Local Labels Go Viral
Sep 22 2014

Local Labels Go Viral

By: Emily Hingle

Despite our long, glorious history of music, New Orleans has not had a parallel music business infrastructure; our musicians could record and have their music played at local establishments and radio stations. Small labels could move their products to cities around the nation, but we’ve never been a Mecca of the recording industry; our musicians would often leave to find stable work and, hopefully, fame in Los Angeles and New York City. But with a tumultuous recording industry and changing technology, more record labels are able to open shop here in hopes of keeping our talent local and giving them the deals they deserve.

The best known local label, featuring a powerhouse roster of jazz and brass musicians, is Basin Street Records. Founder Mark Samuels was working in the energy field and had no particular interest in the music business until he was directly asked about it. “Kermit Ruffins’ manager approached me in 1997 about the idea of investing in a live record. Various conversations over a year and a half led to everything from me becoming a manager or an agent to starting a record label. It was a hobby on nights and weekends. About that same time I ran into Irvin Mayfield, and he asked if I was interested in doing a record for Los Hombres Calientes, and I said sure,” says Samuels. Basin Street Records kept growing, releasing hit after hit from local bands that are now in the national eye. But the label remains locally and quality-focused. “I wasn’t really concerned with what other record labels did. I wasn’t concerned with what a record label contract looked like. I never read a book about it. I like putting out a lot of music by a few artists rather than signing a whole bunch. If people continue to buy music, we will put out high quality, great music. When I will stop this label is when I can give service to the artists that are on it. I expect the music that we put out will be around in 100 years well after me and my children are gone, and if I can’t make music this way, I’m not interested in making it,” states Samuels matter-of-factly.

In the years since beginning the label, the music industry has changed rapidly and Basin Street Records has had to keep up with the changes. “I’ve been in this business for several years, and I challenge anybody to tell me that in a seventeen year period that they’ve had more change in these years. Where we don’t have thousands of stores across the country, we have millions of stores in peoples’ pockets. It’s as easy for someone to buy Rebirth Brass Band’s latest album as it is to buy Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. We’ve been fortunate because we’re a small label with small overhead so we can bounce with whatever we get hit with. And we’ve done a good job of that. The important thing for music fans to do is buy music. Buy a CD, buy a download, buy an album, buy an LP. It supports the artist and it supports the label that its own. Don’t stream it,” says Samuels.

Community Records takes a different approach to free music; all of the music they represent is available for free download on their website, communityrecords.org, and for free streaming on communityrecords.bandcamp.com. Greg Rodrigue co-founded the label in 2008 beginning with a compilation album of 22 songs from bands around the country. “The original concept for the label was that it was to be more of a ‘collective’ than that of a ‘record label,’ hence the name Community Records. Both Daniel Ray and I had been playing in bands together for some time, and we both attended the music industry program at Loyola University New Orleans. Starting an entity that could represent our music and the music of all of our friends seemed like the most obvious thing to do with our lives,” explains Rodrigue. Community Records sees their emphasis on free music as a gateway to bigger things.

“Free downloads go a long way. We have had people from all around the world show interest in our endeavors. While we might not have an expansive international audience, it does most certainly exist. Our band, All the People, toured Brazil this past May with a band called Lisabi. Lisabi is based out of Campinas, Brazil, and they’re on Community Records. Just the other day we sent a ton of mail-order items to Singapore, and we often get mail-order requests from the UK & Canada. The free downloads really break down the barrier to entry as far as new people becoming familiar to our music. The way that we view it is that if anyone wants to get downloads for free from the internet, they can just Google search the free .zip file and find it. Why not invite people in and have them get the music directly from us? We feel that the open door policy helps people to know that we are in this for making art and music, not solely with the goal of financial gain,” says Rodrigue.

Despite the free music available online, Community Records does function as a producer of physical albums. “We will often help provide some financing to help the artist to produce physical copies of their work and after we have re-cooped the money that we have put in; we split the profits 50/50 from there on out. Most of the revenue we make is from the sale of online mail-order directly from our web site. We do try to get our albums in record stores where we can, but mostly we rely on people ordering vinyl, CDs, cassette tapes, tee shirts, and such directly from us off of our website,” says Rodrigue. Not only is the label progressive in their distribution of music, they’re tour van runs on waste vegetable oil which they paid for using a Kickstarter campaign.

Milo Records does not see financial gain from record or song sales as a reason to exist either and emphasizes education for their signed bands and international touring. “I don’t have a studio, the office is run out of my house, I have a dayjob; I’m really a link between musicians and existing music infrastructure. I connect them to studios that are going to be best for their sound, connect them to entities that press CDs at their price point, and do promotional stuff. I’m also doing a lot of work with overseas booking agents and promoters to get New Orleans musicians in Europe. The band is required to raise their own funds, but they’re not required to pay the fees that a record company would charge,” explains founder Kim Vu-Dinh.

Milo Records functions more like a managerial service for a roster of mostly traditional American music bands, and Vu-Dinh books local gigs for her bands to build up their audience before releasing albums which they can tour with. “Milo Records is more about technical assistance. I’m more interested in overseas expansion of the market. I think that music that comes out of this city may be some of the best in the country, and it’s huge in the international market because New Orleans is the heart of so many types of music. Very few people know about the Louisiana Hayride, and nobody knows that this is a part of the Americana music triangle from Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans. It’s an amazing place where you can gig in town a lot. You have a lot of people who came here because they love playing traditional sounding music. The next step for these bands is to get them out of the country where they’ll be more appreciated. Milo musicians have a flavor of their own; they know what they like to play,” says Vu-Dinh proudly.

Local label Total Riot Records also hosts some more traditional artists like Natalie Mae alongside more rollicking bands like Strange Roux, White Colla Crimes, Meryl Swaggart, and JOHNNY R!OT; the latter of which is helmed by the label founder himself.

Musicians are more in control of their fate than ever, and a good label can help them increase their visibility by offering them the tools and services that can benefit them the most. Each record label functions differently for their signed bands, but all have a deep love of our local music.

@Emily_Hingle

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