POSTED ON FEBRUARY 2, 2011:
Oklahoma's red-dirt darlings land a record deal after a chance encounter
Used to be, the Red Dirt Rangers were like every other country band out there -- chasing the Holy Grail of a Nashville record deal.
But the longer they were in the music business, and the more they got to know about it, the less appealing that prospect became. Most deals with major labels -- especially those for new artists -- were so one sided, the Rangers figured they could do better financing, producing and distributing their recordings themselves. Somewhere along the way, they essentially gave up on the idea of signing with a major label, or even an independent, and decided to go it alone.
It would be hard to argue with the wisdom of that decision. The band -- which has been together more than 20 years, helping found the red-dirt sound that has become its own small but well-represented genre -- has done pretty well for itself, carving out a long career as one of the state's most beloved bands.
For core members John Cooper, Ben Han and Brad Piccolo, that was certainly enough. So Cooper was more than a little skeptical when a woman named Brenda Cline, identifying herself as an executive with a Nashville-based record label, called him last summer and asked for a meeting. The Rangers had been down that road with slick-talking Music Row types before, Cooper said, and they never liked what they heard.
Cline, the general manager and director of A&R for the independent Luna Chica Records, recalled that Cooper did little to hide his cynicism.
"He didn't sound very interested in meeting with me, basically," she said. "He told me he'd have to work me in. He said, 'Honestly, I'm really busy running errands, and I'll only have a few minutes.' "
Cooper opened the meeting, she said, by quickly explaining that he was not very impressed with the music industry.
"I think I caught him off guard when I said, 'Neither am I,' " said Cline, a Tulsa native who had learned about the band from her friend John Wooley, a longtime Tulsa World entertainment writer who also has authored a number of books and screenplays.
Cline laughs when she tells that story now, remembering how that five-minute courtesy meeting turned into a conversation that lasted more than an hour. Cline managed to change Cooper's mind about herself and her company, and last week, Luna Chica announced it had signed the veteran Oklahoma band, signaling the start of an exciting new chapter in the Rangers' story at a time when most groups are winding down.
The irony of the situation certainly isn't lost on Cooper.
"I never thought the words 'We signed a deal with a Nashville label' would ever be coming off my lips," he said, laughing.
Especially now, with Cooper, Piccolo and Han well past an age at which conventional music industry wisdom would hold that they are very marketable.
"Isn't that amazing?" Cooper asked. "It's taken 20 years. The business had to change. We weren't going to change."
Cline said Luna Chica Records certainly doesn't consider itself a traditional record company, nor is it a part of the Nashville establishment, which continues to churn out "stars" barely out of middle school, it seems. To her, the age of the respective Rangers isn't important, only their music.
"The music industry, it's unbelievable how it's changed," she said. "It's under so much pressure, and it's so unnerved by the power of the Internet. But we look at it as an opportunity. I've always believed music should not be judged on age or whether you're mainstream.
"If 25 is over the hill, that blows my mind," she said. "Our goal is to seek out unique talent, like labels used to do. Obviously, the Red Dirt Rangers fit into that."
The Rangers' deal with Luna Chica appears to bear little resemblance to a standard recording contract. Cooper said the band will finance its own recordings, and Luna Chica will market and distribute the music worldwide via the Internet for download. The company's strong emphasis on selling music digitally, rather than via compact disc or other traditional media, is a big part of what changed Cooper's mind, he said.
"They're looking at the future of how music will get out to people," he said. "They believe, and we believe, that it will be through digital media, through the Internet, through downloads.
"The traditional way the music business has been done is a dying model," he said. "That's why country music and rock 'n' roll are suffering so much. [The major labels] had it their way so long, they don't want anything to change. Now, in Nashville, the old labels are desperately trying to catch up, but they're behind the 8 ball."
The specifics of the deal also appealed to the Rangers, he said, explaining that it's a non-exclusive contract -- meaning the band is free to see additional arrangements with other companies if it desires -- and Luna Chica takes a percentage only of the business it generates. That's a sharp contrast to the so-called "360" deals that are now common in Nashville, in which the label takes a percentage of all income generated by a band -- record sales, merchandise, publishing and live performances.
Cooper doesn't disguise his contempt for such deals.
"That's why nobody signs with 'em anymore," he said of the major labels. "Screw those guys, man. That's a really fucked-up way of doing business."
As for Luna Chica, he said, "The only time they get money is when they generate a sale."
The deal already appears to be paying dividends for the Rangers. The label has been promoting their most recent release, 2007's "Ranger Motel," to a worldwide audience, and fans have responded. The album quickly rose to No. 1 on AirPlay Direct's Top 50 Americana/AAA Albums Chart in December and retained that spot into January. Cline said she's heard from stations from College Station, Texas, to Melbourne, Australia, that have added the disc to their playlist.
"They were able to take an old record and do that," Cooper said. "We weren't able to get it out there ourselves. For us to push a record, we just don't have the time or money. Now, with the playing field being leveled, an old record becomes a new record."
Cline said the Rangers' music appealed to her for a number of reasons.
"How uniquely different it was," she said, describing what she was struck by the first time she heard the band. "Obviously, they're doing something right. And I personally enjoy it. We're not signing acts because we believe it's what people want to hear. We want to put our hearts in it. There is no way to describe their music, and that is exactly what I like about it."
Soon, the label will have a fresh Rangers product to push. The group is recording its new disc now at producer Steve Ripley's studio on his farm near Pawnee, and Cooper promises it will be unlike anything Rangers fans have heard before.
"Ripley said he wants to make a record record, kind of like a Beatles record," he said, adding that he, Piccolo and Han will play most of the instruments themselves, everything from sitar to piano, even glasses of water.
With a working title of "Lone Chimney" -- the small community near Stillwater where Cooper and Piccolo have built homes -- the project is scheduled for release by summer.
Cline said Luna Chica tries to build a partnership with its roster of artists, an idea Cooper said he was more than willing to embrace.
"The reason they were really after us is because of our independence," he said, noting that the band always has been responsible for all facets of its career but is now eager to have some help in that regard. "It's definitely a hard way to go, but that's the way we've done it."
Cline was especially impressed with the band's large and loyal following.
"They've got a fan base they've been building for 20 years," she said. "Why should anybody dictate to them that their career is over? Their career is just beginning."
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