Industry Profile: Kevin Welk
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Kevin Welk, president, Welk Music Group.
As president of the Santa Monica, California-based Welk Music Group, Kevin Welk intends that anyone buying a Vanguard Record and Sugar Hill Record release knows that label integrity lives—that people can trust the quality of the recordings he releases.
Prior to the mid-80s, the Welk Music Group primarily consisted of a publishing arm, a mail-order division, and Ranwood Records which, operated by Larry Welk (Kevin's father), and Dot Records founder Randy Wood, had recorded Kevin’s grandfather, bandleader Lawrence Welk; members of his famed TV troupe; as well as Pete Fountain, the Mills Brothers, Jim Nabors and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Welk Music Group was initially named Teleklew— combining the words "television" and "Welk" spelled backwards. It was originally developed to oversee Lawrence Welk's investments, and the operation of his popular TV show.
In 1957, Teleklew bought the Harry Von Tilzer Music Publishing Company, which soon became one of the world's most significant independent music-publishing firms. It was sold to PolyGram in 1988.
By this time, the parent company’s name had changed to Welk Record Group in 1980, and changed again to Welk Music Group.
It was Welk Music Group’s acquisition of the historic New York folk label Vanguard Records in 1986; and its 1998 purchase of Sugar Hill in Durham, North Carolina that took the Welk Music Group deeper into the music world.
Kevin Welk graduated from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles with a degree in finance and a minor in Communication Arts. He joined Vanguard Records in 1994 as dir. of sales. He was responsible for the restructuring of Welk Music Group’s recorded music division in 1997; and for leading the company’s transition from being an important musical catalog company to being a new artist and catalog powerhouse.
Over the years, Vanguard has developed a pedigree roster that includes Levon Helm, Merle Haggard, Rodney Crowell, the Indigo Girls, Chely Wright, Matt Nathanson, Greg Laswell, Blue Giant, Isobel Campbell, Chris Isaak, the Living Sisters, and Jesca Hoop.
Meanwhile, Sugar Hill continues to evolve beyond its bluegrass roots with releases over the years by Nickel Creek, Marty Stuart, Joey+Rory, Jim Lauderdale, Sam Bush, and Sarah Jarosz.
What size staff do you have?
We have about 35 employees. The Nashville office has about seven employees.
Is there a label overlap with what each office oversees?
Suger Hill in Nashville primarily works on Sugar Hill. Not to say that Gary Paczosa, (VP of A&R, Sugar Hill Records) still will do Vanguard A&R. Here in L.A., we do both labels.
Three Grammy nominations this year.
We are going to get more next year. Last year was a slow year for us to be honest.
You had some staff downsizing recently with Art Phillips (VP/Promotion & Artist Development) and others leaving.
Right. We love Art, and we still put him on projects. But Art was a Triple A (radio) promotion guy, and while we let Art go, we also added staff. But we moved in an (expanded) direction with Hot AC.
[After an 11-year run, Art Philips exited the Welk Music Group as VP/Promotion & Artist Development.]
Still, you did downsize.
Yes but not by that many. We looked at the company, and we looked where we need to grow, and where we needed to cut. We really didn’t cut too much salary to be honest. I added a GM at Sugar Hill Records (in July, 2011), Cliff O’Sullivan (from Universal Music Group Distribution, where he served as senior VP of Group Marketing). Already that is paying off. He’s doing a great job. And Gary Paczosa, he’s a wonderful A&R guy. We just shifted more than anything. I thought it was a good time, and it was a good message because this is a tough business. I joke about it, and you probably hear it all of the time from other executives, but you work double hard for old results. We are happy to be profitable, but it is a tough business right now. There’s no doubt about it.
Losing a retailer like Borders Books & Music last year would be stressful.
I remember when Borders was our number two customer. I remember in the old days a retailer would go out of business, and you would say, “We are going to pick this business up, here or there.” You don’t see that anymore. The other thing is inventory is being cut everywhere. When you are in a catalog company, you have to find that business from somewhere else. Forget retail. Retail is not buying catalog.
[On Feb. 16, 2011, Borders Books & Music applied for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and began liquidating 226 of its stores in the United States. It began liquidating its remaining 399 retail outlets on July 22, 2011 with the last remaining stores closing on Sept. 18, 2011.]
