For These Indie Record Labels, Preserving The Midwest Sound Is More Important Than Money

Feb 16, 2016

It’s impossible not to hear the life experience in Billy Beale’s time-worn voice.

As the Kansas City blues-staple sings the lyrics, “the only time I’ve been successful’s when I fell,” local record producer Jody Hendrix is reminded of why he felt compelled to document that singular sound.

“Billy is a legend in the bar rooms, the juke joints, and the courtrooms,” Hendrix told Steve Kraske on KCUR’s Up To Date.

When he heard that Beale was heading to prison in 2010, Hendrix knew he had to get him into a recording studio.

“He's unwritten history in Kansas City… He's been playing blues and roots music in this area for 40-plus years. I just felt a calling to make sure that we document his music until he’s done on the planet,” Hendrix said.

That spurred Hendrix to continue documenting area musicians and start his own label. 

Since Hendrix recorded Beale in 2010, Beale has been released on good behavior. And Little Class Records, which is based in Westport, has represented more than 20 different regional artists.

Local independent record labels like Little Class are behind several of the artists appearing at Folk Alliance International's annual conference this week. For these businesses, turning a profit is only a secondary goal. 

How helping out friends turned into a record label

Hendrix started his career in music as an artist, starting his first band when he was 14. Tired of paying high studio prices to record music, he and his friends acquired recording equipment and started recording albums for friends for cheap.

Fast-forward to 2010, with Beale’s record in hand, Hendrix knew he had to brand his operation.

Six years later, the label has yet to turn a profit, though Hendrix thinks 2016 might just be the year to do so.

“We play the lottery really every time we find an artist that we believe in. It’s like, is this going to be an artist that is able to sell 2,000 copies for us and pay rent for us? Or is it something that we do because we want to just document the music?”

For Hendrix, the answer is clear.

“One hundred percent of the time we do it for the documentation of the music,” he said.

Another area record label is doing its part not only to document, but to brand a type of music found only in the country's heartland. 

Capturing the feel of an outdoor music festival

Curtis Copeland never set out to record artists.

He and business partner Jack Stafford first started out trying to document the scenes at music festivals through video and other media.  

As the two spent time with musicians and fans, they got to know the unique lifestyle at folk and Americana festivals and realized that they could help artists break out of their local scenes and expose them to a wider audience.

Copeland and Stafford founded MudStomp Records in 2009. It's based in Overland Park, Kansas. 

Kansas City's Kasey Rausch is one of several area artists on Curtis Copeland's label, Mudstomp Records.
Credit Paul Andrews

Mudstomp aims to brand and promote a particular feeling — the energy of musicians and fans at a festival, dancing so hard they stomp the mud right into the ground. Copeland represents artists like Kansas City’s Kasey Rausch and Lawrence-based harmonica virtuoso Brody Buster.

It’s a sound Copeland thinks is unique to this region.

“There is an honesty to it. You can find bluegrass all over the nation, you can find Americana music all over the nation and not to say it's not honest there as well, but it’s just like a regional dialect, it’s got a certain feel,” he told Kraske.

His goal — and his challenge — is to capture the feel of a live performance in a recorded medium. And like Hendrix, Copeland isn’t in it for the money.

“You've got to be into it for the love of the music and the love of the artists,” he said.

The recording industry is changing, and these labels are embracing it

The fact is, there isn’t a lot of money to be made recording folk music. The world of free streaming software means that fewer people are actually buying CDs and vinyl albums.

“Live music and live shows is really the new moneymaker. There's so much digital media and free streaming that our performers have to perform live,” Copeland said.

Copeland said many of his artists sell the most records after live gigs, which is good for gas and food money on the road — but doesn’t necessarily spell financial comfort.

In addition to recording musicians, Hendrix books live shows at the venue below his office, Westport Saloon.

“In today’s new music industry it’s hard to get music heard in all parts of the country unless you're actually touring,” Hendrix said.

Both think there is a future for smaller, independent record labels like theirs. Because of the tools that the internet can offer musicians, they don’t need to rely on expensive studios to get their sound out there.

“The industry is really changing. I think a lot of these independent labels are created to suit a specific genre or to suit a specific plan of an artist or a band and I think we're going to see more and more of that as it goes on,” Copeland said.

Both Little Class Records and Mudstomp artists will be represented this week at Folk Alliance International. For information on showcases and events, visit www.folk.org.

Lisa Rodriguez is the associate producer for KCUR's Up To Date. You can find her on Twitter @larodrig.