Alligator Records Founder/Owner/President Bruce Iglauer by Mark E. Waterbury

Bruce Iglauer admits that he was a terrible trumpet player in high school and a terrible folk guitar player as well. Perhaps that was a good thing as he would eventually find his life’s path connecting with people who had prodigious talents for their instruments of choice. Born and raised in Michigan, Bruce grew up listening to 60’s top-40 rock and roll, show tunes, and also had a keen ear for commercial folk music. Eventually it was another genre that reached into Bruce’s soul. “I used to sing in bad jug bands and that was what led me to the blues,” he recalls. “I learned about the blues by hanging out in the Chicago ghetto clubs and listening to a lot of records. I was fascinated with the blues.” During his weekend trips to Chicago while attending Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin in pursuit of a theater degree, Bruce discovered the Jazz Record Mart. The store was owned and operated by Bob Koester, who also ran a blues label called Delmark Records. “Bob was one of the few guys recording blues at that time, and he knew most of the ghetto clubs where the blues was played. He's a charismatic guy and I wanted to grow up to be him!” In 1970, Bruce talked Bob into hiring him where he started on the bottom rung as a shipping clerk at Delmark Records. Occasionally working as a clerk at Jazz Record Mart as well, Bruce was taking home thirty dollars a week, but he was learning invaluable lessons from Bob Koester. “Working at Delmark Records, I learned both what to do and what not to do. (Bob) was a great record man but not a great record business man. He just liked making records, not promoting or marketing them.”
While working at Delmark, Bruce remained a denizen of the clubs on the Windy City’s blues rich south side. It was at one of those smoky watering holes where he first became enthralled with a band called Hound Dog Taylor & The House Rockers. “They were a totally raw, raucous three-piece band who played in tiny joints all over the South Side. Their music was wildly fun, very alcohol-driven and sweaty. I fell in love with the band.” Bruce wanted to see the band’s music on vinyl so he asked Bob Koester if he would record them with Bruce as the producer. Bob decided against recording the band so Bruce figured the only way to cut an album for Hound Dog would be to do it himself. Thus Alligator Records was launched in 1971 with Bruce wearing virtually all the hats. “I ended up as producer, manager, booking agent, publicist, driver, record salesman, publisher and radio promoter for them,” he muses. “And referee when they fought which was often.”
Around the time that Bruce started Alligator, several other indie labels were launched including Rounder, Flying Fish and Sugar Hill. Along with Alligator, they formed the National Association of Record Distributors or NAIRD so they could learn from each other and grow as indie labels. “I never wanted to be a business man,” Bruce recalls. “I'm a 60’s guy. I thought that was all about greed. I just wanted to make blues records, but I figured out early on that to do that I needed money. So I began to run my business in a businesslike way. It didn't come easily. I knew nothing about bookkeeping, did my taxes incorrectly, etc., but I figured out how to pay royalties.” Still, it was tough in the beginning for Alligator. There were plenty of talented blues artists in Chicago, and Bruce recorded albums for a number of them. The only artist who was really selling however was Hound Dog Taylor so Bruce decided to record another album by him.” I guess that was my first move toward being commercial...multiple albums by the same artist. I learned by doing. It was a very loose time at commercial radio when rock first started being played on FM. So I was able to get airplay that would have been impossible a few years later. I learned to be a booking agent by asking friends where the band might work. I sold about 9000 copies of that album in the first year, working out of a one room apartment, starting with no distributors, no knowledge of radio, only a few press contacts. I was pretty damn lucky.”
Bruce stayed persistent and continued to learn as he went, and the hard work gradually began to pay off. He signed and recorded other artists who achieved success including Koko Taylor and Lonnie Brooks, and worked even more tenaciously at press and radio. He marketed the music directly to many retailers as well as getting national distribution through Ryko. He also impressed upon his roster the importance of live performances in their climb to success. “We are very aware of the marketing value of the great live gig. We promote and publicize all of the gigs that our new release artists have, and many of the gigs performed by artists with no new releases.” Alligator is also a label that still believes in career development, preferring to enter into long term agreements with their artists. They spread their distribution and promotion on a worldwide scale, and now in the twenty-first century, they can make a claim not many indie labels can. “We run a business that supports itself; Alligator has no bank loans and no debt. I still own one hundred percent of the company, so there is no pressure from anyone else to suck money out of the company. I believe we work harder than almost anyone else in the record industry.”
Bruce remains a hands-on label president, although he now has sixteen employees helping him. He is involved in virtually everything, from signing artists to editing press releases to making key financial decisions and even “taking out the garbage.” He also has produced or co-produced many of Alligator’s releases. Even though they are aimed primarily at one genre and are considered one of the top blues labels around, Bruce and Alligator are working to bring their recordings to a wider audience beyond the blues aficionados. They were one of the first labels to create a web presence and sell their music on-line. They have just recently created an updated web site and are working with the top legal music download companies. “We always want to expand the market and fan base for our artists and recordings. I want to make sure that the next generations of crucial blues artists are on Alligator and that Alligator is a key player in bringing this music to the world.”
Bruce continues to sit on the Board of Directors for NAIRD and is involved with other nonprofit organizations, too, including Association For Independent Music and the Blues Foundation. He loves what he is doing which is not surprising considering his dreams of three plus decades ago were germinated by the love of the music of Hound Dog Taylor & The House Rockers. “I dreamed of making a record. When that happened, I dreamed of making another one. Now I have about two hundred thirty albums. I dreamed of selling my music in other countries. Now we sell it worldwide. I dreamed of creating careers for artists I loved and now many of those artists have successful careers. It's been a lot of work, but it has been very rewarding. I love watching and helping my artists grow as musicians and communicators. There's nothing that pleases me as much as a thrilling live performance by one of my artists or a thrilling recorded performance.”
Bruce Iglauer’s advice for musicians: “It's endless. First, remember that music is all about emotional communication. If you can't move an audience, it doesn't matter what your technical skills are. Second, remember that you're in the business of being a musician. It doesn't matter how good you are if you don't act like a professional. Third, remember that you may be able to make money being unoriginal, but it's only if you make your own statement that you will ever receive real recognition. Fourth, be a realist. Know what is and isn't possible. Don't pretend that if you're in a specialized genre of music, you are going to be a pop music star. Like The Wizard used to say in the cartoon--'be what you is, and not what you is not. Folks who is what they is is the happiest lot.’”
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