Music in Cambridge
Music in Cambridge Interview Clips Feedback About Map

Bill Nowlin

Bill Nowlin

Founder of Rounder Records

Interviewed by Katrina Morse
Date 10/11/2010

Katrina Morse: I’m talking with Bill Nowlin—am I saying that correctly, Nowlin?—

Bill Nowlin: Yes.

KM: Bill Nowlin, one of the founders of Rounder Records. I wondered if you could talk a bit about the founding of Rounder Records, the early years of the company, and I guess how it fit into the music scene in Cambridge at the time. It was 1970’s that it was founded?

BN: Yeah. The company itself started in Somerville, but almost all of its existence has been in Cambridge—well, a large part of its existence has been in Cambridge, and it was certainly informed by music in Cambridge--and Boston, but mostly Cambridge. Myself and Ken Irwin were roommates at Tufts University in Medford starting in September 1962. And in the first few months or so we got into the folk music scene that was very active then in Cambridge and Boston, and began going to a lot of concerts. We often got free tickets by putting up posters around campus, advertising different concerts by working with the promoters, hoping to attract other students from college to come to their show. So they’d give us each a pair of tickets and we’d do this advertising for them. The Club 47 was the place we went more than any place. That only cost a dollar to go to and it wasn’t—they didn’t really need the extra publicity anyhow, they were sold out most nights. It was incredibly active, I mean, for a good band that was out of town or good artist, we would often get in line two to three hours before the show time, and it would be—because it only held about one hundred and fifty people or something, I don’t know the number. It was a very educated audience, too. People that came and were dedicated enough to spend that time standing in the line knew who the artist was, and knew maybe something about them. So you’d be sitting there talking to people, most of us learned about music through records in those days and so we’d sometimes talk about records. You could say things to people like “Wow, that third track on the second side, wow wasn’t that great?” And people would say “Yeah, yeah, I really liked that one, but what about the first one on the first side?” You know, you could have that kind of discussion with people without even naming the songs because people knew what you were talking about. It was also kind of, some of us were really in awe of these musicians and what they brought there. Ken and myself, for instance—now, since we started this company, as you mentioned, in 1970, now we deal with musicians a lot, but back then we were afraid to talk to them because they were big stars for us, even if they could only draw one hundred people, hundred fifty people, because they were a banjo player from the back porch of some place in rural West Virginia, for us they were big stars, and enough other people came that we could sell out a place like the Club 47 and have to stand in line beforehand to get there or you’d miss out. This was basically what we did for all four years of college and we ended up rooming together most of the time, there was a little thing junior year I think where we each had separate rooms for a couple of months and it didn’t work out with that roommate so we ended up moving together again. And we were just really into record collecting and going to see these shows. There were groups that we wanted to record—sorry, I’m saying something wrong again. There were groups that we wanted to buy records of and they just didn’t exist, so we wrote to record companies and said “Why don’t you put out a record by this group or that group,” and often they’d write back and say “Well, they’re just not on our list right now, but if you make a tape and send it in we’ll consider it.” So that sort of stuck in the back of our mind, I guess. We graduated from college after four years and went off to graduate school and kept in touch, and once or twice hitchhiked down to North Carolina to a fiddler’s convention at Union Grove, North Carolina, based on a record that we’d heard played at the Club 47, and we’d purchased the Folkways album—I think it’s number 2433, if I’m not mistaken—and we went and saw a lot of these people that were from that area performing at this festival. A lot of bands we’d never heard of before came there too, this competition to see who’s the best fiddler and that type of thing. On one of those trips, about a year or two after we graduated from college, Ken got a ride back—we hitchhiked back, we came separately from me that time—with a guy that owned a small record company in West Virginia, and they drove Ken over to his house and said he could spend the night and they talked about their record company. It was just a young couple of people from a small town in West Virginia, and yet they’d started a record company, and that impressed Ken. He came back and said “Geez, maybe we should do that with these groups that, we could record some of these groups that we want to have records of. Basically the idea was we would just do some of that, kind of like a hobby. When we were at Tufts I started a humor magazine with some people at college and we, kind of like a Lampoon or something, started a magazine, and I had done that even as, even when I was in seventh or eighth grade I had a little neighborhood newspaper that I used to print off. It was kind of something I did, I guess, was produce things like newspapers or magazines, and records therefore weren’t necessarily all that different, except there was a different technology and we didn’t know where to make records or anything. But we found out. A lot of our records were on Folkways so I wrote a letter to the head of Folkways and said “Where do you, how do you get these records made? Where do you make them?” And he actually wrote back and told us the name of the company he used to make the records, so I kind of explored that. Eventually we started doing it. We made two records to start with, five hundred copies of each, just very small scale production, because really we only had about a thousand dollars that Ken had saved up and that’s what we used to begin the company with. But it was enough to make up a thousand albums, five hundred of each of these two. And we sold them. The first sales we made were really in Harvard Square, there was a store called Discount Records there that took five of each and that was our first sale.  I just talked to them, said “Can you take these, I’ll come back in a month and if they sell you can pass, otherwise we’ll take them back again.” So they didn’t have anything to lose. And they did sell, we came back and they took some more. That’s the kind of thing that we did around this area but also we began in the summertimes when we weren’t in school—we all went to graduate school afterwards—driving around the country, mostly the Southeast, to different music festivals, and we set up a little shop there with our two records at first and them some records that some other people had made that we carried with us so we wouldn’t just have two records, but we had maybe thirty records to start with, a selection of different recordings. Basically we had a little retail shop. Ken had meanwhile met our third partner Marian Leighton, who’s now Levy. They met during one summer just before we began. She was involved from before the beginning of the actual company. I didn’t say that sequentially but that’s the way it was. So the three of us, the first albums came out on—we’re very close to the fortieth anniversary—came out on October 22nd, 1970. As we speak now it’s October something or other—

KM: Eleventh.

