The music industry as we once knew it has been forced to evolve rapidly in recent years, as technology has grown faster than established business models. Major record labels struggle to maintain control of the radio waves, music sales, artist development, and our ears; meanwhile, established artists like Radiohead and Beck have embraced the Internet, a one-time enemy to record sales, by offering their work at pay-what-you-want prices, or occasionally for free. Other artists, like Jack White with Third Man Records, have taken control of the entire creative process by starting their own indie record labels, effectively surpassing the gatekeepers of yesterday.
Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes and The Bear, John Paul White, and financial advisor, Shoals native, and friend Will Trapp, are bringing some of that anti-Old Guard attitude to our community with their indie label, Single Lock Records. The Shoals has a rich music history, thanks to Rick Hall, Muscle Shoals Sound, and many others who helped establish the recording industry here during the 1960’s and 70’s. Hall’s FAME Studios, with its talented roster of studio musicians, attracted diverse recording artists, including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Cher, Paul Simon, and even the Osmonds. Some of these artists created their best work here. Later, Muscle Shoals Sound opened, recording the Rolling Stones, Traffic, and Bob Dylan, among many others. These days, the music flows OUT of the Shoals, not INTO it.
Talented local bands are gaining attention from established media and a growing fan base that reaches far beyond our community. It seems natural that an indie record label would form alongside the new era of Shoals musicians. We caught up with the talented entrepreneurs behind Single Lock Records to learn a little more about their venture.
AC: The name Single Lock Records is a nod to the Wilson Dam here in Florence, Alabama, which at construction was the largest single lock dam in the world. And many musicians (and other creatives), say the river holds an almost sacred influence over their creativity, process, and success. Tell us a little about why you chose that name.
SL: It was actually Ben’s idea and, honestly, it was the name that we hated the least at first. Now, since we’ve been working on a few projects, it has been interesting to trace back some of the similarities of our model to the concept of a lock. We are pretty narrowly focused on making a record, and not getting too distracted by the other stuff that accompanies selling and marketing a record. The bands (we produce) will be on their own in many ways to put together their own team with management, booking, publishing, and publicity after they set out on the open water. We, of course, will help them with any of these relationships if they want us to help, but we aren’t bringing them in to make a record with a robust plan about what to do next. They’ll figure a lot of that out for themselves.
AC: How has our area’s music history influenced Single Lock Records?
SL: We have so much respect for the musicians, songwriters, and producers that have made this area their home. We appreciate how much of the music that was made here over the past 50 years has impacted artists around the world. There is clarity of thought that artists seem to have, so that the music is not overly complicated. It’s encouraging to see how many of the newer artists and bands are actually writing their own music. The songs are written and recorded in a way that invites a listener to connect to a story. It’s genuine, heartfelt, authentic, simple, but also very personal.
AC: How will bands fare better with smaller labels, like Single Lock Records, over a major record label?
SL: There might be some doors that a major label could open for a band that we could not. There might be some big advances that a major label could provide that we would not. A number of things relating to size of distribution or scale are advantages to going with a larger label, but in many ways they are trying to adapt by taking cost out and getting leaner (becoming smaller). Our focus is primarily on making good records, not on “all the other stuff” that has to do with being a “label”. We will keep an artist’s debt to us low, so that they can begin receiving an income stream from record sales as soon as possible. That gives a band more control over how they want to spend money. Do they want publicity or new gear or tour support to play in a new market? They can make those decisions and have more autonomy. This is in contrast to signing a major label contract, receiving a large advance (also known as your debt to repay), giving up rights to a publishing company, spending lots of time doing other things at the request of other people that have nothing to do with making music.
AC: What sets Single Lock Records apart from other indie record labels?
SL: I think we are fortunate to have Ben and John together in our area. They have both been part of unusually successful music in the past few years. They’ve got a great sense for the most critical parts to producing a record, and also for our artists they serve as great advisors. At the end of the day, it’s about making music that people want to listen to. If you can’t do that, then it’s not really meaningful. They have very high standards for what they work on, and at the same time, when they’re finished with something they move on quickly. It’s a great skill. There are a lot of great indie record labels, even in our area. I know Jason Isbell just started his own, Southeastern. His record is coming out soon and will be outstanding. Doc Dailey has been putting his records out under Southern Discipline, a label he founded. Out of Birmingham, Communicating Vessels and Skybucket are putting out good stuff. This Is American Music (TIAM) out of Atlanta has put out some great records, including the Pollies’ first album. We love a lot of the music these other labels are putting out and could potentially collaborate on some things in the future. Collaboration is another part of our label that we really want to promote. It’s not common, which is something we like.
