This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Cheryl Pawelski, owner/partner, Omnivore Entertainment Group.
If you own any physical music recordings—in vinyl, CD or cassette configurations—Cheryl Pawelski has likely poured her heart and soul into your most treasured artifact.
Together with her three owner/partners — Dutch Cramblitt, Brad Rosenberger, and Greg Allen— this three-time Grammy-nominated producer who herself has helmed hundreds of reissues and boxed sets in her two decade career—has overseen the release of more than 80 titles under the Omnivore imprint since launching their independent company in 2010.
This California-based all-star veteran team has enabled the release of unearthed musical gems by such notables as Big Star, Waylon Jennings, the Waitresses, Humble Pie, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Bert Jansch, the Knack, Leon Russell, Richard Thompson, George Jones, Jellyfish, the Motels, Sam Phillips, the Old ‘97s and many others.
As well, the Omnivore team spearheaded “CBGB,” the film about the legendary New York City rock club, and the documentary, “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.”
As well as a label, Omnivore also operates a publishing division, and a consulting service.
The label’s output is available on either CD, vinyl, or digital (each project has its own context which drives what the format will be). You can purchase music directly from the label. at a local record store or via iTunes and Amazon.
While digital distribution and major label layoffs have sharply downsized the reissue catalog market, independent labels like Omnivore, as well as such major label-affiliated imprints as Sony Legacy, and Rhino Entertainment, still release reissues or previously unreleased archival material with imaginative packaging.
Above all, the Omnivore folks seek out amusing and unique ways to attract buyers.
For Record Store Day in 2012, for example, the label released two limited edition products: A vinyl 10-inch of previously unissued tracks by the Knack; and a 1970s Buck Owens’ coloring book with a four-song flexi disc, and a download card.
Pawelski earned her first Grammy nomination in 2007 for her work on the "Rockin' Bones: 1950's Punk & Rockabilly" box set.
Her second Grammy nod came in 2010 for” Woodstock -- 40 Years On: Back To Yasgur's Farm.” The third nomination in 2011 was for “Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968.”
Pawelski grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin collecting Sub Pop mail order singles, and loving the slogan on the enclosed envelope, “Going Out Of Business Since 1988.”
She left her first job in advertising to work at the local record store/one-stop Radio Doctors & Records. In 1990, she moved to Los Angeles where she slept on a friend’s floor for six months.
After signing with a temp employment agency, she landed in the "floater pool" at Capitol Records. At the company, temps would fill in for staff on vacation. So she “floated” around Capitol, learning the ropes in the different departments until she was hired as an assistant in the company’s special markets division. where she first fielded phone calls from music supervisors, and clearance people.
She spent 12 years at the company, becoming senior. dir., A&R/catalog marketing at EMI-Capitol Music before moving on to be VP of catalog development at Concord Music Group in 2005, and VP of A&R at Rhino Entertainment in 2007.
While working at major labels, Pawelski oversaw reissues for the Band, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, the Beach Boys, Stephen Stills, Rod Stewart, Otis Redding, Bette Midler, Willie Nelson, Warren Zevon, Chicago, the Staple Singers, Richard Thompson, Michelle Shocked, John Coltrane and many, many others.
Her soundtrack work included” “Fiddler On The Roof,” “Raging Bull,” “Juno,” “Up In The Air,” and “Shutter Island.”
Pawelski’s archival record and memorabilia collection resulted in the exhibit, “Spaced Out! The Final Frontier In Album Covers” that made its debut at the Experience Music Project (now the EMP Museum) in Seattle, Washington in 2009. The exhibit features 117 space-themed albums released between the 1940s and 1969.
She currently serves as VP of the Board of Governors for the Los Angeles Chapter of The Recording Academy.
With historical tracks by Talking Heads, New York Dolls, Blondie, and the Police, the upcoming “CBGB” original film soundtrack (available Oct. 8th, 2013) will be the most mainstream package Omnivore has released to date.
Yeah, absolutely. Here’s the thing. We aren’t afraid of that (being mainstream). It’s good to have records that are popular. We are certainly not interested in being a boutique (company). In some ways, we operate very much like a boutique because I’m not afraid to do any kind of record if it has a story; if it’s good; if it’s intriguing; and if it’s something that we want to share with people.
