Alison Brown: Mixing Business with Banjo

Sam Gazdziak | December 28th, 2010

Alison Brown

Blending bluegrass with the diverse sounds of jazz and Celtic music, Alison Brown has made a name for herself as one of the most talented and innovative banjo players around. Her career has included stints playing with Alison Krauss and Michelle Shocked, along with several solo albums. Most recently, she released The Company You Keep last year with the Alison Brown Quartet, featuring John R. Burr on piano, husband Garry West on bass and Larry Atamanuik on drums. This October she released her first live DVD; it was recorded at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. Live at Blair features the Quartet and guest fiddler Joe Craven, along with vocals from a very special guest (see below).

Brown is known for her business acumen as well has her musicianship. The Harvard graduate co-founded (along with West) Compass Records Group, a successful independent label that’s home to numerous country, folk, bluegrass and Celtic acts. The 9513 caught up with Brown and talked about the new DVD and her dual roles as musician and record executive.

With you and Bela Fleck taking the banjo into jazz, acts like Mumford and Sons and Sufjan Stevens using it in rock, and with so many great bluegrass acts out there, do you think the banjo is seeing a bit of a renaissance?

Yes. The banjo is an interesting instrument, because it has a tradition that goes long before bluegrass ever put it in the mainstream. It was a ladies’ parlor instrument at the turn of the last century, it was there at the birth of jazz. It’s just that when it kind of became the signature sound of bluegrass, and more importantly, when “Hee-Haw” and “Dueling Banjos” came along, it got attached to this sort of hillbilly music identity. But it really has a much more cosmopolitan history. So I feel like it’s coming back to the breadth that it deserves.

In fact, what I’m doing next week is going out and playing banjo with The Indigo Girls, so that’s another example of the instrument crossing over past its hillbilly stereotype.

This live album was done at Vanderbilt University. What made you pick the Blair School of Music to do a live DVD?

It’s in my neighborhood, and I’m actually an adjunct professor at the Blair School, so it seemed like a perfect home for what we were trying to do. It originally started off as a pretty low-key effort to make an EPK [electronic press kit], so we just invited friends to come and populate the audience for us.

You’ve got a guest vocalist in the concert [8-year-old daughter/road manager Hannah]. Is she going to be the next generation in the Brown-West dynasty?

I like the way you put that. I don’t know. I think there would be nothing cooler than getting to play with your kids. My real hope is just that both my daughter and my son (3-year-old Brendan) will find a place for music in their lives. It doesn’t have to be professional, but just to get enough proficiency on an instrument so that they can play music with their friends. To me, that’s the most beautiful thing about folk music.

When I go to places like the Shetland Islands in Scotland where almost everyone plays the fiddle, and I see youngsters and grannies sitting around playing tunes together, I just feel that when we lost the ability as a culture to entertain ourselves because we had television and all these other things to do it for us, we really lost something [important]. So whether or not they become professionals or become part of the band, the main thing I hope is for them to have this as part of their lives.

Has Hannah picked up any instruments?

She’s been taking fiddle lessons at the Blair School of Music for the last two years, and we’re hoping to be able to integrate that into what we do. But as long as she’s on the road with us, she’ll come up and sing a song, and she’s been taking clogging lessons too, so her made-up dance steps have become a little more real lately.

If you get exposed to folk music and folk and bluegrass festivals, how could you not want to be part of it? And to play two or three chords on any instrument is not beyond more people. I just think exposure is the key.

How long has your Quartet been together?

John R., our piano player and Gary, our bass player and my husband, have been together for 17 years, and that’s really the core of the quartet. Over the 17 years, we’ve had three different drummers, and Larry’s been playing with us for three years now. Joe, I guess has been on and off a member of the band since 2005.

It’s amazing how easily the band was able to shift from more straightforward bluegrass to jazz to Celtic. Does being together for that long a time create a sort of synergy, where everybody is always on the same page?

It absolutely does. The thing about us that’s different from the standard singer/songwriter thing is that we have had to invent it as we go. I play bluegrass banjo, but I tend to write tunes that incorporate the other musical elements that you mentioned, jazz and Celtic, and other things. Over 17 years, I think we’ve been able to drill down on to what really works and create music that really can flow and does suit each of the voices.

That was what we were trying to do with our most recent record (The Company You Keep), which tied in with that DVD, because we played some of those tunes.

It’s also noticeable on Simple Pleasures (Brown’s debut album, released in 1990). Even then, did you have this kind of sound in mind?

For me, the hardest thing has always been to write a straight-ahead bluegrass tune on the banjo. It’s so hard to come up with something that doesn’t sound like what other people have already done. When I wrote tunes, it tended to come out every other way besides bluegrass.

