Los Angeles, My Successes and Failures Running a Blues Label, Jerry Rosen

Posted on 8/27/2009 by Monica Yasher

I’m a 55 year old college math professor and my two main passions in life are blues and the New York (football) Giants.  In this article, I’ll speak to the first passion.  Why should you care?  As a complete neophyte in the independent music world, I started a blues label, got distribution, found a booking agency for two of my bands and learned about some of the hard cold realities of trying to make it in the record business with limited resources.

When I was a kid, I virtually lived in the Fillmore East.  My favorite bands were the blues rockers, such as Johnny Winter, Allman Brothers, Ten Years After, Paul Butterfield, Hendrix, Clapton, etc. Thanks to Bill Graham, I also got to see BB, Albert and Buddy (not at the same time) and was forever hooked on blues.  Blues is really the only music I listen to when I’m alone and there is no greater blues lover than me.  The fact that I play is secondary to my love for the music.

I played guitar through college, but put it down in the late 70's.  In 1995, I was in a music store in Santa Monica, browsing through the blues CDs, when a guy standing next to me suggested I buy Magic Sam’s West Side Soul and the Wells’/Guy Hoodoo Man CD.  That was it!  I was back into the blues in a major way.  I listened to those CDs over and over and over and couldn’t believe the sheer, raw power they were putting out.  I traded my old Martin (a huge mistake), for a so-so Les Paul and started playing again. For about three years I led my own band.   In 1998, I started attending weekend jam sessions at a club called the New Safari Club in the “hood” (aka South Central Los Angeles).  The master of ceremonies was a bass player named “Oklahoma” Ollie.  Ollie put me in the house band and every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I spent six hours playing and watching blues.
LA had a booming blues and jazz scene in the 40’s and 50’s, which started slowing down in the 60’s.  Many musicians moved to LA from around the country and when they could no longer support themselves with music, they joined the working class.  But, on a typical night, at least a dozen people would come to the club to sing and/or play guitar. One of these people was a younger guy who went by the moniker Little Hank, later known as South Side Slim (I’ll refer to him as Slim).  He reminded me a bit of Magic Sam; he had a similar vibrato thing happening in his vocals and he played guitar a bit like Sam too.  Slim always put on a good show.  I put Slim in my band and we started playing together all over the greater LA/Long Beach area.  Eventually, we got the “bright” idea to start a record label.  I found a few investors and we were off and running.  The idea was to record some of the people I had met at the Safari Club.  Many of the people there had played with the likes of T. Bone Walker, Albert King, Albert Collins, Percy Mayfield, Pee Wee Clayton, and many others.  Two of the better-known names we recorded were Smokey Wilson (who owned the Pioneer Club in South Central) and Deacon Jones (who was Freddie King’s keyboardist in the 70’s).                                                                                                                                           

The label was called South Side Records and our first release was Slim’s “Five Steps.”  The CD featured Slim singing and playing his original numbers, but it also featured Deacon Jones and the backing band was also from the South Central area.  The CD received excellent reviews and we landed a distribution deal.  Our second release was called “More Blues From the South Side” and it had Smokey Wilson doing five numbers.  I also found a female singer Mary Dukes who joined my band and we also recorded a CD.  The distributor ordered enough copies of our releases to give us a decent start and the various blues magazines helped us with nice reviews and stories about our artists.                               

But there were problems.  I couldn’t get a national booking agent for Slim or Dukes and that proved to be frustrating.  There is a belief that you have to pay your dues in blues.  Meaning, you have to be “out there” doing endless numbers of gigs, for years at a time, gradually building a following, until bigger labels or booking agencies will consider you.  But things are considerably more expensive now than in the 50’s or 60’s, and opportunities for playing blues on the road are more limited.  I called every major booking agency, spoke to the head of each one of them, and the story was always the same:  they can’t take on a band that does not command a large salary, because the booking fee is 10%.  While I could understand this on an intellectual level, it seemed to me that it would restrict blues to people with enough money to weather the myriad of expenses necessary to record and tour.  I could see for myself from following the national blues scene that this was impacting the type of emerging blues artist.  One has read the stories of how Bruce Iglauer started Alligator on $1500 (in the early 70’s) by taking Hound Dog Taylor on the road, hitting a lot of college towns.  This is no longer feasible, unless you have huge financial backing.

However, I did manage to land a mid-level booking agency by offering them 20% (you have to be creative).  In the summer of 2002, they booked Slim and Dukes into a few major festivals on the east coast (N. Atlantic and Pocono) and also booked them on month-long tours along the Atlantic Coast.  As you can imagine, this was an enormous expense for my backers and myself, because vans had to be rented and blues clubs don't really cover motel expenses for no name bands.  But we did the tours (I toured with Dukes) and it was amazing to think that, just in a few years, people who had been playing in total obscurity were now being seen by thousands of people.  The tours went well and the bands were well received, but the expenses tended to diminish some of the excitement I felt.  By then, my investors were getting anxious and the financial fallout during the post 9/11 era was damaging. 

My distributor, City Hall Records, was a solid national one who got us into most of the chains and dealt with a large number of smaller regional distributors.  However, Tower Records was the only chain that took our CDs in nationally.  Borders, Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, Sam Goody, and others, only took us in regionally and so we didn’t have enough CDs in the stores to cover expenses.  My investors refused to put up more money if there wasn't enough product in the stores to at least have a chance of making back the investment.  I was caught between a rock and a hard place.  The distributor claimed that it was the label’s job to create interest and that it wasn’t necessary for product to be out there.  Eventually, Tower Records went under and that was pretty much the end of my financial involvement in the label.

But, one of our goals was to put out black blues and give deserving black blues artists a chance to play their music and get some publicity.  In this regard, we were successful.  Dozens of South Central artists played on our CDs, gigged with us, and were written up in blues publications.  Slim took ownership of the label in 2005 and has kept it going and carrying forth our original plan.  He has found people to help release CDs, but without a large amount of money, it is virtually impossible to make any.                    

Large retail chains that sell CDs won’t deal with you if you don’t have a huge budget for promotion.  Furthermore, blues radio is quite limited and doesn’t reach nearly enough people to have an impact on CD sales.  Of course, CD sales are down in general and so it is even harder than ever to sell CDs.  In blues, it is vitally important the artists tour because this obviously brings in publicity and is also the main way for bands to sell CDs.  But the number of blues clubs is shrinking and the pay scale is quite low.  Only very well known bands, on major labels such as Alligator, Blind Pig, Telarc, etc., are able to find booking agencies capable of booking decent tours.  So this Catch 22 of "no label = no publicity and no publicity = no label" permeates the blues world.  This means there is no chance of making money by playing blues unless you have a bunch of it to start off.  Consequently blues rarely attracts the type of people that made it so great in the 40’s and 50’s.  People like Muddy, the Kings, Wolf, Sam, Rush, James, Koko Taylor, Guy, et al, went into blues, in part, because they could make a living at it.  This is no longer possible for many talented people.  I believe that those who care about sustaining this art form need to think of ways to find and support talent in their formative years.  I believe there are ways to do this, and it would be interesting to continue this discussion.

Copyright This article is owned by Jerry Rosen

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