Independent Labels: Paving the way for future trailblazers of its kind
By Cillea Houghton
When the humble people who launched the independent music labels that make up Music Row’s past, they probably had no idea about the legacy they were to leave behind on both the Row and the industry at large. But that’s precisely what these labels did trailblazing the way for similar types in the future to make the same kind of impact.
The early days of Music Row saw a boom in this industry, introducing a variety of indie labels that would go on to shape music both in Nashville and around the world. You can’t discuss Nashville’s independent music scene without mention of Bullet Records, masterminded by indie pioneer Jim Bulleit. Bulleit, who was an announcer and booker for WSM prior to launching Bullet Records, founded Bullet Records in 1946. Bullet was known for producing hillbilly and gospel music, with many of the label’s early stars being artists on the Grand Ole Opry. One such star was Minnie Pearl, who would go on to become a comedic legend in the country music world. But the label’s biggest contribution to the music world was that of Francis Craig’s pop hit, “Near You,” which topped the charts in 1947, sold more than two million copies and was the first pop hit record produced out of Nashville.
Another example that falls into the category of Nashville’s revolutionary indie labels is Hickory Records, founded by big-time Music Row players Roy Acuff and Fred Rose in 1954. One person who remembers the impact of Hickory was Jim Ed Norman, a former producer and owner of three publishing companies and currently the CEO of The Curb Group. Growing up, Norman owned records produced by the label and eventually learned of their important place in Music Row history. “They were a fundamental part, absolutely, of the development of independent label music in general, but specifically even in Nashville,” he described. In Martin Hawkins’ book “A Shot in the Dark,” Fred Rose is referred to as “the most important man in the industry in this town” by country music industry veteran Hugh Cherry, adding that he was a crusader for hillbilly music, working closely with country superstar Hank Williams. Rose and Acuff joined together to establish both Hickory Records and Acuff-Rose Music, a successful publishing company during the early days of Music Row. Hickory saw success with hit artists of the time including Acuff, Don Everly. The Everly Brothers, Don Gibson and more, in addition to collaborations with Music Row pioneer Chet Atkins. The label was also one of the few record manufacturers that operated their work “from the area where country music is actually made,” calling Music City a “natural center.” In recent times, the label has been home to “American Idol” stars Ruben Studdard and Elliott Yamin.
One person who these independent labels paved the way for is Richard Colanzi, who worked as an independent promoter in the country music market for almost 30 years. Getting his start in his hometown of Philadelphia, Colanzi began working in New York doing national promotion for Ampex Records and independent distributor Musicor Records during the 1960s. Musicor Records was one of the biggest indies in the business, with their own recording studios and hitmakers Gene Pitney and George Jones signed to their label. Colanzi left Musicor in 1972 to go into business for himself as an independent. “What was very unusual about this, I decided to go strictly country and I was in Philadelphia. A lot of people wouldn’t hire me,” Colanzi said of the transition.
But with his foot firmly in the door of country music, Colanzi was a frequent visitor to Nashville, consistently adding musical clients and getting them airplay on radio stations across the country. His talent eventually led him to Music Row where he landed at 50 States Records and Charter Records, which he describes as one of the biggest country independents at the time. “There were a lot of independent people here in Nashville. Country was just breaking at the time and by the time I got to Nashville, the indie label scene was booming in town, Colanzi said. “Just like in New York when rock broke, you had so many independents,” he said. “It was a thriving thing.”
Before making the official move to Music City in 1982, Colanzi had been working with Larry McBride at MDJ Records, a small record label based out of Dallas, Texas that had national distribution out of Nationwide Sound Distributors in Nashville at the time. When he heard from a radio station in Norfolk, Virginia that there was a hot new country act to keep an eye on called Alabama, Colanzi got them signed to MDJ, with Alabama bringing much success to the label. “[There was] never a small label that had gone to No. 14 on the country singles chart,” he said. The band’s signing in 1977 to RCA Records led to a boom in their career during the 1980s, yielding hits including “Mountain Music,” “Song of the South,” “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” and many more.
A significant element of working in the independent industry is competing with major labels. So how did these promoters manage to do that? Ralph Murphy, vice president of performance rights organization ASCAP, says it was all about networking. At the time, it was commonplace for independent promoters and distributors to spend multiple hours at lunch, swapping information with colleagues to find out what songs people were looking for a certain artist and what was in the process of being created. “That was called normal,” Murphy reflects.