BN: Eleventh—so we’re eleven days away! So it was never, we were, we each worked other jobs and put some money in, we all lived in the same place for quite a period of time, seven years, the first seven years or so we didn’t take any money out, we were mainly putting money in from other jobs, and money that we would make by selling these records, and we built the company that way. I mentioned we put out two the first year, we put out three the second year, and I think we put out nineteen the third year. It was just like it ballooned all of a sudden because we got tremendous feedback from people that were saying “Wow, this is great, what are you doing next?” and “How about you record this person or that person? I’ll set it up for you.” And we had all kinds of help from people, too. The, right from the second, well, we put out those two albums at the same time. One of them was from a banjo player from North Carolina, George Pegram. I had taken some photographs—he was at this Union Grove convention—I had taken some photographs of him there, so we used one of those for the cover photograph. For the other album, it was of a group that was based in this area, Cambridge/Boston, called the Spark Gap Wonder Boys, and in that case there was a guy who said “Listen, I’ll take the photographs for you”—it was Peter Simon I guess, well Carly Simon’s brother, from Simon and Schuster and so forth, so he didn’t need any money or anything, he was a friend of the banjo player and they went to Boston University together. And another friend was a graphic designer who worked at B.U., and he said “Listen, I’ll design the covers for free, but my deal is that I want to design all of your covers for free, not just one.” We said “Ok, that sounds like a good deal to us!” He had no idea we were going to end up putting out nineteen records in the third year and he reached a point where he couldn’t really design them all, but he designed maybe twenty albums for us over the first four, five years, and all for free. That was his way of helping out. People wrote notes without charging us, the studios were often free. The first album that we did around here, the Spark Gap Wonder Boys, half of it was recorded in the Harvard radio station and the other half at the MIT station, so two different Cambridge radio stations, and no charge. It was just “You can use this studio here, we’re broadcasting over here, but use this studio.” And had a tape machine and somebody helped record the songs. So it was really helpful, the king of music we were doing was certainly not pop music, way off the beaten path. Most people would never have heard of these groups except for the small group of people that was, that we would find waiting in line at the Club 47, for instance, or something like that. There were similar groups in other cities, often around university areas like Ann Arbor, Berkeley, New York City, so forth. There would be people there, they developed a kind of network, a community, people who came about a half a generation before us had done an awful lot of work, people like Joan Baez and Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler. There was a whole group of people that all got to know each other somehow or other, so a group that would be booked in New York could be booked in Boston the next night and Providence the night after that, and maybe go to Saratoga Springs and play a coffee shop there. So it became feasible to bring a performer up from, say, Virginia and have them play several places and make a little bit of money and go back home again. Have a successful tour that wasn’t as expensive as if one group here had just brought them all the way back up and then go all the way back again. Everybody could share the expenses that way. It was a whole folk circuit that really developed around that time. And we were just fortunate, I think, to be in the right place at the right time. There were some smaller record companies, like the place in West Virginia I mentioned, and also I mentioned Folkways Records in New York, there was another couple of companies in New York, County Records and Yazoo Records that I had, I had lived in New York for about a year and I just went, because I was curious, I went and visited them and got to know the guys that run the company, and sort of asked them what it was like. Again, before we had an idea of starting a company I was just curious. So I had some, you could call them contacts, and this was not a deliberate thing, it was just something I was interested in so I learned about it. And then there’s a company out at Berkeley called Arhoolie Records. All these companies—Yazoo doesn’t exist anymore because he died but all the other companies are still in business one way or another, even though dozens of small labels have been started since aren’t around anymore. But we had all this help, we had real money coming in because a huge bestseller might sell a couple thousand copies but we had rather little by way of expenses, there was enough to make some money and then plow it back into doing some other stuff. We always saw it as kind of a non-profit organization. It was just something we were doing, it was a hobby that just grew and grew and grew. Eventually, after about four years of it, now we had maybe thirty albums out, thirty five, even forty albums out by the end of the fourth year. It was becoming rather active and busy. I was teaching college up at what is now U. Mass Lowell much of the time but Ken rather quickly—well, both Ken and Marian were also in graduate school, but both of them progressively stopped to devote more full time to the music, and then I eventually did too. But meanwhile I was getting a pretty good paycheck and college teacher, you only have to work seven months out of the year and only three days a week, so it wasn’t really all that oppressive. I had plenty of time to devote to the record company. But eventually it got in the way and so I dropped that also. It just grew. It was a lot of hard work. It’s not really the most fun, packing boxes and pulling orders and answering complaints of people who’s record got broken in the mail, and that kind of stuff, but it never seemed like work to me. Teaching was work, it was something I did because I got paid for it, and if I hadn’t had the record company going I probably would have thrown myself more into teaching and enjoyed it more. I did kind of enjoy it. But there were days I’d phone in sick to college—of course, you wouldn’t tell them that—it’s been a few years. I couldn’t call myself up and say “I’m feeling sick today,” and I don’t ever remember being sick in particular—I’m sure there was a day or two I was just sick and just laid down and didn’t do anything much, but mostly we had records that we had to pack up and box and ship out, ideas to pursue, we’d call people up and say “Can we make a record with you?”  None of us had any business training so this was all just stuff we’d learned on the fly. We fortunately didn’t make too many really bad mistakes, and I guess we learned quickly enough from some of the mistakes that we did make, but with so many people helping us out, and kind of a vacuum--void maybe would be a better word for it--that we were filling, because there were a lot of people like us that wanted to buy records of these people and some of the more established companies that had maybe bigger overhead and couldn’t afford to do some of the things that we were doing, they just weren’t putting out records or weren’t putting out enough records. There had been a big folk boom around the time we were in college, but then groups like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles came along just about our junior year,  and all of a sudden the interest in folk music kind of went underground again because there were all these exiting new bands that were around, doing all kinds of other different things, and people--including me--liked some of that music. I just never stopped liking old banjo players too, but other people just went off in this other direction. Mainly the record companies did, some of these record companies that would be putting out some of these lower selling, more minority interest music, they followed the bigger bucks and went off, and so it really was kind of a void that we filled at the time. So there’s a monologue. Maybe you’ve got other questions that’ll bring out more, certainly.
Katrina: That was great. Yeah, I had a couple of follow-up questions to that. Did you find it difficult initially to get artists to agree to sign with you since you were still in college, pretty young—were people skeptical, or how did that work?