[Produced by Randall Miller, Jody Savin, and Omnivore’s Brad Rosenberger, the film “CBGB” premiered on DirecTV's video on-demand platform "DirecTV Cinema" on Sept. 5th, 2013. The film will make its theatrical premiere at the Sunshine Cinema in New York City on Oct. 8th, 2013. It will then be shown at the CBGB Music & Film Festival in New York City from Oct. 9th-13th, 2013 with a national release in select American theaters beginning Oct. 11th, 2013.]
What other releases are scheduled?
(Laughing) Let’s see what I can talk about coming up. We’ve got the Humble Pie box set “Performance: Rocking the Fillmore” (Oct. 8, 2013). That’s all four shows that were recorded for the “Performance” double live record (released by A&M Records in1971). We are excited about that. We just released (the double CD) “Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses.” Those were never released on CD in North America. We are righting a wrong there.
For Record Store Day (in 2013), we did a double 7-inch by Old 97’s and Waylon Jennings. They cut two sides together, “Iron Road” and “The Other Shoe,” back in the mid-90s, and they just never were released. Everybody was thrilled. It sold out very quickly. So we have added two more demos by the Old 97’s from that same era, and we are doing a CD EP (available Oct. 1st, 2013) which a lot of people seem to be responding really well to. Jon Langford did this great cover illustration that was supposed to be the cover of the single back then.
You have a Lone Justice recording in the works.
Yes, in the works. First demos sessions, and I will be more than happy to get to the second demo sessions if this does well.
What’s the minimum sales mark for Omnivore releases?
We like to speculate that we are going to do between 3,000 and 5,000 units. But that’s across multiple configurations. Often, we look at that over the course of three years.
What configurations are used?
Everything. It depends on what serves the project. For example, we reissued all of the albums by Spain (“The Blue Moods of Spain,” “She Haunts My Dreams,” and “I Believe”) because they had never been on vinyl. I felt that they should have been vinyl records. So I called up Josh Haden (founder, bassist and singer of Spain), and we all sat down for lunch. He was thrilled at the prospect. Those were ‘90s records that never had the benefit of having been released on vinyl.
Releasing past catalog with previously unissued music is largely a below-the-radar business these days.
It’s a great area of the business. I figured out pretty much by the end of my time at Rhino that the business was still there. There’s still that audience that likes to buy these kinds of records, but the scale (of business) was too big at the major labels; the overhead was too great to sustain smaller numbers of records. I thought that if I could scale the size of the company down that I could do these types of records forever. Just because the major labels couldn’t sustain doing them anymore didn’t mean that I was going to stop doing what I was doing.
Has the internet greatly impacted this sector?
Ummmm. Made the forest bigger. It flattened things.
Is mail order a big part of your business?
It very much is domestically. But it’s so expensive to ship things. If you take those three Spain records, they are 180 gram colored vinyl. They are beautiful, and they weigh a ton. So it costs more to ship them to Australia than it costs for the actual record, and there’s not a single thing that we can do about it. People get very angry about that. They think that we are out there fleecing them, but we aren’t Amazon, and we never will be. And the costs (of shipping) add to the costs for those sorts of things. So it’s difficult for us. Spain is very popular in Europe and trying to get the records to the fans there is very, very difficult.
How did you, Dutch Cramblitt, Brad Rosenberger, and Greg Allen come together in 2010 to start the label?
Greg and I had been talking about it for a long time. He’s a designer and a photographer. I met him when we were both hired to sort of run Rhino Handmade from the outside as consultants. He would handle the art process, and I would handle the product development as well as the A&R with the producers. He and I had a very instant rapport. Great shorthand. We fought in a very productive way. Everything that we had a dispute about got better. That’s a really healthy creative relationship. When I moved onto Concord and Rhino, I had him doing stuff with me. We had long talked about (launching a label). At various points, I had other offers, including going to Concord or going to Rhino that I felt that I needed to do. I felt that I wasn’t quite ready to start a label. But it was always in the back of our minds. We talked about it. Dutch was the head of sales at Rhino during my time there.
I remember Dutch as VP of sales at Nettwerk Entertainment, and working in sales at WEA Distribution.
Before that Hollywood Records. And before that SBK, Chrysalis and EMI. I think he started at Capitol. We started in the same systems. When they detonated Rhino, when they blew it up, he and I got together, and I told him what Greg and I had been speaking about. I also canvassed a bunch of my friends who had started labels and, for all intents and purposes, had failed. I asked them, “What was the thing (that led to failure)?” On the creative side, I knew what I wanted to do. But it was really good for me to hear over and over again, “You need somebody who understands numbers and sales.” I said, “Yeah. Dutch is my guy.”
