The year 2020 has been one hell of a year so far.
It seems there was one tragedy after another: Covid; hurricanes; wildfires; the crazy state of the nation; and unemployment is at an historical high. And it’s been especially tough for working musicians here on Long Island.
Once Covid hit, all music venues had to close down for months and live music came to an end. It’s slowly coming back, but the damage has been done. Many venues are out of business -- and those that are open are barely scraping by.
Musicians that relied on these venues to make a living are doing the occasional gig here and there and often at a reduced rate. Performing live is a tough job and most working musicians now have to have a day job to make ends meet.
So how are people coping? How are YOU coping? We would really like to hear from our members. Please share your experiences. If you are suffering from depression or need to talk to someone, please reach out to any one of us on the Board of the Blues Society, we are here for you. If you feel you need professional intervention, see the list of contacts below.
Hang in there, we will all come back stronger than ever!
If in Crisis Call 911 if you are facing a dangerous situation
Click here for Nassau and Suffolk Counties Helpline Information
New NYS Mental Health Hotline is 1-844-863-9314
Mobile Crisis Hotlines
Queens/New York City Residents: 24/7 Crisis Mental Health Services 1-888-NYC-WELL / (1-888-692-9355)
Nassau County Residents: 24/7 Behavioral Health Helpline (516) 227-8255
Suffolk County Residents 24/7 (DASH): (631) 952-3333
You’re here on the Long Island Blues Society website because you love blues music. Did you know that Long Island is home to a Blues (and Roots) record label? M.C. Records is a sponsor of the LIBS and in June, Bill Lifford spoke with President and company founder Mark Carpentieri to learn how the label got started, how the music business works for a small independent record label, and what’s coming for MC Records.
Bill: So, I read about your first experience recording your band, Something Blue, which led to the launch of M.C. Records. Why don’t you expound a little bit on that for us.
Mark: Well, the first time I ended up recording was in 1991. That’s when my band, Something Blue, we needed some new music because the personnel was changing. We needed a new demo or new music to send to clubs, and I didn’t have any money. Well, sounds familiar! I ended up working out a deal with the owner of a studio in New York City. I ended up hauling a bunch of his garbage out and we got to use the studio for one night. So, we basically just recorded it live – whatever it was, it was, no overdubs.
Bill: How do you make the decision to take M.C. records and turn it into a full-time job? Were you married at the time? What kind of factors go into making a decision like that?
Mark: That’s a really good question. Basically, at a certain point in 1996 – actually, between ’94 and ’96 – I was trying to find full-time work. That wasn’t going so well, so I had a bunch of part-time jobs. This opportunity came in, I guess it was 1996 at some point to do that, and my wife was very supportive; certainly in the first few years, she really helped out a lot with the label, you know, doing the books and stuff like that -- we were stuffing envelopes together and all that fun stuff.
Bill: A lot of guys I know, local musicians, they always go, “if I only did this…”, but you actually did something about it.
Mark: Well, I tried. You have to be in somewhat of a good position, too. When I was working full-time, I saved a lot of my money, because I was also gigging a lot. I didn’t need my check to pay anything [my bills and living expenses]. I could pay everything with the cash I was making playing music, so I saved my check every week.
Bill: Obviously, there are some labels in the blues and roots genres that are absolute giants, much larger than M.C. Records. How do you find artists to be part of MC records, and how to you compete with large labels for those artists? I mean, there are only so many artists to go around that are worthy of recording and that you would want to make a product with. Say you have your sights on an artist, but another label also has their sights on the same artist?
