This article was originally run in November of 2009, but I have revisited it several times and shared it with others. It has continued to serve as advice for my own career. I have found this interview is one of the most valuable and the most timeless interviews we have posted on our site
Gabe Roth is the bass player, producer, main writer and founding member of The Dap-Kings and the head of their label Daptone records. He is a Grammy-award-winning engineer for his work on the Amy Winehouse record Back to Black and largely responsible for developing the career of the late Sharon Jones. I was lucky enough to be in a band with Gabe in college back when he was a drummer. He is one of those enviable musicians who can pick up any instrument and make it look effortless.
You founded Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and the Daptone Label and have been able to sell thousands and thousands of records and tour the world. How did you get to this point?
I think it was probably a little luck, just like with anyone else. Mostly I think I was in a unique situation because I was not that interested in being part of the music industry. I think that gave me a perspective and a pig-headedness. It was one of those things where I was too stupid to do things the way I was supposed to do them, and it ended up working out well. I never followed a lot of the paths and things that we were supposed to be doing to make, record and market records. We really relied on a lot of grassroots stuff and slowly built up an audience.
There was no real scene for retro soul prior to the predecessor to Daptone (a label Gabe founded with a partner called Desco Records). You were the architect of bringing these people together, right?
It’s probably true, because there wasn’t really a scene then. It’s a strange perception and an inside-outside thing. You don’t realize there’s enough going on around you to consider it a “scene” until someone says, “Hey, where did this scene come from?” It’s like a spontaneous party on a subway platform. We never really architected it, planned it or anticipated it. I think by not trying to concentrate on what people were going to listen to and instead of concentrating on what kind of records we were going to make, we ended up making a bunch of records that people wanted to listen to.
You wound up collaborating and producing with tons of different people over the last ten years ago. Was that the plan or was that just what you did to get by?
It was mostly just what we had to do to make ends. The Amy Winehouse stuff and working with Mark Ronson (Producer – Amy Winehouse) didn’t open up the kind of doors that are perceived from the outside. For example, when we’d go on tour with the band and go play Madison, Wisconsin or some city where we’ve played for many years, and we went from 30 people, to 50 people, to 100 people to 200 people, to 800 people, to 1,000 and 1,500 people, we’d see this curve from our point of view that was based on going out and playing music and selling 45’s – a very grassroots, organic approach. But part of the timing of that Amy Winehouse project was the door that it opened. It was not that people listened to that record and came to us. There were really very few consumers and fans that we got from this record. At these shows, I’d go and ask people, “Where did you hear about the band?” The overwhelmingly most popular answer was “Terry Gross, Fresh Air.” Doing an NPR show is for an independent artist is twenty times more important than doing David Letterman or Conan O’Brien.
The thing about doing those kind of established shows and working with Amy Winehouse and doing these major label, major production things is that those things give a different perspective on who you are to the music industry, music writers and people like that. After the Amy Winehouse thing, there were countless writers that contacted us for interviews: Sharon; myself or anyone else at the label. They would tell us that they had been fans of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings or the label for years. They would tell us they’d been buying our stuff since the Desco days. But they could never go to Entertainment Weekly who they worked for and tell them they were going to write a story about us, other than some tiny little preview in the back. But the Amy Winehouse thing allowed them to go to the editor and say, “This is why this is a big deal.” It’s a little enigmatic – the Amy Winehouse effect, the Conan O’Brien appearance or having Sharon Jones in that Great Debaters movie. It wasn’t a direct marketing effect. It wasn’t that people saw those things and came to us as listeners or consumers. It was just that it opened the door and gave us a strange leverage with print editors and A&R people at major labels. It gave us a very strange clout that opened up different doors. Like you said, in a lot of interviews, especially after the 100 Days record, people would ask me, “How are you dealing with this overnight success?” For us it seems very bizarre. I couldn’t think of anything less sudden. We’ve been doing the exact same thing for fifteen years and very slowly record by record, ticket by ticket, people have been telling their friends and very slowly have been coming up. And then we finally breached a certain ceiling. It’s not the big ceiling – we’re not up there with Madonna or Britney Spears anything. But we breached a ceiling that acknowledged us as major independent artists. I don’t know where you’d file us – not as rock stars or major celebrities. But all of a sudden certain people said, “Where did you come from?” And we thought, “Are you kidding me? Where did you come from?”
How on earth did you just take playing around NYC with a bunch of guys living in Brooklyn into an international experience?
