Tag Archives: Indie

Interview – Dolph Ramseur

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Thirteen years ago, Dolph Ramseur left the tennis court to start his own independent record label, Ramseur Records. He had no real experience in the music industry, but was armed with a deep-seated passion, blue-collar work ethic, and relentless determination–three key ingredients for success in any industry.

Today his roster includes bands like The Avett Brothers, Langhorne Slim and The Law, Bombadil, Paleface, Jim Avett, David Wax Museum, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Samantha Crain. After over a dozen years in the business, Ramseur still maintains a humble demeanor, a sweet southern charm, and a homegrown love for music. Simply put, he is a fan just like the rest of us.

Recently, Evolution of a Fan caught up with Ramseur via phone to learn a bit more about the man behind the music:

EOAF: Good morning Dolph, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Briefly, what is a typical day like for you?
Dolph Ramseur: Well, I get about 250 emails a day, and then on top of that, mix that with phone calls and instant messages. But, it’s really just sort of making the foundation for the artist, building upon that, trying to see what is coming in the future, what’s down the pipeline and plan for that accordingly–whether it’s tour dates or recording.

EOAF: So are you pretty hands on with promotion and booking for some of your lesser known bands?
DR: To a certain extent we are. Some of our acts don’t have booking agents so we have to find shows for them. But then the ones that do [have booking agents] we help out with the promoters, and getting the word out about shows and when do tickets go on sale, and how do we promote these shows, and what kind of Facebook ads are we going to take out, and what should we post on the website. There’s a lot of moving parts.

EOAF: Do you have a fairly large staff to do this or is it still a pretty small operation?
DR: Well, we are still small. I have an employee in Nashville, one in Los Angeles, and then one in the Winston-Salem area, and I am in Concord, NC.

EOAF: So you are still working out of your house?
DR: Yes, we all do that.

EOAF: That’s convenient.
DR: Yeah, we’ll its got its advantages and pitfalls, as anyone who works out of their house will tell you.

EOAF: That type of flexibility sort of allows you to move where you need to go. Do you often get on the road to support your musicians?
DR: Yes, although I can’t do it as much as I used to, just because it’s so busy on all aspects of what we do. But, yes, I get out quite a bit.

EOAF: What would you say over the past year has been one of your highlights of being at a show?
DR: Well the two shows with The Avett Brothers at Red Rocks this past year were great. Seeing The [Avett] Brothers down in Atlanta in front of 12,500 people was pretty special as well, because I was at the first show when the guys played in Atlanta. You know you go from playing to 50 people to 12,500 and you see the growth of the band. It’s pretty amazing.

EOAF: Does that shift ever seem overwhelming? Do you ever ask yourself, “How did we get here?”?
DR: Well, I know kinda how we got there. It was a lot of hard work, and a lot of talent from the band. I feel like we’ve got one of the best fan bases in the world. So, you mix all three of those things together and some special things can happen. But in some ways I’ve lost scope of maybe how big it is, and maybe that’s a good thing. I mean, I saw the guys play to 8 or 9 people in Charlottesville, VA 10 years ago and they put on the same show to those 9 people that they did at their last show in Charlottesville to over 4,000. So, I think we all have blinders on when it comes to that. We are thankful that we have that kind of crowd, but it’s not something that we, I mean, it is what it is.

EOAF: Now some of the bands that I believe you have on your roster now were introduced through your relationship with The Avett Brothers. Do you kind of keep an eye on their opening bands as a way to find new talent?
DR: It just depends. I find them everywhere.

EOAF: Are you actively looking for new talent, or do you feel like you are pretty much at capacity at this point?
DR: Well, we are pretty full, but you never know what you might come across that strikes us. That’s sort of a hard one, you know, because you just kind of get bit by the love bug on it, so I just don’t know.

EOAF: You’ve probably served as a mentor for the musicians that you manage, but do you also serve as a mentor for your staff?
DR: There’s a lot of give and take with my staff. I always had the saying, ‘big team, little me’ so we always learn from one another. I’m learning something everyday at this job. So, we share the knowledge of this, and I think the main thing that we are trying to do is to have fun doing this, because there are so many people working jobs that hate their jobs. My staff and I are really lucky because we are doing something we really love and have fun doing. As far as being a mentor, I’m not sure. I think we are all in this together, so it’s not necessarily that kind of role I’m playing.