[Two days following the release of the boxed set, “Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968” in 2009, the Warner Music Group subsidiary Rhino Entertainment cut between 20-40 employees. “The layoffs happened that same week,” recalls Pawelski. “We even had a big record release concert and party at Amoeba.”
SelectBooks, Inc. has announced the publication of “The Rhino Records Story: Revenge of the Music Nerds” by Harold Bronson. It’s the Rhino co-founder’s story of how a small record store in Los Angeles went on to launch its influential music label. The Oct. 22nd, 2013 publication date coincides with Rhino Records' 40th anniversary.]
Are you, as a music nerd, apt to blow your brains out financially in A&R to get what you want released, and Dutch is the guy who holds you in check?
Yeah. Internally, we call him “Doctor No.” We call him “Black Helicopter Guy.” It’s his job to say why things don’t work and how we can make something work.
Is it Brad’s role to clear any legal hurdles?
Not necessarily. We have other guys that we consider satellite Omnivores. We have some pals that do our licensing. Bryan George in New York, and Lee Lodyga who is down in Florida. He worked with me at EMI. He helps me with the media. He produces some things. He writes copy and things like that. So one clears, and the other helps me with all matters of things.
Brad came to us a little later. His last port of call was at Warner/Chappell for 21 years. So he oversees publishing and synch licensing here. It’s not well-known yet, but we have started Omnivore Publishing. The first signing is the estate of Dennis Wilson.
Brad is growing and cultivating our publishing and sync licensing business. as well he will be producing records. He just finished producing his first film, the “CBGB” movie which we have the soundtrack for as we mentioned. I think that, alongside doing that movie as well as starting to build our publishing and sync businesses, have kind of blown him up. We bit off a lot and, basically, we started four companies at once. We have sync, publishing, records and the fourth area is something that Greg and Brad and I all contribute to which is that we still all consult.
You don’t work in one office in the Los Angeles region?
We are all over the place. We have two office spaces. Dutch and I are pretty much at large. Brad and Greg occupy those spaces. We get together at one or the other when we need to sit down together. I’m always running around to meetings, and I’m in studios. One of the most horrible things about having a job in Los Angles—and it’s probably true for a lot of places—but the commute here is terrible. Even if it was an hour one way, which is on the low end side for each one of us, that’s an 8 hour work day for the four of coming and going from work. Why should we lose an entire work day sitting in our cars being angry?
Where do you live?
I’m in the Pasadena area, and so is Brad. Greg is close on the east side and Dutch is more west side in Brentwood.
How large is your music collection?
I have about 50,000 records in my data base although I am cleaning that up right now.
Where are your recordings stored?
Some are in the house. The real good vinyl is in the house. Truth be told, all we have in the house is records and books, and we are quite content that way. I have a separate studio. I guess it was a garage that the previous owners had refurbished, and rented out as an apartment. When we bought the house, we were looking for a space like this. It already had built-in shelving, and it has a bathroom. I could live out here for the rest of my life quite happily because all of my studio equipment is here for transfers and listening as well. My CDs, and overflowing LPs, and 45 collections, as well as my research books and materials are out here.
Who is easier to deal with? Artists, estates, independent labels or the majors, which have systems for licensing catalog music?
We deal with all of those. We will do deals directly with artists or estates or indie labels or with majors. We’ve done all of that. Frankly, it’s a little bit easier these days to deal with independents or artists or estates. The reason is that there just aren’t enough bodies on the job at the majors. It takes a long time, and it’s really expensive (to complete a project). It’s troublesome and problematic because there are a lot of records sitting there. They are obviously sitting on the biggest pile of assets. But, in so far as us being nimble and flexible, and being able to do things that are fun and cost-effective for all parties involved, right now I can be more creative with artists, estates and smaller labels.
Estates are often afraid of being taken advantage of. There are few relatives of deceased artists as versed in the recording industry as Janie Hendrix.
Right. You have to remember that all of us have been around awhile. We get referrals. We aren’t there to rip off an artist or an estate. In fact, we try to do deals with them that are better than if they were to go to a major. It’s a level of trust that you have to build. It’s all about relationships.
Has the consolidation of the major labels, and resulting layoffs diminished their deep catalog reissue activities?
