Featured Interview – Michael Frank

Used to be, you couldn’t drive across town without running across three or four of them.

These days, you can drive through three or four towns and not run across any of them.

They

are

the independent record store, and like an ever-increasing number of things, they are vanishing quicker than the speed of sound.

While t

hat makes it a struggle on a music lover looking to get turned on to some exciting new tunes, those struggles are doubled or tripled on the artists and record label executives just looking to get their works in front of the public.

Michael Frank knows all too well about those struggles.

The visionary that created Earwig Records from scratch well over 30 years ago, Frank, like a lot of us, is trying to come to terms with the way music, especially

blues and roots-related music, is being consumed in 2011.

“Back when I started in this business, every town had a record store – more than one,” he said. “But it’s just not that way anymore. They’re going out of business at a rapid rate. Back in the 1970s, there were a lot more independent record stores than there were chain stores. Then the chains like Tower, Virgin, Best Buy and Sam Goody came along. But there were lots and lots of independent record stores and distributors could get records in those stores because a lot of the buyers in those smaller stores were also the store owners. And they were fans (of the blues) and were not necessarily interested in just sales stats. They believed in customer service and when a customer wanted a record, they would get it for them. Those days are gone.”

Those days may be gone, but thankfully labels have Earwig have managed to weather the storms of these trying times.

Since making its way out of the Windy City in the late 1970s, Earwig Records has managed to not only survive, but to continue adding to the rich heritage of the blues, despite detriments like the ever-changing musical climate and the somewhat limited attention span of a younger generation of music lovers.

Good thing then, that when Frank decided to start a record label in 1978, getting rich quickly was nowhere to be found on his mission statement. Nor was even being the CEO of his own company a determining factor.

Then, as now, it was all about the music.

“I was really just a fan. I had a couple thousand LPs that I’d collected and had read all the blues books and subscribed to Living Blues magazine when I was in college,” said Frank. “But when I moved to Chicago, I had no real designs on being a professional musician, or starting a record label. I just wanted to hear and hang out with the blues guys I’d listened to on my LPs and read about in the magazines.”

However, as fate would have it, Frank would go on to become both a professional musician and record label founder.

He had moved to Chicago from Pittsburg in the summer of 1972 and by the time fall of that year rolled around, Frank managed to meet one of those bluesmen that he had read about – David “Honeyboy” Edwards.

Not long after meeting the legendary bluesman who once ran with Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines, Frank, who blows a mean harp, found himself smack in the middle of the Chicago blues scene as leader of the Honeyboy Edwards Blues Band.

And almost 40 years later, Honeyboy, now 95 years young, and Frank, can still be found traveling all around the globe, spreading the gospel of the true Delta blues.

Those long days and nights on the road together for four decades have forged a bond between the two men that Frank is rightfully proud of.

“Our relationship has many dynamics. When we’re hanging out, he relates to me as a friend. When we’re playing together, he relates to me as bandleader and boss,” he said. “If he’s unhappy with my playing, he lets me know in no uncertain terms. But then we’re also good friends. We like to hang out and ‘people watch.’ And we joke around and have a good time. So we have the camaraderie of two guys – two guys in a band traveling around together. Things between us go farther than just me being the bandleader and him being the star.”

To be able to call one of the last remaining original forefathers of the Delta blues a close friend must be special indeed. And having access to a living, breathing play-by-play of things that happened nearly 100 years ago takes things to another level entirely.

“He’s one of the few from his generation that still has a great memory. He’s almost got total recall,” said Frank. “He remembers details – fine details – of his life, going back to early childhood. His memory is just so unique, especially in the specificity of it. He knows it’s a special gift he has and he talks to me about that. He can just roll back the recesses of his mind and conjuror up so much stuff. And I’m fortunate that he’s shared so much of that stuff with me, stuff that often times he doesn’t wish to share with other people.”

If you live as long as Honeyboy, you’ve probably seen it all. Good and bad.

“There’s stuff that’s even in his documentary that he doesn’t want to talk about anymore. Some of those memories are really painful,” Frank said. “I mean the times that he went through … the social climate, the political climate; he’s just got such a first-person memory of a lot of things that I wish he would share more with people. But I understand why he doesn’t want to talk about a lot of those things.” While blues fans have become accustomed to Honeyboy being something akin to the Energizer Bunny for the past few decades, taking the stage whenever and wherever he’s asked to, Frank says his longtime comrade may finally have to ease up a bit on his performance schedule.

