David Katznelson – producer, label executive, and blues fan – may be the last true visionary left in the music industry. He got his start in the biz as a teenager, hanging up posters and ushering for Bill Graham's Fillmore club. He was a DJ for San Francisco radio station KUSF-FM before working with Bay area bands like the Avengers for indie label CD Presents, which in turn led to an internship with Warner Music.
Katznelson rose up through the ranks at Warner Brothers where, as an A&R executive, he discovered the Flaming Lips and worked with artists like Nick Cave and Doug Sahm and the Texas Tornados.
Currently, Katznelson is the guiding force behind the indie-rock label Birdman Records, which has released albums from bands like Howlin Rain, the Modey Lemon, and the Warlocks, among other garage, psychedelic, and blues-rock bands. Katznelson's latest flight of fancy is The Cotton Exchange, a true multi-media concept that looks to the future by remembering the past. "The Cotton Exchange is two things," says Katznelson, "it’s a weekly radio show on KUSF-In-Exile on Sunday nights and the other thing is – and this is the main part of it – it is a celebration of the recorded blues. With the rise of the Internet and the rise of file trading, we feel that music in general has been kind of disempowered and made to be kind of a secondary thing to social networking…and where I live, that is completely the opposite.
I’m a record collector, I truly love music; my entire life has been around celebrating music, turning my friends on to music."
The Cotton Exchange
To this end, The Cotton Exchange is also a quarterly subscription service, a sharing of great blues music that has often been lost or overlooked. Says Katznelson, "The Cotton Exchange is a celebration of the recorded blues in a box; when you open it up, it’s not just the music, it’s the vinyl, which is such a great thing. It sounds terrific." Every three months, subscribers receive a pair of classic blues reissues in the mail, on glorious 180-gram vinyl, no less. "It’s really very painstakingly reissued or compiled and not only that, but with the exclusive liner notes and with the ephemera, what we’re trying to do is make people have an amazing blues party at their house, the day the box comes to their doorstep." Subscriptions cost $100 a year, for which fans receive eight vinyl albums – two each quarter – postpaid, a steal at $12.50 per disc.
Many blues purists (and more than a few collectors) feel that vinyl is the native format for blues music. "It really is," Katznelson agrees. "It’s interesting because...I’m always the first person to say I’m not a scholar on the subject because there are people out there who spend their entire lives delving into minutiae. As I’m told, by the time the blues was even recorded for the first time, it was already somewhat of an outdated mechanism, or more of a revival, I should say." The Cotton Exchange rescues albums that have been out of print for years, generally unavailable, or previously unreleased, reissuing the music on high-quality vinyl.
Exclusive LP Liner Notes
Every album reissued through The Cotton Exchange is accompanied by a small pamphlet crammed with liner notes, an idea prompted by Katznelson's work with his Sutro Park Records label. "I had been reissuing a bunch of records," says Katznelson, "and really finding myself focusing a lot on the blues. It’s a lot of what I’ve been listening to...and doing the blues radio show and just talking to a lot of people. The amazing thing is, with the blues radio show every week, I have people who are guest DJ’s, and a lot of them aren’t necessarily blues aficionados. But every one of them has stories that just blow your mind, stories that you’ve never heard anywhere else because it was that one particular blues artist and that one particular time and they had this one quick conversation that kind of revealed something."
This revelation, that a lot of music fans had a blues story to tell, led directly to the embellishment of releases by The Cotton Exchange with stories and notes written by musicians, journalists, and enthusiasts like Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars, Tim DeLaughter of the Polyphonic Spree, and Ben Greenman of McSweeney's. "I realized that if I could create something where I get voices that are either known by people," he says, "or by people who love the blues, and have them talk about this wonderful music, it could increase the experience of getting these records. It just seemed like a really cool thing to do." These literary bonuses that come with every Cotton Exchange album are designed by Katznelson's wife, artist Barbara Bersche, the former President of McSweeney's Publishing. "She really helps me with the reissues," he says, "she helps me put them all back together."
