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Harvey Reid Interview with FACE Magazine September 30 2002


written by Dale Robin Lochman

Most people have some idea that dealing with a major record label involves a lot of competition and politics...were there problems beyond the expected which surprised you when you approached existing record labels with your music?

I didn't approach major labels, just the higher profile acoustic ones like Rounder and Flying Fish and Takoma. In 1982 it was unthinkable for a major to sign somebody like me. They were dropping people like Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt and John Prine.


How long did you work at trying to get someone else to record your music before you decided to do it yourself?

I had already recorded most of it, and just sent it around to see if anyone was interested.


And how complicated was it back then?

Part of what was hard was that blank tape was so expensive. A 45-minute reel of 16-track Ampex tape costs $250 20 years ago. So you could not think about doing 20 takes of a song the way you might do now with a DAT or a computer. And pressing vinyl was more expensive and difficult than making a CD. My recording career really got going when I started recording myself. It's not easy to book a session weeks away, and prepare and spend all the money you have and still do a compelling performance. You do your best, but I still believe that when you are not watching the clock and the checkbook you're more likely to capture something good. My life goal has been sort of a documentary approach to music anyway, and I have played since I was a kid and I know that feeling when it is soaring and really working, and all I ask is to capture some of that in front a good-quality recording machine. It is surprising hard to do that, in fact-- almost stealing from the Gods just to play a magic take right smack in front of the mikes, with the levels set right and everything. Your mind plays so many tricks. That part has never changed.


With the proliferation of small independent labels, what important changes have you noticed in the independent music industry?

The biggest change I have seen is the massive number of new artists. Songwriters actually have a shot at the "big time" these days. In the early 80's it was as uncool to be an acoustic guitar white songwriter as it has been in my lifetime. People like me just did what we did, and didn't chase markets, since there were no markets. It was simpler. And the influx of thousands of new artists has also clogged the whole business up. The single largest obstacle between me getting my music to the promoters and media people that I want to hear it is the pile of other people's CD's and promo materials that's already there. With recording equipment and desktop publishing making it so easy to make the materials to promote yourself, more people are doing it, and it is like buying raffle tickets-- the more tickets, the smaller chance of winning. Not many business people have to deal with that. I always did it with a true independent spirit, and never with the expectation of fame or stardom. I have always feared those things, in fact. I own a big house and my credit card is paid off. I'm doing fine, and a lot of people who chased fame and even many who had success are not doing nearly as well as me. And I get to live in a seaside town in Maine and not in LA. In fact, tonight I am going to send out an e-mail announcement about the new CD to my mailing list, and it will probably pay for the whole CD within a couple days, since there are enough people out there who support me. It's an awesome feeling, and I owe it all to the listeners who buy my music. Pop stars would not survive on the size audience I have, but I can. It's sort of like growing your own food versus getting it in a plastic package. I'm recession-proof, and I have survived 20 years, and my micro-business model will survive a lot longer. I started out as a street musician, and if I have to I will do that again.


With your own label, you have complete artistic freedom...are there challenges that come with that?

When you know what you want, it's great to be in charge. The hard part is when you can't make up your mind. Choosing one song or one take of a song over another can be tough. Deciding what to call the album-- what picture to use, what font, what the liner notes will be-- those are all decisions, and they pile up. And there is always the sinister hand that looms up and makes you want to overproduce or to chase a trend. If you do a lackluster take of a solo song, it is SO easy to decide "Oh, this song needs harmony vocals" or "this obviously needs a bass, and you try to fix something that is not perfect by piling things on top of it, rather than just believe in yourself and re-do it. When you are paying studio rates, you then get to the point where you have spent so much money trying to "fix" it that you can't afford to throw it away and start over, so you release something that has no magic in it. I have some recordings I listen to that remind me how powerful a solo performer can be. Nic Jones and Dick Gaughan come to mind, and also Jesse Colin Young's "Soul of a City Boy" which he did in one session. When I did "Steel Drivin' Man" in 1991, which was a totally solo, live-in-the-studio CD, I remember thinking to myself over and over-- if I can spend 20 years of my life fanatically pursuing this muse and learning this music, and if I can't sit down and just do it-- if it is not worth listening to in its rawest and purest form, then I quit. That was my mantra. As it turns out, it has been one of my most respected efforts, so I have not quit.


Have you ever released other artists' music on your label?....any future plans to do so?

Everyone I have ever met who had a record label, for 25 years, has complained about it, and I never wanted to be the one they complained about. I still don't.


In addition to managing your own recording label, you also manage your own public relations, book your own tours and author your own website. Which aspect of the whole picture the hardest to keep up with? How do you advocate for the value of your work without sounding too egotistical?

Obviously I can't talk myself up, so I don't. I don't really have a marketing style or anything-- I just send the stuff and call the people and behave like a human being. I learned that from a lot of the club owners I used to work for in the old days-- they never liked agents and often told me so, and they liked talking with me and I liked dealing with them. I still maintain that I never get into a weird gig situation myself-- I can smell something wrong, and I am never surprised. I know I could be playing larger places if I had a business team, but it is not that simple. Established agents and such people always want to work with bands, for one thing, since they get a lot more $ for the same work. It's only been very recently that a solo acoustic person could pull down enough dough to afford much management. I formed a lot of my habits when things were really bleak, and so I just keep doing it. I started building a website when there was no such thing as someone who could make you a web site, so I am used to doing it. I've been xeroxing things so long I could manage a Kinko's, and it takes less time to do it than have a meeting and discuss how to do it with someone. I like working with the promoters directly anyway, and a lot of them are great people, and they still tell me stories of getting hosed by showbiz people. Living in Northern New England keeps your feet on the ground about that sort of thing.


What advice would you give new artists who would like to maintain artistic and business control of their music?

My approach has always been a practical one. Don't build your strategy around winning the lottery and getting famous. I tell all the beginners to just record their CD's the same way they do a concert. If it is good enough for the audience, why can't that be a CD? It is really really hard to not get all your friends involved and to hide yourself when you really need to reveal yourself. There has been so little in the way of role models for people to just play their songs and feel like it is a complete sound. When someone hears you play solo, and they buy a CD, they don't want it to be different, and full of drums. Likewise, no one will hear your overproduced album and want to book you. The 2 things that are about making a living: selling CD's and booking gigs, revolve around your CD being as much like your live show as possible. I left Nashville because I would play people a tape that I thought was finished and they called it a "demo." You have to believe in your art, and remember that you can create a perfect experience with just you and an audience, even of just one person. Learn how to play your best and emote in front of an audience, and then you realize that all the other stuff-- all the PA systems, wires, agents, magazines, radio , everything-- is just noise in the channel, and cannot improve on what you are already doing. You have to feel like your music is a message trying to get through, and you have to guide it through the mikes and the computers and the mail and the wires till it gets where it needs to go, which is to the people on the end. People really need music. I have a folder of fan letters I get from strangers, and they mean more to me than anything a family member or friend has ever said. There are people who can hardly face getting up without cranking their stereos. People have told me that they held hands with their mother while she died, while listening to one of my songs. It is an honor when people listen to you, even if it is not millions of people. A woman once told me at a little gig somewhere, she said "You know, we have more of your CD's than we do of the Beatles." and I felt so lifted. It's not shameful, it's not a defeat to be on the fringes of the music business. It's where I have always wanted to be, and where I have always been. I still don't like showbiz and all that comes with it.


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