Behind The Scene: Ben Harper and Mad Bunny Records

Dean Budnick on December 1, 2021
Behind The Scene: Ben Harper and Mad Bunny Records

Photo Credit: Jacob Boll

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“I had been thinking about starting a label off and on for years,” Ben Harper explains, as he chronicles the formation of Mad Bunny Records. Harper launched Mad Bunny in April 2020 with Beautiful Day Media’s Elizabeth Freund, who has worked as a publicist, producer and manager over the course of a career that began in the late ‘80s—her recent press campaigns include Ringo Starr, Paul Simon and Joe Walsh.

“As the landscape shifted and shape-shifted, which it’s still doing now, it became more and more apparent that it was something I wanted to do,” he continues. “Timing is everything, and the timing seemed right for Elizabeth and myself to jump in and give it a shot. Thanks to Elizabeth’s savviness when it comes to the music industry, coupled with who I am and what I’ve done in the business, it’s been an exciting prospect to see what this label can be.”

Harper brings his own perspective as a recording artist and producer to Mad Bunny. Since Virgin released his 1994 album Welcome to the Cruel World, Harper has recorded both as a solo performer and with the Innocent Criminals, Fistful of Mercy, Relentless7 and Charlie Musselwhite. He has also produced artists such as Mavis Staples, Grace Woodroofe, Rickie Lee Jones and Natalie Maines.

Following Mad Bunny’s debut release from the poet/ performance artist Birdthrower, the label has issued studio recordings by Americana space-rock collective The Cush and, most recently, Bruce Bishop’s jazz guitar trios project featuring Stanley Clarke, Stewart Copeland, Jesse Ingalls and Jimmy Paxson.

The varied roster reflects Harper’s wide-ranging goals for the label. As he explains, “I love music. I love everything about it—writing it, recording it and producing it. I love reaching out and giving someone like Jack Johnson an opening gig when no one else has heard of him. I also experienced the other side of that when Pearl Jam gave me an opening gig when no one had heard of me. I think that the record company is an extension of that. It’s an extension of the passion Elizabeth and I have for music—exploring music and exposing new music to people. In doing so, we’re looking for a modern business model and we’re having a really enjoyable, interesting time trying to find it.”

What was your first major surprise as you set down this path with Mad Bunny?

To begin with, I was amazed at how much traction the announcement received. That was, in its own way, informative. There was a certain enthusiasm and excitement around its potential. We’re still knee-deep in potential, but I did love the feedback that came from that announcement.

What else has surprised me? It’s a very clear picture—from the perspective of owning a label—that different genres have different metrics for what defines success. So before we start a campaign for an artist, we talk about realistic expectations. It’s a business that’s based on dreams yet it also commands realistic expectations to arrive at those dreams.

I’ve seen that and felt that from an artist perspective, but I have never had to hold another artist’s version of that in my hand before. That has been new and unique because I feel like it’s an exciting time in the music business, and I don’t want to miss out on it as an artist or as someone who’s running a label. I want to be there when this industry arrives at whatever’s next. I feel like the industry is in a state of flux. I want to see where everything lands when it comes to streaming and these different platforms and the possibility of artists getting a fair shake of that lump sum. I would like to be there when it does sort of resolidify.

One way I’ve started to explore the metrics of streaming is to start releasing my own music on Mad Bunny. [In July, the label issued “Spin It Faster,” a single teaming Harper with Ziggy Marley.] Don’t get me wrong, I’m currently with Anti- and I love the dynamic I have, especially with Andy [Kaulkin]. We have a very special relationship. But I also needed to put out something on my own to see how the financial component of the streaming business works. How does this money end up filtering back? Why is this amount for me and not for someone else? And why is that amount for someone else and not for me?

I’ll admit that, as I come to grips with this, I’m a little intimidated by the lack of independent internet promotion. I think there’s a lot of room to grow there. I want to learn how playlists work. I have a lot of questions: “Can you promote a playlist? Is there an independent way to promote a playlist?” So, I’m in school right now.

The Spotify model privileges singles rather than albums. As an artist, while you’ve created moving songs, your music is particularly rewarding in long form. So too, with Mad Bunny, you’ve made the commitment to release albums. Can you talk about that decision?

Well, we have to come up with a way. It’s my responsibility as a label owner, along with Elizabeth, to come up with a new way to establish a cottage industry. When I was coming up, there was a cottage industry. You could go to college radio stations, you could play the AAA [radio] conventions that mattered. You could be on the fringes, setting up onstage on the outskirts of SXSW. You could play college coffee houses, you could play Tower Records, you could play Virgin Records, you could do in-stores at the mom-and[1]pop shops.

