Indie dependent

Dolph Ramseur keeps harmony with the Avett Brothers and other artists on his tiny Concord-based record label.
by Mark Kemp

Photography by Steve Exum

To Dolph Ramseur, the twang of fingerpicked guitar combined with vocals sung in a deep Southern drawl is the music angels make. As a teenager, he spent many days at the Concord Public Library looking up old Piedmont blues musicians: Etta Baker, Blind Willie McTell, the Rev. Gary Davis. At night, he would tune his radio to Davidson College’s campus station, where he heard very different sounds: the charging punk rock and brooding new wave of such early ’80s bands as Dead Kennedys and Echo & the Bunnymen. What if these radically different styles could be merged, he wondered. Would the result sound as passionate and immediate as the rock ’n’ roll that came out of Memphis in the 1950s?

More than two decades later, he has found that combination in the Avett Brothers, a Concord-based trio whose mix of old-time vocals and instrumentation — high-lonesome harmonies, banjo, guitar and upright bass — with the muscular force of rock has wowed audiences from Charlotte’s Neighborhood Theatre to New York City’s Bowery Ballroom. In the past three years, it has become one of North Carolina’s most popular touring bands, performing across the country and in Europe and featured on national radio shows such as World Café and Mountain Stage. Its albums have been reviewed in publications from the indie-music magazine Paste to The Washington Post and even Men’s Health. The next one — Emotionalism, due out May 15 — will be its seventh release on tiny Ramseur Records.

He knew the band had it, even though he couldn't explain why.

The rise of an independent record company on a hot talent has been a familiar refrain since Sam Phillips signed a delivery-truck driver to his Sun Record Co. in 1954. Phillips later peddled the contract to a major label for a mere $40,000, but the deal made him a legend, RCA Victor a fortune and Elvis Presley the first bona fide rock star. Even though technological advances such as compact discs and selling music online have cut costs and lowered barriers to entering the business, few indies can hope for such acclaim. That’s not the point, says Ramseur, who is 37 and runs his company out of his house. “We’re basically in this thing because we love the music.”

I was always a music nut, always collected music when I was a kid. I loved acoustic and traditional music, but I also gravitated to all the great punk and British rock that was coming out — anything that was real and honest.” He’s having lunch with Scott Avett, the band’s leader and banjo player, at an Indian restaurant near UNC Charlotte. As Ramseur describes his love affair with music, Avett, 30, sits quietly, smiling at his passion. Ramseur becomes animated as he talks, raising his voice and gesturing with his hands. He suddenly lowers the volume to a near whisper. “I also could always tell when a musician was beginning to sell out, and I didn’t like that. So I wanted to get in a position where I could really help people — give them a situation where they wouldn’t have to sell out.”

He had always wanted to be in the business, but growing up in Concord, where he still lives, he didn’t know how. At 20, studying marketing and professional tennis management at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., he came across a story about singer/songwriter Martin Stephenson in the British magazine Melody Maker. Stephenson mentioned that he was interested in the music of the rural American South. That was something Ramseur knew a lot about, so he called England and left a message on Stephenson’s answering machine. Did he need a manager, a publicist, an equipment boy — anything that might propel a young fan into the business? “That freaked me out,” Stephenson later told a Scottish online arts journal. “At first I thought it was a mate winding me up, so I just erased the message.” Ten years would pass before Ramseur, by then working as a tennis pro at Cabarrus Country Club, got in touch with him again. “I found out that we had a common interest in old-time string music and bluegrass,” Stephenson recalled, “and we actually started interacting through e-mail.”

“I didn’t really know much about the music industry,” Ramseur says, “but I did learn a lot from Martin, because he’d been through the whole industry.” Stephenson had recorded for major labels such as Capitol and London, as well as a small British indie. Ramseur told him he wanted to put out CDs by Mount Holly’s David Childers, a lawyer by day and singer/songwriter by night, and the Stanly County Boys, a group that played old-time fiddle music. “He gave me all his contacts, and I found out a little bit about how to do publicity and how to book shows. He knew I was in this for the right reasons. It wasn’t for the money. It was to do the right thing.”

