At last week’s American Association of Independent Music’s Libera Awards, Bruce Iglauer, the founder of Alligator Records, was awarded its A2IM Lifetime Achievement Award. His acceptance speech provides a look inside the mind of a man who helped give an entire genre of music - the blues - its due; while operating a thriving independent music company for three decades.
So–a nice Jewish hippie from Cincinnati and a six-fingered blues guitar player from Mississippi walk into a bar. The six-fingered guitar player is named Hound Dog Taylor and the hippie?—that’s me. That afternoon in 1970 in a bar called Florence’s Lounge on the South Side of Chicago, I heard the happiest, most energizing, soul-stirring and fun music I had ever experienced. And I knew it had to be recorded and shared with the world. And now, 44 years and 300 albums later, the spirit of Hound Dog Taylor lives on in everything Alligator Records releases.
I believe this is what binds us together as independent record people—we are driven first and foremost by our mutual passion for music, and the belief that music is more than a commercial product, that it’s something that can move people, inspire them, soothe their souls, make them understand and bond with their fellow humans and, of course, elevate us to higher levels of dancing and partying.
Whether it’s Martin Mills championing a punk band called The Lurkers, Tommy Silverman being inspired by Afrika Bambaataa, or me falling in love with Hound Dog Taylor, we are all first and foremost, passionate music fans. I mean, I assume we didn’t get into the record business for its job security, huge growth prospects, low stress levels and short hours. We Indies are music driven; we understand music as a sell-able product but, more important, as something that fills a deep and essential need in all of us.
I need to thank four people who inspired me in my professional life, because this is a lifetime achievement award:
First, my mother, who showed me by example that, if you’re going to commit to something, you have to make a 100% commitment, and that being a little–or maybe more than a little–obsessive compulsive isn’t always a bad thing.
Second, my mentor and my father in the record business, Bob Koester of Delmark Records. Bob really should be receiving this award. He began his label 61 years ago and is still running it today! In the two and a half years I worked for Bob, he showed me how to run a label that ALWAYS put the music first. I walk in his giant shadow.
Third, Lilian Shedd McMurry, the founder of Trumpet Records in Jackson, Mississippi. She ran a female-owned indie label recording blues and gospel artists in the early 1950s and cut great, iconic records. She was a musical inspiration and one of the most honest people I’ve ever known. She updated royalty statements for long-disappeared artists, songwriters and their heirs for her entire life, just in case they showed up. Then she left her publishing company to me, so now I have to do the royalty statements for those artists!
And finally, my wife, Jo Kolanda. She first noticed me at a Hound Dog Taylor concert, and Luther Allison, Koko Taylor, CJ Chenier and Dave Hole played at our wedding reception. She has never, ever, asked me to treat her as more of a priority than I treat Alligator, and has always said “Your work comes first”….and meant it.
I am so incredibly lucky to have her in my life.
I’m not a soothsayer or a visionary. I don’t know what’s going to happen in this insane, ever-changing business world we try to live in. Will copyright be respected or will its value go to hell? Will we be able to monetize streaming services so that we can afford to make records we’re proud of? Will we be able to open India and China as huge markets for American music? Will the majority of money and power in our industry be controlled by a small group of corporations, or in the diverse world of the Internet, will the playing field become more level, and will quality independent music kick the ass of the multinationals? I don’t have those answers.
I’m a nuts and bolts guy, and over 40+ years, I’ve learned a few things that I feel sure of. One is simple and we all live it every day–everything that I–and you–know about this business, except about music, that is more than five years old just doesn’t matter anymore. We must be constantly evolving and redefining ourselves to discover new and profit-making ways to bring the music to the people. And, as fast-moving, flexible independents, not tied down by huge corporate structures, we are well prepared to do this.
Second, never discount the value of the capable, smart and driven people who work for us and with us. People are NOT interchangeable, replaceable cogs in a machine. You can’t hire someone new (and cheap) to replace someone experienced and maybe more expensive. There is nothing more important (besides having great musicians on your roster) than to have smart, hard-working, dedicated and experienced people with you.
This award should also be going to the 15 quality people who work with me every day, many of whom have worked with me for more than 20 years and who never get the credit they deserve. None of their jobs rises or falls based on the success of one record, unlike so often happens with larger labels. Don’t think that you can downsize your quality staff to keep your company vital and alive. That’s bullshit. It’s hard times in the record business and this I know for sure—when your ship is taking water, and needs bailing and rowing, you don’t get it back afloat by telling your best crew members to jump overboard.
Third, we must constantly remember that we are not only independent, we are interdependent. We will never have the strength of the majors…on our own. But from the birth of NAIRD in 1971 that morphed into AFIM and then the creation of A2IM nine years ago, along with the efforts of our international independent friends at WIN, AIM, Impala, and Merlin working in behalf of many independents, we gain strength by working together, by teaching one another, by feeding information to one another, and by standing shoulder to shoulder whenever the indie sector is threatened, demeaned or treated as second class citizens.
We know that our indie market share is the equal of any of the majors, and we must constantly remind those we are doing business with and the media – and the public too—that our music is every bit as popular, and our music has every bit as much value, as that churned out by the multinationals.
Speaking as a blues expert, I can tell you that we Indies don’t always have our Indie Mojo working, at least not at full force. I recently asked my granddaughter to describe the music she liked best. She said “Indie Rock.” I pointed out to her that Indie referred to label ownership, and her grandfather ran an indie label. She admitted she really had no idea what ‘indie’ meant, except that indie music was cooler than assembly line pop. And I was reminded that most of the public has no idea what “indie” means, except that they think indie is cool.
Therefore, I propose that all of us should begin tagging all our print advertising and every other statement that each of our companies makes with the phrase “A proudly independent record label.” I doubt that majors will compete with a phrase like “The money-driven arm of a giant international media conglomerate.” Let’s get our indie mojo working, and remind the public over and over who are the coolest kids on the block!
Finally, I want to speak about what a lot of us independents do best. The two previous winners of this award have had great success in the mainstream pop market, nurturing the careers and visibility of artists who have won huge audiences. But many of us in the indie world are dedicated to one genre of music—blues, jazz, folk, world music, bluegrass, classical. Although we may sometimes achieve popular success, our commitment is to the niche music that we love. This is where the Indies can shine, and have shined for the last 70 years. We know how to find great niche music talent, how to nurture it, how to record it right, and how to bring it to the public. That’s why the independents have done so well making classic niche recordings that have stood the test of time.
So, in closing, I’d like to say to my fellow specialized labels and also to the whole indie community—those of us who are driven by our love of the music above all, and are determined to bring the music we love to the world– Operate from your position of greatest strength–the strength of the music you record. Record what you believe in, and battle side by side with your fellow Indies for recognition of the value of the music you love. Don’t try to be the majors; be the independents! Or, in the words of my favorite cartoon philosopher, the Wizard from Tooter and The Wizard [Mr. Wizard the Lizard from "Tooter Turtle"]—”Be vat you iz and not vat you is not. Folks who iz what they iz, iz the happiest lot.”