Well, yeah. Just naturally because I feel that it is a result of the bloat of the ‘90s. By the ‘90s, you could pretty much sell anything on a CD. So all the labels got to sell a lot of their catalogs--a lot of it--or sub-licensed it out to third parties. We were making enormous amounts of money. So I look at this (fewer catalog reissues by lesser known acts by the majors), and it really is a self-correction in a way. That coupled with what I would like to call “the digital interruption”—and I do feel it’s an interruption because we haven’t learned how to use it (digital) properly yet in any form. Forget about digital delivery of music. I look at a place like Warner Music Group, actually all of the majors now, they are probably leaning toward (thinking), “What does streaming mean to us as far as revenue is concerned?” They are trying to stay alive just like everybody else. I don’t begrudge anybody at the (major) labels for what is happening.
The majors work with half the staff they had 15 years ago.
Right, which is why with these catalog-oriented records—unless you are in the top tier of the artists at those labels, the top selling artists at the label, the top selling tier--they can’t pay attention.
Or there’s a maverick record executive like Luke Lewis who, while president of Mercury Nashville, spearheaded the release of the elaborate “The Complete Hank Williams” boxed set
But Hank Williams sells a lot of records. It’s funny because I think in all of the hysteria about digital, and immediate delivery of this file and that file, we forget that, historically, catalog records tend to come back in. There’s a great story about something (that sparks interest). You look at the Rodriguez (“Sugar Man”) thing or even this year when we were involved with the Big Star documentary. There are stories to be told that emanate from catalog artists that are just as relevant in the culture, and to the business as a brand new artist.
[“The Complete Hank Williams” box set collected almost all Hank Williams’ recorded works, from his first recorded track in 1937 to the last session prior to his untimely death in 1952. The 10 CD collection contained 225 tracks, including studio sessions, live performances and demos. Among those tracks were 53 previously unreleased tracks. In 1999, the compilation won two Grammy Awards, for Best Historical Album, and Best Recording Package—Boxed.”]
Many of today’s executives at major labels know or care about deep catalog.
I wouldn’t be so fast to identify the new kids in the business as part of the problem. I ran into that when I proposed doing the Band reissues to the folks at Capitol (Records) way back in the mid-‘90s. We had “Stage Fright” in the budget catalog which I thought was a tragedy. I went to the folks at Capitol, and I said, “Listen, this (catalog) needs to be tended to. This needs to be refreshed. There’s stuff sitting in the vault. A lot of the guys are still around. This is great stuff.” They basically told me, “Don’t waste our time. It was great music, but it never sold.”
Now flash forward from the mid-90s to now and that is a very viable ongoing concern as far as an artist’s franchise for Universal Music because somebody paid attention.
[The Band’s performances at New York City’s Academy of Music on Dec. 28-31, 1971 were first released on their live album “Rock of Ages,” but the newly-released, and remixed 5-disc Capitol/Universal set, “Live at the Academy of Music 1971,” gathers all of the performances from their historical four-concert, three-night run, including four songs where Bob Dylan joined them onstage.]
Are the majors any better today about understanding the value of their recorded music holdings?
I think less because the fact that they are understaffed, and attention is pulled in so many different directions. I can’t tell you how distracting digital as a form is, and how unwieldy it is on the accounting and royalty side. There’s sort of one piece of repertoire that is fractured in a million different directions. The work has gotten heavier, and the staffs have gotten thinner. It’s really hard to pay attention to that stuff, and it’s harder to develop the stories that are sitting there. That’s why we formed Omnivore.
At one time, the majors wouldn’t do catalog reissues of less popular acts nor would they let anyone else do it either. The attitude was, “If we aren’t going to put it out, you aren’t going to put it out either.”
Oh yeah, very much so. It was very proprietary. But I spent a lot of time in the special markets area, and we did have an enormous number of clients. There were years where (at Capitol/EMI) I probably touched between 600 and 700 records a year with special market product. We had a little sub-label that we started, The Right Stuff label. There was everything from 45s for jukeboxes to third party licensed box sets. There were some years where it was flying, and we were at capacity. and when we were at capacity we took on more. But we had an entire staff dedicated to that at the company. An entire division. That has been whittled down to one or two people, if you are lucky, at the majors now.
When CDs were first introduced in the ‘80s, some of the majors just released analog CDs of their catalog with virtually no improvement in sound quality from vinyl.