EOAF: As a manager, how would you define your job. What are the important qualities that you think have led to your success?
DR: I guess, well, you see in some ways I don’t even feel like we are in the music business. I’m in The Avett Brothers business. I’m in the Carolina Chocolate Drops business. I’m in the Bombadil business, the Langhorne Slim business. I feel like all of these acts we work with are all handmade kind of acts. They are all unique. They are all different from the norm. It’s tough for me to answer. I’ve been at this now for about 13 years and I had no experience of it before getting into it, so maybe I had no bad habits and I didn’t know the pitfalls necessarily. We kind of just went by the seat of our pants. But, you know, I’m from a very blue-collar family, so I’m just a hard worker first and foremost. I show up everyday, and I care. If you show up everyday and you care about what you are doing, it’s almost hard not to have success, because there are so many people not showing up with that passion. I can’t speak for those folks, but we just take a lot of passion and pride in this, and I want everybody on the planet to hear these acts.

EOAF: That passion and that gut feeling you get when you find a new artist, or hear someone like Langhorne or Paleface, does that feed into your decision to bring them on? Would it be difficult for you to represent someone who you didn’t have that feeling about?
DR: Yes, it would be tough. It just wouldn’t be fun.

EOAF: You’ve said in other interviews that you are really just a fan of music, and that is kind of what got you into this. Do you think your musical tastes have evolved since staring Ramseur Records 13 years ago?
DR: Well, I’ve always been left of center when it comes to music, so I like all forms. If anything I get jaded because I hear so much stuff, and it’s hard to digest so much music that’s coming at me sometimes. My father was a big Johnny Cash fan. He was a big Hank Williams Sr. fan. He was a big Roy Orbison fan. He loved The Platters. He was a big Pavarotti fan. My father is about as blue-collar as you are going to find. He didn’t go to college, real hard-working fella. So, he exposed myself and my sister to a lot of different kinds of music. So maybe I get that a little bit naturally. He also had a thing when it came down to gospel music, he would rather have someone who was not a great singer but put a lot of heart and soul into it as opposed to a great singer who was just going through the motions. I learned that early on from him. I don’t know how much my tastes have evolved, because I just like so much stuff.

EOAF: You grew up surrounded by all of that great music. Do you actually play an instrument or sing?
DR: No. I do not. I keep telling people that I am one of the world’s greatest musicians, I just haven’t found what instrument will get it out of me. I do not play, and I think I learned that from tennis. I taught tennis at country clubs and I went to college for tennis and I kind of lost the passion for that because I did it so much. I’m almost glad I don’t play an instrument, because it kind of keeps me from overloading too much.

EOAF: When you started Ramseur Records, did you start it with the intent of putting out albums and being a manager, or did that combination evolve over time?
DR: Yeah, it kind of evolved. Again, I really didn’t know what I was doing at all.

EOAF: And starting the label came out of a relationship with Martin Stephenson?
DR: Yes. Martin had gone through the whole gambit of the industry from being an independent artists who got signed to a major label. Martin, very much like The Avett Brothers, never had radio success, but he was selling thousands of tickets in the UK, and really doing well. He had a very similar story to what The Avett Brothers have going on, where they have kind of danced around mainstream success but sort of still stayed under it. That’s kind of what Martin did. So, I learned quite a bit from Martin and he is very similar to The [Avett] Brothers and he’s got the same gift they’ve got.

EOAF: How did you meet him?
DR: That kind of goes back to me being a music fan. He had left major labels and went through the indie route and was putting out records on his own, and I reached out to him. He noticed I’m from NC and he’s a bit of a fan of music from this state, like Doc Watson and Charlie Poole and the Piedmont blues players from the state. So we just struck up a friendship, and I told him that he should come over to NC and I will introduce you to some pickers. That’s kind of how it all happened. I really didn’t have any real idea of getting into the business. When I met Martin I could see where musicians need help, and they need some support and someone to help and put fuel on the flame.

EOAF: So, a manager is like a Jack-of-all-trades. You have to do everything, wouldn’t you say? You are the sounding board, you book, you promote, you do all of these things.
DR: Yes, definitely.

EOAF: In that light, I saw that The Avett Brothers recently released their first single off of their next album. Are you involved in those types of decisions, like which single will be released, album art, song sequence, etc?
DR: That’s a yes and no type of question. It differs for every act, because some acts will want our input on a certain aspect of the [process]. Like, some may want to know feedback on a single. Some may be dead set on a track listing and some may be dead set on artwork. Some will need help on artwork, and some will need help on the track list. It varies from case to case. We are and we aren’t, just depending on what the project is, where the artist is. Sometimes the artist may change where they need help, because they are so close to the project. They sometimes need help from someone that’s got a little separation from it.