Most music stores aren’t music stores anymore. Mike Dreese (CEO and co-founder, Newbury Comics) told me recently that his chain is now placing more emphasis in selling a greater array of goods.
We still sell product through Mike. We sell Waterloo, Amoeba, and Music Millennium up in Portland (Oregon). It comes down to a customer experience. We can argue here and there that they can’t do onesies or twosies but when it takes me 10 minutes to find the Matt Nathanson in Best Buy, how is anyone else going to find it?
Has the sales and distribution agreement with EMI been productive? You started it in 2009. I remember EMI Matt Nathanson’s single "Come On Get Higher" on the "Now That's What I Call Music!" series which seemed to give it a boost.
That’s the impression, and it was good. But we took that to top 10 at Hot AC before they touched it. People forget that. I love the promotion staff there. For Matt, it has been great, and with Trevor Hall they have been helpful. My favorite thing about EMI, honestly, is that promotion side. The reason for doing that deal was that I didn’t want to be in the distribution business anymore. I saw the writing on the wall with physical, and it was just too much exposure for the company.
[Unlike most indies, Welk Music Group’s success allowed it to sell direct to nearly every U.S. retailer. In 2009, the company signed a worldwide sales and distribution pact with EMI, which also includes nonexclusive licensing and synch services.]
Welk had been doing direct distribution.
Which was a huge growth for the company. We sold everybody direct and I am grateful for those relationships today. Even though I have EMI, my GM here Dan Sell who was head of sales at the time, we still have wonderful relations with retail which I still think is key.
Who gets Matt Nathanson things like “The Bachelor,” and the upcoming Kelly Clarkson tour?
The Kelly Clarkson tour, I would give to CAA and management. “The Bachelor” is us. We have a great film and TV division. Fred Jasper (VP of TV/Film Licensing at Welk Music Group) has been with me for a long time, and he’s doing great. The new promos of the “CBS Early Show” is Trevor Hall’s “Brand New Day” from us. That’s going to be running for the next two months. Even with an (Vanguard) artist like Greg Laswell; while we’ve have had modest success in sales, his licensing income has been tremendous.
Welk Music Group has long been centered on non-traditional ways of selling and utilizing alternative marketing. That’s tougher to do these days.
I’m very excited about what we have got going. I think that our roster in the past three to five years has been stronger than it has ever been. The one positive of this downturn in the music business is that our access to quality artists is greater than ever.
How do you determine who is a Sugar Hill or a Vanguard artist?
Well, some are obvious and some aren’t. Some are right on the line. For instance, I have a new Rodney (Crowell) record coming out. Rodney was on Sugar Hill, and this record “Kin” is a Vanguard (release). This is a killer record which we’ve done. It’s coming out in May. He did it with Mary Karr the author. They wrote this record and it has Norah Jones, Vince Gill, and Lee Ann Womack.
[Texan Mary Karr’s 1995 memoir “The Liars’ Club” sold a half a million copies, and made its author a literary celebrity. The poet/author followed the book with two more memoirs, “Cherry” (2000), and Lit: A Memoir (2009). Karr has also published four volumes of poetry. She currently teaches in the department of English at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. In 2003, Karr was referenced in Crowell's song, "Earthbound.”]
I will tell you what the only difference is. Vanguard is certainly more pop. We were pretty much a Triple A label for many years. We still don’t ignore that format—we embrace it—but I have a Hot AC staff now, and I have the arrangement with EMI on the promotions and so forth because at the end of the day in this business, you have to do a little more to sell some records.
It’s become harder to finance recordings. Are you doing more production deals or deals seeking ancillary income?
Well, here’s what we are doing. When we have a developing artist that is starting from scratch, we are doing 360 deals because we realize the work that it takes (for success), and you have to have an incentive to keep these guys. When they sell 5,000 records of a first record, it is a long time project.
It still takes three albums for a breakthrough.
Exactly. We have a new Greg Laswell, for instance, coming out this year, and it’s our fourth record. We have done well (with him) but we really feel “Thank God, we’ve had licensing because we feel that he’s hitting his stride now. We have been with him for six years. He’s been all over television from “Grey’s Anatomy” to everything. Alexandra Patsavas (owner, Chop Shop Music) loves Greg, thank God. Now he has a new single with Sara Bareilles “Come Back Down” going to radio on Feb 20; and his album “Landline” will be released on April 24th. We are bullish on Greg.