Reading about how, early in her career, country star Allison Krauss had struck a handshake deal with Rounder Records, the legendary Burlington, Mass.-based roots-music label, Ramseur decided he wanted to do business that way. Obtaining a $15,000 line of credit — it’s now up to $75,000 — he spent about $4,500 to record, duplicate and promote Childers’ 2002 album Blessed in an Unusual Way. “We printed up 1,000 copies of it, and it wound up selling about 800 copies,” he says. They split the profits 50-50. He struck a similar deal with the Stanly County Boys. He still works this way, he says, even with his most successful act.

That’s not the way the major labels work. “I guess a lot of the big labels, you almost see them as like banks. They’re loaning artists money, and they want to make that money back. And if they don’t, it’s tough luck for the artists. The label just goes on to the next big thing. In our case, we sort of put all our eggs in one basket. The artist brings something to the table, and I bring something to the table. It’s sort of sweat equity on both ends. I’m bringing some money; they’re bringing some money. I do publicity and booking and distribution; they’re out there writing songs and busting their asses on the road.”

In 2003, Ramseur Records put out its third release, a CD of modern-day field recordings that Stephenson had made three years earlier with Etta Baker and other surviving Piedmont-blues legends and younger artists such as Childers and Michael Reno Harrell. Loosely based on the life and music of Randolph County native Charlie Poole, whose 1920s ballads documented the textile boom in North Carolina, The Haint of the Budded Rose gained some buzz for the label. The collection “shares its vibe with the excellent soundtrack to the Coen Brothers movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, though is much grittier and less polished,” a British Broadcasting Corp. reviewer wrote.

The budding record exec was thrilled. “We were gaining momentum,” Ramseur says. “I began to realize I could make records inexpensively, and that if we thought them out well and kept things real and honest, a record with a $5,000 investment could come off sounding as good or better than a record you might put $100,000 into.”

The New Year’s Eve show has been sold out for weeks. For the last three years, these annual Avett bacchanals at the Neighborhood Theatre have been the Queen City’s hottest ticket for music fans. Outside, people who can’t get in stand next to the door, tapping their feet. Inside, the crowd is going wild, singing every word when the Brothers charge into favorites like “The Traveling Song” from the band’s first Ramseur release, A Carolina Jubilee. The hippie guy in a floppy hat dances like a court jester. A grizzled punk rocker in black leather leans against the soundboard. Frat boys wave beer bottles and bump into shimmying co-eds in low-cut jeans. There’s an all-American family — 50-something mom and dad with their teenage kids in tow — all dancing, all having fun.

Most indie-label owners can look back and cite certain acts as their cash cows. If it weren’t for this band — and what Ramseur calls the “Avett Brothers charisma” — his label likely wouldn’t have survived past Stephenson’s modest-selling collection. “The Avetts have elevated what I do on so many levels. They’re a great calling card now, as far as when I go to present any other act on my label. When I mention that the Avett Brothers are on my label, people sit up and take notice.”

The first time he saw them perform in September 2002, he knew he wanted them. Up to then — until he watched Scott Avett picking his banjo, bantering with the crowd and wailing out songs with guitar-playing brother Seth and their stand-up bassist, Bob Crawford — it had been just about the music. “They blew me away,” Ramseur recalls. “They were only playing about half originals at that time, but I knew they had it. I couldn’t explain at the time why they had it, and that’s probably the reason I knew they had it.” It wasn’t their fashion sense. Scott Avett may have the classic good looks of a rock star, but he usually dresses as if he’s about to go chop wood for supper with the Beverly Hillbillies. Before they became a hot national touring band, the Avetts played a lunchtime show at the Wachovia Atrium in downtown Charlotte. It was as if the Kinks had been crossbred with Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys. Bankers covered their ears but tapped their toes. Many a face above a starched white collar wore puzzled eyes. But most had a smile plastered across them. “The Brothers are a good example,” Ramseur says, “of how avoiding the hip stuff actually makes you hip.”

The two actual brothers have been playing together all their lives but had been rock guys who favored punk and metal. That changed in 1998, when Scott, who had discovered the music of Doc Watson, began getting together with friends to pick old-time songs on acoustic instruments. At the time, they were in a Greenville rock band called Nemo. Within two years, Scott, Seth and other members of the jam session had written and recorded some original songs. Nemo called it quits in 2001, but within a year the Avett Brothers had risen from its ashes. The band went into a Marshville studio in 2002 and recorded the first album, Country Was, which they put out on their own. After hooking up with Crawford, the lineup was complete, and the trio booked a two-month, 11-state tour. Once back home, they returned to Marshville and recorded what became A Carolina Jubilee.

