Tony Furtado is on the road again. He has been since early April, when he and his new touring band -- which includes locals Erin Thorin on bass and Marc Dalio on drums -- hit the highway in support of Furtado's new self-titled release. Life in the back of a van is nothing new to the Boulder-based string player, who has averaged 200 shows per year since the tender age of twenty. But there is something new about the road on this voyage out. Furtado is now officially an independent artist, free of a twelve-year affiliation with Rounder Records, with whom he released six recordings. And that's just fine with him.
Officially, Furtado's contract with the label was fulfilled last year with the release of Tony Furtado & Dirk Powell, a collaborative effort that paired the banjoist/slide guitarist with the Cajun master. When it came time to return to the negotiating table, Furtado decided the time had come to move on. And though less experienced players might question the sanity of an increasingly well-known artist walking away from what appeared to be a mutually beneficial recording contract, Furtado is vehement in his feelings that record labels often cause more harm than good when it comes to fostering artistic growth.
"In some ways I blame them, and in some ways I don't," he says of Rounder. "They are the biggest independent label in the country, and they're working with thousands of artists. I can understand how it's difficult, or impossible, to keep track of what everyone is doing. But it seemed like there are times when they're happy to just sell five to ten thousand copies of a record, and the artist knows it could do better. I can remember twelve different times when I ran out of Roll My Blues Away when I was on the road -- and I'd call the label to get more, and they'd be out of them, too. It was like, shouldn't somebody be watching over this kind of thing? Or I'd roll into a town and there'd be no CDs in any of the stores, no ads placed in any of the papers. They'd tell me that my promotional budget was tapped after only three weeks on the road."
Furtado has long -- and publicly -- lamented what he feels is a pigeonholed status as a bluegrass artist. Most recently, his thoughts on the matter were made clear when he was again nominated in the Country/Bluegrass category of the Westword Music Showcase last month; in a questionnaire each nominated artist was asked to fill out in advance of the showcase, Furtado praised other acts in the category, including the Yonder Mountain String Band, and asked readers not to vote for him. Though being praised as one of the area's best artists in any category may seem like a good problem to some, in Furtado's case, it's a point well taken. Tony Furtado Band, which features Celtic and Scottish sounds as well as Appalachian-flavored traditionals and even cameos by blues vocalist Kelly Joe Phelps and the renowned soprano saxophonist Paul McCandless (formerly of Oregon, a band that lays claim to the "world jazz" title), is about as close to traditional bluegrass as Blink 182 is to hardcore punk. Furtado says that as he moved away from more traditional string-band stylings of his early releases, even his Rounder associates had a hard time keeping up with his evolving oeuvre.
"It got to the point where, as I moved into a different kind of field, it became difficult to garner the right support for what I was doing," he says. "It seemed like the only way I could get them [Rounder people] to come to a show was to go to Boston, where the label is, and play there. Maybe two or three of them would show up. Afterwards, they'd come up to me like, Wow, you're playing steel guitar now?' I'd be like, Yeah. Haven't you listened to the record?' I just felt like they never had enough of a staff -- not enough publicists, not enough people just doing quality control or maintenance -- and too many artists."
Produced by Cookie Marenco and released on the Belmont, California-based indie label Cojema Music , Tony Furtado Band finds the artist returning to a more grassroots musical approach -- and to the business of music. Currently, the CD is available only at shows and in the mom-and-pop record shops Furtado and his bandmates visit along the way. Eventually, he, Marenco and the Cojema people hope to secure a more national distribution. In the meantime, he'll continue touring and hope the word-of-mouth practice still works.
"It is difficult, but it feels good to be connected more closely to everything that's going on," he says. "People kind of think that if you get signed to a label, everything will be taken care of, that you'll have money and make money, but that's not the reality. You have to work just as hard as you always did -- sometimes harder -- and you keep learning about the little ways that artists are ignored or exploited by their labels."