Colanzi confirms. “You make friends with the music and program directors.” Norman described a key factor of the competition as both majors and indies trying to find the best talent possible. “All labels compete against each other in the fashion we always have, which is to sign hopefully great artists and make great music that transcends whatever problem is in front of it at the time,” Norman added, noting that an indie like Hickory and a major such as RCA would be approaching the same radio stations to play their artists.
“It was about the quality of the product,” continues Murphy about how they competed with the major labels, describing how they interacted with record stores that would help them get airplay on the radio. While there was inevitable competition between the major and indie labels, Colanzi explained that the two industries were also allies and expressed why the presence of indie labels were so important for up-and-coming artists. “It was a great impact because a lot of new artists couldn’t get immediately signed to a major company,” Colanzi informs.
Murphy also has much experience in the independent label world, previously owning three in New York, including a dance and rock n’ roll label called Hard Core Records, which produced April Wine’s first two platinum albums. “It was an extension of who I was,” he said about running his indie labels. In fact, his own first hit was with Plantation Records, another famous label in Nashville that found in success throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, particularly with Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA” which shot to the top of multiple charts in 1968, including the country charts and the Billboard Hot 100. Murphy found himself at the top of the charts with Plantation when he penned Riley’s hit “Good Enough to be Your Wife” in 1971. The label was headed by Shelby Singleton, who worked with several hit acts including Jerry Lee Lewis, Roger Miller and Ray Stevens, just to name a few. Singleton would later purchase Sun Records, the revolutionary independent label that was first to record the works of legendary artists such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
Over time, the major labels moved in and made a large impact on the music market, dominating the independents that once thrived there. RCA Records made waves on Music Row with the presence of superstar Elvis Presley, who would ultimately become the label’s highest-selling artist. Other RCA stars included Eddy Arnold, Chet Atkins, Garth Brooks and George Jones – just to name a few. Decca Records was another force to be reckoned with, as much of its success came from Owen Bradley, who would ultimately become vice president of the operation. The late 1940s and ‘50s saw a boom for the label, with hits coming from artists like Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Red Foley and Webb Pierce among many others. In addition to being one of the leaders of Decca, Bradley had made a name for himself while serving as a bandleader at Bullet Records and becoming an accomplished arranger and session producer. “The charts, and I don’t mean just the country charts, but half the charts, were comprised of music that came out of RCA or MCA studios or the Quonset Hut,” said Norman of the influence of these major labels. “When you look at what Owen Bradley was doing along with what Chet Atkins was doing, that era, and that music was not exclusive to country radio. It was on popular radio…’popular’ not necessarily trying to play a particular format or a particular genre.”
Today, Music Row has a host of thriving independent labels making a name for themselves in the music world. Arguably the most influential independent label in Nashville in the past few decades is Curb Records, founded by producer and label head Mike Curb. Responsible for hugely impacting the careers of the Judds, Tim McGraw, JoDee Messina, Lee Brice, LeAnn Rimes, Hank Williams, Jr. and an entire stable of artists throughout the last three decades, Curb Records continues to impact today’s country music and plays an important leadership role in navigating the complicated relationships between all record labels and the music industry as a whole.
Nashville has seen a rise in the number of influential independent record labels in the past few decades. An additional label that has made a huge impact on today’s music is Big Machine Label Group. Founder Scott Borchetta is known for discovering and launching Taylor Swift’s career after her move to Nashville at the age of 14. Big Machine is also home to Dot Records, a label that was launched in 1950 and remained independent until 1957 when it was sold to Paramount Pictures. Big Machine brought the label back to life in 2014 with a roster that includes legendary rocker Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and rising country duo Maddie & Tae, whose debut single “Girl in a Country Song” scored them a No. 1 hit and CMA Award for Video of the Year at the 2015 CMA Awards.
Black River Entertainment has also made a name for itself on Music Row, which catapulted to fame with breakout star Kelsea Ballerini, whose No. 1 hit “Love Me Like You Mean It” made her the first female artist in country music to top Billboard’s Country Airplay chart with her debut single on an independent label. Her follow up single, “Dibs,” continued the trend and reached the No. 1 spot as well.
So how did the indie labels of the past pave the way for today’s success stories? “By encouraging them to take the gamble on it using the new facts of the new day,” said Murphy. Jim Ed Norman agrees. “I think the independents paved the way because they largely, they teach us never give up.” The lesson of the independent label is one of determination. “[Their history] is a wonderful, wonderful reminder— that it is doable, that we can do this. So you keep going largely because you see that.”