Sutro Park Records
Katznelson launched the Sutro Park label three years ago. "I had just gotten a deal for three Sandy Bull records, I did vinyl reissues on them," he says. "I was not sure if I would be able to get them on one of my labels, because we had a huge box set that we were working on called Alan Lomax In Haiti. I offered them to a friend of mine who's the biggest vinyl re-issuer on the planet, and he said 'I know you have a lot of ideas, why don’t you and I get together and talk about you starting your own reissue label and we’ll work on it together.' That’s how Sutro Park started. He’s right, I do have more and more ideas for reissues, and it’s a very exciting thing for me."
To date, Sutro Park has reissued an eclectic selection of music, from guitarist Bull and jazz legend Sun Ra to rockers Mudhoney and the Electric Prunes as well as blues artists like Blind Willie McTell, Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside, among others. But The Cotton Exchange is not strictly an outlet for Sutro Park vinyl releases. "In fact, we’re talking to other labels that do a lot of amazing reissues," says Katznelson. "Sutro Park just did a record with Mississippi Records. In my opinion it’s the greatest of all these labels as far as reissuing these amazing, amazing blues recordings and compiling some of the greatest blues compilations today. Mississippi Records could definitely be a partner in The Cotton Exchange. I want my audience to get the best of what’s out there, and if it’s not on Sutro Park, I’m fine with that."
The Selection Process
Katznelson puts a lot of thought into choosing the albums that The Cotton Exchange offers to its subscribers. "It’s based on the blues musician in question," he says, "so far, we haven’t put anything on The Cotton Exchange that’s been out in reissue land for a long period of time; I don’t want my subscribers to already own it. You’re not going to see a Robert Johnson record going to The Cotton Exchange any time soon because all the recordings have been reissued many times on CD and vinyl."
Since the service releases two albums a quarter, it enables Katznelson to pair a "name" artist with an album that "maybe would have gotten lost in the shuffle." For example, the first quarter of 2012 offered a classic Rev. Gary Davis album along with Traveling Through The Jungle, a fife and drum album featuring artists like Otha Turner, Ephram Carter, and others that, in Katznelson's words, is "not an obvious choice for anybody. It truly is a classic, a genius record." The August 2012 release features classic albums from Jessie Mae Hemphill and Skip James. "You’re getting eight records a year," says Katznelson, "and even though our prices are dirt cheap, you still want subscribers thinking each one of those records is a gem. I’m sure that some records will resonate with some people more than others – that’s just the way it works in the world – but we want them to be glad that they got to experience the music."
Katznelson's Favorite Blues
As stated above, David Katznelson is, first and foremost, a blues music fan…but what is his favorite blues music? "If you’ve read our liner notes in our pamphlets," he says, "it becomes quite apparent that I’m a huge Hill Country fan. I’ve spent a lot of time there. I was lucky enough to meet [Otha] Turner, who I put out on Birdman. I love that repetitious, groovy sound. I love R.L. Burnside. I love Junior Kimbrough. I love Jessie Mae Hemphill. Then you go out one level and you get Fred McDowell, although Fred McDowell could be in the middle of the whole thing. I love Bukka White; I love when he decides to ramble and does a seven-minute song with just the most amazing stories."
"There is a record that we’ll be putting out in the next year that I recorded a couple of years ago with R.L. Boyd, who I think takes Bukka’s way of talking and conversing and adds to it more real traditional Hill Country stuff," he says, "and it’s a pretty great record. We’ll be putting that out and that’ll probably be the first time that The Cotton Exchange put something out that is a new recording." Katznelson's tastes run beyond Hill Country blues to classics "like Lightning Hopkins and John Lee Hooker...I love Howlin’ Wolf. I just love the blues," he adds, laughing.
Check out The Cotton Exchange website for more information on the service and future album releases.