BN: Well, we all had graduated by the time we started. We’d been out, two years in Marian’s case and four years in Ken and my case, although we were all still doing graduate work of one kind or another. Not much trouble, getting people to agree. There were some odd times, especially in the rural South. Some people thought, you know, we’d say we’d like to make a record of you and they’d say “Oh, that’s nice,” and they’d be kind of a little, maybe hesitant in some fashion, and it took us a little while to figure out that in some cases they thought that we were asking them to pay us to make a record. In other words, that we were selling them some kind of a vanity project, we were gonna say ”Ok, we’ll make a record of you. If you give us $4000 we’ll give you a thousand albums.” And that wasn’t what we were doing. When they realized that we were talking about paying them so they could make a record, things often changed. A couple of people couldn’t believe it, they said “Me? Who would want to listen to me?” But mostly we heard of people that had it out there in one degree or another, otherwise we wouldn’t have heard about them at all. There just were a couple of people that never did record because they didn’t think they were good enough or they were too nervous, they thought—there would be some money going back and forth, and maybe they thought they would inevitably lose out and they didn’t want to get exploited in some fashion. I think there’s only been two or three people like that, though, that had that extreme a reaction. Most people said “Great!” and didn’t really ask too much about the business side of it. People have gotten a lot smarter since that time. Fortunately, most of—almost everybody that started—there were a lot of people that came within a year or two after us and started up smaller companies, too. And, as I said, we had some people, like, five years before us. I don’t know of any of those companies that really was out there to cheat the artists, as opposed to maybe back in the nineteen twenties and nineteen thirties, when record companies first started, there was a lot of non-paying of royalties and stuff like that. I think that most—I mean, probably some people were incompetent at doing business and so they never got around to paying royalties or something, but, we knew most of the people that came along. We formed a trade organization of independent record companies, and had an annual convention and people would come there and share ideas and so forth, each year. Most people were really good. I think that most people knew there was this legacy in the past of, especially blues artists, getting ripped off, and wanted to overcome that. What we did, at first, partly because we were naïve, was we decided to pay double royalties, in effect. We looked at what the other companies were paying and we decided we’d just pay twice as much as they paid, because we weren’t really into it for money ourselves. We didn’t take any money out for more than four years. It was really the end of the fourth year that we decided, “Well, ok, let’s pay ourselves.” I think it was four hundred dollars a month, is what we each paid ourselves. Which wasn’t bad. If we hadn’t all been living together and so forth at the time it wouldn’t have gone very far. There’s one funny story that—this must have been in the first five years at some time. We wanted to do a record with Doc Watson, so we called him and he said “Well, let me ask around” and so forth, because he’d already recorded for a couple of big companies in New York, like Vanguard Records, so he was more astute in the sense of having that kind of experience and being in more demand. We were kind of reaching high to think about recording him, compared to the way things had been. Then eventually we heard back from somebody else that…well, wait a minute, I told that the wrong way. This was before we talked to Doc, because we actually did do a record of the Watson Family. There was another musician that we wanted to record, and he said that he didn’t want to record with us. It sort of doesn’t even make any sense. He said that he didn’t want to record for us because we had never paid Doc Watson any royalties. At the time, we had never talked to Doc Watson, and we had no records out that had Doc Watson even as a side person on them, so it was kind of this odd thing, that we were being condemned—this is to answer your question of whether people declined to record for us. This guy wouldn’t record for us because we’d never paid Doc Watson any royalties, he’d heard. And I said, “That’s true, we’ve never paid Doc Watson any royalties. The reason is, that we never did a record with him, and we’ve never had him as a side person on a record, so why would we pay royalties on somebody else’s record?” But he just didn’t trust us, he just didn’t believe it.

KM: He just had some misinformation.

BN: Well, we found out it was one of the very rare occasions where somebody from another record company had tried to harm our reputation. That almost never happened. This trade organization that we set up, people went out of their way to help other people in showing them the forms on which they took inventory: “This is the style I use, maybe you can learn something from it,” that type of stuff. “Who’s your best distributor, in Sweden, “ and we’d compare all these notes with each other. It was remarkable that way. Not, “That’s my secret, I need a little edge here,” or whatever. That kind of fit the spirit at the time, because it came out of the hippie era and everybody was into peace and all that kind of stuff. That really was kind of the way it was, except this one guy who spread these bad rumors about us. We later did go on and record Doc Watson. In fact, even about four or five years ago, most recently, again. It’s been interesting because there have been some people that we’ve recorded that then went off to major labels or another independent label, and then have come back again. A lot of what we did early on was record really traditional musicians that people in their sixties and seventies and eighties, and that a lot of younger people—artists that we recorded, like Mark O’Connor, who’s a pretty well-know violin, fiddle player today, he was twelve when we first recorded him. Alison Krauss is a huge star today; she was thirteen when we first asked her to make a record, and fourteen when she did. Now she’s been with us for, as she says, more than half her life. Of course, she’s double that age now. Bela Fleck was a teenager around this area. We did his first album, he went off and recorded for Warner Brothers, and so forth, and now we’ve done his last two or three albums. It doesn’t necessarily work that way, but it’s kind of nice when it does.

KM: I was going to ask about—it does seem like there’s a lot of artist loyalty, from what I’ve read about the label. Why do you think that is?

