each time a Divine album is uploaded to their systems. Edna runs the day-to-day operation in the company’s stores, which include a CD and record outlet and small antique shop.
Coupled with Divine’s small staff size, the Suttons’ willingness to work for miniscule overhead has provided the business longevity and acclaim not enjoyed by many other labels. Sutton said that Divine barely turns a profit, and much of the money that is generated goes into renovating the company’s building, which didn’t even have heating when Stephen and Edna took it over in 2009.
“It’s not glamorous,” Sutton said. “It’s not like the TV show ‘Empire.’ In the pop field, I’m sure it’s great, it’s like Hollywood. You’re doing your recordings and you’re out partying and touring. Our job is more like that of a book publisher.”
Which, at the end of the day, suits the soft-spoken pair just fine.
What drew the Suttons to Vermont wasn’t necessarily opportunity the area afforded to a growing business. Sutton does much of his work on a computer— contacting artists and compiling data spreadsheets — and says he could practically run the business from anywhere.
“I could do my job from an island in the middle of the Pacific as long as I’ve got internet access,” Sutton said.
Rather, it was the town’s friendly community and a quaint, small-town feel that reminded Stephen and Edna of childhood life in England and pushed them to settle down in Brandon.
“What we were quite attracted to were the people,” Sutton said. “We had more friends here within six months than we had in England after 10 years … Plus the small towns, little retailers, local stores is what England was like 50 years ago when I was young.”
Although their visa will expire eventually, the Suttons hope to find a way to retire in the area. Stephen said that the couple sees Vermont as home now and would prefer not to return to England. Until all that is sorted out, it’s business as usual for the couple whose quiet work in classical music is news to most locals who hear about their work.
“We wonder sometimes,” Sutton said. “Why do we do it? Because we love it. We’re doing a service to music itself, to the artists, helping them to develop their careers.”

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