Monday, September 15, 2008

Interview with Bruce Iglauer: Alligator Records Owner Discusses the State of the Blues with Steve Jones

SJ: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. How are you doing?
BI: I'm in Wisconsin where my wife lives. Yesterday I went to FitzGerald's for Janiva Magness, the Holmes Brothers and Marcia Ball. Really nice event, as always

SJ: Everyone associated with blues music uses the catch phrase "keeping the blues alive." How do you evaluate the state of blues music industry right now?
BI: I think that we're at a very crucial moment in the history of the blues, and those of us who love this music have to work hard to assure its future.

Let's look at some reality. The phrase 'the blues industry' is kind of funny, like 'jumbo shrimp' and 'military intelligence'. Blues CD sales represent about 1% of the music sold in the USA , and less in the rest of the world (down from about 1.5% six or seven years ago). The best paid blues artists in the world, like B.B. and Buddy, make about as much as second and third level rock bands. So I'd say those of us who love the blues are a very particular and perceptive minority group! Right now, what the blues desperately needs is both some new, younger champions who have the ability to reach outside the hardcore blues community and also some more support from the media. Losing Stevie Ray was a huge blow; he was the last true popular crossover artist who was bringing new fans to the blues from the rock world. It would also be great if there were some younger artists who could reach black-oriented radio and a younger black demographic. As you know, blues is really considered 'old people's music' in the black community. Blues is the creation of black Americans, and I'd like to see it more attached to the community that created it in the future. In other words, we need some exciting young black blues men and women who will give their contemporaries some sense that the blues is relevant to them, not just to white people.

For either of these things to happen, we need visionary artists--artists who can do more than restate what's already been done. We need contemporary stories, contemporary rhythms, and charismatic artists who can really communicate. I can imagine a young, multi-racial blues band incorporating traditional blues instruments along with hip hop rhythms, some rap sections, and maybe a turntablist. And great songs that have the elements of tension and release and emotional soothing that are key to blues. But I hear this band only in my imagination.

So right now, I'd say that we're at a critical time for the blues. If we bring in some new fans, blues has a possibility of becoming a petrified form of music, like New Orleans Jazz. That's what we have to prevent from happening.

SJ: You started Alligator at 23 years of age. What advice could you give people today who want to be young interpreneurs?
BI: I assume you mean someone who wanted to start a record label?

SJ: Yes, that’s what I was referring to.
BI: First, don't do what I did! It's much, much harder now than when I started. So, I'd tell anyone who wanted to do this to start by finding a job or an internship with an existing label to try to learn the business. It's also helpful to work at a record store (if you can find one, which is much of the problem; real record stores virtually don't exist). You must, must understand how distribution works. Being very aware of new technologies is important too. Digital distribution is probably the future, as much as I wish it weren't.

Understand publishing and copyright law in its basic form. Know what you can and can't do with a song that you don't control. This can be a major can of worms, and you don't want
to be infringing on copyright!

Work only with artists that you 100% believe in. Ultimately a label is only as good as its artists. Artists must have live charisma, fresh songs and musical ideas, the ability to run a band (very different skill set from the ability to play music), some facility to be on the road (a van, for example) and most of all, the artist needs to have his or her head on straight and understand that this is a job, not a hobby or something to do for fun. Being a touring musician is really hard. Selling enough CDs to make sense without touring is really impossible.

Finally, don't go into the record business thinking you're going to make much money. In the beginning, I ran my business out of a one-room apartment, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Then I moved up to a two room apartment, then a falling-down old house. It was seven years before I had a full time employee and it was 14 years from when I started Alligator until when I wasn't living in the same place as my label. And times were easier then, and I was also very lucky. And I say that the business is much, much harder now than back then.

