Much of America is familiar with Gabe Roth’s authentic heavy-soul sensibilities from his Grammy-winning work behind the glass with Amy Winehouse. Despite this blockbuster success and continued work with major label artists, it’s the homegrown label Daptone Records that may prove to be his most enduring legacy.
Since co-founding Daptone in 2002, Gabe has shaped the label through his indispensable roles as producer, songwriter and player. Favoring techniques and textures that had been largely abandoned for generations, Gabe’s uncompromising vision has helped show there’s plenty of demand in today’s economy for a leaner, localized model of music-making.
Although he instantly won over his interviewers with mellow confidence and genuine humility, make no mistake: Gabe proves unafraid of expressing strongly formed opinions on what’s really important, and what forces drive independent, sustainable success in the world of music.
With Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and Budos Band on the road supporting new releases, we caught up with Gabe as he holed up in anticipation of the birth of his second daughter. We took advantage of his bird’s eye view of the entire process to talk business, process and inspiration. This article is a little longer than our standard Q&A, but it’s worth it. Your brain, soul, (and career) will thank you.
Daptone experienced impressive growth while the old guard of major record labels and terrestrial radio were seeing their biggest losses. Although dwindling CD sales and big studio closures have made some of the loudest voices in the industry nervous, you’ve gone on record with some positive statements about the changing music business. Can you tell us more?
Even though you hear a lot about Virgin and Tower closing, or CD sales going down, you’ve never met so many people with so much music! If you talk to independent bands and labels I think you’ll hear they’re having an easier time finding their niche and making a living now than they used to.
Granted, if you’re trying to be the next Justin Timberlake, you’re probably going to have some trouble. But that’s kind of a ridiculous business model anyway, and I don’t know if that’s something anyone should be aspiring to as an artist.
What do you think is behind this shift?
Well, the major labels are having a hard time because people aren’t buying in the millions anymore, they just don’t have the same kind of big hit records. They’ve tried to find plenty of scapegoats, whether it’s illegal file sharing or piracy. They’ve blamed the internet a lot for things like that, but the truth is: people have always taped things from the radio or from records and sent them to their friends. It may be even more prevalent now, but I just don’t think it’s that big a factor.
So the prevalence of online communication has allowed for what feels like a pretty vintage business model?
Yeah, if you look back 30 or 40 years ago and before, there was always a strong local music scene. There were local radio stations in every city that played the local bands and the local records. You wouldn’t hear the same songs in Durham that you would in New Orleans; every little city had its own scene. Bands could make an impact playing local music and some of the big national hits.
By the time you got to the 80s and 90s, the major labels and commercial radio stations were so big and swollen up with payola that every radio station would pretty much play the same 10 pop hits the biggest companies paid them to play. It really iced out a lot of the independent local talent and the smaller bands.
It also forced us into this world where musicians were pinning everything on a dream. You really felt like you needed a major record label to give you a deal and get behind you, or you had nothing. There was only this one level of success, a pretty stellar one, which just wasn’t realistic. It’s like when every 13-year-old in the country thinks they’re gonna play in the NBA someday. Sure, that’s cool when you’re 13, but it’s no way to make a living!
Thankfully, a lot of that has broken down. The internet has made it possible for a little band from Bogota or Detroit to sell music directly to a fan in Switzerland. At the same time, a local band has a chance of getting some good press in their own hometown. The amount of access is just unbelievable right now…