In the early of stages of my vinyl record addiction I picked up some Albert Collins LP’s to add to my collection. I noticed this cool Alligator decal on the sleeve and nice green label, but never paid much attention to it. Early in my vinyl years labels were not something that grabbed my attention (boy, did that change soon). A few months later, I picked up a Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers LP and saw that same cool alligator decal. I now had three albums with this logo on it that I absolutely love! Since then, I started paying more attention to labels!
This label came to mind again recently when I picked up the music issue of Oxford American magazine and started reading up on a musician by the name of Professor Longhair. I really loved the story behind him and was crazy about the song that was on the CD that was packaged with the magazine. This, along with a few hours spent on YouTube, got me searching online for an album by the Professor. I was soon to learn that Professor Longhair’s last album that he recorded was for Alligator. I immediately placed an order. They had a great site to order from and shipping was dirt cheap (as well as the album prices). The album arrived beautifully packaged, and pressed on nice heavy vinyl.
What an album!
So the first four albums I ever heard from Alligator were ridiculously good, therefore I wanted to learn what this label was all about!
A little history behind Alligator:
Bruce Iglauer seemed to have the business sense for music at a young age. He would enjoy going to different venues in Chicago watching his favorite bands while in University. He convinced the University to book Howlin’ Wolf at a venue on campus but became very disappointed in their lack of marketing for the show. Next, he wanted the university to bring in Luther Allison but this time he wanted to be in charge of the marketing himself. To be given the authority to do this he ended up paying for Luther to come himself. This proved to be successful as he sold out two shows!
This was giving Bruce a taste of the music industry and he wanted more. “Delmark Records’” (who Luther Allison was signed with) founder Bob Koester took notice of Bruce’s ambition and offered Bruce a job at the label as a shipping clerk. Bruce worked here and spent many hours hanging around the studio and watching the artists play. Bruce really wanted “Delmark Records” to release an album by his favorite band Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers. Bob passed on releasing their album, so again Bruce took matters into his own hands and did it himself. This was the beginning of “Alligator Records”.
*Fun fact* - Bruce was compared to an alligator when he clicked his teeth to the rhythm of music, hence the name.
Bruce released Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers’ album with his own money pressing only 1000 copies. He would bring these albums around to various radio stations (in a time when DJ’s could still choose what music to play) and would give them a copy right before they went on the air, asking them to play it. The DJ’s, excited to hear this new album, would let curiosity get the best of them and play it on the air. After he did this to all of the local radio stations, he would hit the record stores telling them that all the radio stations are playing this album and they should sell it. Knowing that all the stations were playing the album, the stores were excited to carry the albums. Very cool technique he used to get his albums out.
So, at the beginning, Bruce was the sole employee of Alligator records and did all of the work. He could only manage to release one album a year, but he always made them successful enough to pay for the next album. The label slowly grew this way.
Some Alligator artists started receiving Grammy nominations which, of course, helped the label grow and become more recognizable. Grammy nominees consisted of Koko Taylor and Hound Dog Taylor. Getting more recognition, Alligator was able to start signing some ‘already known’ artists from outside of Chicago. One of these artists was Albert Collins. As Collins already had a great reputation and lots of recognition as a blues artist, this helped Alligator get noticed as a label. They were even profiled in Rolling Stone magazine because of Albert Collins.
Throughout all of this success, plenty of Alligator artists continued to bring in Grammy nominations (six more nominations between 1975 and 1978)! In 1982, Alligator artist Clifton Chenier won the label its first Grammy. Now Alligator was really getting recognized as a major blues label, and remember, this was still a very small label with only Bruce and 6 others working there!
Around this time they signed Johnny Winter who had huge success in blues and more mainstream radio as well. After Johnny Winter was signed, Alligator finally moved into a proper office building and started building up their productivity. Now they could release approximately ten albums a year rather than just one when Bruce was all alone.
So, this in a nutshell is how Alligator records came to be. They had plenty more success over the years and you can always count on an album with the Alligator label to be a great blues album.
I was recently in contact with Alligator founder/owner Bruce Iglauer and he was happy to do an interview for Maritime Vinyl!
Here we go!
Maritime Vinyl - You started Alligator records from scratch. Just you and a favorite band that you wanted to see have a record released! This must have been very fulfilling when you started gaining success at a young age. Now you grew it into the well-known and respected blues label that it is today. Did you enjoy it more with the challenge of fighting to make a name for yourself or now that you have a successful business?
