CHICAGO BLUES: Alligator Records Part One
by Terry "Gatorman" Lape

Posted on 12/02/2009 by Gatorman

Part One

Alligator Records

Bruce Iglauer

Thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions for me.   

How did you first start in the record business?

I came to Chicago at the beginning of 1970 to work for Bob Koester, my mentor and hero, at his label, Delmark Records, and in his store, the (still wonderful) Jazz Record Mart. I thought I was going to stay for a year and then go to graduate school, but I’m still here. At first I just wanted to be around the blues scene, and to see recordings being made. I became Bob’s shadow; if he went to a South or West Side club, I went along. If he went to the studio, I was there as gopher. If he was editing tape, I wanted to watch. My first recording session was “Junior Wells’ South Side Blues Jam” with Buddy Guy, Louis Myers, Otis Span, Fred Below and Earnest Johnson. It was like going to heaven. I also got to watch/help out on sessions with Robert Lockwood Jr., Roosevelt Sykes, Jimmy Dawkins and a few others. I never dreamed of having my own label; I just wanted to work for Delmark. Bob is still a huge hero to me, and I feel he’s never gotten the credit he deserves as a key figure in bringing the blues to the world. I walk in his footsteps.

At that time, the entire blues scene was in the black community, and I was going to the little ghetto blues bars 4-5 nights a week. The music was often just terrific, and the atmosphere was very special. The musicians and the audience were basically the same people, and they communicated in a way that I don’t see when blues is more of a presentation, as it usually is today. The people in these ghetto clubs shared a cultural understanding, a history and understood blues as a way to heal everyone’s emotional wounds, not just a form of entertainment. Those nights were some of the happiest experiences of my life. Often I was the only white person there, and almost everyone was very friendly and welcoming. Sometimes the street was a little scary, but the clubs (which were basically neighborhood bars with a band) were full of working class people who understood that I was there for the music, and appreciated it. This was before I was a record guy; I was just a fan, and a “hippie” (at least in appearance). I got to know a lot of musicians personally.

Junior Wells always kept an eye on me and we drank on street corners. People like Lefty Dizz , Eddie Shaw, Big Bad Ben and Magic Slim were really nice to me.

Why the Blues?

It’s hard to explain, and I don’t entirely understand it myself. They say that if you don’t love the blues, you have a hole in your soul. Well, it seems like the blues fills the hole in my soul. From the first time I really heard blues, at a Fred McDowell performance in 1966, it was as though blues spoke directly to the innermost part of me. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. I felt Fred’s music was the most honest, direct and emotional thing I had ever heard. After that, other kinds of music seemed false and plastic. These days, I’m not an easy man to move with music, but when the blues works for me, it still works just like it did that first time. Blues has made me happier than I ever imagined, and it’s wrenched me more than I ever imagined. Sometimes it’s so good it makes me cry (in a good way). First and foremost, I’m a fan. That’s crucial in understanding what Alligator is about. I made a label to share my fan-dom with others.

In 1971 you left another blues label shortly after you recorded Hound Dog Taylor & the House Rockers. Did you have any idea at that time that you would become one of the most influential Blues Men in the industry today?

Not at all. When I recorded Hound Dog (while I was still working at Delmark Records), all I hoped was to sell enough copies to make another record. I never dreamed of a catalog of 260 albums. Hell, I never dreamed of having an employee! Everything was day to day, just trying to make my company survive. I never wanted to be a businessman, but I realized early on that unless I was good at business, I couldn’t make more records. So, I learned. A lot of people I know tried to start labels at that time. They loved the music but didn’t take time to learn the business.

What did it cost for that very first record?

That’s easy—my first studio bill was $956 dollars. That included cutting the master disc. We recorded direct to two-track, mixing as we went. There was nothing to do over. We recorded each song a couple of times, and chose the best versions.  I paid the band $960 dollars--$480 for Hound Dog and $240 each for the other two members of the band. Of course, that was an advance. They made thousands on royalties over the years. I pressed 1000 LP's, and got the jackets printed on credit. Then the hard work began!

In the start up years, what were some of the challenges you faced?

Essentially, everything, I had no distributors, no radio play, no press, no booking for the artists I recorded, no road management, nothing. I was on my own. So, I found distributors (some of them I knew as Delmark distributors, but others I had to find; I wanted distributors who weren’t so specialized that they only dealt with a few stores), made my own contacts with radio and press, booked the bands, traveled with them, published their music, and pretty much did everything, including packing and shipping the boxes of LPs. I could only afford to release one album a year, and if that one didn’t sell, it was hard to get the distributors to pay me for anything. I was operating out of an efficiency apartment in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. It took two years to move to a three-room apartment, and a year later I bought a small house. It took from 1971, when I started, until 1985, before I wasn’t living in the same place as Alligator. I didn’t have a full time employee until 1977. Eventually I had seven people coming to my house, with LPs warehoused in the basement and 7000 cassettes in the kitchen. I knew then it was time to move, either the label or me. I chose to move the label, and I still live in the house. Alligator has never stopped being a challenge, or a battle. Actually, this may be the hardest time ever in the history of the label. I don’t know how record labels are going to survive the closing of literally thousands of stores and the rampant illegal downloading. Plus blues is not at the peak of its popularity right now. We need some young champions of the music who have a vision for taking the blues into the future.

