How a Music Nut Cracked the Music Business to Launch the Avett Brothers
October 9, 2008
Dolphus Ramseur describes himself as "a music nut" and says that he's trying "to sell art and leave a legacy of art" through his company Ramseur Records of Concord.
Ramseur's independent record label has been home for the last half dozen years to the Avett Brothers, popular and quirky musicians whose major label debut is being produced by the legendary Rick Rubin for his American Recordings, a Columbia label. Although he does not seek it, Ramseur and his belief in the Avetts' music deserves much of the credit for their popularity and success. His persistence in promoting and booking them, his willingness to produce their CDs and make grueling trips with them for live performances are finally starting to pay off in a big way.
"It would have been a lot easier for me to go through a school like Catawba and a course like this, than to have gotten into the music business the way I did," Ramseur recently told a group of Catawba College music business students in Dr. David Lee Fish's Intermediate Music Business class. "Instead, I've gone through the school of hard knocks. I'm just a music fan. I just love music and I'm just in business."
Perhaps it's Ramseur's lack of pretension or earnest presentation and steady eye contact that makes one quickly realize they are speaking to something as rare as a unicorn in today's music business world. For years, his handshake, his word and his belief in the musical acts he manages have propelled his company forward. Success has been hard-won, especially for the Avett Brothers, whom he refers to during his presentation at Catawba as simply, "The Brothers."
Fish notes that "Dolph's presentation was a big hit with the students. He's built the Avett Brothers' career the old-fashioned way, with tenacious hard work and the heart of a true believer for their music. That's remarkable in age when youtube fame can come in a few days but usually doesn't last much longer. He's helped create exceptionally strong fan bases for not only the Avetts but the other acts he manages as well, including the Carolina Chocolate Drops."
Ramseur says he grew up on a dirt road about 10 miles outside of Davidson and was lucky when as a youngster the Davidson College tennis coach showed an interest in him and helped him improve his game. Throughout his teenage years, he played tennis, meeting other teens at matches across the U.S., and regularly falling asleep at night listening to "a diverse range of music" on the Davidson College's radio station, WDAV. Ramseur also collected 45 records and LPs, frequenting independent record stores across North Carolina.
A tennis scholarship carried him to college at Farris State in Michigan, and tennis helped him land a job as tennis director for a North Carolina municipality, but it was music that Ramseur loved. In the late 80s, he tried to get a job with British artist Martin Stephenson and the Dainties, but he received no response. In 1997, Ramseur contacted Stephenson again to order one of his records. That began an international correspondence which eventually brought Stephenson to North Carolina in 2000 to perform on a tour Ramseur had set up.
"North Carolina is one of the centers of the universe for music," Ramseur explains, "and Martin (Stephenson) looked at it like that. I had made some calls and set up some shows for him. I also arranged for him to play with some old-time Piedmont Blues musicians."
Ramseur also made recordings of Stephenson playing with some of the old-time musicians using a portable machine and took photos at those sessions. "All it cost me was like $150," he recalls of that recording.
Shortly after Stephenson's North Carolina visit, another group caught Ramseur's attention. "My best career move was taking my mom's advice and checking out the Avett Brothers," he says, recalling his mother's 2001 suggestion to hear that group play. "They sing off key and they play out of tune, but they've got something special. I can't describe the Avett Brothers and that's how I knew they were something special."
After hearing the Avett Brothers, Ramseur approached them about letting him put out a record for them. That first record, "Carolina Jubilee," "got bad reviews," Ramseur recalls, but that did not discourage him or The Brothers. Ramseur continued booking them for differentEvents, including the annual Merlefest, building a regional fan base and selling "Carolina Jubilee" CDs at thoseEvents. Times were tough, with the Brothers working for free or for very little money at their live performances, and Ramseur resorting at one time to a job as a furniture mover "just to make ends meet."
While the Avett Brothers wrote songs and performed, Ramseur managed them, picking up a booking agent, Paul Lohr, for scheduling their live performances, and a distributor, 30 Tigers, to get the Avett Brothers' CDs in stores.
A second Avett Brothers album, "Mignonette," was released by Ramseur Records and a radio promoter was hired to "get it played all over the country," Ramseur said, recalling that he was also serving as The Brothers' publicist. "Paste Magazine" gave this record "a great review" and Ramseur expanded the Brothers' touring base beyond North Carolina to include Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and South Carolina.
"They were still playing shows for as little as $50 or opening shows for free," Ramseur remembers. "We'd get one hotel room and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were usually the meal. Touring can be a pretty tough thing – they played at a lot of clubs I would never take my mother to, but we were winning fans over, one fan at a time."
When the Avett Brothers' "Four Thieves Gone" was released in early 2005, Ramseur hired a publicist to help promote it, but quickly learned a $1,000 lesson about the need to pick the right publicist.
The release of "Emotionalism" by the Avett Brothers and the payoff from years of live performances, earned them an appearance on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." "It was a good learning experience and the first time we'd been on mainstream TV," he notes.
"When we put out "Emotionalism," our main goal was to get on the Billboard Charts' Top 200," Ramseur explains. "It sold 7,200 records that first week after it was released and it was 132 on the Billboard Hot 200 Chart (the industry magazine that tracks album sales). I still think we might have been the smallest label to get on the Billboard charts and we probably put the least amount of money in it."
The Avett Brothers' short CD, "Second Gleam" with only six songs on it, made it to slot number 82 on the Billboard Hot 200 Chart the first week it was released earlier this year and sold over 20,000 copies.
Now, live performances by The Brothers regularly sell out from coast to coast. This places them among the top 100 live acts in the nation in terms of paid attendance even before the release of their major label debut. "They played Cary, N.C., this past July and had over 7,000 paid – that is unheard of for an independent band," Ramseur says, with pride in his voice. "They give a real rollercoaster of emotions when they play live. They don't have a set list and that way it never gets old for the band. They want to keep it fresh for the audience and fresh for the band."
When the Avett Brothers signed with Rick Rubin's American Recordings, it was after much soul-searching, Ramseur says. "It felt right with Rick." Rubin, now co-president of Columbia Records, is the renowned music producer who has helped define or redefine the careers of such artists as Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Justine Timberlake, Neil Diamond, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Metallica, the Dixie Chicks, and Green Day.
While Ramseur will continue to manage the Avett Brothers, it's still with a handshake and without a contract. "I don't want a piece of paper obligating them to work with me," he says.
Then Ramseur talks about the other musicians he believes in and manages, those who write and perform songs that are "piss and vinegar mixed with heartfelt," like Samantha Crain of Oklahoma and the Chocolate Drops of North Carolina. And he begins, "What I would like to see happen to Samantha is the same thing that happened to the Avett Brothers…" and listening, you know that as long as he believes, he has the will and the stamina and the love for quirky music to help make another success happen in the music business all over again.
"Every new song, every new album is a clean slate," he says. "Songs are the bread and butter of what you do and if you've got anyone with songs, they have a long career."
While this was the first time Catawba's music business majors had a chance to hear from Ramseur, it certainly won't be the last. Fish says, "Dolph and I are already talking about team-teaching a class together and about his company taking on some of our students as interns. We can learn much from such a remarkable individual."
Students majoring in Music at Catawba College have a choice of concentrations, including Music Business, Music Education, Music Performance and Sacred Music. For more details, contact the Catawba College Music Department at (704) 637-4345.