The blues community in our coverage area is small but furiously loyal to its music. They remain underground to some degree and we do not have the opportunity to speak to them thru our magazine as often as we would like. Thus, it is an honor to be able to feature prestigious folks such as the ones that this story discusses.
Not long ago, there arrived at the AR office a CD selection of Blues music titled, The Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection. This two-CD set contains musical presentations by blues artists who have recorded for Alligator Records over the last 45 years of their existence. The CD features tracks from newer voices and classic selections by blues and roots stars from the past. What is so wonderful about this recorded collection is that it provides a showcase portrait of Alligator Records’ version of Americana Music.
Let us delve into Alligator Records a bit and give you some background about this most unique recording company. Alligator Records is based in Chicago, IL and is the proud offspring of a Chicago blues lover by the name of Bruce Iglauer. It features a line up of some of the most skilled and listenable blues recording artists performing today. Over the course of the last 45 years, this recording company has produced and released over 300 albums of blues music.
One Artist At A Time
Mr. Iglauer started in the record label business in a quite unusual manner. He was a 23 year old fan of a local blues band, Hound Dog Taylor & the House-Rockers. At the time, Iglauer was working for a local recording company, and he tried to interest his bosses in recording this group to no avail. So, in the late spring of 1971, Iglauer and a friend produced and recorded a live performance by this band. They issued that album in August of that year. The album was simply named after the band: Hound Dog Taylor & the House-Rockers. This issue became the first release from a brand new label: Alligator Records.
Alligator Records (named after the way Iglauer clicks out rhythm patterns with his teeth when he likes a song) was certainly a leap of faith, as Iglauer was running this underfinanced one-man operation from the confines of an efficiency apartment. Plus, the Rockers were unknown outside of the Chicago blues scene, and they were not creating music that sounded like anything that was getting played on commercial radio. Nevertheless, their sound spoke to listeners. After paying the band and the studio, Iglauer used his last remaining money to press 1000 copies of the recording.
What do you do with 1000 copies of music from a band who no one outside of the Chicago blues clubs have ever heard of? Here is what Mr. Iglauer did: He loaded them into the trunk of his car and embarked upon an epic road trip from Chicago to New York. He visited every progressive rock and college radio station and record distributor that he could locate. In the early 1970s, most FM radio stations were locally owned and operated and the DJs scripted their own play lists. Bruce would drop by these stations and ask the DJ who was getting ready to go on air to play his record. These folks were fairly loose and receptive and would usually agree to do so. After getting airplay in each city, Bruce went to the distributor in that city and told them that his record was getting radio play in their market, and asked if they would distribute the album. With the guaranteed airplay, they all said that they would.
One Man, Many Hats
From that lowly beginning, with one artist in his stable, Iglauer gave life to Alligator Records. It was a one-man show with Bruce being producer, booking agent, business manager, roadie, promotion man, and publicist. He operated Alligator Records from his tiny apartment, which was filled with stacks of record cartons and a shipping table located next to the bed. It was a Spartan operation with each record financing the next one. Alligator was only able to release about one record a year but fortunately those records impressed fans and critics well enough that sales kept the label going. Leap forward 45 years and we find Alligator Records with a catalog of 300 albums and a stable of acclaimed blues performers. The operation has 15 employees and operates out of a facility that exceeds the confines of that tiny apartment. Nevertheless, it is still guided by the original core belief that soul, blues, and blues-rooted music speaks to some inter need in people’s consciousness.
Recently, we asked Mr. Bruce Iglauer to tell us a bit about Alligator Records as it exists today and his thoughts on going forward. “I began Alligator in 1971 as a blues fan, with the intention of recording and releasing only blues albums. I never tried to play the big pop labels’ game, because I knew I couldn’t do it well, and that I couldn’t afford it, and that I had no real musical aesthetic outside of blues.” He did admit that over the years, his definition of blues has expanded to include some blues influenced music.