Nobody knew how to how to master for digital yet. Catalog and special markets were definitely the bastard stepchildren. We were the weird kids down the hall for sure.
Over the years, the majors have attempted to upgrade or provide added value for their catalog releases.
They tried SCAD, DVD audio, and Surround Sound and all of that. Those are great, but I think that it was too soon to ask people to but more equipment. They had just bought a CD player, and they were very excited about their little shiny CDs. Then the next wave was all of these other things. I can’t tell you how many different gadgets, and widgets and black boxes there were. Everybody was looking for the next configuration because the bloat (increase of sales) had gotten so big.
I remember doing DVD audios and trying to explain to the folks that I worked for that it wasn’t as easy as they thought it was. We would go back to the master, and try to mix it, and suddenly there would be no drums. Then I would call the original producer who’d say, “Ahh, I think that we triggered those into the mix.” So I’m like, ”So there are no drums?” He’d say, “No. I would have to come in and re-create those for you to mix into the Surround.” So there was stuff like that going on. Everybody was hot and bothered about new configurations, and you just couldn’t do it in some cases.
As well, the perception of the importance of catalog changed.
The idea became that catalog is very turnkey and because in some instances, it kept the lights on. Like anytime that you put out a Beatles’ record, you made your numbers for the year. The nuance of each project in the various configurations was sometimes overlooked. That became a barrier to some of those other configurations. Plus, you were asking your general consumer to buy another piece of audio equipment. I don’t know if the market was ready for that.
Many of the Omnivore releases aren't mass market. What criteria are used to consider a release other than, “Can we sell this?”
The biggest thing for us is, “Does it have a story?” For a lack of a better way to describe us, people like to call us a reissue label. That’s really not true. Most of the records that we’ve released didn’t exist in nature prior to us releasing them.
Like some of the Buck Owens’ catalog Omnivore has released?
The Buck Owens stuff, Townes Van Zandt, and Gene Clark. To me, it’s interesting as a fan, and as a person who goes and looks for things as a producer, how do I extend the discography, and the legacy of these artists? How do I get another window into what that artist was doing at a particular time? Sometimes you wind up with some really great stories. Sometimes those stories even become movies like with Big Star.
Doesn’t Buck Owens’ estate own his catalog?
Correct. He was a very smart businessman. All of those classic Capitol records reverted. He had it in his deal that a certain point they reverted back to the estate.
All those great Ken Nelson produced recordings on Capitol Records?
Yep. And all of this unissued material that we have been exploring. There’s just wonderful things there. Jim Shaw, who was a Buckaroo (joining in 1970 as keyboardist), runs the (Owen’s) estate now for the family. He’s fantastic to work with. I think that we came along at a time where we wanted to reintroduce Buck as someone that was cool. Just a great musician. We had some interesting ways of trying to do that. Some were kind of funny.
We did the Buck Owens’ coloring book with the flexi disc inside of it. We did that for a Record Store Day. Being a collector of (music related) ephemera as I am, I had this Buck Owens’ coloring book. I was talking to Patrick Milligan who also worked with Rhino. He’s a producer. He has a really good relationship with the estate. I called him up one day after we had done that single for the very first Record Store Day. We put out a 7-inch of two alternative versions of songs that hadn’t been out before. An early version of “Close Up The Honky Tonks,” and “My Heart Skips A Beat” .We put it out on yellow vinyl. It really surprised us because it sold really well. It sold out. We tried to make it look like an old Capitol single.
People dug that.
So I pulled out my Buck Owens’ coloring book one day, and I called up Patrick, and said, “There’s all these pictures of Buck fly fishing, and flying a plane that you can color in. You get to this spread, and it lists four songs. We should do a single or something, but I have to find out who owns this coloring book, and see if we could reprint it.”
We called up the estate, and Jim said, “How many do you want?” I said, “How many do you have?” In 1970, Buck had printed all of these coloring books and never put them up for sale. Occasionally over the years, they would put them up for sale at the Crystal Palace (Owens' Bakersfield dancehall, steakhouse, and museum), but there were a couple of thousand (about 3,000) left. So we rented a van, drove to Bakersfield, and bought the coloring books. They were just happy to have space in the garage. We were then able to offer a red, white or blue flexi disc with four songs—live versions of the songs--that were drawn from the "Live at The White House" record that we put out afterwards, with an original 1970 coloring book.
To me, that’s an interesting story. How often have you been able to buy an original piece of ephemera from 1970 made to be a new product?