As an indie, it’s difficult to survive without other revenue streams.
Here’s the flip side of the coin for you. I don’t know if you know this about us, we do something that people are starting to do now. We will take artists—bigger artists—and they want to own their own masters. They want control. They want the majority of profits and so forth. So they have options. They can make a distribution deal. But if they make a distribution deal with a distributor, that’s all (the payment) they are going to get. I don’t care if they tell you that, “We can upstream it” to this or that. Sometimes, they (distributors) believe it, and I say, “God bless you; go for it.”
But what we do is distribution and label services.
We’ve done it with the Indigo Girls; and years ago we did the George Jones stuff like that; and we have done it with Levon (Helm), Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Hootie and the Blowfish. What I can say is, “Listen, we will do it all. We’re your white label. You have got my promotion staff. You have (publicist) Lucy Sabini; and you’ve got my film and television division. You’ve got your own imprint; and we will partner with you because you want to own it. You deliver the master—we’re not paying for the record—but you will have a real company behind you working the record.
So you do all the label back-end for them, and treat them like they have their own label, and you also distribute. Are these life of copyright deals?
Not really, no. It’s a term (deal). A lot of times we will even do a one-off which is super risky just to say how confident we are that you are going to want to do this with us (again).
Are these in perpetuity deals?
No. But they are long terms deals. Around 10 year deals.
At the end of the 10 year term do all rights revert back to the artist?
Everything. So it really is a way for artists to be empowered. I actually offered that deal to Merle (Haggard), and Merle just wanted a traditional deal which is understandable. There is a generational thing. I don’t think they (heritage artists) get it. They look at an executive saying how much money they can make and they are going, “Yeah, right. Pay me for the record because I am never going to get paid again.” Ask George Jones. I think I have written him over $2 million in checks from our relationship.
How involved do you get with the recordings of direct signings?
I am involved. I am not A&Ring the project. I am certainly into songs and working with our A&R team to make sure that (the project) is accessible. I would tell you that we really try to sign artists. I know that sounds funny. But we try to sign great writers, and great musicians; people who really have the talent, and that we don’t need to be handholding during the process.
At the same time, there is a commercial side of the business that we get involved in. I will give you an example. There are times when a record is delivered, and I will sit down with the artist and say, “This is where we can go with this record. Is this your expectation because if it’s not your expectations then we need to get back into the studio.” And I will have a very frank conversation about (the music) because radio is a tough thing, and there are no guarantees. But at the same I can tell you when for sure there’s no guarantee.
At what sales figure would you not release a record?
We won’t release a record if we feel we can’t do 20,000 to 30,000 (units).
How much of the business is still physical versus digital sales?
It depends on the genre. If we are talking about Merle and Levon, we are still running at about 75% to 80% physical. For instance, the Merle Haggard (debut Vanguard) record “I Am What I Am” has scanned about 55,000 (units) so far and 15% was digital. But artists like Greg Laswell are 75% digital because they are new developing artists, and a younger demo. Matt Nathanson is 50% digital.
So your digital income is evolving?
Absolutely. And there are even more income streams, but digital is a big part. You know we talked about me shifting and downsizing; but, then again, I am investing more in digital and staff. It is just a different business. In this last downsizing, I just said, “This isn’t the old business. Let’s get our mind out. I sat down with our key staff, and I asked, “Where are the key places that we are growing? And where are the places we are not? And where are we investing here? Let’s be smart about it.” That’s really what we were doing before the end of the year and what we are doing now.
The Welk name meant very little in the music industry until the 1986 purchase of Vanguard, a label that has such a rich, great tradition. Ranwood Records was an easy-listening label under the radar.
My dad worked for Randy Wood at Dot Records, and when he went over to work for my grandpa they (Welk Music Group) were primarily a publishing company.
[Kevin Welk's father Larry came to Welk Music Group as president in 1980.
Under Larry's direction, Welk Music Group grew significantly out of founder Lawrence Welk's shadow, expanding from "The Lawrence Welk Show” television properties to becoming a significant music industry player with the purchases of Vanguard Records, and Sugar Hill Records.
Today, Larry Welk is CEO and chairman of both Welk Music Group and Welk Group Inc. which also comprises Welk Syndication, which oversees the rebroadcasts of "The Lawrence Welk Show" on public television as well as Welk Real Estate, and Welk Resorts which operates resort properties.
