There are still a few small record labels committed to hunting down hidden sounds, releasing obscure music from all corners of the globe, reissuing forgotten classics and unearthing overlooked gems.
Representatives from four of these vanguard labels will join in a panel moderated by Asheville Free Media's Greg Lyon at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Fine Arts Theatre. (Also, AshevilleFM will simulcast the panel. Click here for more info.) Eric Isaacson (Mississippi Records), Lance Ledbetter (Dust-To-Digital), Hisham Mayet (Sublime Frequencies) and Nathan Salsburg (Twos and Fews) will discuss their labels, play music from upcoming releases and show films.
About half of the session will be videos with discussion, and a Q and A will follow, Lyon says. Expect short videos on Abner Jay, Bishop Perry Tillis, Michael Hurley, Omar Souleyman and Group Doueh, moonshiner Hamper McBee, Gnawa music and whole lot more.
One of the connecting threads for these labels is their championing of a genuine folk music created largely by working people with little or no link to the music industry.
• Twos and Fews is the youngest of the labels, with a sole recording of Appalachian coal miner and singer Nimrod Workman under its belt, and an upcoming CD of music from Marrakesh.
• Dust-To-Digital specializes primarily in American folk music, but has also released a few anthologies of old 78s from around the world.
• Sublime Frequencies focuses on music from places few of us will ever visit, allowing us access to such amazing fare as Thai surf music, Syrian and Myanmarian pop music, and Tuareg guitar music from the Sahara.
• Mississippi Records is all over the map, with a hefty catalogue of raw blues and gospel, music from Africa, India and Thailand, obscure punk reissues, and records championing bands from their hometown of Portland, Ore., where they operate a record store.
The labels have received glowing press and attracted a loyal fan base who snatch up their releases, regardless of genre.
"I feel like we are just part of a tradition that has been around for quite some time, of labels specializing in, for lack of a better word, esoteric music," Isaacson says in an e-mail exchange, when asked about the popularity of the labels. "We probably have a certain mystique because we are a bit of an anachronism in that we have no Web presence or do advertising, and distribute our LPs in a very old-fashioned, person-to-person way. I think all of these companies are doing pretty unique work that it's hard not to pay attention to, thanks to the great packaging and sounds."
Dust-to-Digital in particular produces covetable packaging (their six-CD sacred-song anthology Goodbye, Babylon, is housed in a pine box), and Sublime Frequencies' limited pressings of their ornate gatefold vinyl LPs generally sell out in a matter of weeks. Mississippi releases exclusively vinyl with jackets featuring folk-art paintings or collages, usually for around $10, in limited runs that collectors scurry to acquire. Scan eBay for their releases and you might find a markup of 400 percent for a record a few years old.
Isaacsson is slightly miffed about such speculative record buyers. "The whole point of the label was to make things available for cheap on vinyl that are hard to find. I would love to keep everything in print, but our profit margins are too small to afford to have unsold back stock collecting dust."
It's clear no one on the panel got in it for the money, expected to see many monetary returns on their time and financial investments. But for those who love their records, these labels are performing a service, rescuing amazing music that might otherwise slip through the cracks. Mississippi Records has a sign hanging in its store that serves as their motto, but could just as well serve for all of the labels, as well as the artists performing at Transfigurations itself: "Always – Love Over Gold."