By co-hosting the TV variety show “Hee Haw” for two decades, Buck Owens somewhat lost credibility as a musical pathfinder. But he was quite the rebel, and cooler than cool. Dwight Yoakam has since reaffirmed his talent and influence.
Oh yeah, And that’s what we wanted to tap back into. To amplify what I was saying about us not just being regular reissue company, we like to have fun with things like this. We like to recast some of these legacies. Buck is a great one because when I was growing up, he was that goofball on “Hee Haw” Then, as my ears grew up, and I started listening to the early albums, I said, “Whoa, these guys were smoking. And the songs he wrote were amazing.” It’s just a natural (for us). Now we have the Randy Poe edited autobiography of Buck (“Buck ‘Em”) being published by Backbeat Books (available Nov. 15, 2013 in the U.S.). We have a companion anthology.
Often an artist’s catalog is spread across numerous labels as is the case with Townes Van Zandt. Was it difficult assembling his releases?
Yeah. I started “Sunshine Boy (The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971-72”) in 1996 when I started working on the Band stuff. It’s the longest running record that I have had in my back pocket. “High, Low, and In Between,” “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt,” along with “Delta Mama Blues” are my favorite Townes’ records.
It took 17 years to get “Sunshine Boy” released.
Nobody could ever say that I am not patient. I had found all of these tapes when I was rooting around in the vaults at EMI when I was doing the Band research, I thought, “I should go over and take a look at those two Townes’ records filed under the United Artists/Poppy Records deal. Sure enough, there were the multi-tracks, outtakes and alternate tracks, and all of this stuff. I started rolling some of it off, but there was some litigation going on that prohibited me from moving forward at the time. I started working on it, and then I had to put it down, and I did other things. None of that was settled by the time I left in 2005.
So when we started Omnivore, it was one of the first records that I put on the schedule, and it still took a long time to get done. I had to go back in and get more of the tapes that I hadn’t transferred back in the ‘90s. It’s a rough one because his catalog is all over the place. You find that with some artists where they just skipped around from label to label and over the years. It becomes even more de-centralized as certain catalogs get bought and sold
Are music archives in any better shape these days?
It depends. It really depends what it is
What’s the most frustrating experience you have had in working with an artist’s musical archives?
The worst stuff that I have had to go through—period--is something I’m midway with now. An unnamed forthcoming project. The artist just chucked tapes away into a box. This stuff was work tapes. Things that were demo reels or things that were works in progress. This was not sacred stuff. This was works in progress. Sometimes the things that you work from haven’t been treated well. A lot of it was thrown away.
Many artists wouldn’t want their demos or work tapes ever released.
It depends. I have run into both kind of artists. Some people are more forthcoming than others. It really (depends on) the ability, on the artist’s part, to distance themselves from their work. That they allow someone else in to filter it (the music) for them, and filter it backwards to tell a particular story. There’s also a trust level that needs to be established with people; both on what your point of view is, and what story you want to tell with the project when I come around asking, “What’s that tape holding up that lamp on that table? Do you mind if I listen to it?”
Sometimes I have had to lobby and say, “This is important.” I will give you a real world example. Let’s go back to the Band for a minute. I was going through Robbie Robertson’s cassette tapes, and I found a cassette probably from around 1975. I am listening through side A, and there’s nothing there. I whip it over, and I’m filing records—I want to listen to every last inch of tape—and in the middle of Side B, I hear “play record” (the record button) get pushed down, someone lights a cigarette, puts the lighter down on the piano, and proceeds to play very quietly. Of course, it’s Robbie, and it the very first version, the demo of the song “Twilight”
It’s beautiful, and it made it to the box set
Here’s the thing. I had been looking for a straight ahead version of “Twilight” because I never liked the sort of pseudo reggae thing that they released as a single. We found a straight ahead rock version, and I was like, “That’s great but the song is beautiful. It just doesn’t capture the essence of it.” Robbie was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Then I found this one.
I literally had to hold my breath when I played it for Robbie. This is really close-up. This is really intimate stuff. I’m guessing that the kids were asleep, and he was trying to be quiet. He just needed to get this down on tape. That’s what it sounds like, and it’s beautiful.” The song ends and I’m sitting there sweating bullets, and Robbie goes, “Well, that’s really great.” He pauses. You know that Robbie pause. He liked it so much that he sent it to Jerry Lee Lewis when he was working on his “Last Man Standing” record (released in 2006 with Robertson on the track). The version that Jerry cut for that record is based on the demo that we found on Robbie’s cassette.