Firstly, we did no promotional gigs. I never played for exposure. We never played in exchange for exposure or to meet somebody. We actually do it more now than we ever did then. We played for cash and valued what we did. In this market there are too many people that are too hungry, and you can’t rely on marketing yourself. You have to rely on having something people want. We really tried to concentrate on creating demand by having something people wanted. We spent our energy thinking about how we could make the show better, not how we could get more people there, and let the people figure out how to tell their friends how good the show was. It took a lot longer. If you’re a major label, and it’s 1989 and you’re putting out a new Pearl Jam record, this is an irrelevant approach. But right now, the approach they had is also kind of irrelevant. It’s a different time and a different structure. The whole game has changed.
A lot of majors are complaining about the CD market shrinking, sales going down and the sky falling, but we’ve experienced a really successful time. It’s because the basis of our business is very conservative and value based. It’s based on the idea that the reason why somebody is going to buy a Sharon Jones record is not because they saw it in a Best Buy sampler or free with a can of Coke or saw it in a Disney cartoon. The reason people are going to buy it is because someone said, “Have you heard this record? It’s great,” “I saw the show” or “My local college record DJ played this.” It’s an old school, traditional record marketing technique. Most of what we’ve done that has been successful hasn’t been innovative. It’s been really, really conservative and old school – the way people promoted records years ago. It’s “Get on the road, get on the bus, talk to the DJ’s, talk to the record store clerks, keep everything on a grassroots level and try to connect with people directly.” We’ve stayed away from hype and big marketing schemes, big marketing money and the types of things that endanger our business and livelihood. We tried to sell records the way someone would sell ice cream or paint at the local store. We tried to cater to the customers and not think about, “How are we going to become bigger?” By staying away from that, we’ve kept ourselves safe, secure and stable in a time that has been very volatile for a lot of companies.
You were self booked, put together the label you signed and produced records on, didn’t have a manager until six or seven years ago. How did you go about breaking a second market? Who did you call?
The call I was making was to better musicians. I wasn’t staying up all night trying to figure out how to get people to shows. I was staying up trying to write a better horn chart. It was all value based. I never spent a lot of time trying to hustle friends and family down to shows. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I have family and friends that come into town and ask to come to shows, and it was the same way before. They’re not calling me because I’m their buddy; they’re calling me because it’s a good show.
Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of tips other than that. I think concentrating on the music and putting a lot of heart into it is important. To be fair, I think a big advantage I had is I didn’t have a lot of illusions about or aspirations in this industry. That was a huge advantage. I think a lot of people have this itching in the back of their head: “How am I going to make it? How am I going to break this record? How am I going to break this band and take over the world?” Those things work against you and make a lot of people fall victim to predators in this business. There are a lot of people that make their living off artists giving things away. Artists are so hungry to make ten million dollars that they’ll never make $1,000. If you concentrate on making $100, next thing you know you’ll make $1,000, $10,000 and $100,000. But if you’re walking around the streets with your demo trying to think about breaking a record or being a pop sensation all you’re going to do is give yourself away for nothing. And if anyone makes money, it’s not going to be you, it’s going to be somebody else.
When you look at the whole American Idol picture of the music industry, you have a bunch of people signing the worst contracts you could imagine, because they want something so badly that it puts them at a horrible disadvantage negotiating wise. And you can say, “Okay, that’s kind of a far out hypothetical when you’re talking about a TV show and people coming from all over the world and signing a contract with the biggest label for a million dollars.” It’s an extreme situation, but I think it exemplifies the same psychology that goes on when a band drives from South Carolina to New York and plays a gig for nothing. The reason they’re playing a gig for nothing is because they think that’s going to make them bigger. If they were thinking, “How can we make $50?” they wouldn’t play a gig for nothing. Maybe they wouldn’t come to New York, but if they didn’t come to New York, the demand for bands would be higher. The club owner in New York could not be expecting bands to play for nothing. It really drives down the value of music when there are that many people out there that are that hungry and that anxious to give their stuff away.
That’s one of the problems in the CD market as a whole on a different scale. It has to do with devaluing music and trying to mass-market music. The only way you’re going to be able to sell a million of anything is to give it away. But that’s not a great strategy if you’re on the corner selling lemonade. It’s stupid to sit there on the corner selling lemonade for 25 cents and say, “I’m going to give this away for free for a couple days to people that look like they might want to buy lemonade, because in the future they’re going to want to buy lemonade.” It doesn’t make sense. Take the 25 cents and go make some better lemonade and keep going. I was patient enough to take those organic steps and it’s put me in a situation where I’m very secure and not depending on anyone for anything and it is because we were very patient and we didn’t take those huge leaps to try to make ourselves bigger. We tried to keep the business focused inward.