Simple Pleasures was really the first time I sat down and gave myself the challenge of trying to write a whole record’s worth of material. That’s what I found out about myself, that I came up with these tunes that took me in a lot of different directions. Then with the band, over all this time, trying to figure out the best way to put all those different musical directions together and present them in the best possible way. So it was probably a more organic process, and I’m sure that when I started writing the tunes for Simple Pleasures, I didn’t envision that the perfect vehicle for the music would be basically a jazz quartet with a banjo up front. It’s kind of by the process of experience that it’s evolved like that.

We also wanted to talk about Compass Records. What led you and your husband to start a record label in the first place?

We started Compass Records originally because we were touring artists, and we thought artists should run a record label. It didn’t make sense to us that all the labels needed to be run by people who were only business people. That was really before all the do-it-yourself record labels came along, or the artist-run record labels. That’s what motivated us to start it. We thought that we’d be able to bring a perspective and knowledge of the jobs that you wouldn’t get if you were dealing with someone who was just purely a suit. That was our idealistic start, and that was also 17 years ago. We started it at the same time that we started the band.

Back then, did you initially see that as being a place to release your own albums, or did you see having a big roster of artists?

I’m really glad you asked that question. We didn’t see it as a place to release our own music at first, because I was signed to Vanguard Records. I still had two records left on my contract when we started the company.

It was always important to us that people not think of Compass Records as a vanity label. We really did start it for other people’s music. The first record of mine that we put out on Compass was the 25th record on our catalog. We’ve got about 300 records out on Compass now, and I think that I have about four or five, so it’s mostly not about what we do. It’s mostly about trying to create an artist-friendly platform for other music that we really believe in.

As a musician, what to you think that you’re able to bring to the table as a record executive that someone who hasn’t had that background might not have?

I feel like we have a first-hand knowledge of the touring scene out there – the clubs that you want to play, the feel for the audience that’s likely to be out there, where the radio opportunities are, who the writers are that care about the kind of music that we all do. A lot of times, you can talk to someone at a record label who really hasn’t been out on the road, and they can’t imagine what the challenges are in creating music and then bringing it to an audience, figuring out the best way to get it to the people who need to hear it.

Then the other thing is, we’ve always felt that we can have a more musically intelligent conversation with artists than someone who doesn’t create music. We’re able to go in and produce record where the opportunity makes sense, and what we have to offer makes sense. The A&R-type people that I dealt with at other labels didn’t have that depth of knowledge about the music itself.

Speaking of production, one of your most recent projects was producing Peter Rowan’s new album (Legacy). What was that experience like?

Well, it was great! I’ve been listening to Peter Rowan ever since I got my first Old and In The Way record a long time ago. What really surprised me about Peter, and it shouldn’t have, I suppose, because he’s an incredibly open human being, was to find out how open he was as a musician, and how much input he gave me as a musician. It made it an incredibly satisfying and gratifying process.

How do you balance life as a musician and a record executive. Do you have what would be considered a typical day?

When I’m in town, which is really most of the time during the week, I’m sitting at two computers, talking about financial stuff, marketing, staff meetings, and managing the efforts of the people here at the office. It’s very much a left brain/right brain kind of a thing, and I can say from personal experience that it’s very hard to balance the creative pursuit with the business pursuit.

That’s why I have a lot of sympathy for people who try to do the do-it-yourself model. The business side of the music business – promoting music, marketing it – it really can take away the from energy you have left at the end of the day to create that music. Which is why that I think a really good label partner is something that every artist should seek to have, because a good label can bring all of those resources to the table and leave you free to create your art.

What’s the state of indie record labels, now? Have you really had to change your business model?

You have to, because any time things are bad for the major labels, it means there’s not as much cash flow for the retailers. As a result, when things are bad for the retailers, first of all, they go out of business, which is what we’re seeing at the brick-and-mortar side of the business. Then the stores that are left have less money that they want to invest on slow-returning product, which is roots music that we do. If they have buying dollars, they’re going to try and buy the things that are going to turn around quickly.

That’s the impact on us, and the reality is that the digital side of things has grown, but even over the past 12 months digital sales have kind of leveled off. Regardless of the level that it’s at, it hasn’t made up for the loss of the brick-and-mortar stores., The whole business is down, I think, 20 percent over last year, and we’re basically down to about 1993 level of volume.

But last year, 106,000 records came out into a much smaller retail system, versus 10,000 records in 1993. What you see is a completely saturated market, which is making it tough for everybody.

  1. Fred Williams
    December 28, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    This is a very wise, talented woman who can recognize talent in others and support them. The new Rowan recording comes across to me as the first new age bluegrass presentation. Thanks for helping this to happen.

  2. bll
    December 28, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    A very thoughtful, intelligent interview, Sam, thanks for sharing. I’ll have to seek her music now.

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