SJ: The recording industry seems less focused on CDs and is offering more alternatives like DVDs, downloads and perhaps other new formats. Are you seeing a demand for other formats? If so, how are you gearing up for this apparent change in consumer demands?
BI: I have always tried to be responsive to new formats and new marketing techniques. We began as an LPs company, we made 8-tracks on a few titles, tried some 45s for juke boxes (a big failure), made cassettes on every title, and we were the first blues label to commit to CDs (which was a very good move and helped us dominate the early years of blues CD sales). We began marketing from our web site in the mid-1990s. We began working with the legitimate downloaders as soon as these services were available, and our music is available on all the major services except E Music (because they don't pay at the same level as the other services). We have looked at DVDs, but can't make quality (surround sound, multi-camera) DVDs make sense financially. So far the DVD market for blues and other niche music is very small. With what's going on with retailers carrying less and less titles, I really don't see that we're going to enter the DVD market soon. It appears that physical formats (CDs) are ultimately doomed, and digital files will replace them. I'm not happy about that, but no one is asking me. I wish that digital files sounded better; MP3s are truly awful sounding if you compare them to the source CDs or vinyl albums. There are some services (Music Giants, HD Tracks) that are offering better quality downloads at slightly higher prices. It's worth it.

By the way, I totally believe that illegal downloading has been the most terrible thing that's happened to all kinds of musical creativity. Although Alligator has mostly adult consumers (I wish we had more younger fans), the downloads have run the legitimate stores out of business, and the stores that are gone are no longer stocking our music. The death of the good record store has been especially murderous for niche music--blues, jazz, classical, folk, world, etc. etc. At this point, for most people who don't live in a big city, the only way to buy most of this music on CD is through Amazon or of course at

SJ: Alligator's catalogue seems to be venturing further and further into areas far from the traditional "Chicago Blues" that has always been Alligator's mainstay. While the big electric guitar sound of CDs like the recent issues from Eddy Clearwater and Michael Burks continue to be produced, we are seeing some interesting sounds and styles from artists like Eric Lindell, JJ Grey and Mofro, Janiva Magness and even Marcia Ball. Is this something you are pushing or is it just a natural progression in the blues music industry?
BI: As I said above, I think blues must evolve or become petrified. So I like to see my artists continue to grow, and I look for artists who have one foot deep in the blues but aren't just trying to recreate what's been done. So Eric and JJ definitely fell in that 'one foot in the blues' category. In the case of Marcia, she's been evolving musically for years, and continues to do so. She's a very smart and incisive thinker, so she likes to push the boundaries. I was especially taken with "Miracle In Knoxville" on her new "Peace, Love & BBQ" album. Really an exciting approach, bluesy but fresh. Janiva is a new artist with us, but I've been watching here grow musically for a few years. I'm very pleased with the new album and I'm curious to see where she's going next.

Notice which artists I do and don't produce myself. I'm a blues guy--I love working with artists like Michael Burks and Lil' Ed and Koko Taylor and Smokin' Joe Kubek & Bnois King. But if the music gets too sophisticated or too far from blues, I'm not the right guy. For my own taste, I would be happy to produce artists like Ed and Michael and Eddy Clearwater for the rest of my life. But those are old school artists, and there just aren't a lot of old school artists coming up that move me as much as the ones I've already signed and recorded. I'd love to find someone 20 years old who played (and convincingly SANG) straight-up blues with the attitude and talent of the veterans, but I haven't heard that person.

What new artists associated with your label excite you the most? You can't ask me which of my artists I like best! I only sign artists whose music I truly love and care about. In many cases, we establish close personal relationships, so they become almost like family. So ALL my artists, new and old, excite me.

