Americans and others, apparently, are going to be living in “interesting times” for awhile – the “interesting” of the over-quoted old Chinese proverb being, of course, a euphemism for “rough, unnerving and generally headed downhill.” Still, for every comedian who asks me if this fresh online ND delivery system is about to be renamed “New Depression”, there’s somebody else out there plowing head unperturbed, working on 21st-century ways to bring music to audiences and vice-versa. Inevitably, they’re doing so knowing full well that the organized music business as we’ve all known it was already undergoing vast changes even before the general economic picture got so cloudy.
One such startup effort was announced during the Americana Music Association Conference in September: High Horse Records – dedicated to Americana, folk and some country-rock music – in one sense is based in Nashville in a typical Music Row neighborhood house, but in another is spread out with links rising in Austin, New York, Europe and where the internet may take it.
Just three months later, things are moving with this outfit, which envisions itself as a music distribution and promotion cooperative. It’s not at all some late-’30s Andy Hardy style “let’s dress up that barn and put on a show” sort of up-by-the-bootstraps affair, not least because all of the shaking-out in music businesses, from medium-size indie to very major, has freed up some substantial, experienced talent.
High Horse is headed up by an interesting pair. CEO Wyatt Easterling has been A&R head of Atlantic Records in Nashville who signed major mainstream country artists (Tracy Lawrence, Neal McCoy), was a publishing partner with I.R.S. Records founder Miles Copeland, and produced albums for artists ranging from Paul Thorn to Keith Urban. He’s also a polished, engaging singer-songwriter himself – co-author of the title track from Dierks Bentley’s Modern Day Drifter disc, for instance.
Celeste Krenz, High Horse president and artistic director, is a talented, well-established singer and songwriter, perhaps best-known in folk music circles. She was in the very first Gavin Americana chart Top Ten, along with Linda Ronstadt and Willie Nelson, for her first album, 1995′s Slow Burning Flame, which was co-produced by Tim O’Brien. Not incidentally, Krenz has a marketing degree, too, and had gotten to know a wide range of indie performers performing around the country for years. Some of them – Carolyn Currie, Colleen McFarland, and Rebecca Folsom, who joins Krenz in the intriguing new duo the Rhythm Angels – are among the first artists on High Horse.
“This is a brand new world for everybody in music.” Easterling remarked to me during a joint interview at the High Horse offices, “and a lot of people can get lost in the shuffle. But it’s one where the independent artist suddenly can get some respect and recognition they hadn’t in the past.
“We call ourselves a record label, and we do act like one, but rather than funding records, the artists bring in their masters to us, and we’re really a distribution arm for them, and marketing, and promotion, and publicity. I don’t want to ‘run a label,’ because I know what that’s like, and Celeste doesn’t either. We want to have a place where the artists have their say and get out and work – but there’s somebody steering the boat who knows how.”
And so, High Horse has the well-known Austin-based publicist Cash Edwards on board and available to work for label artists, as well as a videographer to shoot performance and interview videos of a bunch of their artists all at once, cutting costs for each. They also have an experienced social media person ready to take artists into live blog and listserve discussions, they’re at work on the capability for regular TV-like video webcasts and podcasts, and they have an arrangement with a New York-based booking agent, with other regional bookers to come, and High Horse group tours in mind. Here in Nashville, they already have a monthly series of shows featuring short sets by High Horse acts and compatible performers passing through town at the comfortable new midtown music, food and bar venue the Listening Room Cafe.
They are set to have a fairly sophisticated second-version website going very soon. The current one already makes the artists’ work available to hear and buy online, and there’s a “VIP Club” being set up that will bring those who join up free downloads of their artists’ work every other week. All of these services are made available to the artists who bring their recordings to High Horse and are accepted – the accent is on tried, experienced acts seeking a new place to go – on a pay-by-use, menu-of-services basis. (They have no plans to be the sort of “one stop” shop that would include artist management, record manufacturing and the like, precisely to avoid the high costs involved.)
“It really takes a team,” Krenz says. “If you have a plan, and a team, then the independent artist can have a leg up now. Artists doing it all themselves, I find, just have little spurts; they’ll book and promote themselves and send out press kits for a few months and then have four months off resting from doing all that, because they’ve been doing six people’s jobs! People think somebody like, say, Ani DiFranco is doing it all herself, but no; she is paying for a lot of other people to do it. It’s always a team.
“But how many people have 25 or 50 grand to put a team together! So we figured we could put together a team so that when we have our records done, and other artists we admire do, they could come to this artist’s co-op and share the costs, of advertising, and of other expenses. We wanted to have a co-op label that creates opportunities for artists.”
No one will be mistaking the label’s musical pedigree as simply sensitive folk or quiet country, if one of their first singles is any indication – the Rhythm Angels’ “If I Had A Gun (You’d Be Dead)”, an in-your-face blast concerning gun control:
“It’s just the sort of record we want to make,” Easterling says. “It has every reason to get attention. We think it’s brilliant, it’s controversial, it’s got a story to it – and if you hear it one time, you’ll see it’s not something you’ll forget. We’ve shot a video for that which is up on YouTube, and have also submitted to some of the specialized video shows. Gretchen Peters and Tom Russell have already recorded the song for an upcoming duet album, and Diana Jones (a guest at the most recent Listening Room live show), who wrote the song along with Celeste and Rebecca, has recorded it, too.”
This one may be a fledgling experiment, but a smart one to keep an eye and ear on – for the model, and for the music.