EOAF: In terms of an artist like Langhorne Slim, his last album, to me, was Grammy-worthy. Does it ever surprise you when things don’t get as much attention or the attention you think they deserve?
DR: No, no. We are just thankful for the attention we get and we can’t sit around hoping and wishing and ‘what ifs.’ We have to play the deck of cards we are dealt. You know that album to date has sold 22,000 copies. That is a lot of records for an independent act like Langhorne. I look at all of then albums like babies. You want them to grow up and do well. Sometimes they do and sometimes it doesn’t stick. It’s hard to say what America or the world wants, and the way certain things go. You know, who knows? I have no clue.

EOAF: How do you find a balance between managing all of your acts?
DR: It’s hard for me to know what time is spent on what. With some of my acts, certain employees will spend most of their time with those certain acts. Of course I spend most of my time with The [Avett] Brothers, with The [Carolina Chocolate] Drops. So it’s just kind of hard to say how that time is divided up. I’m so close to it, it’s hard for me to kind of step back and see it.

EOAF: Can you speak about your handshake contracts? Why does this work for you and has it ever backfired?
DR: No, it hasn’t backfired and I don’t know, I just got into this business to have fun. I feel like if so much energy is spent on that kind of stuff it just sort of takes the spirit out of things. That’s not to say that you can’t have great spirit and great goodwill between two people in a contact, but I just kind of like the old thing that you get further with shaking hands than balling up a hand in a fist. Again, I don’t recommend it to other people. I just do my own thing.

EOAF: What kind of advice would you give to a rising musician who is looking to get signed or looking for someone to represent him/her?
DR: I would say more than anything would be to try to master your craft, and also try to realize that no matter how great you are, there’s always ways to improve. I don’t really deal with anyone like this, but I kind of sense that some artists think they are the greatest thing since sliced bread. A lot of times that’s sort of when they plateau and never kind of get any further down the road than they already are. I feel like if you are an artist who is always trying to push the boundaries of what you are doing and always trying to improve as a singer, as a songwriter, as a performer, I would say definitely master your craft and a lot of things will fall in place with that. Also, there’s this sort of sense that you’ve got to get this success right now, and I don’t feel that’s the case. A lot of times people who did have success quickly, it would be a rocket ship–as soon as it goes up, it’s coming right back down. You have to think of it more as a balloon ride. Also I always say to steer clear of the American Idol, The Voice, those kind of things. I just kind of feel like that’s all smoke and mirrors in my opinion.

EOAF: Charity appears to be a big part of your business model. Why is that so important to you? Was that something that you thought of from the beginning, or has that just evolved over time?
DR: That might be my family background. I feel like all of my family has sort of had that mindset. We’ve all been pretty fortunate and hardworking. My grandparents where cotton mill workers, and they were real thankful to just have a job, and they were really active in their church and in the community. I remember my grandfather, who was born in 1902–my other grandfather was born in 1900–but my Grandpa Ramseur I remember, as a kid, every Thursday he would dress up in his Sunday best and go to the hospital and just pray for people in the hospital. He’d just go room to room and ask them if it was okay if he could pray for them. He did that for years. So, I guess I get it kind of honestly.

EOAF: Is there anything coming up in the near future, like the My Favorite Gifts Christmas Album, that you have in the works?
DR: There might be some things in regards to St. Jude with Bob’s daughter. Hopefully there will be some things that will come from that. We’ve got a new Cheerwine campaign with The [Avett] Brothers, the second installment of The Legendary Giveback and that’s going to be pretty exciting. We are always looking at things and seeing what might work. There are a lot of things being done that no one even knows about. We are fortunate to be in a position to help.

EOAF: That is awesome, and the fan base definitely takes it to another level as well. They organize their own fundraisers. I’ve seen it in action. It’s pretty amazing and inspiring, and it’s nice to know that you all have a piece in that, and that you’ve inspired other people as well.
DR: I can’t speak any more highly for the fan bases that [our] bands have. We are so fortunate. I feel like all of the acts realize that they wouldn’t have the careers they’ve had without the fans for sure. That’s another thing that I think has benefited me is growing up in the hub of NASCAR. When I was a kid, Richard Petty would sign autographs until nobody wanted one, but he would always thank the fans and let the fans know that without the fans he wouldn’t have the opportunity or then platform to do what he does.

