The record business is shrinking incredibly quickly, and blues recording is suffering. You’ve all read about falling CD sales over the last few years. Overall recorded music sales have dropped over 30% in the last five years. For blues records, it’s more like 40+%. This has already meant that it’s harder and harder for labels like Alligator to commit to recording lesser-selling artists, no matter how good, because we just can’t get their CDs into the remaining stores. Most blues artists simply aren’t in a position to record, manufacture, advertise, market and promote their own recordings. That’s what the labels do. Now comes word that Tower Records, the venerable 90-store chain, is in bankruptcy and must either find a buyer or simply fold up and go away. Tower has often symbolized what made a great record store—deep selection, usually knowledgeable staff, and a sense of excitement about discovering music. When I walked into a Tower, I expected I would find a blues CD (or many) that was completely new to me. If Tower goes away, no one will replace them.
These days, the biggest retailers of music in the U.S.A. (40% of all CD sales!) are the ‘big boxes’ — Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target, with tiny music sections stocked with the biggest hits. If Tower disappears, the only remaining national chain dedicated primarily to selling music will be the Transworld chain (known under names like FYE, Sam Goody, The Wall, Strawberries, Disc Jockey, Specs and Coconuts) which has a poor to mediocre selection of blues, and charges the labels ridiculous amounts of money (would you believe $3 per disc?) just to put the CDs into their stores.
It may soon be impossible to find our older and slower-selling CD titles at any store except our own web site, www.alligator.com, and at online sites like Amazon.com. And it’s going to be hard for us to afford pressing the small quantities that these sites alone can sell. So, though we’d hate to do it, we may take some titles out of print in physical CD form, and make them available only as downloads. (By the way, virtually the entire Alligator catalog is available from most legitimate U.S. download companies, including iTunes, Napster, Yahoo, AOL Music, Rhapsody, MSN, Sony Connect and others.)
So, if you don’t support blues recordings and the retailers who stock good selections of blues, there will simply be less and less new blues recordings. Sad but true.
One of those older Alligator titles that is getting pretty hard to find in stores these days is Live From Chicago—Mr. Superharp Himself!!, James Cotton’s live CD from 1986. James is famous not only as one of the most exciting powerhouse harp players ever, but also as the leader of terrific, high-energy bands full of great, hand-picked bluesmen. His sweaty, stomping live shows brought rock energy levels (and audiences) to the blues, starting way back in the 1960s when he left Muddy Waters’ band to launch his solo career. He had already recorded a dozen or so albums before coming to Alligator, and had been one of a handful of blues artists who had made a career playing for rock crowds. His sets included rocking boogies, but always mixed in the kind of lowdown blues that he learned from Muddy and from his childhood mentor, Sonny Boy Williamson.
After releasing James’ High Compression album two years earlier, I was determined to capture his live show on vinyl. One reason was that James, as usual, had a terrific, all-star band. Young Michael Coleman, who soon after started his solo career, played flashing lead guitar. Ray “Killer” Allison, who has appeared on so many other Alligator albums, was just crackling on drums. Noel Neal, Kenny’s bassman brother, held down the tough grooves. Eddie Harsch (later of the Black Crowes) was in the keyboard chair. And Cotton’s swaggering horn section was fronted by trumpeter Boney Fields, who went on to a successful career in Europe. They had all played hundreds of shows together, so rehearsals were hardly necessary. These guys were ready!
More next time,