BN: Well, there are probably a number of reasons. First of all, we always have paid our royalties, at least to the people we’ve recorded, and usually on time, and usually in the correct amounts. People sometimes come in to check and so forth. Pretty rarely, though, it’s surprising—we think people would do that more, but they just don’t. But when they come in, we sit down and say “Ok, let’s explain how we do the royalties, and we can do the math and see if we’ve made any mistakes.” But because we knew that there was this legacy from the old days of record companies having the reputation of not paying the artist, we always kind of bent over backwards to try to—we set up a system, actually, that was different from the usual system. The usual system is you’d just tell people how many records you sold. We set up a system, because we didn’t own our own pressing plant, we had the records manufactured by a third party that we didn’t own. What I would do when an artist said “I’d like to check on our royalties,” usually I’d say “great” because I knew the word would get around if people checked and they were happy enough with the results. So I said, “Here’s the way to do it. Don’t take my for how many records we’ve sold. Here’s the address of the pressing plant. Write them a letter, ask them how many copies of your record were manufactured, and they’ll write you back and give you that information.” And I’d say, “Here’s what I show: invoice number 10610: two thousand four hundred copies. Invoice number such-and-such, we ordered five hundred. Just check this list with them, ask them if there are other ones that they sold or whatever.” So they’d get an independent accounting, in effect, of how many were sold and how many were manufactured. Then we’d show them how many were unsold. Deducting one from the other you could come up with a figure of how many had been sold. I think people appreciated that kind of approach. Maybe some artists actually like us. That could be another reason. We’re big fans of the music and we really wouldn’t ask people to record for us if we didn’t like the music. We weren’t doing it just because this would be a good money-making opportunity. And they would see us around. We went to festivals, we went to concerts, we’d be traveling around. They probably picked up on the fact that all three of us have always had fairly modest lifestyles, in terms of the way we dress, or we don’t go out to big fancy restaurants all the time, and so forth. We actually kind of got a reputation for being a little, we cut corners often, in terms of expenses, so people could see that we were very cautious with money and not just living it up. Over the years it has done pretty well for us, otherwise I wouldn’t be in a house like this house here, which is a nice house, nice enough, anyhow. Although it’s kind of trashed out, but that’s another story. Also, many of these artists, we were the first people who’d ever asked them to make a record. If you start off early like that, that’s also a good sign. Talking about it as a big family and all that sounds kind of hokey, and I’m not sure how many people saw it that way, but there was some aspect of that. We always talked about the albums as our children. We’d have two new records this month, or that type of stuff. All of us got, I think we were all in our forties before we got married, any of us, so these were kind of like substitute creations of ours or something like that. I think they just perceived that we really cared a lot about what we were doing and how we were doing it, and that counted for something. That’s most people. Inevitably there were some people that got into an argument with us about one thing or another. The grass is always greener, that approach. They’d do a couple of albums with us and be dissatisfied because they didn’t think that we were doing a good enough job for them. Certainly in our earlier years, we didn’t do a very good job at publicity or promotion or selling their records. Our goal was really to make the records and they would kind of sell themselves, maybe. We didn’t put a huge effort into promoting the artist, and there were some artists who began to say “Listen, you’re just on to the next record now. I’m trying to make a career here. I need your help to help build me up as a bigger artist.” We didn’t know what to do in that regard, but we had to learn. There were other companies that came along that actually got better, much better than us, at doing that type of thing, and we began to lose artists that we wanted to keep. So we learned how to do that kind of thing better, also. A lot of it is just kind of an ongoing maturation of one sort. We did learn how to do business too, eventually. None of us had—well, I can’t really speak for the other two, but I never knew what the word invoice meant. When I dropped off records at that discount record store the first time, they said “Be sure to send us an invoice,” and I said “Ok,” but I really had no idea what they were talking about. On the other hand, I had gotten them to sign a piece of paper acknowledging that they had received the records. I did take it back and log it in a book, that I had dropped them off on these days and I filed away the signature so I could prove it later if I needed to. When we got paid I checked off that it had been paid, and we developed our own bookkeeping system, just out of common sense.

KM: Do you think that your lack of business experience starting out worked to your advantage, in terms of maybe artists were more trusting of you because you weren’t the big corporate guys—

BN: I think probably that helped, because we certainly weren’t smoking cigars and saying “Sign here, I’ve got a forty page contract that might say anything.” We tried to keep the contract to one page at first--it grew over time, but we’ve always tried to keep the contracts really short and understandable, so it wasn’t like talking about the party in the first part, just “you” and “me” and that type of stuff. Because we wanted to be pretty transparent. For some people, though, we weren’t business-like enough, and so, as I was indicating with regard to promotion, they would go elsewhere. Some people had a very exalted sense of their own worth, too. It wouldn’t be a benefit to my naming any names, ever though some of these people are deceased. I remember one guy in particular. We had maybe sold about seven or eight hundred copies of his record, and he really believed that we must have sold hundreds of thousands of them. It wouldn’t have even made any sense if he’d thought about it, because where were the people who were coming to see him coming to the shows? Well, there weren’t any. He wasn’t actually a performing artist. How would anybody know? Where were people buying all these records from? How would anybody have ever heard of him before? We put out records for the first seven or eight years just because we wanted to, without any thought towards commercialism or whether anybody really wanted these records or cared for them. Eventually it got to the point where we, again, partly some of the other companies that came up, followed us, they were starting to attract artists away from us, or we’d both be interested in the same artist and the artist would decide to go with the other company because they were more business-like or they were more promotion-oriented or whatever. We improved a lot of systems in that way, too. But I think it kind of helped us—first of all, it was organic in the sense that we learned everything from the ground up. The kind of humility or humbleness that goes along with that probably helped too, because we never saw ourselves as better than the artists; as I’ve said, god, it was the other way around, we were in awe of these people. None of the three of us really have musical talent. That’s one of the reasons why we in awe of them. Otherwise we’d be out making our own records.

KM: Music appreciators.

BN: Yeah. I’ve tried several times, but I can’t keep my mind on the music well enough to—I hear it fine in my head, but then actually making it happen seems to be another thing.