Larry Welk had started in the music industry while in college, working for Randy Wood at Dot Records with a roster that included Pat Boone, Gale Storm, Billy Vaughan, the Surfaris, and the Hilltoppers.
A music industry legend, Wood had started in the music business with a record shop in Gallatin, Tennessee, “Randy's Record Store.” He also had a radio show on WLAC hosted by Gene Noble.
When Larry joined Dot in 1960, the label was owned by Paramount Pictures. In 1967, Paramount was acquired by Gulf & Western Industries, and he, Wood and Dot's executive VP Chris Hamilton, left and started Ranwood Records.]
And the company did mail order?
Well, publishing first. The mail order started with my dad’s partnership with Ira Pittleman. That’s how Heartland Music (which became the largest direct-response mail-order company selling music) started. Heartland was a huge reason why we started to grow Vanguard Records.
My dad didn’t want me in the music business initially. I was hired by Chris Hamilton. She was running Vanguard. A great person to learn from. She came over from Tennessee with Randy Wood. She was one of the first women executives (in the music industry). When I got out of college as a finance major and went to work in real estate, I just wasn’t happy. I grew up in the (TV) studio. My mother (Tanya Welk aka Tanya Falan) was a singer on “The Lawrence Welk Show” with her own solo career. Freddy DeMann was her manager.
Why didn’t your father want you in the business?
I don’t know.
You phoned Chris Hamilton who was running Vanguard to see if you could work there as sales manager.
Well, that’s how I got the job. My dad said no. So I called Chris. At the time, my professor at Loyola (Loyola Marymount University) hired me and I was making unbelievable money for a kid out of college. But I just wasn’t happy. I told Chris that I would work for anything. “I just want to learn the business.” So she hired me.
When Welk Music Group bought Vanguard Records, the company hadn’t put out any CDs at that point. At first you were just shooting the old covers, and getting them out fast.
There was a Phase One and a Phase Two. Phase One was to get it (a CD) out as quick as possible. Phase Two was to create better liner notes, remaster, and really take care of these kids. But you are right, the first phase was just get it out. I hired (music consultant) Tom Vickers (who produced over 70 reissue projects for Vanguard), and he procured a lot of that stuff for me, and put it out. He took care of these kind of things. We knew that needed to happen; even myself, being very young at the time. The one thing that I did know was what a special catalogue that this was.
Back then, we were pretty much a catalog label. I hardly knew about Ian & Sylvia. I was just shocked by how much I could sell of Ian & Sylvia back then. And then when we did all of the Ian Tyson (solo) records, and I really got into their music—on the sales side—I couldn’t believe what legends these guys were in Canada. That was before my time (growing up).
[Vanguard had been founded in New York in 1950 by brothers Seymour and Maynard Solomon, operating initially out of a one-room downtown office. The company had two labels, the classical Bach Guild line, and Vanguard.
In 1956, the Solomons licensed the Weavers' celebrated 1955 Carnegie Hall concert. The quartet, after having pop folk hits on Decca, had disbanded in 1953 due to member Pete Seeger being blacklisted, and the Carnegie show marked its comeback. Several major labels passed on the recording before the Solomons acquired it. The album reached #24 on the Billboard 200 chart.
During the '60s, starting with the signing of Joan Baez, Vanguard had considerable success in the folk field with releases by Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Doc Watson, Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band, Mimi & Richard Farina, and Country Joe and the Fish. The company also spearheaded a blues resurgence with such signings as Mississippi John Hurt, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Otis Spann, John Hammond, Jr., Charlie Musselwhite and the Siegel-Schwall Band.]
For several years, the Vanguard catalog was a cash cow. With the artist and songwriter royalties being so small, it wasn’t expensive to keep reissuing.
It is today. I would say that the majority of our catalog in today’s market is. It wasn’t back in the early ‘90s; and even in the ‘late ‘90s, I would say that catalog was a great cash cow for the company. And it still doesn’t do badly but most of the bigger artists, we pay more. We don’t own the publishing anymore. Definitely the cost of sales is not cheap today.
But most of the Vanguard artists still have the same artist royalty from that early period.
Correct. The other thing is that in the physical world— manufacturing this stuff now with not a lot of places to go—it’s not the business, obviously, that it was.
Still, Vanguard’s artist royalties aren’t huge.
