North Adams Transcript
NORTH ADAMS -- The Chicago-area music label Numero Group makes a business out mining the past for musical gold that would otherwise stay hidden -- tapping into music by the "almost weres," as well as the "never weres."
The label will incorporate the fruits of their labor, as well as their own musical obsessions, into the backdrop of the upcoming Solid Sound Festival at Mass MoCA, providing mood music and visuals after the music has ended, as well as the kick-off bash.
It was seven years ago that Ken Shipley left Rykodisc and founded the label with partners Tom Lunt and Rob Sevier. Shipley brought one project with him from his tenure at Ryko -- Antena’s "Camino del Sol," an electro bossa nova recording -- and that was the company’s second release, after the first Eccentric Soul compilation.
"We thought that our real audience was the person who bought Mojo Magazine, who’s generally not interested in just one thing, so we looked at our own musical palettes as the direction for it," Shipley said during an interview this week. " If we were interested in it, and if we thought it was cool, then we thought that the audience would agree, so we’ve stayed true to things that we’d like to make."
The company has become well-known for its resurrection of obscure soul sounds, but it also looks to rock and roll, folk, gospel and scores of pop, rock and new-wave styles for its releases. Numero Group is run with a record collector’s experience, and any record collector will tell you that any given discovery will lead to another one and another.
"Projects beget projects," Shipley said. "You’re working on one thing, but then all of a sudden you meet somebody and they say, ‘Oh yeah. In addition to this 45 that you’re interested in and putting on this collection ...’ They record an entire album, and they wind up giving you the album, and you put out the whole album. Or the guitar player was in another group. So there’s definitely a discovery process along the way that leads to deeper and deeper kinds of music."
It’s Numero Group’s contention that what is dangled plainly in front of you musically is not all there is to the history of music -- and not necessarily the best or most interesting stuff. There are a lot of lost sounds out there still waiting for new ears.
"A lot of what we do is stuff that’s kind of known in very small circles, and it just hasn’t had a very strong look at it from the populace," Shipley said. "We elevate all of our records to the point where it’s ‘Yeah, you don’t know about it, but you should know about it.’ We try to look at all the records, the ‘shoulda,’ coulda,’ woulda’s or the just a bit outside, and frame our stories as such."
Shipley says 60 percent of any recording project is tracking down the people who were involved -- and once that happens, convincing them that Numero Group is a legitimate business that does everything legally and makes sure everyone gets paid for their work. Sometimes the positive reaction is immediate; other times the arrangement requires some courtship time.
"What happens most is that somebody says, ‘Ah, somebody’s finally interested in my stuff! I’ve been waiting for you to show up my entire life!’" Shipley said. "There are times when you’re met with a degree of skepticism that should be expected. You figure people put out this music, they’ve put their entire lives into something, and since we’re dealing with so much failure, there are a certain amount who aren’t interested in reliving that failure and prefer to not have it dragged out."
The company will send out a sampler package to musicians whose work they are interested in, with some CDs and a print catalog to give an idea of not only the scope of their projects, but also the care in the curation and packaging. And the company doesn’t just send out one package and end the relationship there -- Shipley says that building trust in that situation is a process and a commitment.
"When you make somebody comfortable, it will be a lot easier to make a situation viable and get somebody interested in doing business with you," he said, "as opposed to that degree of skepticism they might have if you contact them once and you never get in touch with them again because they seem too difficult. People in general are just difficult."
Numero Group recently offered a limited edition box set of three 45 rpms from unknown soul bands that was compiled from the Boddie Recording Co. tape archive. The "Boddie Acetate Box" was designed to resemble the original lathe-cut acetates that would have been created back in the 1960s. This is just one of the label’s releases derived from Ohio couple Thomas and Louise Boddie, who ran a pressing plant, a record label, a recording studio and a printing company.
"We’d been contacting them for four or five years trying to get them interested," Shipley said. "The husband died, and Louise just refused to take anybody’s calls, saying ‘not interested.’ But finally after two years, she said next time you’re in Cleveland, come on by, so we came on by and got the deal done on the spot. It’s just that persistence that really pays off -- continue to show up, send Christmas cards, do all the things to earn these people’s respect and trust. And the next step is to do right by their record. You do right by their record, then they start making money, and they’ll feel a lot better about it."
Upcoming is the Syl Johnson box set, the result of four years of back-and-forth with the soul and blues artist -- a major coup for the label. Johnson has traditionally been closed off from the music industry and is on a higher professional level than the label usually deals with.
"There was a lot of convincing and arm twisting and wrangling and praying and figuring out if this is something that he wanted to do," Shipley said. "Finally we put some money in his pocket through some production work, and he felt comfortable enough to continue. The door got one inch wider and one inch wider, and he finally let us walk in. It was a really rewarding experience because we got to build a really tremendous box set of his entire early career that nobody’s ever had this access to."
Numero Group also recently released the "Eccentric Beats and Breaks" album, a mega-mix of more than 50 samples from its catalog that began life as a bootleg from Florida. With so many of its artists involved, the label began to explore its legal options before deciding not to send the cease-and-desist order to the bootlegger, but to release its own version instead.
"They were quite willing at that point, because it was either that or they would get sued," Shipley said. "So we were able to make a negative situation into a positive situation and make a record that I think is an interesting pastiche of our first seven years as a company. And hopefully, in another seven years, we’ll do another one."
It’s this sort of progressive attitude -- and understanding of the modern music market -- that has assured Numero Group its success, even as a niche label.
"We thought rather than have it be something that becomes very popular in the secondary market, why not capitalize on it now and make that money that you’re not going to make in the secondary market?" Shipley said. "Having worked in that world before, I know that when people want something, they’re going to find a way to get it or make it and sell it, so you can either be in front of the curve and be part of the money train, or you can behind the curve and just get left out entirely."
The root of the company’s effort has to do with offering its releases as a numbered series that has a subscription option. They created a sense of continuity among the various musical formats presented -- the idea being that one was not exclusive from the others. This aligns with the idea of what a record collection is, as opposed to music consumption, and speaks to the company’s early embrace of vinyl as an available format in the digital age -- something larger companies have since learned is still a viable and profitable format.
"We’ve always made our product for people who want the music and not given up on the people who want the object and the music," Shipley said, "but not the people who are like, ‘I have a hard drive filled with 10 million -- that’s my record collection.’ That, to me, is not really a record collection. A record collection is something that is curated and cared for, even if it’s an MP3 collection. You have to have some kind of vision for it. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of garbage on a shelf."
Numero Group can be found online at numerogroup.com.