[“A Musical History,” a comprehensive boxed set documenting the Band's recording career from 1963 to 1976, with 37 previously unreleased tracks, was released by Capitol/EMI Music Catalog Marketing in 2005. The set was overseen by Robbie Robertson, Cheryl Pawelski, and Andrew Sandoval.]
Do you often sift through an artist’s personal archives?
If they will allow it. And it depends on what I’m looking for. The flip side of the good news about the song “Twilight” is something that I really had to lobby hard for. There’s a little clip (.55 seconds) of the guys doing, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Robbie was like, “I don’t know. It’s just a little thing.” I’m like, “A little thing? This connects you to the Carter Family. I don’t care how long or how short it is.” He said, “Well, it’s not every good quality.” I was like, “No, no, no, this is fundamental to the Band.” I was really happy that I won that one.
Robbie has a reputation for being difficult to work with.
Robbie’s a smart guy. He was both difficult, and easy to work with. He was difficult because he sets the bar so high; he was easy because if you could argue the case, he would very much listen to it. He was great to work with.
A complaint of the Band reissues is that it’s Robbie’s version of their history.
He gets so maligned with all of this. That he went “Hollywood” and so on. Frankly, he did an enormous amount of work, and I have never heard him say one bad or negative about any of those guys. It’s always “my brothers” and “this guy was amazing at this.” Just in awe of their talents.
Did you receive any input from other members of the group?
Not so much. Rick and Richard, of course, were already gone. I spoke to Arlie Manuel, and a little bit to Elizabeth (Danko). As far as getting people to remember certain things, they didn’t have a lot of input. I spoke a few times to various representatives for Levon (Helm), and he just sort of opted to be not in the way. Garth and I were trading polka tapes for awhile. That was fun. He has an affinity for polka like me.
Is it true that when you went looking for the Band’s tapes in Capitol’s vault that you discovered their catalog was in disarray.
That’s very common. But I don’t know if it was in disarray as it was just that being able to identify what we needed. I think we probably listened to every last inch of tape that exists on the Band that we were able to find. “The Brown Album” masters are still missing. [“The Band,” the eponymous second studio album released in 1969.] The tape boxes are missing. I’m not sure where they are. I had long heard that Levon had them. don’t know. I was never able to confirm that. But you know, when you get down to session reels, sometimes there are no track sheets. There might be a phone number of a girl friend or the pizza guy and that’s all you get. So you listen to it. I don’t know if was necessarily any worse or any better than any other collection of tapes. The “Live at Watkins Glen” thing (album) was just wrong. That was a fake record..
Studio outtakes with fake crowd noises?
Yeah, it was a fake record because the actual Watkins Glen tape aren’t useable. They had a lot of line and mike problems.
How did a young lady from Milwaukee get involved with the reissue and special market sector? You are a rarity in that side of the business.
I have always kind of felt like a rarity because when I first started in the business it was all really older gentlemen that sort of played in the catalog world. So I’ve been sort of the odd person out.
When you moved to Los Angeles, you started off as an assistant at Capitol Records?
Yeah as an assistant. What happened was that I moved from Wisconsin where I had my first job job. I had quit to work at Radio Doctors because I felt that I needed to understand more about distribution and about how records got out into the world.
Radio Doctors & Records was a celebrated one-stop and retailer in Milwaukee.
They were bought by Rose Records in Chicago, and then everything went under. I left after Rose bought it. When I worked there, it was really wonderful. There was a downstairs warehouse. We had a separate classical store, and we still sold jukebox 45s, which was great. It’s interesting because I wound up working on all of the jukebox 45s that we still serviced in the ‘90s out of EMI. It didn’t seem like it (the configuration) was a relic to me at that time because I had just come selling them as a one-stop.
[One of America’s leading music retailers for decades, Radio Doctors & Records in Milwaukee had one of the largest collections of records and tapes under one roof, anywhere. The firm’s 22,500 square feet store and warehouse held more than one million titles.]
Back in the ‘60s, and ‘70s, many of us collectors bought the 45s that were taken out of jukeboxes.
Yeah, geeky records nerds.
Was the experience in special markets helpful to your career?