Bruce Iglauer - I have enjoyed my entire 43 years in the blues and roots music world, 42 of them with my own label. The first years were exciting, but also very scary as any wrong move would have sunk the label, because I started with so little money and experience. In fact, the first eight years or so were pretty tense. From around the end of the 1970s until the end of the 1990s, when our catalog was growing and I was producing or co-producing the majority of Alligator releases myself. I was in the studio maybe 80 nights a year, and also spending a huge amount of time hearing live music in small clubs. I also spent more time on the road with the musicians. As I assembled the core group of Alligator staff (many of whom are still with me) and could give some responsibilities to others, I was able to concentrate more and more on music. The end of the 1990s was the time when music began to be stolen online in huge quantities, and that marked the beginning of the end for record stores. Record stores were absolutely wonderful places for people to discover music, and to hold and touch what they were thinking of buying. When that experience ended (and it ended fast…about six years of free fall with thousands of stores gone), it really murdered our sales. And then I was forced to be scared again, just like I was in the first years of the label. But it was fear without the excitement that I had at the beginning, because in the beginning I was figuring out how to create a label, and starting in 1999, I was just figuring out how to survive as a label. We’re now about half the size (dollar-wise) that we were in the 1990s, and have less releases (7-8 a year, down from 13-14) because the marketplace won’t support the releases that used to be slightly profitable…now they are guaranteed losses. So I can’t release a traditional blues record by a local or regional artist, because I can’t sell enough to break even. And our better-selling artists are selling half of what they were a decade ago. The overall industry has plunged to about 45% of the size it was in 1999, and that goes for Alligator too.
Maritime Vinyl - Vinyl records have been making a comeback recently. A lot of musicians and labels put out albums on vinyl these days because it's the cool thing to do, and it helps sales. Is it important for you to put out Alligator albums in vinyl format? Is the demand for vinyl high?
Bruce Iglauer - I grew up on vinyl and I’m very emotionally attached to the format, especially the packaging. I’m not as hooked on the sound of vinyl, because I know how much the music must be ‘bent’ to be put on a vinyl disc. In fact, a well-mastered CD (and there have been plenty of badly mastered ones) should sound truer to what we intended in the studio than a well-mastered vinyl LP. Vinyl junkies hate hearing me say that, of course. I like the warmth and midrange compression of vinyl, but I feel that these days we can get that same feel on a CD. Also, of course, CDs are portable and harder to break, and don’t have surface noise. But we’ve done almost all our vinyl in 180 gram, and I’ve been very personally involved in the mastering, so I think we are offering a top quality vinyl album to the fans who want it. And I admit that I love the substantial feel and ‘weight’ of an LP. It feels like something you’d want to keep. I have to say that a CD doesn’t have the same feel, and don’t get me started on compressed MP3 files. They are not only bad sounding (though better than in the past) but they shout “I’m disposable and have no real value.” The fact that so many of them are stolen or copied and acquired free makes them seem even more disposable.
We will certainly do some more vinyl releases, but very carefully chosen. The costs of gearing up for vinyl (primarily in reconstructing the covers and then printing relatively small numbers of them, as well as in manufacturing 180 gram LPs) make our breakevens for vinyl pretty high. There seems to be a sales ceiling for vinyl, or at least our vinyl releases, of 1000-1500 units. When your breakeven is 700-800 units (or more), it makes the decision to release in vinyl a tough one. We will release what we believe enough fans want. I hate to say it, but this has to be a business decision, not an emotional one. I’d love it if the vinyl market were large enough to release all our albums on LP, but it’s just not.
Maritime Vinyl - Seeing as you are the owner of a label that released some of the most sought after vinyl albums ever…
Bruce Iglauer - Really? Thanks!
Maritime Vinyl - …are you a vinyl collector? If so, do you only collect blues albums? Did you get caught up in the CD craze with the rest of the world or did you stick with vinyl?
Bruce Iglauer - I buy new music on CD (not downloads) and I own thousands of CDs. And I buy mostly blues or roots music. BUT….I also have never given away or sold my vinyl albums, and I own thousands of them too. I recently had my turntable refurbished and I’m about to buy a new amp. The experience of sitting in my living room and enjoying an album played on speakers is very different from my CD listening (mostly headphones). It’s often a social experience, sharing music with friends, rather than a solitary one, which much of my CD listening is. And the 20-25 minute LP side is the right length of music to keep concentrating on. After 20 minutes or so, I begin to listen with less focus. I think that’s true for most people. So side length is another thing I like about vinyl. But I also travel a lot, and CDs are a very portable format. I can’t buy music that I can only listen to at home.
*** I would like to thank Bruce for taking the time to do this interview. This was very special for me as stories like Bruce’s, whose entire life revolved around albums, is what I thrive to hear.
The way he believed in Hound Dog Taylor so much that he would invest practically everything he had to release his album, this is just insane dedication. A lot of people will start a successful business and just blend into the background; however, Bruce is still right in the studio producing albums by the artists that he believes in so much.
It makes me a little sad of how Bruce said that the industry is basically only half of what it once was, but the fact that people like him learn to adapt and still work to release the albums they believe in so much, this is truly love for albums!
Marc Lipkin. "The Alligator Story." Alligator Records, Chicago Illinois (catalog) 2012: 16-17.
The Alligator Records Story. (2013). Retrieved January 2, 2013, from http://www.alligator.com/about-us/