“He is beginning to slow down a bit,” he said. “Not in his desire to play – he still enjoys getting on stage and playing his songs and the interaction with the audience – but sometimes his hands and arms don’t do all the things they used to, or that he wants them to do.” With the fact that Honeyboy just can’t perform night, after night, after night, like he used to at the front of his mind, Frank is coming to grips with how things might evolve on down the line.

“I think about the future a lot these days,” he said. “I’m in a transitional state right now. My business has been both as a record label owner and band manager of Honeyboy Edwards. And honestly, Honeyboy has been the major driving force in terms of the way most of my time and energy has been spent. And now I’m being forced to deal with the dilemma of focusing so much time on one client. I’ve got a lot of records and the distribution and outlets of a lot of the bigger labels, but I’ve focused a large amount of my time and effort on Honeyboy’s career for many years. And for 25 out of the 38 years, I’ve also had a job in child welfare, so between all these different things, it’s been really difficult to just focus on running the record label and selling a bunch of records.”

Quantity may not be at the heart of Frank’s business model, but quality surely is.

“I’ve always wanted to put out quality products,” he said. “Something that would add to the legacy of the genre and the artist’s repertoire. I never wanted to just put out a record to have a new release on the market. That’s not what this is about.”

Central to the coming-of-age of Earwig Records is Bob Koester, founder of Delmark Records and owner and operator of Chicago’s famed Jazz Record Mart.

For just like Alligator Records’ founder Bruce Iglauer and Blind Pig Records’ leader Jerry Del Giudice, Michael Frank did a tour of duty at the venerable store, selling blues and jazz platters, along with helping visitors to Chicago find the hotspots to go and hear live blues and jazz music.

 

L to R – Bruce Iglauer – Alligator Records, Jerry Del Guidice – Blind Pig Records,
Bob Koester – Delmark Records and Michael Frank, Earwig Music

 

While Frank was the store’s blues expert during his tenure there, Koester saw that the four walls of his unique store, just like with Iglauer and Del Giudice, could only contain Frank for so long.

“Oh yeah, I was a little bit prodded by Bob Koester (to start a record label),” Frank said. “Over time, Bob saw I was doing all this stuff with Honeyboy and Kansas City Red, so he kind of encouraged me to do something with it. But it was really going to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1975 that really got me thinking about recording.”

Although at the time, due to his involvement with Honeyboy, it would have almost been a sure bet that Earwig Records’ first release would have featured the Honeyboy Edwards Blues Band, that was not the case.

That honor went to another band. One that called the Helena, Arkansas/Clarksdale, Mississippi area home.

The Jelly Roll Kings.

“I was a fan of Frank Frost and Jim O’Neil (co-founder of Living Blues magazine) was a friend of mine and I told him I was going to New Orleans and would like to meet Frank and the other two guys in the band, Sam (Carr) and Jack (Johnson), on my way down. Those guys (Jelly Roll Kings) were not really well-known at all, at that time,” he said. “So Jim told me that Frank Frost lived in Lulu, Mississippi and I found him and heard them on the way down and then on the way back from New Orleans. And that sound they made just stuck in my head. So in 1978, I recorded them. And that was the first record I put out. I really just wanted to share my feelings and appreciation for these musicians with the rest of the world and the only way that was going to happen was if I started recording these guys. I know it’s kind of backwards, but I wasn’t concerned about making a lot of money.”

So you’ve got your first official release, Rockin’ The Juke Joint Down by The Jelly Roll Kings. Now where do you find the inspiration for a name to give to your budding new blues label?

In Frank’s case, it came from the very un-bluesy Rod Serling.

“The name Earwig came from a Night Gallery show that my sister told me about,” Frank said. “This episode had an earwig in it and I wanted the name to have something to do with the ear and music going into the ear and the power that brings. So when I heard about the earwig – it had the pinchers and grabbed a hold of people – I liked that. And it was something I could create a logo with. A dancing earwig. So that was the idea. Plus, Bob (Koester) told all of us in the early days of the alphabetical record bins, you should have a name that started with a letter early in the alphabet.”

Some 64 releases later, roots-music aficionados know that if it says Earwig on the outside, it will contain authentic blues and jazz on the inside.

