One loyal fan (we’ll call him John Doe) picked up the newest Blue Rags CD — Eat At Joe’s (SubPop Records, 1999) — at a recent show and studied the cardboard sleeve carefully. “This is really slick-looking,” he commented, eyeballing the hipper-than-hip, full-color photos of band members haphazardly posed, their faces a moody, MTV-style case study.
He slipped the hard plastic case out of the sleeve, admired the Tom Sullivan artwork on the actual CD cover, and examined the disc itself. Then he closed it, placed the case in his overalls pocket, and ripped the fancy cardboard sleeve into pieces, saying, “Man, this is a cool-looking CD. Too bad somebody wasted so much money putting that cardboard thing on it, because it hides the inside artwork.”
Holding out a handful of shredded paper (featuring high rag content, of course), he said, “Anybody got any use for this?” No takers. He tossed it in the trash.
Onlooking fans stared at him in disbelief. But two members of the Blue Rags — whose mug shots had just been destroyed — leaned over the trash barrel and peered in, then started clapping and laughing. Come to find out, one of them had done the same thing to his own copy of the CD.
“Yeah, there was a lot of controversy about that cover,” says Jake Hollifield (vocals, keyboards and ad hoc spokesman for the band). “We wanted to have Tom Sullivan’s art on the cover. He’s a local … artist, and he’s talented. We wanted to support him and use some original-looking art, but the airbags at [SubPop] didn’t like it, so they covered it up with that boring-looking crap.”
Then he looked this reporter straight in the eye and said: “I’ll never sign another recording contract as long as I live, and I’ll tell everybody I know that they shouldn’t do it either. I’ll be a farmer if I have to, before I’ll be in another music contract. At least Tom Sullivan got paid; we’re happy about that, even if they didn’t put his art on the cover. He made more money than we did off of our album, because the musicians never get paid.”
Fierce words from someone who inadvertently cornered the Asheville gossip line three years ago, when the Blue Rags (they of the infectious old-time/ragtime/hillbilly-blues instant classics, in case you’ve just moved here from outer space) became the first local band of the ’90s to get signed by a big-time label. The town was abuzz with talk of record-company execs who descended on the scene with their cell phones, lawyers and offers of fame, fortune and Ford Econoline touring vans.
“SubPop sent us to trade shows,” remembers Hollifield of that supposedly heady time. “But we just want to make a real connection with our fans. The music industry makes it look to the fans as though they’re supporting their favorite artists when they buy a record, but that’s not necessarily true. Unless you’re a [top-tier] artist, you don’t make any money. You don’t even get paid.” For example, he explains, the notion of selling 10,000 CDs might sound lucrative. But it ain’t so.
“Even if you sell 10,000 records — which is a lot — you don’t get a dime” he claims. “The percentages only work for big-time acts. You get two bucks for each CD that sells. If you sell 10,000 records, you get paid nothing.” But wait a minute: Two dollars times 10,000 discs equals $20,000. Where did the money go? “You have to pay back the company for the entire cost of production,” Hollifield explains. “By the time you do that, your percentage is spent. You’re broke.”
In what the band calls a mutual agreement, though, they’re no longer under contract with SubPop.
“We were victims of a CEO battle of the wits,” grouses Hollifield. “The bonds between musicians can be even stronger than the bonds between people who are married. But they aren’t physical bonds, they’re magnetic ones. They can be destroyed. The first thing [record companies] do is they try to individualize the artists into separated egos, and start conflicts. They take you to one side and tell you how talented you are and how much they like what you bring to the band. [Then they] tell the other band members something else. They try to pit one person against the other, like it’s a competition. That gets people feeling bad. Musicians get their feelings hurt. It’s personal damage for the sake of [corporate] control.”
With disarming country-boy eloquence, Hollifield sums it all up: “You’re just a piece of bread on the pond, and everyone wants to jump to the surface and gobble you up.”
New technology has made it less expensive for bands to record their own CDs, copy them and sell them directly to fans. And though home-recording systems are not nearly as sophisticated as those owned by record companies, the quality is still entirely adequate — especially for a band like the Blue Rags, which sounds better before the fresh, raw, live energy is bleached out by studio engineers who tweak a perfectly good record till it’s technically perfect, but has no soul, no depth and no passion.
“We’re coming into a time which will define the difference between the artist and the product,” Hollifield declares. “We think it’s better to make your own records — maybe sign and number them, to make them more meaningful — and sell them directly to the fans yourself.”
Instead of spending money and energy on promoting themselves and their marketplace image, the Rags say their concentration is where it’s always been — on establishing a meaningful human connection with their fans. The band will continue to offer a broad selection of tunes both to die-hard fans and potential new ones: “If we hear a good song, we’ll play it, no matter what it is,” notes Hollifield. “But it will be our version.”
That doesn’t mean the Blue Rags will lose their musical identity. As bass player Bill Reynolds points out, “So many bands now are every-single-kind-of-music-they’ve-ever-heard bands.” But, unchecked, this can translate into a kind of musical vagueness that showcases ability at the expense of originality.
“We want to play with the music,” Reynolds adds. “It’s called ‘playing’ music because, instead of being so serious, you can play around with it. You don’t have to do the same song the same way every time, and you can do any song you want and do your own version of it — play it your own way. That approach keeps the musicians on their toes, challenges them and keeps it fresh.”
The band has evolved to the point where they can create a thick, rich sound using only acoustic instruments. And they do it without fuzz boxes, delays or other store-bought effects. “It’s hard to do, but it makes our sound unique,” says Reynolds.
Weekends, the Rags are on the road (they recently drove 22 hours to play a Santa Fe show). But they’re now in the midst of giving something back to Asheville, in the form of playing four consecutive Thursdays in September at Be Here Now. “We want to pump downtown and contribute to the downtown vitality,” enthuses Reynolds.
Infusing downtown with vitality has been known to become a dangerous venture for this band, though. The last time they played on an Asheville street corner, the audience grew so spontaneously that it spread wildly into the streets and caused a traffic jam.
And you can’t manufacture that kind of chemistry and sheer love, no matter how big your budget.