Mark: Oh yeah, I’ve definitely lost a few bidding wars, for sure, and I’ve won some. The thing is, I’m not forced to release 6 or 7 records a year. If it’s only one record, I can make that work. I don’t need to make 80K at M.C. records. So that helps because I am also a college instructor and things like that. That’s why I always say it [our catalog] is “killer, no filler.” When you say compete, you’re talking about Alligator and other large labels, right? Kim Wilson could have signed with anyone, but he called me. He wanted to work with me. Joanna Conner could sign with anyone, but she wants to work with me. There are certain artists who understand what I bring to the table. When records come out, in terms of publicity and promotion, we do as good a job as any label. We just don’t release as many records -- but we focus on the quality. When we did the Sherman Holmes record, I placed him on NPR’s World Café, I placed him on Mountain Stage, like any other big label would do. I will say, though, that there are certain artists that I just can’t go after because I don’t have the budget for it.
Bill: So, because you release fewer albums, the ones you do release, you can do them with intensity.
Mark: There is a lot more focus to them. That, I think, really helps. Artists know there is going to be a lot of focus on [promoting and supporting] their record when it comes out.
Bill: The timing of things in life is often either the luckiest thing in the world or the unluckiest thing in the world, depending on where you’re standing. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, the one where he talks about the 10,000 hours and stuff, he talked a lot about how, if you had money to invest in the railroads, there was one 5-year period in which you became a multibillionaire and if you missed that window -- after that, you were done. The opportunity was gone, or it had all been snatched up. So, I find the timing of things kind of interesting. You’ve owned a record label through times that have changed incredibly. Music became digital, then there were things like Napster and sharity blogs – now there is the streaming model. How has this evolution affected M.C. Records and how has it affected your livelihood? How do you work around these changes or implement strategies to make it [the evolution of the music business] work for you?
Mark: For a really long time – about 13 years or so – the CD model worked really well for us. I remember when I was starting the label, if you had a decent record, you could sell five, six, seven thousand units pretty quickly. Before, I would send out product that was pre-ordered and paid with a PO (Purchase Order) before that, whereas now, you get paid when the record sells. No one is sure that a record is going to sell.
Bill: So everything is sold basically on consignment?
Mark: Everything is on consignment. Not that it wasn’t before… But usually, when you had so many orders coming in, if you had a 3-month-old PO, you knew that was getting paid. So the distributor would pay you. So it has changed, I think one of the things that has really helped, at least for me, is trying to create – one of the things I’ve really focused on – is trying to create more direct mail. Which is actually funny, because that’s the way we started. I had my cassette or CD and then I had this idea and I would get other people’s releases that were local bands, but they were really good, and I started a catalog. So, I started that before I started M.C. records. At least, M.C. records had started but we weren’t yet doing anything national like Big Jack. [We also work on creating] unique things like autographed vinyl, autographed CDs.
Bill: Stuff that you can’t just get anywhere.
Mark: That’s right, stuff that you can’t just get anywhere. The other thing about that also helped, is that now, when you get someone’s email, you can have a conversation with them. Even if you don’t buy from me, you’ll be aware of our new releases, you can stream them – we still get paid for streaming. Email is a way to keep in contact with people and I think that’s really important. There is an old business line that still true, even in the age of social media: if you have someone’s email that is the most important thing you can have. I can post all I want in social media. Even though you may like or follow MC records, you may not see it [the post]. If I have your email, you’ll see it.
Bill: Everybody now is so geared to be checking their email all the time.
Mark: Email is important. That’s another thing you have to be careful with. You can’t be sending emails every week; you can’t inundate people. When I put something out [on email], I want to be sure that that person really wants to read it. I will put out videos or other things that people can enjoy without having to buy anything. Not everything should be a “hard sell.” Even if people don’t buy anything, they can still see a video that they have never seen before, they can be entertained. If you keep sending them junk, they’ll just remove themselves from the list. You don’t want that.
Bill: As a harmonica player, naturally I always notice things featuring harmonica players. Your catalog has a good selection of harmonica players. You have a Rod Piazza album.
Mark: That’s not mine – the Piazza album was an addition to the catalog. I always had a catalog. Sometimes I would negotiate other releases with other labels: “you give me those, and I will give you these.” We’ll sometimes do an exchange of CDs. I wish that Rod Piazza album was mine, but it is not.
Bill: So, when you sell that record, then, the label who has it makes the majority of the money?