KM: To switch gears a little bit, I know that you served on the board of directors for the Passim Folk Music and Cultural Center. Are you involved elsewhere in the Cambridge music scene? Are you involved with any other organizations, or do you go out and see shows?

BN: Not a whole lot right now. We had gone as fans to Club 47—it became Passim back in the sixties or early seventies. Then after we started we were friends with the Donlins who ran the coffee shop there for almost twenty-five years, so we would go down there frequently because they would have many of our artists there, or maybe other artists that we wanted to see. When they ran into financial difficulty, a group of people in the area decided to try to form a non-profit organization to take over the place, and that still exists. I think they had a few names, like four or five key people I guess, and then they invited me to join them. It was all their idea, they started it all going. They invited me to join. I think I was maybe five or six years on the board. I don’t really know, it might have been longer. It seemed like a hell of a long time to me. Since that time, though, I haven’t really been active so much in, around here, in that kind of thing. We’ve never been really a local label. I mentioned the first two albums we put, one of them was from around here and the other was a banjo player from North Carolina. There’s never really been a disproportionate number of people from this region that we’ve recorded. It’s been all over the country; more the East. If you look at the output of the records and said “Where do you suppose this company is based?” I don’t think people would necessarily have said “Well it must be Boston because all of these people are Boston artists.” It wasn’t like that. We’d actually probably be more likely to record somebody from Tennessee than from Massachusetts. I’m sure we put out quite a few more records from people from Tennessee or Kentucky than from here, just because we were looking for more traditional music of that kind. A lot of it was word of mouth, how we got ideas to do records. I also have had other interests, too. I’ve spent a lot of my time working on baseball stuff in the last fifteen years or so. If you look around the room you’ll see more baseball stuff here than music stuff. Of course, my office at work has a lot of music stuff up. So, I haven’t been so active around here. I was for quite a few years, oddly enough, on the Board of Governors, it’s called, of the Grammys organization, the chapter that works out of Texas. So I would go to Austin to have meetings. The nearby one, the closest one, is in New York. If there’d been one in Boston I might have gotten involved with that, but I ended up just going down to Texas, three times a year, I guess, for meetings and so forth. I did that, I think, for four years.

KM: And were you representing Rounder Records specifically?

BN: No, you’re not supposed to really be talking about your own company. There’s a mixture of people. Some are songwriters, some are musicians, some are in the technical side of things. People that deal with the music business in general. It’s frowned upon to be really promoting your own company, if you have a company to promote.

KM: Would you end up voting on the artists who would win the Grammy Awards?

BN: Yes.

KM: That must have been interesting.

BN: I have voted often for people on Rounder, because I happen to like the music that we put out. I don’t vote in some categories because I haven’t got the slightest idea of who should win the best classical music recording because I don’t listen to classical music. I wouldn’t know Sir Georg Solti from whatever, somebody else.

KM: So they probably like to get people from a wide—

BN: They have thousands of members, so it kind of balances out. You have to be accepted, you can’t just buy your way in. It’s not just pay seventy-five dollars and you’re a member, you have to—it’s relatively easy if you’re serious in the music business. You have to produce five examples of something that you’ve done that is productive. It could be that you’re a singer and you recorded on five albums, or it could be that you wrote liner notes for five albums, which is basically what I had done. But it has to be something, not just that you own the company, that’s not good enough. You have to do something creative because it’s the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, so I guess maybe I’m more on the science side, writing notes and stuff. This is October 2010; back at the very beginning of this year I was one of the five finalists for best album notes. I didn’t win, but I went to Los Angeles and had a nice time. I was kind of scared. Writing liner notes, you don’t get on the national television broadcast, that’s reserved for the most popular artists, but there’s a pre-event and I was very nervous that they were gonna call my name and I would have to go up and say something. I sort of wanted to but sort of didn’t want to at the same time. “What do I say if I get called?” But I would like to win at some time. Try again next year.

KM: Before, you were talking about how you would bring artists up from, say, the South, and they would play in clubs around the Cambridge/Boston area and maybe record. Would you or the record label specifically bring them up? It seems like it was sort of a collaborative—

BN: That’s a good question. There were these people that came before us. The Club 47 had been active for three of four years before we got involved as patrons, as audience members. It was started by people like Betsy Siggins and Jim Rooney and inspired by Joan Baez, who was Betsy’s roommate in college. There’s just a lot of community that spread out in different cities around the country. Most of those places had their own little groups, too. There was a group called the Friends of Old-Time Music that was based in New York City, and they would maybe agree to have a banjo player named Dock Boggs come up from Virginia. When he was coming up, somebody from there would presumably call somebody at Club 47 and say “We’re gonna bring him up on November third. Do you think you could give him one way or another, a day or two afterward?” And they’d say “Yeah, yeah, we’ll book him on the fourth or the fifth,” and they’d put together this kind of a circuit. For several years we were just audience members, just enjoying this as people who liked the music. After we started the record company, we also had become, almost around the same time had become active in a couple of groups that helped promote this type of music. In neither case were we founders or founding members, but often came right afterwards. There was one group called the Boston Blues Society that would bring up blues musicians. There was another group called The Boston Area Friends of Bluegrass and Old-Time Country Music. Now, it then splintered off and the group called the BBU, the Boston Bluegrass Union has just had its twenty-fifth anniversary recently. Four or five times a year they bring up different bluegrass groups and put on concert series. We got active—there was one woman who started Boston Area Friends, and Ken and Marian were actually living out in Ithaca at the time when Ken was going to Cornell for a year or two of graduate work, and so they started the Ithaca Area Friends, and they could become a stop on this circuit that came up. So we did get active a little bit in that type of thing. After we started the record company, also—I think Passim was closed on Monday nights, so sometimes we’d put on, a couple times we had films of folk music that we put on. The Balfa Brothers Cajun band, it worked out that we brought them up to do a show. We really didn’t do that much in terms of putting on shows, except as members of some of these other groups, but not so much us, per se. The Boston Area Friends of Bluegrass probably put on twenty or thirty shows before it split off and the Boston Bluegrass Union succeeded it. We’re still, Ken in particular still actively talks with them about who to bring up. There were some good record stores in Cambridge then. A lot of people today have probably never been to a record store, people that are maybe twenty and younger. Around here you can still find some record stores, but in a lot of areas they just don’t exist anymore.  A lot of people download music, of course, instead of buying the physical objects these days, but there were some really good record stores here. The Harvard Coop had a great music department. The entire second floor of the Coop was all records, which was pretty amazing, a really big and deep selection. There were at least two other active record stores in Harvard Square as well. Early on in our company I would, Saturday morning, I would be waiting, at the Coop in particular, when they opened, and I would go in and make sure that our records were up on display. “Oh, they’re missing this one!” and I knew how to look down below where they kept the overstock and put some of ours up, and put them up in front. Anything we could do to try to sell a few records.