Can you name some of the very first artist’s you recorded?

Sure. Hound Dog Taylor, Big Walter Horton, Son Seals, Fenton Robinson, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Albert Collins and the Living Chicago Blues series, which had 18 different artists spread over six LPs. It’s now four CDs.

Can you tell us a little bit about the costs involved to develop an artist for recording?

Every album varies in costs. First, there is the cost of the musicians, both the sidemen and the leader. These can vary a lot. Then there’s the studio cost—typically $600 to $1000 per day. In the old days, recording tape was a big expense, often $1500 or more for an album. We usually spend between three and ten days recording, and mixing is usually about three songs a day. There are artists who record really quickly, like Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, and artists who need more time. When I’m the producer (I’ve produced or co-produced about 125 albums), I prefer the faster artists. I’m not super patient!

I like to do as much rehearsal as possible. I don’t think the studio is the place to experiment with arrangements. The studio is the place to get the best possible performance. But sometimes, when I’m working with an out of town band, we have to pull a lot of the music together in the studio.

Once I’ve recorded and mixed, then there’s mastering (usually around $1000-$1500 if you want it done right), photos, packaging. And then we get to manufacture about 4500 CDs that we give away as promo copies, to radio, press, and retailers. Then we have to buy retail programs at the stores—things like listening posts and top shelf positions and featured placements. None of those things are free. And we have to do our basic advertising. Usually this means that we’re spending $15-20,000 per release to set up the recording in the marketplace before we sell a single copy.

In the meantime, we’re working with the artist, the booking agent and hopefully a professional artist manager to do tour planning, so that the artist is out in front of the public when the new release is being promoted. We have about three months when the media and stores will think of something as a new release. After that, it’s back catalog.  During that three month period, we will spend additional money advertising and publicizing every gig the artist does. We continue to publicize gigs after that, but our big advertising push is in those first 90 days.

One thing that’s important to understand is that we have to pay for all these things, on a product that gives us a profit of around $6 per CD (less for a downloaded album).  So it’s a very risky proposition. Alligator spends more promoting a release than anyone else in blues, and I like to think we do it better.

How do you find new artists?

I’m constantly listening to artists, both on demos or home made recordings (or on other labels) and at live gigs. The first thing I go by is my gut feeling. Does this artist reach my emotions, stir me, touch a little of my soul? It’s MY label; I have to believe in everything we release.

Alligator probably signs at the most one or two new artists a year. So, as you’d imagine, these decisions are terribly important. Besides the cost of making a new record, including paying the artist, we spend tens of thousands of dollars promoting, marketing and advertising every new release. And of course we also spend hundreds of hours of human time trying to attract the attention of the media, the retailers and potential customers. Plus, for every artist or band we sign, this means there are hundreds that we don’t sign. If one of them had been a better choice (or maybe not signing anyone new and attempting to further promote our existing roster of artists would have been the smartest choice), then we have wasted a huge amount of time and money. In 2009, the new artists we signed were Buckwheat Zydeco and Tommy Castro, who were obviously already well-established acts. Plus, we released the debut by Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, who had begun life as Little Charlie and the Nightcats and spent their whole recording career with Alligator. In 2008, we signed Janiva Magness, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater and Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King. Again, these were artists who had already had some success on other labels. The last artists we signed who had not been on a nationally distributed label before Alligator were Eric Lindell in 2006 and Michael Burks in 2002.

So, obviously, one thing I look at when considering artists is their previous recording history, including their sales history. I’m always looking for artists who have done a lot to establish their own fan base, whether locally and regionally or nationally. I need artists who have some sense of how to take care of their own careers, or who may have some kind of professional management or booking agent. I can’t deal with artists who are ‘weekend warriors’ or who are unprepared for major touring; getting in front of audiences is the best way blues and roots artists can create fans and sell their music. There isn’t enough radio and other media for blues and roots to make touring less than totally essential.

Of course I look for artists who have their own sound and style, well connected to blues but not repeating what’s already been done. This is a tough row to hoe for artists. The pressure is often to do familiar songs and re-create familiar sounds. But Muddy Waters didn’t become famous by coping Son House and Robert Johnson. B.B. didn’t become famous trying to copy T-Bone Walker. So creating your own songs, or taking other people’s songs and making something fresh from them, is essential for anyone hoping to be signed with Alligator.