I wondered if he considered his label a niche market for existing blues fans and he told me that he did not. He said, “Alligator Records proselytizes for the music we love, and we are constantly using radio media as well as news media to turn on new potential fans to that music.”
While Alligator Records continues to stay true to its roots, this does not mean that they are deaf to blues related and blues influenced music. Here is how Mr. Iglauer put it, “We have released some bluesy roots rock, a little gospel, and our Mavis Staples soul album. Also, many years ago, we released 13 reggae LPs. I’m very proud of those albums but the core of Alligator will always be blues.”
Lean And Focused
Alligator Records prefers to keep its talent roster to about 15 or 16 artists thus they do not sign many new acts in any one year. The reason they hold down the number of active artists is that Alligator Records publicizes and promotes every gig their artists play, and this method of promotion is very labor-intensive. Bruce said that they are bringing individual attention to over 1000 gigs a year. Thus, he is very picky about new signings.
As to how Alligator Records finds new talent to sign and promote, that method varies. Bruce signed Jarekus Singleton and Selwyn Birchwood after seeing them at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, TN. He signed Toronzo Cannon after watching him develop as an artist and songwriter over a number of years. With Moreland & Arbuckle, Bruce knew that they had been together over a decade and had recorded for a couple of other labels. Plus, they had a strong live performance and were accomplished songwriters. These folks came to him with a finished master recording. He liked the recording so much that he both signed them and released their recording.” Still, Mr. Iglauer does listen to demo recordings that folks send to Alligator. He will trek to see a live performance to make sure Alligator-worthy talent doesn’t slip by unnoticed. Bruce told us, “I signed Little Charlie & The Nightcats because of a demo. It was so impressive that I flew almost immediately to hear them. A lot of artists approach me, but I can’t count on them finding me. Often, I have to find them.”
I asked about the production end of Alligator. Mr. Iglauer told me that Alligator Records does not own a studio. Rather, they cut their records all over the country and that sometimes they produce them and other times others produce them. They also do not own a CD pressing plant. However, they do design all the packaging, songs, mixes, and promotional materials in-house. All of this work is performed by the 15-person Alligator staff. Finally, all creative work is subject to Bruce’s personal approval.
Times Have Changed
Forty-five years later, almost everything about product distribution has changed. Because of the ease of shipping CDs around the country, combined with the death of many record stores, Alligator no longer needs local distributors. They have one national distributor (as does almost every other independent label). Bruce injected, “Commercial radio today is full of tightly controlled, hit-driven play-lists. Of course, satellite radio, internet radio, streaming services like Spotify® and Apple Music® and discovery services like Pandora®, have all become major forces in exposing our music. Thus promotion road trips are no longer necessary. We must constantly adapt our promotion methods to current media trends or we will fail. Running an independent blues/roots label now is the hardest it’s been in my entire career.”
This made me wonder what the future held and, certainly, how has marketing efforts changed? Bruce replied, “The biggest retailers of CDs these days are Amazon® and Wal-Mart®. Wal-Mart’s selection is almost all hit-driven; and it’s virtually impossible to get our CDs into there. Amazon has great selection and service, but many older customers want to touch and hold a CD before they buy it. Record stores are not coming back, and CD sales are being replaced by download sales and streaming services. Streaming services pay for the music they stream, but pay only a percentage of their subscription and advertising income. For commercial recording to survive, these services need to raise their payment levels. One good effect of streaming services is that the amount of illegal file sharing and downloads have shrunk. If listeners can hear a song on a streaming service for a low monthly subscription cost, they usually will not risk a virus or poor quality sound from an illegal download site. As far as our marketing effort, we are trying to be constantly adaptable. One thing we do believe—if people hear our music, many of them will like it and want to own or access it. The challenge we have is to make people aware of our music and our artists. Of course the best sales tool we have is an exciting live performance by one of our artists in front of the largest possible audience. That’s one reason we expend so much energy creating media attention for our artist’s live shows.”
By Ed Tutwiler