May 7, 2015
Royal Potato Family
By Ken Waxman
Unintentionally, the family part of our name has become really important,” muses Kevin Calabro when discussing the Brooklyn-based Royal Potato Family (RPF) label he co-owns with Marco Benevento. Calabro, who handles day-to-day activities of the six-year-old imprint adds: “We see ourselves as a big extended family of artists. There’s an aesthetic thread running through all of the musicians on our label even if it’s not overly apparent when glancing at the catalog”. He’s correct, since among the 55 or so discs released by RPF are ones featuring Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey (JFJO), 6 String Drag and Grayson Capps. “We love rock, we love jazz, we love experimental stuff, we love old school country, blues and folk, we love New Orleans music, we love psych rock, so nothing is off limits musically if it resonates with us on a gut level,” Calabro, exhaults. The imprint’s unusual name came from the gut as well. Benevento heard the expression as part of a joke Bob Dylan told drummer Matt Chamberlain and began using it himself. When the label was launched and needed a name, it fit the bill. “Thankfully, it’s become enough of an institution at this point that people often just refer to it as RPF,” admits Calabro.
Calabro spent 10 years woking as publicist for legendary producer Joel Dorn at labels such as 32 Jazz, Label M and Hyena Records. Following Dorn’s death in 2007, “it felt like it was my responsibility to take that energy we shared and continue to push it forward,” he recalls. “I’ve never been good at working with music that I don’t care about on a really deep gut and spiritual level, so in many ways I had no choice, especially being that there was nobody else filling the label void for the artists and music I love”. Marco Benevento’s Me Not Me was RPF’s first release, while JFJO’s One Day in Brooklyn was its first “jazz” disc.
Calabro who also does music publicity and management, stresses that RPF has no full-time employees and no outside investors. “It’s scary to think that I’ve invested all of this money and may not ever make it back. But if you believe in what you’re doing, what other choice do you have?” He adds: “It’s an incredibly ridiculous endeavor from a business standpoint especially in this day and age when people steal music or get the entire history of recorded music for $9 a month on Spotify. But we have lots of incredible artists we call friends and if they have a record we love and can help expose to a potentially bigger audience, we’ll usually dive in.”
RPF doesn’t organize sessions. “To date, we haven’t put artists in the studio. The artists pay for making their own records and we’re handed the finished master,” elaborates Calabro. “But our artist deals are structured to reflect that concept. It isn’t an old school model where the artist recoups 13% or whatever. In fact, once recouped, the artist collects a higher percentage than the label. We’re also not A&R-ing records in the traditional sense. We’ll make suggestions if we feel strongly about something, but our artists have 100% creative control.” Additionally every deal in a one/off, although there are musicians such as JFJO, featuring pianist Brian Haas, which have released several discs via RPF and have several more in the works.
“RPF and its stable of artists have become our family within the business,” declares Haas. “Music industry types are always shucking and jiving, lying and trying to get artists to fit into some mold in order to ‘monetize the music’. Calabro puts the music first and then figures out creative ways to fit the music into the capitalism, not the other way around.” Although JFJO had recorded for RPF, when Haas and Chamberlain recorded Frames, they shopped it to other labels that “expressed interest”. “What a joke, I don't even think they listened to more than the first track,” Haas recalls. “People who are making something new are scary to industry types. Kevin was cool about us reaching out to other labels because he wants what’s best for his artists. We put Frames out with RPF and it sold well.”
RPF releases discs in all formats. “In our first two or three years we didn’t do as much vinyl, but as that market has grown, we’ve putting everything out in that medium,” Calabro notes. “But pressing vinyl is extremely expensive and being that we’re working with artists who by and large have niche audiences, we’ve had to accept that it’s usually a loss leader. As for what sells better, it depends on the artist. Artists who have older audiences still sell more CDs. But an artist like DRKWAV with John Medeski, Skerik and Adam Deitch will sell just as many if not more LPs than CDs.”
“I love that RPF does vinyl and CDs. I don't know many labels that release stuff in both media at once, but people still want both,” says trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, whose Arms & Hands session has just come out on RPF. “I think RPF is an outstanding label with a wide scope. The art and aesthetic of the label is really strong as well; everything looks great. I first heard about it through playing in Allison Millers band Boom tic Boom. I was very happy Kevin wanted to work with me on Arms and Hands. Sometimes label people are very hard to get a hold of and things are late with no explanation. But Kevin is always available to talk about what’s happening with the record and it comes out when he says it’s going to.”
RPF has so far issued one DVD of Benevento’s 2008 Sullivan Hall residency. It also markets artist-specific posters and t-shrts. “If I had time to develop more of these items I would,” states Calabro, “there are some pretty loyal fans of both the label and the artists. Not to mention lots of people don’t buy music anymore. They go to Spotify or steal it off the internet. If that’s the way they roll, maybe they’ll support us by buying a poster or t-shirt.” Besides the merch, RPF has just put the first new album from 6 String Drag in 17 years plus a vinyl reissue of Grayson Capps’ debut album. Later in 2015 there will be new discs from Haas-Chamberlain, Miller, Superhuman Happiness plus a Benevento 45.
“Nothing about the label is overly planned,” declares Calabro. “We started with one release and have kept blindly pushing forward. In my mind Royal Potato Family was a success from the first release. I had no idea if we’d sell enough records to keep it going, but if I was going to put my energy into it, there was never a doubt that it would be a priority.”
—For The New York City Jazz Record May 2015