It is a radical idea to start a record label in the music industry these days, but that didn’t stop Mark Hodges from building his own label and recording studio. He is the founder and CEO of Mountain Fever Records, a bluegrass label, that has been awarded the Clyde Puckett Award for audio engineering excellence three times. In 2014, Hodges decided to branch out from the bluegrass boundaries by creating a new Americana label called Travianna Records.
Hodges gave the following interview to Olivia Del Valle on Sept. 26, 2016.
[Edited for content]
Where did your love of music originate?
I guess it was family. We’d get together on weekends and hold family ensembles. My family played music and sang. In church my grandfather was a Primitive Baptist preacher, and you’ve got the three- and four-part harmonies going in that church all the time. He actually taught shape-note singing and would ride his horse after church to other churches and teach the children shape-note singing. So, it’s in my blood.
What enticed you to enter the music industry and what kept you involved?
Well, this is going to be a long answer.
Even as a kid, I would take apart radios and walkie-talkies, make microphones out of speakers and just try to record. I would have two tape-decks — sing into one and harmonize in the other — and just play around, not really knowing what I was doing, just for fun. I guess that was always in the back of my mind, but then school, family, kids, and baseball and all that goes. My sons went away to college and I had nothing to do, so one of my friends from high school says: “We’re getting the band back together! So, let’s get together; I’ve already bought a P8.” And I said, “I was never in your band.” [Laughs.] He said, “That’s okay; come on down anyway!” I was just their friend. The guitar player that was in the band in the old days didn’t always show up, so they called me to fill in. I ended up playing with these guys in the band when I was 40, and it was fun. It filled up the empty-nest thing we all had going on. I set up a room in my house for us to practice in, but we didn’t have ambitions of playing out; it was just camaraderie. We would just play music, talk about our blood pressure levels and cholesterol, and our wives would sit downstairs and giggle all the time; perfect weekend, right? [Laughs.] So, I bought a 4-track recorder to start recording us — but I hated that thing — so I bought an 8-track mini-disk recorder, and that was cool, but then the drummer wanted 8-tracks for himself; that’s the way drummers are. So, I got a 16-track recorder and people heard what I recorded, and they wanted to come here and record. Suddenly, the 16-track just became burned, so I went full-blown, called Sweetwater and ordered all of this equipment, and next thing you know I’ve got a recording studio upstairs. People came here from all over the country that I didn’t know. My then-wife would get up in the middle of the night to see strangers going through the refrigerator in our kitchen. Meanwhile I’m upstairs working, and when you think about it, it’s kind of weird. I said, “Why don’t you just let me put up a building to do this in?” And she said, “I wish you would.” Bad words to say to me — five days later, I had a bulldozer here levelling out the spot where the studio is now. Then my dad, my sons and I built a recording studio, and the rest is history!
You are not only the CEO and founder of Mountain Fever Records, you are also the A&R representative, producer and sound engineer, for which you’ve won the Clyde Puckett Award three times. How do you balance all of these tasks?
I started out doing it all. I was the engineer, the mixing engineer and I fumbled through mastering. It’s because of the location. Most of the clientele at the beginning that I worked with were dirt poor. They couldn’t afford a graphic artist, so I would do the CD covers. We ended up buying all the equipment and building a CD plant in the office. We’d make a hundred CDs at a time. We did it all, start to finish, right here. That worked until we started the record label, and then things got really serious. It went from being fun to lots of pressure. There’s this one little gospel band, locally, that I thought the world of, and they didn’t have any money to make a CD. They were really good and people loved them, so I made them a deal. They came in, cut a record and that was really the first thing we released nationally. I had no idea what I was doing. My first press release that I sent out, the DJs just bashed me because I misspelled two of the icons in the bluegrass industry. So, I kind of hit the wall right out of the gate. Then somebody else wanted to be on the label, so I signed a band from Mississippi, two bands from North Carolina, and it just kept growing. Somebody would call me saying we could make a record, and two weeks later we’re releasing it on iTunes. You can’t do that now. It takes months of planning to do it right.
When bands come in for a major-label project, it takes at least five days of 16 grueling hours of work, but we tag-team and trade-off to keep the intensity level there. There’s something about this place that lets them relax. There’s not a lot of neon here to keep them all pumped up. It’s pretty easy around here, but then you have to get the graphic artist or the photographer and wait on his stuff. You need to give your distributer a good two months to promote the records. iTunes is the music capitol of the world, so you have to suck up to them to get the right placement. If you can get your song placed beside Carrie Underwood, you’re going to double your sales within the first week just because it’s on page one instead of page two of the new releases.
In 2014, you launched the Travianna Record Label. What was your thought process behind creating this label, and how are the objectives of the Travianna label different from those of Mountain Fever?
I spent four years building a relationship with bluegrass DJs. I was always told that I was supposed to tell the DJs what I wanted them to play, but I didn’t do that. I gave them my music, asked them to listen to it and play what they liked. They liked that. By me not telling them what to play, we built a great relationship; we support their fundraisers and all of that. When I wanted to do music that was outside of the regular bluegrass box, I didn’t want to lose their trust. I wanted the Mountain Fever brand to always be something they knew they could play. So, here comes Travianna records with the motto: “Music… No Boundaries.” If I want to throw a tuba in the middle of a banjo break, I can do that. We are trying to use the same business model for that label. The Americana radio isn’t quite adjusted to us yet. They want us to tell them what day to start playing each song. In Americana, there are a thousand new bands a week — a huge genre that covers so many sub-categories. When you’re trying to chart, it’s a battle, but we had two of them chart in the top 50, so that’s a pretty good start. In bluegrass this past week, we had six of the top 20 singles, which I’m very proud of, but it takes a lot of work.