KM: Did they know that you came in and did that?

BN: Yeah, and we were actually performing a service for them in some sense, because we were helping refresh their inventory. We didn’t make a big point about doing it, but putting our records in front all the time wouldn’t necessarily be what they’d want. They   had cards for each artist, they were just alphabetical, we didn’t rearrange the alphabet, but if there were three albums by one musician that were on three different labels, I’d try to make sure that ours was the first one you’d see when you went into that artist. And make sure that ours was in there, too. I didn’t take the others and hide them!

KM: That would have been going too far. Do you think that you could have formed Rounder anywhere, or is there something special or something specific about this part of the world, this city that made it flourish?

BN: Well, there was something about this part of the world that inspired us, so it wasn’t—and I can answer the question more directly, too—but it was because we were here that we had the idea; we wouldn’t have had the idea, possibly, if we were someplace else. It was having the opportunity to see this wide variety of music that was put on by the Club 47, and there were maybe six or seven other places, not as good or as active as Club 47, but other places. There was a place called the Unicorn that put on shows. That tended to be more in Boston. There were often times when you’d see two different things on one night. “Which one do I go to?” We tended to always gravitate towards 47, but sometimes there’d be someplace else we’d go, or we just wouldn’t go out, we’d actually do homework or something. So I think we grew out of this scene that was here, and that probably wouldn’t have happened if we were someplace that was less fertile, let active, and simply didn’t have this music. Someplace in the middle of nowhere sounds not right, but you have to be sort of on some place where these musicians were circulating or we wouldn’t have seen them. They might have had their own kind of music but it might have been less diverse. We just had this array of Cajun musicians, bluegrass, blues musicians, folk singers, gospel singers, all kinds of stuff, some of which was not that great, but enough of which was pretty inspirational to us. Now if we had said “Ok, we like this kind of music now, where could we go to start a record company?” most people would go to New York or Los Angeles because those are the big media centers. Maybe if you were really doing more strictly country, you would go to Nashville, but those are kind of about it. Detroit, for a while, had the Motown sound and all that, with soul music, and Memphis had a fairly active music scene, more in days past--New Orleans, certainly. But beyond that you’d be pushing it. Well, San Francisco in the late sixties and early seventies. I think it benefitted us to be not in Los Angeles and not in New York because I think if we’d been there we might have, there is such a big entertainment industry in those two cities that I think we might have been distracted. There might have been too many other kinds of things to go out and see. People might have said “Hey, come over here, we’ve got this show going on.” Maybe somebody might have said “Hey, we’re shooting a movie of this or that, want to come watch the shoot” or something. There weren’t that many distractions around here, so we’d go pack boxes and develop our mailing list, that kind of stuff. We were off the beaten path, so not seduced by the glitzy side of things might be in some of these other places.

KM: Sort of related to that, how do you think the music culture in Cambridge/Boston/Somerville is different from that in other parts of the world, other music cities?

BN: Then or now? Because I couldn’t really say for sure, now.

KM: Either/or, whichever you’re more familiar with.

BN: One of the things I mentioned, way near the beginning of the conversation, that we found a circuit that build up, that it was often based on college areas. I mentioned Ann Arbor and Berkeley. New York City is not a college area in particular, but there are a lot of young people there, it does have colleges. It’s just not as obvious as here. This is a big college area, I’m not telling you any secrets. Burlington, Vermont, more than fifty percent of the people who live there are college students, coming and going from the different colleges. There were often stores and radio stations that appealed to that kind of audience. Not necessarily people that are leaving every four years, because some people stay, like me. Of course I grew up around here too. People would come here and they’d be attracted to a certain kind of environment: intellectual, explorative. People that are interested in looking around, trying out something different, looking for stuff that’s different, even for the sake of being different, almost. I think we found, as we developed our mailing list over the first several years, we could see these clusters. We would see, “Jeez, we always get an awful lot of mail from East Lansing, Michigan. Why East Lansing? Oh, that’s where Michigan State University is. There’s fifty thousand college students there. Oh, there’s this coffee shop at Ann Arbor, there’s this record store in Burlington. Yellow Springs, Ohio, where the heck is that? Oh yeah, there’s these colleges there.” You could pretty much find out. Also, because we spent so much time going to festivals in the Southeast, fiddle conventions and so forth, we had a lot of rural people, too. It was kind of an odd mix. It was pure rural people who didn’t have any record stores because the towns were too small and so they’d buy the records from us by mail, or there’d be these clusters of college communities. It was kind of like polar opposites, in some regards, but with the kind of music we were doing a lot of it was regionally-based music and rooted in those communities. Those were kind of the two clusters. There were certainly people living in the suburbs and stuff like that too, but that wasn’t as evident. You could really see these clusters where record stores were, radio stations were that would play the music that we had, and the mailing list too.

KM: Do you think there was something about this college town that was different from the other college towns that you were supplying the music to?