Well, Joan’s (Joan Baez) are.
When you came to Vanguard, one area that had been overlooked was the foreign market. Did you get any boost from abroad with the catalog?
Not really. Bill Belmont was then over at Fantasy Records, and he did all of the overseas there. We joined forces. We had the same distribution, same sales and so forth. It (sales) grew a little bit. We used guys like Ace Records who are great. Roger (Ace founder Roger Armstrong) is a great friend. So yeah, obviously, it picked up. But I will still tell you that one of my biggest frustrations is exploiting the catalog overseas compared to what we have been able to accomplish in North America.
You made a conscious decision in the late ‘90s that you wanted to build the music division of the company.
When my dad and Ira sold Heartland Music for a great return on their investment (in 1997) I had been doing my thing at Vanguard. We had been a catalog label with some new artists; but I went to my dad and I said, “We can continue to be a catalog label, and that’s fine; but I’m going to move on.” I had some opportunities at the time from three different major labels. I said, “I am just not getting fulfilled anymore. I appreciate the experience, and everything that I learned. I want to grow this, and if you want to grow it, I will stay.” I think that with the flush of cash from Heartland, it was a natural progression into really ramping up (the music division). In fact, we hired Buck (producer Steve Buckingham) not too long after that.
Vanguard did sign some new acts.
Yes, we had Peter Case, Patty Larkin, John McEuen, David Wilcox, and Tab Benoit. That was an interesting story going down to Houma, Louisiana to his camp to get him to come to the label.
[Among the Vanguard signings of the period were also singer/songwriters Ian Tyson, Terry Radigan, Paul Kelly and Mark Selby; and bluegrass rock pioneers the Dillards.]
Did selling off Heartland make it possible to buy Sugar Hill?
No. We would probably have bought it anyway because it was a great catalog. But I think to have a 10 year plan for the company, and to grow and to invest in new artists, that takes a commitment beyond, “Let’s just see what can happen.”
[Sugar Hill Records had been founded in 1978 by Canadian Barry Poss with assistance from David Freeman, the owner of County Records and Rebel Records. The label boasted an impressive catalog that included traditional-styled artists like Doc Watson, Sam Bush, Tim O’Brien, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, James McMurtry, Bad Livers, Seldom Scene, and singer/songwriters like Robert Earl Keen, and Guy Clark and Jesse Winchester.]
Did you look at purchasing other labels? Fantasy was available around then.
Absolutely. We looked at a ton of labels, including Fantasy; and we inquired about Rounder, Green Linnet, and Stax. I can tell you Vanguard was just a natural. That was a slam dunk. Vanguard was one of those deals where it was timing and it was getting involved with the (Solomon) brother, and it was a meaningful. Barry was the same way.
You hired Steve Buckingham before taking on Sugar Hill?
Yes. Barely. It’s a little foggy, but I remember that Nickel Creek was our first act. They were just in the negotiations when we were buying Sugar Hill; and I remember going to an IBMA and meeting with the band. Buck was not there then. It was really interesting because if anybody has said that we would be selling over a million units of that first record, we would be lying. But I can promise you one thing, we absolutely thought that we could do better then what Barry had been doing due to the fact that of the money that we were going to put into the band.
[“Nickel Creek,” released in 2001, featured two singles "When You Come Back Down,” and "The Lighthouse's Tale” which charted on the Billboard Hot Country chart.]
Barry would have likely been happy with sales in the 30,000 to 40,000 unit range.
Absolutely, and nothing wrong with that. But that’s the opportunity you see that we saw. He had such a great brand, and he had a great ear for talent but that money to put in, to see if that could go over the edge, was just not his business plan. And that’s fine.
Was it still a learning curve to now be working so closely and directly with artists?
Barry was a great asset to me then. But, yes it was, because bluegrass isn’t my background. So you sit around with these guys at the IBMAs or whatever, and they are thinking, “Here comes Mr. L.A.” We have the best of the best (in bluegrass with) Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and Tim O’Brien. It was hard in the beginning. I just don’t think that they trusted us.
[Barry Poss stayed on as president of Sugar Hill, and in 2002 was promoted to chairman. Sugar Hill remained in Durham, North Carolina until 2007, when Poss the label moved to Nashville, Tennessee.]
How many years did it take for that sentiment to go away?