Mark: No, not in that situation, because I bought them [the CDs] outright. Sometimes I will buy CDs wholesale so I can offer them. Pretend I’m a store, right? When you go to a store or go online, Amazon doesn’t pay the artists directly, they pay the label who pays the artists. So, for me, when I sell those records, I have already paid that. I’m the store.
Bill: Tell me about the new Kim Wilson album release. Of course, we all want to know about that. That’s one of those things where Kim comes to you, he calls you up and he says, “Hey Mark, I have a project I want to release, I’d like to do with you.”
Mark: The album is going to be called Take Me Back! The Bigtone Sessions. It was really funny because I haven’t done anything with him since Lookin’ For Trouble. A year later we released The Memphis Barbecue Sessions, but that was recorded in 2000. We always stayed in touch. There was one T-Birds record that came out in the mid-2000s, and I came on board as a consultant, helping with press and things like that. So Kim and I have remained friends. Even when nothing’s happening, we check in with each other a couple times a year. This time, he really wanted to work with me and there was a good opportunity for me to do that. Things just worked out.
Bill A lot of us really looking forward to that album. When is it coming out? How does the release date become a date that is set like that?
Mark: Early October. We could’ve released this album much earlier, but because of COVID-19, Kim and I just felt that it would be better to release it towards the Fall. If it wasn’t for COVID 19, we would have released the album in June.
Bill: For a blues album – obviously, blues and roots are kind of niche genres compared to, say pop music and Lady Gaga’s albums – what are good sales for a blues album/record?
Mark: It’s combination of sales. For a lot of the physical sales, you will get it from the artists. For someone like Guy Davis, or Joanna Connor, they sell a lot of records when they are on the road. You’re looking at that, and then you have to account for streams. You know, now you’re also adding things like getting played on Sirius radio [B.B. King’s Bluesville]. If you can get three or four thousand copies sold, you’re in a good spot.
Bill: The other thing I noticed is that, relative to the size of your entire catalog, you have a pretty good sized stable of female artists. Is that something where you have had a specific goal or commitment to female artists, or are they just making music that you love and want to be a part of? Or is it something where you say, hey, there’s an opportunity here?
Mark: A lot of my favorite artists are female artists, so I have always been drawn to their music. It’s just the natural extension of my tastes. And often things just works out that way… this was the case with the tribute album to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Bill: Yes, that album has amazing artists on it.
Mark: That took me about a little over two years to put together. But it all worked out. It’s really just something that I really like and also just so happens that those artists, when I’m asking about August, they happen to be available. I don’t say, “I need to have a certain amount of female artists”, or male artists, or whatever. It just happens organically. I think my musical intention is always keen on the female artists just in general. I would be surprised if we ever go two years without releasing a female artists. If so, that would have to be because of some sort of circumstance, where the people I was asking about weren’t available.
Bill: I find Joanna Connor pretty exciting. She can throw down on guitar with anybody.
Mark: She is going to have a new album coming out next year. She has friends in high places that really love her sound and love who she has what she does.
Bill: There are so many female artists who are into the sweet, smooth and soft thing, and ones who can do the kick-ass thing, and some can do both. There’s a lot of cool variety with female artists. Joanna is ebullient, she has this combo of joyful and kickass going on.
Mark: I think it’s is also a matter of genuine-ness. Joanna, even though she played in a ton of traditional Chicago blues venues, what she is putting down is a lot of what’s happening in Chicago… It’s funky, it’s driving, it’s all that. But the thing is, it’s got to be genuine. When she puts on her records is genuine; it’s her. And I think that’s key with any artist. If she tried to do this really traditional blues album, it’s not that it wouldn’t be good, but it wouldn’t be true to, well, I don’t think it would stand up to who she is and what makes her different, or what makes her unique.
And that’s it for part of our interview with Mark Carpentieri, founder of M.C. Records.
Part two of this interview will be posted as soon as Bill can finish transcribing it!.