BN: Well, I’m a little biased because I’m from here. I think that—is it Bryan Texas where Texas A&M is? I’m being stereotypical here, but I think that we could see—there were places where there are big, big colleges that really didn’t seem to have as much interest, but I think it was the kind of college. Again, this is filtered through my experience, but my perception was that colleges that placed a higher premium on intellectual exploration, challenging people more freely rather than being a training facility or something that like that, that were training people to think more than they were training people to be hotel administrators or something like that…I just think that people sort themselves out, and a certain kind of people would go to a certain kind of school, and people that are interested in things that are different would seek out the kind of music we were doing as opposed to if we were competing for pop music, just trying to go for what was popular then we might not have had as much success, in these particular areas. We might have had more success in other areas that were more oriented towards popular culture. What we were interested in was more of a niche type of stuff, sometimes deliberately obscure. It was definitely esoteric in the bigger picture, the idea of us putting out Cajun music albums that comes from a small community in southwest Louisiana. But there were enough people that when they first heard it, mostly it was a guy named Ralph Rinzler that brought some Cajun groups to the Newport Folk Festival and them some of us that were there would go “Wow, this is, like, totally different.” Singing in French and all that, so most people didn’t know what they were singing about. I studied French and I found it hard to follow what they were singing about, too. There were these kinds of real minority-taste music that had a passion in their music, it was exciting music that they played. If you learned more about the background, how these people ended up in the area, you found out that there was this whole history of them growing up in Nova Scotia and being exploited and driven out of the area so they ended up in Louisiana as refugees, and they maintained this kind of music in a kind of isolated environment, and yet they built this vital and vibrant culture out of it and it even made the music more exciting. The sociology of it was interesting, too. I think that there are certain geographic areas often based around college communities that appeal, there are various appeals there. There was just a cluster of people, there was enough of a critical mass that there could be somebody who cared to put on a coffee shop and enough people that would come that it could actually survive. I’m sure there were plenty of people that heard about the Club 47 and said “Oh, I think I’ll start one in my town,” and they just folded after three times because nobody came. You see the same thing in independent bookstores, I think. If you go around to—more so in days past because more and more things have become chains these days—you could go into a certain bookstore and have an idea, if nobody told you what town you were in or even what state you were in, you could go into the bookstore and you could kind of figure out that this must be a college town or something like that.

KM: What was it like going to Club 47?

BN: I mentioned, often we’d have to stand in line very early. That wasn’t because we wanted to get front row seats, it was just because we wanted to get in. It was really, there was a stretch for several years where it was really a hot place to go. We were intimidated by the people that were there, we didn’t know the people that were running the place, we were just there to see the music. We could see all these people talking to each other and go “Oh, they’re the people that are running the place.” We didn’t actually get to know them. I know who some of them are now, but I never talked to them back then. It was very informal. There weren’t a lot of—it wasn’t like “anything goes,” but it was just a much more relaxed atmosphere than some places, I guess. People were there mostly for the music. There was probably all kinds of stuff I was oblivious to, but I don’t remember any knife fights or anything like that. There was a place called The Hillbilly Ranch in downtown Boston—there used to be a bus station down there, it was next door to the bus station—and Ken and I went down there maybe once every two or three weeks because they had a regular house band that was from West Virginia. It was mostly us and a bunch of sailors that were in from the naval yard. It was mostly southerners who were in there drinking, and there were some fights that broke out in there sometimes. We were too young to actually drink so we just had 7-Up or ginger ale. Today they wouldn’t let you in because you’d be under age and you couldn’t get in, but back then we just said “We just want a 7-Up and watch the band” and they said “Ok” because it wasn’t as full as Club 47. It really was like a club, although we weren’t members, we were just patrons, so to speak. There was a community of people who ran the place and they ran it as a non-profit organization for a long period of time, and it was kind of too bad we didn’t get involved and know some of them then, but we were just doing our own thing, going to college and then eventually starting this record company that became a business.

KM: What were some of the more memorable artists or acts that you saw there?

BN: The band that played The Hillbilly Ranch did play there occasionally. They were called the Lilly Brothers, and Don Stover, who was a banjo player. Any time they were at the Club 47 we’d definitely see them there because they would wake up a little more. They played at The Hillbilly Ranch literally seven nights a week. That was just routine for them, but if they had a chance to play out, to get the night off and go play some place like there, they’d get really “on” and inspired because they had an audience that was really paying attention to them more than drinking and trying to do whatever else people were trying to do at the bar. There was a group of three young white guys that played blues from Minneapolis called Koerner, Ray and Glover at one point. The Jim Kweskin Jug Band kind of started around here, I think, in the Club 47. Some of the groups that I remember after we’d begun going that they would show up and we’d be the first show that they’d do and so forth. I do remember a banjo player named Dock Boggs. I was sitting in the front row that night and he broke his banjo string and he took it off and replaced it with another one. I picked up the banjo string off the floor and he said “That’s only the second banjo string I’ve broken in fifty years,” and it was like “whoa,” it was astonishing to begin with, I mean how could you not to that? He had recorded way back in the twenties, nineteen twenty-seven or nineteen twenty-eight. He’s one of those guys where it’s like “Wow, this guy’s been doing this for forty years.” So for a long time I had his banjo string, the first one he broke in fifty years, supposedly. That may not have literally been true but it’s something he said.

KM: That’s a good story.

BN: The Holy Modal Rounders made a big impression on us. One of the reasons we liked the name Rounder Records was partly because of that group. We saw them a couple times. Jim Rooney and Bill Keith, The Charles River Valley Boys, as a locally-based bluegrass band, and then eventually Joe Val, who was their lead singer in their second incarnation, he started another bluegrass band of his own. To show you how far out of it we kind of were, there was this person, I didn’t know what they were, there was this thing called Taj Mahal that showed up every so often that was on the schedule. I thought it was a sitar player from India that was coming in, or some student at Harvard that was just playing sitar now and again or something. And so I never saw him. It was like astonishing. You’d think that I’d be standing in line and people would say “You gonna see Taj tomorrow night?” or something. It was so focused on who was there that night, and we were so out of it in some way that we didn’t even know--people didn’t say “Well if you like this you’ve definitely gotta come see Taj Mahal.” I’d say “Well what do I want to see some sitar player for?” and they’d say “He doesn’t play sitar!” and explained who he was…so I totally missed out on a chance to see him at Club 47, which would have been astonishing.