We’d like to thank Dolph Ramseur for his time and contribution to Evolution of a Fan. To learn more about Ramseur Records and the artists, please visit the official website and Facebook page.

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Box Office Adventures – First World Hipster Problems

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I arrived in downtown Richmond with 10 minutes to spare.  It was 9:50 AM, and The National’s box office was just about to open.  As I rounded the corner and approached the historic theater, a line full of single-speeds, jorts, and carefully coiffed facial hair came into view–the River City hipsters had beaten me to the box office.  What on God’s green earth could get hipsters out of bed before noon on a Friday?

Three words–Neutral Milk Hotel.

The last time I saw a line like this at The National’s box office was back in 2010 when Widespread Panic tickets were going on sale.  It was snowing, but that didn’t faze those hippies.  They sat patiently and waited for a chance to buy tickets to see their beloved jam band.  That’s what devoted fans do.  And, no matter the type of fan–hipsters, hippies, hip-hop junkies–if there is a chance that their favorite band’s show will sell out quickly, the line inevitably turns into an adult version of our favorite childhood game Telephone, where rumors run rampant and anxiety builds as the line lengthens.

That Friday morning was no different.  Though hipsters may want you to believe that they are trailblazers–leading the way with their thrift store style and non-conformist attitudes–they too succumb to the box office woes that plague the rest of us not-so-hip-sters.

I got into line behind about 2 dozen hipsters, and was quickly handed an info card to fill out–name, address, credit card information, number of tickets to be purchased, etc.  This was intense and quite honestly, a lot to ask of these young, sleep-deprived 20-somethings.  Grumbles rippled through the line.

“What is this for?” asked a girl behind me.  “Do we actually get tickets when we get up there?”

I assumed the answer was yes, but the tall lanky guy behind her had a different take on the situation.

“Um, like, I’m pretty sure it’s just like a lottery, and like all we are doing is waiting in line to be put into the lottery to see if we can maybe get tickets.”

Well that’s complete horse shit.  I didn’t drive 3 hours to get put into a damn lottery.  Others shot him looks of anxious skepticism with this new information.  Immediately, everyone within an ear shot whipped out their iPhones and searched frantically for anything that could confirm or deny Mr. Lanky’s revelation.

NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL TICKETS ON SALE AT 10:00 AM EST

Phew.  Thank goodness!  What did Mr. Lanky know anyway?  A sigh of relief echoed down Broad Street.  Wait, hold up…what does that sign say over there?

LOTTERY PROCEEDINGS FOR NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL

(WHAT!? Heart rate increasing–panic setting in…)

-Lottery tickets and info cards will be handed out at 9AM sharp

(Lottery!?  Wait, it’s 9:55 and I didn’t get a lottery ticket.  WTF!?)

-Everyone in line at that time will receive a lottery ticket

(WHERE IS MY LOTTERY TICKET!?  ALL I HAVE IS THIS STUPID INFO CARD!)

-A number will be drawn and the corresponding lottery ticket holder will become first in line

(Seriously!?  There’s no way the guy with the handlebar mustache and mesh tank top who just rolled up is going to get dibs before me)

-The line will form numerically thereafter.  Make sure you have your ticket in hand when reaching the window

(Who is in charge here!?  I DON’T HAVE A TICKET!!!!)

-Tickets go on sale at 10AM

(Ohhhh…Duh…I knew Mr. Lanky was full of it–heart rate returning to normal)

Okay, now we knew that the lottery theory applied only to people who got in line super early, which was NO ONE (hipsters aren’t THAT motivated).  It was now 10:10 AM, and while the box office was open, they were moving at a sloth’s pace.  The first guy to get a ticket walked back to chat with the fashionably disheveled guy directly behind me.

“Dude, did you get an actual ticket?!”  he asked.

“Um, well all of the tickets are will call, but yeah, of course I bought a ticket.  Isn’t that why you are here?” Mr. First-in-line replied.

“Yeh, but some jockstrap back there said something about a lottery, and we all just about lost it.  I am thinking about just buying them online.  I’m looking it up right now.  This line is moving too slow.  I seriously need to go back to bed ’til about 3:00,” he mumbled.

“Well, you should get to the front in about 15 minutes.  Is that worth $10 in extra processing fees?”