A while. But I have to say that the one thing that I think that they could respect about us was that whatever we said that we were going to do, we did.
It must have been helpful having Steve Buckingham as the VP of A&R at Sugar Hill.
Let me tell you something. I would disagree with you in that. He was even slick for these bluegrassers. Now did these guys play on sessions that Buck did before then, and bring it (that attitude) in? Yeah, but it’s a different world. I think that the one thing that I helped was when we did Dolly Parton’s first record for us, “The Grass is Blue” (in 1999) and we used a lot of the guys. Jerry Douglas helped out on that record tremendously, and that brought a little bit of the (bluegrass) community together for our company.
Are you still starstruck around Dolly Parton like most of us?
Yeah. But she’s a human being like all of us. She’s pretty funny. I remember once when I told her that I thought that this one record wasn’t going into Starbucks. I was driving in the car and talking to her. I said, “I hate to tell you but I don’t think Starbucks is going to bring in the record,” and she goes “That’s okay. We’ll just use Welkbucks.”
I have to tell you. We did all of her records here, and I would say that our breakup was that she just wanted to go after straight country music again, so she decided to do it herself. But there were no hard feelings whatsoever. If I can’t deliver for her, then I didn’t want to do the record. She went on and did her things. She’s a special person. She does a lot of kind things that people don’t know about.
When you were growing up, you were around the TV studio a lot for tapings of “The Lawrence Welk Show.”
All of the time. Beyond that, even when my mom left the show, she was touring. I lived mostly with my mom, and with my father on the weekend. They got along really well so it wasn’t that we were far apart. So for me it was just part of something that I grew up with.
“The Lawrence Welk Show” was the trailblazer in TV syndication, changing the way television did business.
That’s right and my grandpa owned all his shows.
[“The Lawrence Welk Show” began in 1951 on KTLA in Los Angeles. The show became a local hit, and was picked up nationally by ABC in 1955. When ABC cancelled the show in 1971, citing an aging demographic, Welk thanked ABC and the sponsors at the end of the last network show. “The Lawrence Welk Show” continued on as a first-run syndicated show on 250 stations across the country until the final original show was produced in 1982.]
Do you get asked much about your grandfather?
Not at all, actually. In the old days, I would. In the last five years, very rarely. But starting off (in the business) for sure, there was a lot of grandpapa talk. I love talking about my grandpapa. I have a lot of fond memories. The one thing about my grandpa was that he was who he was. I can tell you that. He was so passionate about music, and he was also so passionate about people—his fans. I have never seen anyone so appreciative. If we were at dinner and someone walked up (to the table) he’d sign everything. Almost to a fault. “Maybe we should have dinner now.”
The reason the show worked is that your grandfather looked like he was having fun.
He really was too. He really, really was. And I was there. I would watch my mom. It was great times. Chaotic, obviously, but fun. My kids love the show today.
Is it an eerie “Back To The Future” moment viewing a much younger version of your mother on the show?
When I see my mom? I am proud of her. It is an eerier feeling seeing myself.
You were on the show?
Every Christmas from a baby to 13 I was on the show. Every Christmas. I hated it though. My brother, Lawrence III, he loves the camera; and I hate the camera. So if you ever YouTube any of those programs, and you see this scared kid looking into the camera, that was me. My brother, he’s in the news business—he has his own company called Angel City Air. He’s a pilot with over 14,000 hours flying helicopters.
You two are the black sheep of the family because many of your relatives are doctors.
Pretty much. My aunts’ two husbands were doctors and there are more in that world. Larry and I grew up in the entertainment business. It was very different. We are all very close. My cousin Jon Fredricks —he and I are the only two in the Welk business. He runs our resort group.
My friend when I was a kid was Mike Wayne, John’s son (the eldest son of actor John Wayne and his first wife, Josephine Alicia Saenz). I remember seeing John coming in his limousine station wagon all of time with a full bar in the back. He was piece of work. My parents would have dinner parties and another one of his sons, Chris Wayne and my brother Larry would do this skit of Lawrence Welk meets John Wayne. It was very funny.
I understand that you still play hockey at 40?
You were a baseball player as a kid.
Yes, I was a baseball player.
Were you any good as a ball player before you got injured?
Very good, yeah. For sure, minor league was no problem. When I was playing college (ball) I would argue that we were way better than Single A.
You went to Loyola because of baseball and then you got a finance degree.