AC: Ben, how do you balance being a full-time working musician and a record label executive? Isn’t there an innate polarity between the two?
BT: I think traditionally, there often is a big disconnect between musicians and label executives and their respective interests, but we’re hoping to avoid that. John Paul and I are coming at this as musicians, and we want artists’ interests to come first, so hopefully we’ll avoid that polarity.
But as an individual, it’s been a juggling act for me since we decided to start Single Lock, but I think I’m getting better at it. When I’m on the road, there’s a lot of downtime, so I usually have time to catch up on e-mails and phone calls. The challenge is to turn off my role as “label executive” when actually working on the music. If I’m playing or mixing, I don’t need to be thinking about updating the website or reviewing a contract.
AC: Alabama Chanin is a Slow Design company, producing lifestyle goods and clothing and we depend upon collaboration to create our products. We believe there’s a strong connection between fashion, design, food, craft, DIY, and even music. Collaboration seems to be at the heart of Single Lock Records. Do you feel there’s an intersection of other elements influencing Single Lock Records as well?
SL: We really want to be simple and transparent with our artists. The way we’ve structured our agreements more closely resembles a traditional partnership, with agreed upon expenses and shared profits. There’s a unique culture of collaboration with musicians in the Shoals. It’s in the songwriting, the live performance, and for the most part in the studio community as well. You’ll find that a number of the musicians in these local bands are playing on each other’s records, playing at each other’s shows, and supporting whoever is working on the next project. I don’t think it works that way in Nashville, but I think even that is changing a bit. There is an undercurrent of survival and revival that is happening in music, as the power shifts away from large established companies to the artists and bands making music.
AC: We love your logo. Who designed it? (A Shoals local?)
SL: Chris James did the logo and he is local. He also plays bass for Belle Adair and The Pollies. We always try to partner with someone local whenever possible, and we also want to let musicians use some of their other skills and talents. Ben Stedman (who plays with Doc Dailey and The Bear) and Laura Bethea have worked on our website, both local designers, and Jonathan Oliphant has put together some great video for a few shows.
AC: Can you share what is on the horizon for Single Lock?
SL: We are very excited about the record just released by The Bear. Those guys (and gal, especially) are very talented. If you haven’t bought their record, Overseas then Under, you’re in for a treat. Belle Adair will be releasing their first full length LP in August, The Brave and the Blue. They’re also going to be commencing a much more active touring schedule. In fact, The Bear and Belle Adair played a great show in Atlanta at a very cool restaurant, The Optimist, this past Saturday (5.25). That restaurant was Esquire’s “New Restaurant of the Year” last year, and the chef, Adam Evans, is a Shoals native. We all grew up together at Muscle Shoals High School. Then we have St. Paul and the Broken Bones releasing their first album in September. We are all very excited for everyone to hear it. Ben just finished mixing that at FAME in Studio A, where so many of those original soul records were recorded. This is our first year, so these 3 or 4 projects seem to keep us very busy at the moment, but it also feels like the momentum is just building. We’re talking to a few others about doing some recordings later this year or into 2014. It’s amazing to us that people, even here in the Shoals area, aren’t aware of the good music coming out of this community now. Celebrating the past is wonderful, and the history is remarkable. We are usually some of the first to promote that outside of our area, but we are just not going to sit around and talk about how great it used to be. We really want to do our part, however small, in making the future of music in our community great.
AC: What does our community, and the world at large, need to know about Single Lock Records (and the future of Shoals music)?
SL: We think there is a great community of new bands settling in the Shoals. These artists can be such a great part of our town if we can find ways to cultivate their talents. This includes being a viable indie label for them to get their music heard. We think everyone needs to be supportive of their contributions. This means come out whenever we have live music. Find some way to pay a local band for playing a local event. Take some time to find a local band that you like. We are certainly going to do our part to put ours out there, but there are others too. If we can’t be a community that sustains the art of live music and recordings then it will just go somewhere else.
AC: Could you choose six songs that would describe Single Lock Records to a musical novice?
SL: I’ve Been Loving You Too Long: Otis Redding, Up to Me: Bob Dylan, Cover Me: Eddie Hinton, No Reply: Belle Adair, Thinking of You: The Bear, Sugar Dyed Honey Pants: St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Hey Jude: Wilson Pickett, Make it Rain: Tom Waits