Maggie Sansone is a fine hammered dulcimer and also the powerhouse behind acclaimed artist-oriented independent label Maggie's Music.
Hi Everyone. The Thistle & Shamrock, my favorite Celtic music show, has asked me to offer a perspective on the music biz from my double vantage point as a musician and record label owner. This is a quite a challenge because the music world is in dramatic flux.
The story of my record label, Maggie's Music, provides a good mirror to all the changes.
Music has always been a big part of my life. I started piano at the age of 8 and over the years kept learning new instruments including guitar, mandolin, hammered dulcimer and Northumbrian small-pipes. I heard my first Irish music in Baltimore, Maryland and was hooked!
Soon I was playing Celtic music on my hammered dulcimer at local pubs, at festivals and busking on the streets of San Francisco, and when people stopped to listen, they would ask if I had any recordings to sell. I got into the music business much later -- in the early 1980s. So I went home and set up microphones in my kitchen/living room.
I made my first recording - a cassette tape in 1984 - and it sold very well. New Age and Celtic music was in, and I knew that my recordings would fit into this new category. During my move back East from the West Coast, I would make the rounds at the "crafts and crystals" shops and sell my tapes direct to the owners. Word got out as the store owners were asking their own distributors about my music and in 1987, I got my first national distributor!
During this time, there were requests for Christmas music. I had to decide: Should I take a risk and make my next album in the new CD format? It's hard to imagine that a mere 20 years ago the CD was a new technology.
After settling in the Washington, D.C. area, I began playing with incredible musicians who lived in this area. I thought my small label would be more interesting and successful by introducing new musicians. First I signed Sue Richards, the Scottish harp champion. Sue and I also were members of the early music/Celtic group Ensemble Galilei and together we did a live concert album which did very well.
Sue brought in her woman's band, Ceoltoiri, with hammered dulcimer and flute player Karen Ashbrook and vocalist Connie McKenna. Three-time National Scottish fiddle champion Bonnie Rideout also lives in this area and would join us in concert and we were lucky to sign her as a solo artist. As a label, we were attracted to early music with an edge, and that brought us the fascinating D.C.-based group, Hesperus.
Maggie's Music label kept growing from the inside. Karen Ashbrook signed on as a solo artist and later brought in her husband, Belgian multi-instrumentalist Paul Oorts. We also signed guitarists Al Petteway (left) and Robin Bullock. Most recently, we recorded the City of Washington Pipe Band.
In August of 1999, the band won First Place in the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, Scotland. They were then promoted by the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association to Grade 1--one of only two American bands in the premier rank.
All our artists are very active locally and everyone on the label has won individual Wammies from WAMA (Washington Area Musicians Association). WAMA is an umbrella organization of Washington area musicians, concert promoters, lawyers, recording engineers, managers, graphic artists, and related businesses working together to address areas of common concern. Our label itself is a seven-time "Record Company of the Year" winner.
It's been very satisfying and fun, but an independent label has to be alert to the changes. I'm an active member of AFIM, the Association of Independent Music which helps us keep informed. I believe in Oprah Winfrey's definition of luck as "preparation meets opportunity."
The opportunities in the late '80s and '90s were clear: Celtic was "hot." Big Hollywood movies like Braveheart and Rob Roy, the smaller films like The Commitments and Trainspotters, the work of young Irish writers like Roddy Doyle, and the incredible success of Riverdance -- all this had a huge though complicated effect on our marketplace of independent music.
On the one hand, the music was popularized. On the downside, however, was this: the major labels got interested and started cannibalizing the independent catalogues to create licensed Celtic collections that flooded the market. This shifted attention away from the individual artists that small labels were working hard to develop.
For several years now, the market has been over-saturated with CDs. In 1985, annual releases were around 19,000 and currently it's 45,000. Recently someone at a major label told me, "Celtic is dead." Well, I thought, it's just as alive for us as it's ever been! Celtic music is not a fad. It's a rich tradition that never stops.
As a label, we are small enough to survive the ups and downs, and we have a very loyal fan base. We've moved the business to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay where my husband, an architect and a manager of Maggie's Music, has built our solar home next to the label offices. We work hard on our mail order business, and look for new ways to get our music out there -- from the little ma and pa shops to the big retail chain stores.
From tape to CD to digital -- what a journey! Recently we partnered with BMG special products to make a DVD, A Scottish Christmas featuring Bonnie Rideout.
Our best friends through all this has been the alternative network, public radio, alternative distribution and NPR shows like The Thistle & Shamrock.
Visit us at www.maggiesmusic.com, or call (410) 867-0642 to get a catalogue. Our address is Maggie's Music, PO Box 490, Shady Side, MD 20764. We'd like to hear from you!