June 1999

Label Watch: Basin Street

It’s quite a sight to see an owner of a record label strolling with one of those old-fashioned sandwich boards hanging from his shoulders advertising his label’s artists. But for New Orleans-based Basin Street Records owner Mark Samuels, who first experimented with this unique approach to advertising at the 1998 French Quarter Festival, it’s just part of the business. It’s a ploy he’s returned to many times since.

Basin Street Records is only about a year-and-a-half old, having released its first CD, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins’ The Barbecue Swingers Live, in February 1998. It has nonetheless caused quite a stir, particularly in New Orleans. Besides releasing the much-loved Ruffins’ first live disc, in April just in time for the 1998 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the label debuted a band that had only been together several months. The group was Los Hombres Calientes featuring trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, percussionist Bill Summers (of Headhunters fame), and drummer Jason Marsalis. The self-titled album was to become the number one selling disc out at the Fest’s Fair Grounds and among the top five sellers at all the major New Orleans record outlets.

“It was an opportunity to put Bill Summers, Jason Marsalis and Irvin Mayfield on a record, establishing almost immediate credibility for the label,” says Samuels, who signed the group in early March and had product in stores in less than six weeks.

Before Samuels established Basin Street, he had dabbled in music as a booking agent and concert producer. He was interested in getting further into the music business, though he had no ambitions to start a record label. That was until he was approached by Ruffins’ manager, Tom Thompson, with the idea of investing in merely one live Ruffins’ recording.

“Rather than simply invest in a record and put up the money, we started a label,” explains Samuels, who teamed with Thompson to co-own the label. “I knew Kermit was popular and I knew that marketed properly that even though Kermit wasn’t doing much touring that we should be able to sell a lot of copies of the CD in New Orleans.” Thompson, who initially was looking for creative control in the studio for his artist as well as co-ownership of the product for Ruffins, sold his interest in Basin Street Records in the spring of 1998.

In 1998, Basin Street also released drummer Jason Marsalis’ first album as leader, Year of the Drummer. While the youngest Marsalis brother surely could have opted for a larger label, he was impressed with Basin Street’s track record with Los Hombres Calientes. At this point in his career, he was also more interested in artistic control and studio experience. In fact, on the label’s first three releases, the artists have produced their own discs.

Last fall, the label was picked up for national distribution by City Hall Records, and in doing so looks forward to greater growth and recognition. In April, again just in time for the New Orleans Jazz Fest, Basin Street released two more discs, another one by Ruffins called Swing This!, produced by Tracey Freeman and a self-titled CD from trumpeter Irvin Mayfield.

“My goal is to give a tremendous amount of attention to a few artists and to release only three to four records a year,” says Samuels. “I believe very strongly in grass roots—especially since our bands don’t heavily tour—and selling as many records in New Orleans as possible because they’ll make their way outside the city.”

Samuels believes his lack of experience in the world of record labels has actually been an asset. He took on the business without any of the industry’s formulas on how to deal with musicians, contracts and marketing. Considering the solid record sales and numerous local awards bestowed upon the label’s artists he may just be right.

“I want to stay consistent, stay steady,” declares Samuels. “If a major label comes along and wants to help us down the road, that’s always a possibility.”

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