SJ: Alligator has been and remains the leader in blues recordings for many years. There seems to be a lot of growth in labels like Delta Grove, Blind Pig, and some of the smaller studios. While the growth of the blues industry is great for artists and fans, is this apparent growth of the competition good or bad for Alligator?
BI: We've seen a lot of labels come and go over the years. Blind Pig is well established (and Jerry del Guidice, the co-owner, and I are close friends). Delta Groove has emerged as a real competitor, as has Northern Blues. At the same time, Rounder's Bullseye Blues label seems to be gone, Telarc is releasing less blues, Fat Possum seems to have pretty much abandoned blues, and HighTone has been sold. BlackTop has been gone for a long time now and we miss them. Meanwhile, there are a lot of blues artists who deserve recording (though not a lot of new ones coming up, as I've said) so we can't own the blues, and don't want to. There's plenty of room for other labels. On the other hand, there are not nearly enough clubs dedicated to blues and roots music, and certainly not enough fans coming out to support the live artists, or to buy the CDs. The blues is in a real recession, and of course, as I said already, the fact that the economy is in a recession is hurting the situation too.

SJ: The economy is in recession and oil prices continue to rise.
BI: Yup

SJ: How is the blues recording industry being impacted by the general economy?
BI: As I said above, these are hard times for the country and hard times for the blues. For most blues artists, the center of their income is touring. Record sales aren't good enough for them to live from royalties (even for the stars). But the money for touring artists, especially in the clubs, hasn't grown much at all over the years. In 1975, for a sideman to
make $75 and a hotel room on the road was good pay. Now, over 30 years later, to make $150 and a hotel room is often good pay. On bad nights, band leaders make no more than the sidemen. When the price of gas goes up, the price of motels goes up, the price of food goes up, the musicians' fees don't go up (and gig attendance goes down). Try to find a touring bluesman with health insurance, unless it comes through a spouse. Good luck. It's a very, very difficult way to make a living, and getting harder.

Despite the economy, I am amazed at the growth of the festival industry. Every year there seems to be more and more new blues festivals. Do you think this is because of a growing interest in the blues as a genre? Is there more interest in the blues now than, say, 10 or 15 years ago? I'm heartened to some extent by the growth of festivals and other special events (like "Taste of _____ (name your suburb)") that hire blues artists. Also, there have been some interesting arts center tours with packages like Charlie Musselwhite, The N. Miss All Stars and Mavis Staples, and also Dr. John and Shemekia Copeland. These draw adult audiences that often won't come to bar gigs (partly because they no longer enjoy bars, and partly because bar gigs traditionally start late and adults traditionally start their days early. But at the same time, the number of younger fans who come out for blues at all is smaller and smaller, and I mostly see lots of gray hair (like mine) at blues gigs, wherever they are. Based on CD sales and the number of clubs that have closed or changed music format, and decreasing radio play combined with no new champion for the blues, I'd say that the audience is shrinking at the moment.

I know my children (who are getting beyond the term "child") are interested at least in some level by blues music. Maybe I've forced it on them a bit, but I see a lot of younger fans at festivals and blues music shows. Honestly, I don't. In a couple of weeks I'm going to the Deep Blues Festival in Minnesota, which is made up of what I'd describe as a lot of Fat Possum-influenced young white bands, plus T-Model Ford. I'm very curious to see what the audience is there. What are you impressions on the next generation of music fans and how do they relate to the blues? This is tough; I'm not one of them. I think if I were younger, I'd want music that I could embrace as 'mine,' like my generation did with the 60s rock bands, including the blues-influenced British ones. I see some hope with the Black Keys in being a band like this. I thought the N. Miss All Stars would be the big crossover blues-rock band, but it didn't turn out that way. So my feeling is that if younger music fans are going to relate to blues, it will be because the music seems raw, direct, a little scary and maybe a little alien to them. This is the way I felt when I discovered blues (thank you, Fred McDowell). Like it was the most honest, unvarnished music in the world. I think that's what younger fans want--something that seems real and honest in this pre-packaged world.

SJ: Chicago has always been a hotbed for the blues. Since the 1960's the West Coast has had a large and viable blues scene. Where do you see other major interest in the blues in the US ? Where does it surprise you that the blues has never caught on in a big way?
BI: Obviously Chicago became a blues hotbed because of the huge number of black people who emigrated from the blues heartland of the Delta from the early 1900s until about 1970. So they brought their music with them, and long before there was a North Side scene with white fans, there were small clubs on the West and South sides filled with black patrons who were enjoying the music that had come with them from the South. Of course the same thing happened when Texas blues moved with black people to the West Coast, also influenced by Kansas City swing. The current West Coast scene is mostly from those roots, along with the strong influence of George "Harmonica" Smith, who went to California and taught Rod Piazza, William Clarke and others.