“Artistically, my records stand up to any of the other blues labels,” said Frank. “But commercially, because of the nature of who I’ve chosen to record, along with where my time and energy has been focused and changes in the marketplace, my label has struggled. So now, I’m starting to focus on some of our other artists. So I’m still sorting the future out right now.”

Over the years, Earwig has put out releases from such artists as Johnny Dawkins, Homesick James, Louisiana Red, John Primer and Sunnyland Slim, along with the afore-mentioned Honeyboy Edwards.

And on a good number of those releases, Frank has also served as producer, in addition to label owner, harmonica player and talent scout.

So just what does it take to catch the ear of Michael Frank?

“I listen for talent. I’m attracted to talent and character,” he said. “When I’m listening to anybody, whether I happen to be working or not, I listen for a lot of elements. Those elements are a strong musical performance, meaning the way the music is delivered, and I also listen for the quality of the song. I listen for the presence of a melodic hook and the way the language fits into the song, how it moves and rhymes. And I look for character development in the song. And when I make a record, I want all those elements to be present to make a great record. I want to be emotionally moved by all those elements. And if I get all those parts, I’m wowed. And I figure if I’m moved that way, then there’s a pretty good chance that most people that hear it will also be moved at some level. The artistic drive and the personal history of a performer is what always gets me interested in them.”

Getting the music-buying public to let loose of their hard-earned cash is the lifeblood of any record label, big or small. While that may be basic economics, for Frank, it is still secondary to the way he feels about the artists on his roster.

“Only after I put out several records did I start to think, how can I sell this record?” he said. “I probably should have thought of that from the start. But I was much more into the emotional aesthetics of how I felt about the artist and the songs. But the reality is, as my catalog got bigger, I had to at least consider more and more whether the artist is working enough and covering enough territory to at least have the possibility of making some sales. Because not every artist is driven or motivated to help sell their own CDs. All of the record labels now count on the artist to buy some CDs from us and resell them (at live performances). And I have recorded a few artists who thought that was beneath them to do that.”

Just like the way that music finds its way into the hands of its consumers these days, blues music itself is undergoing a metamorphous of sorts. While blues may still be what a lot of musicians play in 2011, what lies at the core of their sound is very different from what it was years ago.

“In my view, there’s a difference between a musician who plays the blues and plays them well – and a bluesman. It’s a lifestyle, the dedication to play the music you choose to play despite the financial outcome that makes you a bluesman,” said Frank. “It’s a lifelong commitment. It’s a dedication. Nowadays, a lot of younger musicians are playing their version of the blues and they may have a lifelong commitment to that. But there’s still a difference. The blues are more removed from their indigenous folk nature these days. To me, blues the way it was originally conceived is really folk music. That’s opposed to what’s now called folk music in most cases. Folk and blues and jazz in its early development came cross-generationaly within a local community. People developed it by singing about their experiences within their own community. That’s not so much the case with younger artists these days. Their community is the other artists that they’ve learned from. It’s not just so organic. That doesn’t mean it’s not good – it’s just different.”

Different is also the way that all record labels are going about their business since the dawn of the new millennium.

Blues music has never been easy to get to the masses, but that has changed a bit over the past decade or so.

“In some ways, it’s harder to market and sell the blues these days, because of the economy,” Frank said. “But in some ways, it’s also easier. Because of the tools we have like the internet. So it’s a mixed bag. But we (record labels) have a way to connect with so many more people now, through the internet, so the opportunity is still there to expand and grow. We just have to learn about, and then use, more direct marketing than we might have before.”

So instead of sitting back and waiting for what the wind blows his direction, Frank is actively expending his efforts into making sure Earwig Records remains a viable link in the chain of the modern day blues industry.

Along that involves traditional things like issuing new compact discs on a yearly basis, as well as a few things that might not be considered so traditional.

“I’m starting to develop some information and products that can help artists facilitate their own careers, rather than just relying on the record label to do it, which is the old model,” he said. “It used to be, an artist gets signed to a label and the label makes them a star. Well, that was a myth for the most part. As a lot of artists, especially on the big labels, found out – if you don’t reach certain (sales) numbers, you’re out. There was no real loyalty. But I’m developing services for the artist that doesn’t really need to have a major – or even large independent label – behind them. And the reality is, a lot of artists fall into that category. So that’s the direction I’m going in.”

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