While the evil Ticketmaster processing fee debate transpired, a threesome in front of me caught my attention.  Two girls and a guy, all dressed up nicely for graduation day at VCU.  The girl in the blue sequins dress and thick rimmed spectacles beamed with excitement–not because she was about to celebrate the culmination of all of her hard work over the past 4 years, but because she was getting closer to solidifying her chance of seeing Jeff Mangum up close and personal.  Priorities people–get with it.

Her girl friend was obviously just there for moral support, although she did look the part with her layered lace dress, flats, and unkempt pulled-back hairdo.

“I don’t even like Neutral Milk Hotel,” she admitted louder than her friends would have liked.

“SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! Don’t say that here!” they pleaded in unison, as they looked around to see if anyone heard her.

That was like the hipster kiss of death–well perhaps yelling “I hate Radiohead” in a Brooklyn dive bar is a greater offense, but that’s a whole different story.  Statements of that nature could seriously damage a hipster’s street cred.  I couldn’t help but laugh at the entire scene, and since I was dressed like a 34-year old Maxxinista, they knew I had no pull in the hipster community.  Their secret was safe with me–another catastrophe eschewed.

“Boom! I just got two tickets.  I’m outta here,” said Mr. Ineedanap behind me.  He must have had Verizon because I couldn’t get a flippin’ signal if I was covered head to toe in tin foil.  Damn you Sprint!  I, too, had contemplated just taking a hit on the processing fees, because–God forbid–I get to the window and they are sold out.  My husband would be crushed.

A few yards back came an outburst, “They just sold out online!”

And three…two…one…PANIC!  It was only 10:20 AM, we had moved maybe a foot and a half closer to the box office window and there was no telling how many tickets they had set aside for the locals.  This was becoming more stressful than an Avett Brothers’ presale.  I found myself completely relating to the hipster’s dilemma, and I was right there with them, speculating, postulating, and praying to the music gods that it would all work out.

The young man directly behind me, now that Mr. Ineedanap was gone, was also graduating that afternoon.  He was in a state of quiet panic, and hid it well as he buried his face in a paperback while he waited–apparently real books are cool to read again.  Thank you hipsters!  After getting bored with the book, he fumbled through his tattered canvas delivery bag, trying to bide some time as we inched closer and closer to the box office window.

“I have to get these tickets.  I mean, I’m graduating today.  I deserve it, right?!”  He was one of those hipsters you just want to fold up, put in your pocket, and take home with you–sweet and friendly, with the perfect amount of piercings and tattoos, who made an army green t-shirt and cut-offs look like they belong on the runway in Milan.

“Yes, of course you deserve tickets,” I assured him.  He was like a puppy who had lost his way–endearingly pathetic.  My mind raced and I thought, “What if I get to the window and I am the last person who can get tickets?!  Should I give them to this kid?  I mean, it is his graduation day. Ugh, damn you Haley Joel Osment and your whole pay it forward campaign!”

I was next in line.  Breathe. Speculate. Breathe. Speculate. The blue sequined dress girl chirped with joy as she was handed a receipt.  It was my turn, and by all accounts it appeared that there were still tickets left.  Phew.  However, I still could have been buying the last two.  So I did what I do best–got nosy.

“Soooo…did you guys like put aside a specific amount of tickets for locals?” I asked.

“Yes.  I’m hoping that we have enough to help everyone here today, but I am not totally sure,”  the girl behind the glass responded.

That was enough of a confirmation that my nervous neighbor in line would be getting his graduation present today, and I wouldn’t have to disappoint the husband with my “pay it forward to a hipster” story–yet another disaster avoided.

I received my receipt, congratulated the graduate, and went on my way, thankful that I had secured two tickets to see an amazing band that hasn’t toured together in 15 years.  It’s pretty interesting to think about the fact that 90% of the people in that line weren’t even born when Neutral Milk Hotel released their first EP.  It just goes to show you that great music is powerful enough to infiltrate one of the most discerning of communities out there–the mighty hipsters.

The show sold out quickly thereafter.  You better believe that I will be looking for my line mates come October 12th.  If by chance I see them, I will be sure to buy them each a tallboy PBR to celebrate our recent box office adventures.  That is…if tallboy PBRs are still hip in 5 months.

Author’s note:  I caught Jeff Mangum’s solo performance this year in Wilmington, and it blew my mind.  What I found extremely telling was that it was the hipsters who were polite and attentive in the audience, while the drunk 30-40 somethings needed to be told to pipe down or leave.  Perhaps this new generation can teach the older generations a thing or two about concert etiquette.  Tighten up Generation X!

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