Above all, there is the live performance. If an artist can thrill me on stage (and I’m a tough sell), then I’m interested. That includes the ability to play but also to sing really well, and to communicate with the audience.

I do still listen to demos, but it’s been a long time since I found an artist based on his or her demo recording. And these days so many artists who aren’t ‘ready’ are financing their own albums and sending them to me. They are expecting me to take an hour of my life to listen to their album, and are often resentful when I only listen to the first four songs. As almost no one else in the industry listens to demos at all, I would hope they would be thrilled just to get a listen, but often my honest response leads to an angry reply, not a ‘thank you for taking the time’ note. No one wants to hear “you can’t sing”, even when they asked for my opinion. And “you can’t sing” (said really nicely) is my most common criticism of demos and self-made records that I receive.

Can you tell us some of the steps involved in recording an artist?

One thing that distinguishes Alligator from most other blues labels is how much preparation we put in before recording. In the old days, when so much of the standard blues repertoire was still new to younger fans, labels like Delmark could bring artists into the studio and if they didn’t write a lot (like Magic Sam), they could still make great records of songs that are familiar now but weren’t then. Now I work very closely with my artists on repertoire and arrangements, to try to make each album as fresh and original as possible. If I am producer, I generally rehearse quite a bit before we get to the studio, trying to figure out how to give each song its individual identity, planning the dynamics, and honing the lyrics. I try to involve the whole band in creating the arrangement. Musicians play with more fire if they have some ownership of the arrangement instead of just coming in playing a pre-defined part. Plus, sessions are more fun that way.

Some of my artists produce themselves, like Tinsley Ellis , Rick Estrin, Eric Lindell, Lee Rocker and Roomful of Blues. Some bring their own producers, like Marcia Ball, Janiva Magness and Tommy Castro. For some, like Lil’ Ed, Michael Burks and Smokin’ Joe Kubek; Bnois King, I produce with the artist. Under almost all circumstances, I’m going to be involved with the choice of songs and give some input on the arrangements. One thing I like to point out is that I am running a commercial record company, albeit in a specialized field of music. I’m not just saying to my artists “express yourself.” I want them to make honest records that they believe in, with songs they want to perform live. But I also have strong feelings about what each artist’s most distinctive talents are, and why I wanted them on Alligator. I’m not shy about saying to an artist, “that’s the kind of song your fans like” or “that’s not really a song that is showing what makes you special” or “that’s one that will challenge the public definition of you.”

Generally I will insist on approving the mixes and mastering, and want input into the order of songs on an album. I am often called a control freak, but that’s mostly by people who don’t understand the kind of input a label normally has into its releases (outside the world of blues). It’s my job to sell the final album. If the artist gives me something that I can’t sell, then I’m going to disappoint him or her. I have had situations where an artist wants very much to make an album that I don’t believe shows the artist’s strengths, or I simply believe is wrong-headed for that artist, and that I won’t be able to market effectively. In that case, I have sometimes released an artist rather than put out an album I don’t believe in.

What do you look for in a new artist or signing an artist?

I’ve answered some of this already, but to summarize—I want artists who have a real musical vision, with at least one foot firmly in the blues/R&B tradition but other elements that make their music personal and different from what’s already been done. I want artists with both vocal and instrumental talent. I ideally want artists who write their own material, or can personalize songs written by others. The point is of course that they need to have a distinctive, personal sound. I absolutely need artists who know how to deliver on stage. Blues and roots music is all about communication skills, both musical and visual. It’s not only music, it’s also show business, so a visually boring act is not for me (though I know that some artists can hold stock still and keep the attention of the audience through their intensity). I need artists who understand that they are in the business of being professional musicians, and that it’s a full time job. The fun part is doing a show. The un-fun part is leading a band (very different skill set), honoring contracts, working with booking agents, being media-available and media-friendly, not getting too ‘relaxed’ on substances to keep from delivering a top notch show and total professionalism. I need artists who have already established some kind of fan base, even if it’s just local; I need to have something to build on. Ideally, I’d like artists who are internet-savvy and take care of things like Myspace and Facebook. And of course I need artists who are prepared to sell their CDs from the stage, understand how to do that, and don’t think they are ‘above’ taking the fans’ money! But ultimately the real and final question is—does their music move me?  I have built Alligator to be a label that has a consistently of quality, rootedness, and musical urgency. I have to believe in every release. The Alligator Logo is also the Bruce Seal Of Approval. I admit there are some releases I like better than others, but my concept of the label is all killer, no filler.

Terry " Gatorman" Lape


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