What excites you when signing a new artist or band, and how do you shape that talent to fit the standards of the Mountain Fever label?
[Gestures toward a stack of mail on the table.] Well, here’s everything from last week. I get mp3s and grandmothers calling me saying, “You’ve got to see my grandson’s band!” We always keep our eyes open for both labels. Because of the success we’ve had on the bluegrass side, it hinders me from signing some bands that I would love to. I’m always going to do one project a year that I know is not going to work out, that no other label in their right mind is going to do, but I want to. I call it my Christmas bonus. With Travianna, we are building the foundation slowly and trying to develop the relationships that we have in bluegrass on the Americana side.
How important is it to you that an artist signing with your label sticks to the bluegrass genre?
I just want somebody that has a good work ethic and can convey the emotion of the song to the audience. Stage presence is huge. They’ve got to have some kind of connection with the audience. They have to know that just because they sign with a record label, it’s not going to get easier; it’s going to get harder because 10,000 other bands instantly hate them. But it’s the music business — a dirty, rotten, back-stabbing, nasty business.
What have been some of the obstacles of creating a record label from scratch, and what are some lessons you’ve learned?
Well, I thought that not knowing what I was doing would be my downfall. I had no experience in the music business; I had no idea what I was doing. I had to fight and scratch to get mailing lists and all that stuff. That turned out to be the best thing. The music industry was in the middle of change with the Digital Age coming in; you couldn’t find a turntable on the planet. Tape decks to record on were difficult to find with CD plants that made them closing. The Digital Age had entered, and everyone started thinking they could record on a 4-track and make a hit record. You still can’t to this day — make a hit record in your basement. But by not knowing what I was doing, I wasn’t afraid to try something radical and different. While everybody else doesn’t know what to do, I’m watching what they’re screwing up on, and I’m not doing that. By being the king’s fool, it made it easier. Maybe it was luck, maybe it was fate, maybe it was blessings from God, or all of the above.
How do you think your record label differentiates from others in the bluegrass/folk genre of the music industry?
We are a lot less flashy. What we do is real, and we don’t use autotune. You won’t hear the bendy-jerky thing on vocals that you hear on the radio. If they can’t sing they shouldn’t be here, or they should be a star in the Americana world; pitch isn’t really required there, it’s the emotion. In bluegrass you have to be dead-on, and your timing has to be perfect. We still reserve the right to bend those rules if we want to. We get enough respect now to bend the rules a little bit, but if it gets too crazy, it goes on Travianna.
For what reason would you decide to bend the rules?
For the song, everything’s for the sake of the song. It all starts with a great song, and if it is great, it lasts beyond all obstacles. That’s another thing we’ve been blessed with. We’ve been getting songs sent to us by some of the best songwriters in the world. I guess we got their attention somewhere along the way. I’m still honestly amazed when people know who I am.
What platforms do you utilize to promote your label, and how has the rise in social media helped your label?
Social media is the center-point for promotion — right behind iTunes and Amazon. Those special promotions that you can land from time to time are the most important as far as who sees what. You’ve got to have a good distributor behind you to get that because you can’t call iTunes and say, “Look, can I have the front page?” They won’t even answer your call. Large distributors can do that for you, but they’re really picky about who they take. Another turning point for the label was acquiring the publicist that I have in Nashville, named Kimberly Williams, who is the top publicist in the business. That gave me instant credibility and got me into doors that I couldn’t get in without her. I also now, with Travianna, have a publicist in Utah who helps with marketing. If you want to move up and get good reviews, which are great free advertising, you need somebody who can get a press release read. A good publicist can make or break a record label.
What is your perspective on the music industry today, and how have you seen the industry change since you began working in it?
There’s more smoke and mirrors — less talent and more ambition. Because of the Digital Age, you can cheat. You can put a bad musician in time, you can tune their guitar or even one string on a guitar, you can tune their vocals, and you can make a drummer play in time with everyone else with just the click of a few buttons. So much of what you hear is fake. With press releases, you are going to build somebody up bigger than they are. That’s the entertainment industry. A lot of these people performing live can’t get close to what’s on their records, and it’s a huge disappointment. If they suck, nobody tells them; it’s painful to hear. This society of you-can-do-anything-you-want is wrong — you can’t. It’s great to have ambitions to do what you want to do, but if you can’t, you need to be smart enough to adjust to the facts. It sounds harsh and cruel, doesn’t it?
Do you have any advice for individuals interested in pursuing a career in the music industry?
Yes — don’t. [Laughs.]
Don’t trust anyone — ever — in the music industry. At the end of the day, you’ve got to believe what you see in person and not what you hear. This sounds cynical, but the music industry ruins good people sometimes. To be safe you have to take everything with a grain of salt. In the business side, it’s common practice in some labels and studios that they see you perform and say: “Why don’t you come to Nashville and make a record? If you come up with $50,000, we can make a great record.” Then later they say, “If we had $50,000, more to promote it…” And it’s a system set up so well that you’re paying them to make a record and get interviews that will not lead anywhere. You’ve got people’s souls in your hands. When you’re this far away from that Grammy and all you have to do is squash these two people under your heel, do you do it?
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve already said too much. [Laughs.]