It was really great training for me to be in that special markets area because later I was able to do (consulting) for iTunes and others. I remember that in special markets, I had to make a compilation once of songs about eyes for an eye doctor. Yeah, songs about blue jeans for Levis. All of the Pottery Barns, and Williams Sonoma compilations.
I had to know all of this stuff, and be very fluent in being able to create genre or lifestyle based records.
That directly relates to the time I spent making compilations for iTunes because it would be the same sort of application. Saturday night dance stuff. “Songs for Your Cookout for the 4th of July.” It’s interesting stuff to do. It’s fun stuff to do. It doesn’t necessarily make for good records these days. The records I get to make now are more what I am interested in which is telling those interesting stories for the artists.
You worked at iTunes?
I wasn’t directly working for iTunes. I was working for a company that iTunes hired to compile (music). They had all of these custom compilations, “iTunes Essentials” and things like that, and different kinds of genre-based or lifestyle compilations. I did compilations from everything. from workouts to compilations for yoga class.
You did numerous children’s compilations while at Capitol.
Lots of children’s compilations. In fact, I had a band back when I first came out here. We recorded 14 kids’ records for Capitol because there was so much opportunity in the market for special markets. Kids repertoire was so old.
Canadians-Raffi, Sharon, Lois and Bram, and Susan Hammond with the “Beethoven Lives Upstairs” series--reinvigorated the children’s’ market at the time.
That’s right. That stuff was hot cakes and being in the special markets area, there was all of this opportunity. But we could never compete with the other majors because they actually had kids divisions, like A&M with Raffi and “Baby Beluga” and all of that. Capitol let us go into the studio, and record stuff. It was hilarious.
You were guitarist, singer and songwriter with the Bumpin’ Uglies, who released the album “Dreamin’ Blue Sky” on Taxim Records in the mid-‘90s. You don’t talk much about that time.
Mercifully so (laughing), I'd much rather talk about those of whose shoulders I'm standing on to create a new label, you know, mentors, or my present team of co-conspirators in Omnivore.
I had a great time writing and playing music, but I never got the right team together. Neither a band nor a label is an individual pursuit. It's all about the team. I've been seeking it my whole career, either playing music or producing music. I feel like I have a great team now with Omnivore, probably for the first time in my career. Now that's worth talking about.
Many of us have music industry figures who greatly influenced us. One of mine is the late Columbia Records producer, John Hammond Sr.
I have maximum respect for John Hammond Sr. I sure wish I could have worked with him along the way. As it stands, I can count among my mentors and colleagues being Jac Holzman, Joe Boyd, Pete Welding, Hale Milgrim, Roger Armstrong, Richard Weize, Bob Hyde, John Fry, and Ed Michel among so many others. Michael Cuscuna and I were in the same family of labels for a long time, but I just didn't get to work enough with him. He's so great. The same with Orrin Keepnews. I was only at Concord Records, for a year, so we only did a few things and then I split for Burbank (to join Rhino Entertainment). There are so many great people in this business.
Many music fans have recently returned to buying vinyl.
Me too. In my world, vinyl never went away. I’ve been into vinyl where it was 45s or LPs it nice to revisit it. It’s funny because I forgot how big a pain it is because it is such a physical process.
When I visit Amoeba in Los Angeles, I will buy music in any configuration.
Me too. If it’s the way I can get what I am looking for, that’s the way I buy it.
What are you most prized collectibles?
I am big time fan of a lot of artists so I have many rare things by the likes of Fairport Convention, Bruce Springsteen, and the Band, naturally. I have some really nice posters of Fairport, and Sandy Denny. For Bruce, I have the “script cover” (promo advance of “Born To Run”). That’s a nice one.
You also own some rare Richard Thompson animation cells.
I have had the good fortune to work with Richard Thompson for the past 20 years. There were boxes in the hallway outside my office door one night at Capitol Records marked basura or trash. I started looking through it, and there were these weird animation cells. I recognized that it was the whole video of “I Feel So Good” by Richard Thompson. I took what I could, but back then I had a one bedroom apartment in Hollywood at the time. I couldn’t haul the whole thing home. I pulled out some of my favorites and they are my hallway now here. But the rest went in the dumpster I'm afraid.
Have you been able to meet a partner for life who shares your passion for music?
Oh sure. You mean my lovely wife, Audrey (Bilger)? She’s a professor at the Claremont College, and she also runs the Centre For Writing and Public Discourse. Everything goes out of here professor approved.
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.
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.
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.”
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