I hear blues artists from all over the country and all over the world. I'm surprised that there is a strong club scene in Florida . Of course there are still excellent bluesmen and women around Austin , though surprisingly few clubs that features blues. There seem to be a lot of good Houston musicians too. One of the best times of my year is going to the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge in Memphis , where aspiring blues artists from almost everywhere come to compete. The variety of talent (and quality) is amazing.

Where does it surprise me that blues has never caught on in a big way?--Well, to be frank, my feeling is that blues is always going to be be a minority music. When it's done right, it's full of tough adult emotions and not the kind of simple sentimental pap that is the center of much of pop music. So, although the structures of the blues are heard everywhere (including in tons of commercials), the inside of the blues is really hard to do right.

SJ: In what new directions do you see yourself and Alligator going in the next 10 years? BI: I'm really so artist-centered that I don't think in terms of directions. I think in terms of finding artists who are saying something fresh that's in the blues tradition. The label will follow the artists. I won't take a right turn into a whole new field of music. I must have artists whose music I relate to personally on a very gut level. If I can find those artists, I will be happy to keep making records until the day I die.

SJ: What is the best advice you can give to a new blues band trying to establish itself in today's scene?
BI: Boy, a lot of things. First, learn as much of the blues tradition as you can. Stevie Ray not only was inspired by Albert King, Albert Collins and Lonnie Mack, but was also deeply into solo Delta blues artists. Muddy Waters idolized Son House. Howlin' Wolf based some of his music on Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson. And House, Patton and Johnson were all inspired by bluesmen and women from before records were being made. The blues is a very deep well. If you just say "I want to be a hot blues-rock guitar player", you're missing 90% of the water. Second, all the great blues men and women found something of their own to say. They were singing of their own lives and of the world around them. If you can write at all, start writing honest original songs from your own experience. Third, get in front of an audience. Blues is not music you make by yourself. It's music that is designed to meet the emotional needs of the listener. Imagine a preacher preaching without a congregation. That's what a blues artist performing without an audience is like. Fourth, don't perform the blues thinking that you are going to get rich. Perform it because you love it. Like John Lee Hooker, because "it's in him, and it's got to come out." Fifth, remember that blues is a music of both singing and playing. It's ultimately about telling a story, with both words and music. Blues isn't just a long solo with 12-bar chord changes. It's a proud tradition of music designed to reach the deepest part of the human soul.

SJ: Bruce, I know that our readers and blues fans in general are appreciative of everything you have done to progress the blues as an art form and to give them and the world great music to enjoy. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us and give us the pulse of the blues world!
BI: I'm always glad to be in touch with fellow blues fans. I hope to meet your readers at club gigs and festivals, when they come out to support the men and women who make the music we love so much.
SJ: And I am sure they would enjoy meeting you, too! We'd love to have you come out to some of the event in the Rockford area. Thank you once again for the interview and all the great music!

Bruce Iglauer and Alligator records Facts
· Born July 10, 1947
· Attended Lawrence College, Appleton, WI
· Radio DJ and frequent visitor to the Chicago Blues scene while n college
· Was $30 a week shipping clerk at Delmark records in 1970
· Founded Aligator in 1971 when Bob Koester refused to record Hound Dog Taylor
· Used $900 of an inheritance to produce the Hound Dog Taylor album, and the rest of it to press 100 copies to market
· Built Alligator records over the last 37 years to become the #1 blues label in the world
· Named “Allgator Records” after Bruce’s habit to click his teeth in time with the nusic
· Find out more about Bruce and Alligator at www.alligatorrecords. com

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