You did make certain bets. You borrowed money. You invested in your career but not in such a way that you couldn’t hope to pay it back without a huge titanic success. I clearly remember times you telling me your credit cards were maxed.
Yes, but they were my credit cards. They had a stake in my ass, but they didn’t have a stake in my music. There are a lot of perspectives on credit card money, especially now. But I built a career out of it. I built businesses that makes a lot of money off credit cards because that’s all I had. I borrowed money from people in my family and credit cards, and none of them have any interest in my business now. I was able to pay them back in full, and now I own everything completely. I’m not recommending that, but that was the only option I had. The other option would’ve been to try to find somebody who will invest money in my career. I never went that route, and I had a lot of opportunities. Since then, every day we have offers on the table to buy the label. If we wanted to sell the label and become an imprint of one of the majors, I’m sure we wouldn’t have problems doing that. We could get a lot of cash, and we wouldn’t have to worry about a lot of things, but in the long term we would lose interest. I think the other thing is I was never set on being wealthy. I want to have money and take care of my family, but if I can go to work every day and do something I love and own what I write and record and record exactly the way I want and live my life the way I want to, I’m going to be a lot happier than if I’m making ten times as much money but not doing something I enjoy. I definitely couldn’t stomach the music industry if I had to be part of it in that way. I don’t have the constitution for it.
A lot of times you find the things that are profitable are not necessarily the most fun. I’m no monk, we do a lot of things I don’t like doing. But there are some things that come out funny. For example, Chase commercials. When we got approached to do replay music for Chase commercials, it was very distasteful because I hate Chase. You go in there, and they’re assholes. They charge you too much, and it’s not a company I want to help promote in any way. But musically what they asked us to do was so unbelievably rewarding for me. They were asking us to replay Stevie Wonder songs. And what that meant was for me to go into the studio in one day and go soup-to-nuts rhythm section through background singers and strings and mixes and everything and try to recreate Motown masters. I learned more in those couple days doing that than I learned in years of engineering school. It was really going to school. It was a very humbling experience getting inside those masters in that way. It turned out to be a very enjoyable thing and it paid well. Of course, there have been other things I didn’t enjoy.
Any words of caution or mistakes you made along the way that you’d advise people to avoid?
The first thing I would say – and it seems little, but it crushes me every day – is that at Dap-Tone we get piles of demos and packages with full glossy photos and DVD’s, press clippings, CD’s with full artwork and digi-packs. I would tell people not to send anything unsolicited, because that’s a lot of money you’re spending. If you’re trying to make a living as an artist, you have to look at it as a business. You can’t be banking on selling a million records. You have to look at it and think, “How can I make $4,000?” The first way is, don’t spend $4,000 making and sending demos to labels that didn’t ask for them. It seems stupid, but it’s the first thing everybody does. If you’re looking at what you do as a career, it doesn’t make any sense. It is another thing driven by an illusion – that something like that is going to give you your big break. If somebody’s looking for a huge break, I don’t have any advice, because I never got one. If you’re looking to really do something like I did – more conservatively create your own business and market – you have to really watch your pennies and spend your money on things that are important like rent and food and paying good musicians – things that are going to make you survive and do this for a long time.
There are a lot of people that end up giving up on music because they feel like they fell on their faces, but I think a lot of times their energies are misdirected. Instead of looking inward and local and trying to create something small that they can build from and concentrating on their music and their craft and relating to people on a direct level, they’re shooting for stars. It’s like playing the lottery. It’s fun, and if you win it’s amazing, but it’s not a business plan. You don’t say, “Okay, we want to start a business and want $500,000. The first thing we’re going to do is buy $4,000 worth of scratcher tickets.” It’s kind of the same thing when you start sending demos around. If you have $4,000, don’t press up full CD’s and glossy pictures and sent them to me, especially if you haven’t done any research to find out if I’m into that music or I could be slightly into that music or you’ve never made any contact with me. I’m not saying people shouldn’t make demos or connections, because they should. But I think trying to make meaningful contact is much more important than any kind of shotgun approach.
Please check out Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings and their label Daptone Records.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings “Let Them Knock” LIVE @ 89.3 the Current