Music Maker & the Music Industry
inTheir Musicon January 25, 2018
Even in today’s music business, the album is crucial to an artist’s career. Without an album you can’t get gigs, and every musician wants to gig. When I met Guitar Gabriel, Captain Luke, Willa Mae Buckner, and the community of blues musicians in Winston Salem, NC back in 1991, I was trying to figure out how to get these great artists–total outsiders to the mainstream music business–into the record industry.
Tim recording John Lee Zeigler, 1994
As I got to know artists like James “Guitar Slim” Stephens, JW Warren, John Lee Zeigler, and Etta Baker, they explained to me that releasing records on small labels was often a dead end. The records were released, but no one ever sent them a single copy for themselves or their family. Often, they’d hear their own record for the first time when a visitor would come by with a copy and play it for them. If there was any advance involved, it was a small one.
I understood this system. These records were produced by enthusiasts or academics who did their best to get the music they loved out into the world, and eventually music lovers around the world would find and fall in love with these recordings. The artists did get new attention, and all in all it was a positive contribution, but I saw a need for better communication between all the parties. I believed I could find a way to take the music further, and get more for the artists.
I set my sights high from the beginning, and worked tirelessly to get them signed to major labels. I had my first success on that front when I began working with N2K records, and later Cello Recordings. But this was during the heyday of the music business, and the relationships were cut short by the collapse of the overall music industry in the late 90s.
But looking back in history, it became clear that blues musicians were never well supported by the record industry, even when it was healthy. Even iconic blues musicians at the top of their profession, like Lead Belly, Professor Longhair, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Woody Guthrie, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Son House, never sold many records. They barely made livings touring. Yet these are the nationally celebrated musical icons who shaped and defined American popular culture. If even they couldn’t get a fair shake, something was wrong.
It was apparent to me that trust must be built in order to support and sustain the musicians who carry the torch of our deepest and most fruitful cultural expressions. We had to create a new model to engage with artists working and living outside of the mainstream–one that would be sustainable despite trends in the recording industry. This model would become the Music Maker Relief Foundation. This model is built on giving artists the critical support needed to meet their basic needs and strengthen the foundations of their everyday life, so that they can record albums and eventually tour, if they so wish. Music Maker also acts as a network, connecting musicians to a supportive community of other artists and music professionals. This community promotes and inspires the music, advocates for fair pay, and strives to turn a historically bitter and extractive relationship into an additive one, filling the soul and respecting the work.
— Timothy Duffy