The Avetts bring down the house ringing in the new year.

Ramseur approached Scott Avett with a rambling e-mail much like the phone message he had left Stephenson years earlier. He put up about $4,000 towards manufacturing, distribution and promotion of 2,500 copies of the CD. “Since the recording was already paid for, I didn’t have to put up money for that, so we did a deal where they would get 75% and I would get 25% of the proceeds. But part of the charm of my dealings with the Avetts is that we all take care of each other. At one point, since the Brothers saw that I was working so hard at getting out the word about them, they decided to give me 50%. And then there was a time when we were really trying to increase their touring — going to New York City, Maryland, the Midwest — and they were in survival mode. They were getting no money for performing, and I decided not to take any money for myself. And then we eventually went back to the initial 25-75 deal.” They have struck different deals for each subsequent recording — an initial run is now 10,000 CDs — and that’s also the way he works with his other acts.

“It depends on what kind of budget we’re dealing with, how much the artist wants put into the recording, promotion and publicity. In the beginning, Scott and I talked a lot about wanting to keep things fair, so that we all could benefit from it. Having worked with the Brothers for a few years now, I’ve come to realize that making money with this thing can be done, if you do your homework and work hard. ‘Work hard’ is the No. 1 thing.”

Especially when your company consists of yourself — the sole proprietor — and an assistant. Last year, it sold some $40,000 of CDs, more at shows than through retail outlets. Management fees, almost all for the Avetts, brought in about $33,500, and he earned $9,700 for booking various acts. “Recently, our T-shirt sales have been really outstanding. We sell a lot of posters, stickers and T-shirts just based on Scott’s talent as an artist. He knows the correct images to use in these products.” That money goes to the band. “For us, the next phase is to find some kind of distribution for our merchandise so our stickers and posters can also be sold in stores.”

Building a fan base to buy the merchandise involves networking on Web sites such as MySpace.com. But relying on virtual communities has its limits, Ramseur says. “Word of mouth and spending hours on the phone with the right people are still the best way of getting attention.” Avett agrees. “My brother and I have been doing this since we were about 12 years old, so some of the word-of-mouth networking things we’ve been doing since we were kids are still working for us today. And we see our fan base continuing to grow more in the next couple of years, but we like the pace we’re at right now.”

It comes down to passion and hard work, something Avett says he learned from his father, an amateur musician who runs a welding shop. “Even before we met Dolph, we understood what running a small business meant. Early on, we started our own corporation, the Avett Brothers Inc., and treated it like a construction company. We went to conventions, and we talked to our fans like a small businessman would talk to his customers. Because that’s what fans are — they’re customers — and you have to appreciate them.”

A man in his 30s, clad in khakis and a dress shirt, approaches his table at the Indian restaurant. “Excuse me,” he says, “I’m sorry for interrupting your lunch, but I just had to tell you that I saw you at Verizon, and it was a great show.” Avett smiles and replies, “Thank you so much, sir. I appreciate that. It’s a real honor.” Ramseur beams. It’s the best publicity an indie-label owner could hope for.

But this label has only five acts signed. The Avetts’ five albums — six come May — one EP, a CD by Oh What A Nightmare (the band’s rock alter ego) and a Bob Crawford side project constitute most of the 13-record catalog. What happens if, as was the case with Elvis Presley and Sun Records, their success makes them too big for Ramseur Records’ britches? “We’ve talked about that,” Ramseur says. “All along I’ve been looking at trying to find the right situation for the guys — like a major-label deal. At this time, we just haven’t found it.” If and when they do, “I’ll stay in a management role, and we’ll put out the records on that label.” In the meantime, they’ll keep building the band brand to get the optimal deal.

“You know,” he says as 2006 draws to a close, “I started out making virtually no money on this, and I’m still not making anything close to six figures. But because of the success of the Avett Brothers, I’m probably going to make about $80,000 this year. But I’m not getting rich on this. About half of that will go to expenses, so I’m still just middle-class — lower middle-class, at that. But as far as the music business goes, I’m running a fair and honest business, and that’s the way I want it. I know a lot of people probably think I’m nuts, but I’m getting rich in a different way. My kids have already experienced more arts and culture than most people get by the age of 40, and that’s very satisfying to me. My son’s just 3 years old, and he can already identify Bob Marley when he comes on the radio.”

That, as they say, is priceless.