Friday, November 21, 2008

Red House: The little label that just keeps spinning

by JEFF BAENEN, The Associated Press - Friday, November 21, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn.

Digital music downloads, both legal and illegal. Declining record sales. The fickle tastes of the music-buying public. All make it tough enough to keep a small independent label afloat.
Add the unexpected death of the record company's owner and guiding light, and a label could be as obsolete as eight-track tapes.

But tiny Red House Records has managed to survive and even thrive since the death two years ago of president Bob Feldman. Thanks to its sturdy foundation and the passion of its staff, "The House That Bob Built" is celebrating its 25th anniversary and carrying on his mission - to bring the music to the people.

Red House's roster has featured folk stalwarts such as Loudon Wainwright III, former Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, whose 1995 album "South Coast" won Red House its first and only Grammy. The label's appeal is mainly to public radio listeners and the coffeehouse crowd.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Red House caps a yearlong concert tour Saturday (Nov. 22) with a sold-out performance at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, featuring Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka and Cliff Eberhardt. A 64-song, three-CD boxed set, "Red House 25: A Silver Anniversary Retrospective," is set for release Tuesday (Nov. 25).

Losing Feldman, a hands-on businessman who once ran Red House from his apartment and sold records from his trunk, was emotionally devastating to his staff. But it also re-energized the St. Paul-based label, which specializes in folk, roots music and Americana. The employees knew what had happened at other labels when the sole owner died.

"Most of them didn't survive. Their catalogs get sold to another label, and they basically vanish from the face of the business. And we didn't want that to happen with Red House," says Chris Frymire, 47, Red House's vice president of operations and a 19-year veteran at the label.

Red House survived by doing what a lot of other indie labels have done - create a brand that has "stood the test of time," says Rich Bengloff, president of the American Association of Independent Music, a trade organization that represents about 210 labels.

"I would buy a Red House record just based on reading a review or seeing the Red House (logo) on the back of the CD, because I know what they put out," Bengloff says.

A love of music is what makes for a successful independent label, says Tom Riggs, 72, whose Columbus, N.C.-based bluegrass label Pinecastle Records is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

"Most people in independent music still basically love the music, and unfortunately the major labels are run by bean counters as opposed to people who really love music," Riggs said.

Red House is a label that emphasizes singer-songwriters, who were beloved by Feldman.

"The vast majority of pop music out there is really focused on boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl meets boy. They're all love stories, very superficial," said Frymire, the Red House vice president. "Red House artists songs tell a story, evoke an emotion, take you to a time and place you can relate to. There's just depth to it."

Feldman stressed selling one record at a time - a philosophy that his staff continues. The biggest sellers at Red House are Lucy Kaplansky's 1999 album "Ten Year Night" and "A Nod to Bob," a 2001 tribute to Bob Dylan featuring Red House artists. Each has sold more than 70,000 copies.

Larry Groce, host, artistic director and founder of the National Public Radio program "Mountain Stage," cites the "very thoughtful songwriting" of Red House artists, who are frequent guests on his show. Groce said Red House is "not aiming at the lowest common denominator and they're not trying to win over the mass market."

"The people who like to listen (to Red House music) are more of a literary bent," said Groce, who had his own hit, "Junk Food Junkie," in 1975.

Iowa singer-songwriter Greg Brown started Red House to issue his first two albums, naming it after the red house he was living in outside of Iowa City. A champion of folk music, Feldman invested $2,000 to reissue Brown's "The Iowa Waltz" and eventually quit teaching to focus on the label. Red House now has nine full- and part-time employees at its office in St. Paul's Midway area, a number that has held steady since Feldman's death in 2006.

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