Furtado returns home this week, where he'll play two shows (Friday, June 2, at the Soiled Dove, and Saturday, June 3, at the Fox Theatre) with McCandless, who's along for the whole ride on this tour.
Even after they're presented with foreboding tales of record-company rigmarole like Tony Furtado's, many bands still harbor a desire -- sometimes obvious, sometimes understated -- to woo some major-label A&R rep, ink a four-album deal and ride a stretch limo off into the sunset. It's easy to understand why musicians hold out hope for that perfect contract: Even though majors are slagged repeatedly by scorned or mistreated artists, there do exist those rare happy marriages between majors and even relatively obtuse artists. Indie poster boy Elliott Smith has recently been singing the praises of DreamWorks (he did so in "Man Out of Time," May 25); the Flaming Lips have trumpeted their longstanding relationship with Warner Bros., which has supported even curious projects like 1997's four-disc simultaneous-play experiment Zaireeka . But for smaller bands struggling to establish an audience and record their material, the temptation to ink the first contract to fall into their guitar-callused hands is great -- and often dangerous. The difference between a good deal and a bad one is the fine print at the bottom of the page, which many musicians skim in their haste to bring on the advance and the studio time. That's where folks like Denver's Mark Bliesener want to step in.
Bliesener is a longtime industry mover and shaker whose credits include suggesting the name of the Dead Kennedys to Boulder boy Jello Biafra in the '70s. He's been a performer, a music journalist and a publicist, and as a business associate of both of the area's most heavy-hitting promoters -- Barry Fey and Chuck Morris -- he has managed the careers of such folks as Lyle Lovett, Big Head Todd & the Monsters and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Last year he opened his own company, Mark Bliesener Consults; now, thanks to the wonder of that new little invention called the Internet, Bliesener is making his services available to musicians whose resumés don't yet include Grammy nominations. Last month he launched a Web site, www.bandguru.com, that allows acts to seek industry advice from the comfort of their couches. The site is designed to accommodate the needs of bands at all levels of the music-business racket, from those who don't know where to begin to others who may be on their way to negotiations with labels. The online services vary from a simple offer to listen to and evaluate demo tapes to more sophisticated consultations on topics like labels, contract legalities, marketing and promotion. And though Bliesener's rates may seem a bit formidable to acts who are lucky to make $50 on a good night at a bar gig (his ballpark is about $100 an hour), bandguru.com is full of information that's free for the clicking, including a comprehensive alphabetical listing of indie and major record labels, with full address and e-mail contact information. Get that mouse a-movin'.
Last weekend's Denver Blues & Bones Festival may have looked like a Tiny Town version of the larger fests held in more blues-affiliated cities, like Kansas City's annual Blues & Jazz Festival, which annually draws more than 50,000 people over three days. Yet even if the festival's smallish venue (essentially a series of adjoined parking lots in the Golden Triangle off Broadway) and the rather homogenous crowd were reminders of our less-than-cosmo status, the event still left the impression that Denverites are willing to support such an event, even during a windstorm (as was the case during Lonnie Brooks 's set on Friday night) and on hot-as-hell days like last Saturday and Sunday. (Or maybe we're just hungry. There's nothing like the sight of 4,000 sweaty beer-swillers walking around, munching turkey legs larger than an adolescent boy's bicep, to get you in the mood for some down-and-dirty blues. It was some mighty fine grub, though.)
Festival organizers say that attendance at Blues & Bones has grown steadily with each year; they estimate that more than 30,000 people attended the fourth event last weekend. The lineup -- meatier than a sparerib san'wich -- surely helped matters, with folks like R.L. Burnside (whose last scheduled Denver performance at the Gothic was canceled due to angioplasty surgery) drawing a crowd of young hepsters and the Gospel Brunch reaching out to the Sunday-morning crowd. Clearly, we ain't the blues capitol of the world. But we're walking the floor on our way there.
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