AAA was different. I mean, AAA is just kind of adult pop now, but AAA used to be like non-comm is now. Between the non-comms, the indie stations and the college radio stations, all these radio stations used to take chances when I was coming up. It’s not just that radio programmers were as passionate about music as the musicians, but they also had autonomy in a way that you rarely see today. If you would sit out at the back door of radio station with your CD, then you might even get on the air.

So between the places that you could play and radio stations taking more chances, you had a bona fide shot back then, no matter who you were. I mean, Morphine was all over the radio: Mark Sandman with a two-string bass, a sax player and a drummer was one of the greatest sounds out of my generation. I don’t know if that could happen now.

Back then, between the indie record stores, Virgin and Tower Records, you could also get a gig at a local bar and fill a couple of hundred seats. You could build a cottage industry that way. It was fathomable that a Black dude with a lap steel, along with three other Black MFers, could open up for PJ Harvey and it would work. And it did work.

So how can we bring that back? Who knows, man? We may go down in a ball of flames but, in the meantime, we’re having a great time. And I feel like all things are possible.

You have such a diverse collection of artists on Mad Bunny. Did you ever consider focusing on artists whose music is more akin to your own, with the thought that they might benefit more directly by that association.

That was never a consideration for us. I don’t care if I have any artists that are musically connected to me or not. There is no genre requirement. The only prerequisite is that it’s music Elizabeth and I love. I want to sign hip-hop artists. I want to sign R&B artists. I want to sign metal bands.

I don’t want anyone to think they need to be a singer-songwriter to be on this label. All the music on A&M wasn’t connected to the music that Herb Alpert made. But it proceeded to be one of the great labels. So, that’s something to aim for. But, in saying that, I also realize how ridiculous I sound. It’s like saying, “I’d like to be The Beatles.” However, Herb was a musician who started a label that had numerous genres that weren’t his specific style.

I have no illusions of being a record mogul. However, there’s too much extraordinary music coming through my eardrums that’s is in need of a boost. It’s deserving of a platform.

You first encountered Birdthrower when he was literally crawling up the streets of Manhattan. How did The Cush come to your attention?

Elizabeth introduced me to The Cush. The Cush and Birdthrower were the entry points because they’re undeniably good. The songs are there, pound for pound, syllable for syllable. I had connected with Birdthrower and I brought that to the table. Elizabeth had connected with The Cush and brought them to the table. It took me all of 30 seconds of a song to get it.

We’ve been able to use Elizabeth’s incredible understanding of the media, and my reputation, to shine as bright a light as we can on this music that both of us are passionate about. And we’re having fun doing it. There is nothing better than the excitement of an artist when their vinyl arrives. Just knowing that vinyl is on its way to The Cush is wonderful. Again, it’s about managing expectations while simultaneously keeping your dream alive. I will say as both an artist and as a label head, that’s the toughest thing in the creative world to do.

Bruce Bishop and Ben Harper in the studio

Mad Bunny is also releasing an album you produced for Bruce Bishop. Since you’ve known him for so long, that must carry additional resonance for you.

Growing up, Bruce was one of the guys who could just sit out on any street corner and people would form a crowd around him. Like Joe Pass, John Collins and Al Viola, he’s one of those rare guitar players who has a very unique relationship with his instrument, and you can feel it when you’re in front of him. His relationship with every note is specific. And he helped me in my early days. He was one of the rare guys in my community who had a recording studio. He taught me about overdubbing and multi[1]tracking and producing; he had an open-door policy with me and my music.

Even though Bruce and I played completely different styles, he recognized that I had something to contribute. That meant the world to me in the beginning because I felt that, if someone who was a hero of mine was into what I was doing, then I was doing something right. He was a signpost as to where I could possibly go with my music.

So for me to be able to come full circle and connect him with Stanley and Stewart—I mean, come on! Stanley and Stewart are my friends, but you can’t hire them to do sessions. I played them Bruce’s music and they were like, “We get it. Let’s go.” It was a wonderful experience. One thing I will say about producing is that it’s like reading. Just as reading makes you a better writer, producing makes you a better musician.

Looking ahead, what’s next for Mad Bunny?

We have a wonderful artist, Jake Etheridge, who is out of Nashville. He has it all. He’s a songwriter, a guitar player, a singer and an all-around great guy. Elizabeth introduced me to him, and I got it right away.

Jake and I have already had so many conversations. We text back and forth regularly. Communication is a huge part of every business but it is especially important— in this day and age—in the music business.

Jake has the whole world in front of him. It’s one thing for an artist to have the world in front them, but it’s another thing to be the architect for that world. I take that very seriously and I let him know that. There’s a heightened level of communication and transparency to the way that Mad Bunny is trying to operate.

What’s great about Mad Bunny is that it’s passion for the arts first, business second. This is much more than a business for us, and I think our artists can feel that.