That’s right. I was a jock. I didn’t even hang out with the baseball players so much because they were into the outside of sports like I was. That’s how I met my wife. My wife did stats for the baseball team.
Vanguard has some strange recordings in its catalog.
Here’s a licensing income that we have done unbelievably with and you would never know; French electronic music producer Jean-Jacques Perrey (of the musical duo Perrey and Kingsley with Gershon Kingsley). Do you know anything of that stuff? They call him the “Father of The Moog.” We have done great with that stuff I can tell you. Not only has Fat Boy Slim sampled it, but we have done (licenses with) a ton with rappers. Also for (Disney's) “Main Street Electrical Parade” we licensed. That’s found (money). It’s in the catalog. It’s neat to see guys get paid a lot of money.
Diane Schuur had been a long-time jazz artist. Who would think of her recording in Nashville with Steve Buckingham last year?
I will tell you who would. It was (Vanguard director of A&R) Bill Bentley. It was Bill’s idea, and I liked it. I love non-traditional things, starting off with Dolly doing bluegrass records.
["The Gathering" was Diane Schuur's first project since signing a two-album deal with Vanguard Records, after recording five albums for Concord and a dozen for GRP. Guests included Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Mark Knopfler, saxophonist Kirk Whalum, and guitarist Larry Carlton.]
I remember Peter Case and I doing the Mississippi John (Hurt) tribute record (“Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt” in 2001). I called Peter up because I was reading the paper one day and reading about Beck who is one of my favorite artists. Beck was saying how much he loved Mississippi John Hurt. I know a lot of artists that love Mississippi John Hurt or are influenced by him. So I called Peter Case, and I asked him if he’d produce that for me because he’s a huge fan. That was nominated for a Grammy. Those are wonderful products. Even this (John) Fogerty record that we are going to do.
When is it coming out?
Well, we’ll see. We have it scheduled for August. So far we have Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, and Kid Rock. Those are the confirmed. We have a lot more, but I’d rather not mention them now.
Well, you also green lighted “Upstairs With Larry: Lawrence Welk Uncorked” that Rob Evanoff (dir. of New Media at Welk Music Group) had suggested to you.
Rob said, “I have all of these guys that want to mix this in the clubs.” I empower a lot of my guys and what their passions are. That was a very easy project to do with him marketing it and then it climbed up the dance chart. It was a fun project. Honestly, it was the one thing to share with my family.
["Upstairs at Larry's: Lawrence Welk Uncorked” featured 15 Lawrence Welk’s recordings of the 1960s and '70s, refitted with house grooves, and hip-hop shuffles.]
Ranwood Records certainly sold plenty of “The Magic Organ” series back in the day. Crazy sales numbers.
Crazy numbers. Things like you would never know. Like “The Magic Organ Goes To Hawaii.” And you are like, “Are you kidding me?” These are things that I remember seeing at colleges and thinking, “This is insane.” I remember doing some Percy Faith stuff that we licensed. We sold a lot of Floyd Cramer and things like that.
[Ranwood Records’ catalog consists of middle-of-the-road recordings by Lawrence Welk, Pete Fountain, Floyd Cramer, the Mills Brothers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Boxcar Willie, and the "Hee Haw" Gospel Quartet.]
It’s little wonder that you were attracted to show business. It is seductive.
Absolutely. I honestly think that my ability to communicate with artists is absolutely from my childhood; and from being around artists my whole life. I think that there is a sensibility and an understanding that is lost today in the corporate world in the music business.
The key to us being around forever is balance. Really being able to know an artist and, in many cases, revive their career. We took John Hiatt selling 70,000 records at Capitol Records to doing 200,000. Dolly, her last record before we began with her, was in the 75,000 range. We did 250,000 minimum on each one of her albums. That’s a great side of the business; and that enables us to develop artists. If I just thought that my ego was good enough to (only) sign new artists and break them we’d be out of business.
[After five decades in the music business, Merle Haggard added another milestone to his legendary career. In 2010, the legendary singer/songwriter's first Vanguard Records album, "I Am What I Am," entered Billboard's Top Country Albums chart at No. 18; marking his highest solo debut in more than 25 years.]
It’s a tough business as you said.
You love it or you don’t. Sometimes you get frustrated in this business but, at the same time as my wife says, “You would be miserable without it.”
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”