KM: Is that because, did it feel like it was a little bit elite there, maybe you just weren’t in the—

BN: Well, from our standpoint it seemed like there was a clique of some kind that ran the place. I don’t have any reason to think that they were excluding us. I don’t remember being put off. I think that what was really the case was that they were very into what they were doing and talked to each other about it and they were excited to talk to each other about what they were doing. They weren’t looking to recruit new members. They weren’t saying “Well jeez, for diversity we’d better get some students from Tufts on here” or “Let’s bring some new people into the circle” or something like that. I don’t know if they even recognized us. If they saw my face in nineteen sixty-four they’d say “Jeez, this guy comes here an awful lot.” Probably. If you’re working at the desk at some place like that, taking money, you recognize faces, but you certainly wouldn’t have known my name. As I said, we were kind of in awe of the musicians and stuff so I wasn’t about to go backstage and try to say “hi” to somebody. Now, I would, but back then I wouldn’t. They were talented and I wasn’t. I was kind of shy, too. It was kind of a “we’re not worthy” type of thing.

KM: I can understand that.

BN: I think a lot of people feel that in different areas.

KM: Have you noticed any trends in the evolution of music here throughout the years?

BN: Certainly in the styles of music. There aren’t lines of people standing outside for two, three hours these days. In the non-profit phase when we reorganized the Club—it was non-profit, then it went into this “intending to make a profit but not necessarily doing so” phase under the Donlins, then their business started collapsing and we revived it as a non-profit. It was a struggle sometimes to get people in there because there are phases that things have gone through. They’re doing pretty well the last four or five years, I think. The restaurant, which is a predictable restaurant, I think, has drawn people in there. I don’t really go there that much anymore, even though I could walk over there, it’s not that far away. I just got into writing so much I sit at home most of the time and just write stuff. Research and write. I just enjoy doing that more.

KM: Is there anything particular that you’d like to see for the future of music for this area, any musical directions you’re interested in?

BN: It would be nice to know that it was a truly healthy, viable environment that could support one or two clubs like that. I guess they are doing ok, I’ve been off the board for I don’t know how many years now, quite a few years, five or six, maybe ten, maybe not that many. Some considerable period of time, though. When Harvard first started talking about the Allston campus and building up this whole area over there, I was thinking “Wow, if they want to attract people to start going over there, maybe they could make a deal and have the Club 47 be based over there.” It wouldn’t be downtown Harvard Square, so you’d have maybe a little problem with it not being right next to the subway station, but there might be free parking. If Harvard really wanted to help out and build up an arts center in there they could have a folk club, they could have visual arts, things like that. They could really make it a place that people would want to go to. It would be a destination thing rather than “Oh jeez, we’ve gotta go all the way over there to go to classes” or something. They could have shuttle busses going back and forth or whatever from the subway. Of course, they’re having a little economic problem here that caused them to suspend operations for the most part, I guess. But that still may happen more in the future. We kept talking about whether we should move the Club because real estate’s so expensive in Harvard Square, but Harvard University—they’re the landlord—they turned out to be very supportive of the Club over time. They actually have a couple of people on the board most of the time these days. We know that they provide very, very favorable rent, because I think they don’t really want Harvard Square to be just a bunch of chain stores and be like a shopping mall that happens to have streets in the middle of it. They’ve been pretty sensitive to that kind of thing. You see more and more chain stores or chain-looking stores, even if it might be just one. I think there’s still considerable diversity in that way. It just depresses me when I see a new Sprint store or something like that. Oh, we really need that.

KM: It does sort of change the tone of things. Well, is there anything else that you would like to add or anything that you think I should know, or any other anecdotes that stand out in your mind?

BN: Talking about Harvard support and so forth—you’ve talked to people from the New England Folk Archives and so forth I guess, right?

KM: A little bit. I’ve met Millie and Betsy.

BN: I think that what they’re doing is really important stuff and I think that there is—I’m hopeful that the kind of stuff you’re doing, there’s a lot of musicians that also have stories to tell. Millie has been trying to do a lot of that, I think, but there’s just so much more that could be done. It’s like anything, I guess. I end up doing this with baseball players. I think I’m at about 185 now, I’ve written 185 biographies of old baseball players, going back into 1901, even. They’ve got to be ten or fifteen years out, finished, I want to make sure they’re finished with their career and stuff before I get interested in them. I’ve just basically edited a bunch of books that include these guys. I’ve just forged ahead in that area. I’ve done some of that with music too, with some of our artists, but not enough. I just get pulled or tugged one way or another.

KM: There’s only so much time in the day.

BN: I know, it’s too bad. Sometimes when I go to sleep I say “Jeez, I’m gonna waste six or seven hours here.” I think that the kind or archival work that they’re doing and the kind of work that you’re doing I think will be—there’s so many things I wish I could go back and do just about our own company, papers that I wish I’d saved or things I wish I’d written down better at the time and so forth. I’m trying to write a history of our company but I do get distracted by so many other things that I haven’t worked on it for months now. It would be nice to think that I’d get back to it and keep it going, but it requires some encouragement of one sort or another. Things keep happening and then I’d have to write even more, because now I have to write about two thousand and nine, two thousand and ten.

KM: History keeps writing itself.

BN: Yeah.

KM: Well thank you so much. This has been really wonderful, I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.

BN: It’s good to get this kind of stuff down. I like doing oral histories of people myself.

CHS Homepage
Copyright 2012