Appleseed Records harvests the fruits of passion and purpose

By  Lee Zimmerman

In the business world, commercial concerns and social awareness don’t always make the best of bedfellows.

But one company that offers an example of how the two goals can succeed in sync is Appleseed Records, an independent label that brands its music with a mission.

Based in West Chester, Pa., Appleseed was established in 1997 by attorney Jim Musselman, an activist, organizer and consumer advocate whose previous resume included an eight-year stint working with Ralph Nader.

Over the past decade, the company has accumulated a sizeable roster of leading folk icons — Pete Seeger (whom Musselman calls his mentor), Donovan, John Stewart, Eric Anderson, David Bromberg, Roger McGuinn, Al Stewart and Tom Paxton, to name but a few — as well an impressive catalogue of more than 80 offerings, plus five Grammy nominations to boot.

With Musselman at the helm, AppleseeDonovan 005.jpgd promotes a platform that gives a voice to a wide range of altruistic concerns through both its albums and a percentage of its profits, which are regularly shared with environmental, social and humanitarian organizations. The company’s catalogue includes special compilations that revive revered folk anthems, protest songs and traditional standards that speak to specific concerns.

One of Applesseed’s first efforts was a collection of Pete Seeger songs, Where Have All The Flowers Gone, a two-disc set featuring an illustrious array of guest stars, including Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. Two other similarly star-studded Seeger tributes followed. Recently, two new collections have been issued to celebrate the company’s 10th anniversary: an Appleseed sampler called Sowing The Seeds — The 10th Anniversary, which retraces the label’s roots; and Give Us Your Poor, a series of songs that find major players like Springsteen, Seeger, Natalie Merchant and Jon Bon Jovi teaming up with homeless musicians to raise awareness about the plight of those living in poverty and indigence.

Goldmine recently had the pleasure of speaking with Musselman about Appleseed’s  philosophy, philanthropy and future.
GOLDMINE: After tallying so many notable achievements in your work with Ralph Nader, what prompted you to give up a high profile successful social advocacy career, and presumably a law practice, to go into the music business?

JIM MUSSELMAN: Well, for me it was a natural progression, because I always felt that music could touch people in a way that other mediums cannot. Music changed my life, as it was exposure to the music of Bob Dylan that lead me to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and learning so much about life and a history that wasn’t taught in the history books. When I went to Northern Ireland and saw the war zone and the hatred… that’s when I decided to use music to build bridges between communities. I grew up collecting music and loved all types of music and saw that a lot of musicians who still had a lot to say were being ignored by the music industry, which is why I took the step.  

GM: Changing careers from consumer advocacy to managing a record company seems a pretty radical transition. Was there a steep learning curve?

Yes, it was a radical transition in many ways. I had some good mentors like Bob Feldman at Red House Records, who we hooked up with in the early days, and he helped me through many a minefield. My father is an artist and always taught me to be cre-act-ive not just creative, because you need the act after the idea. I came from an artistic family. I just use music to paint the pictures not a brush.

How did you come up with the name “Appleseed?”

JM: I liked the concept of Johnny Appleseed planting seeds and moving on to the next community to plant seeds. With music we like to plant the seeds, be it of peace or social justice, or with musicians, like what we did with Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions band. Pete Seeger had also had a column in Sing Out Magazine for years called “Appleseeds,” and I liked the concept. I talked to Pete before starting the label and we both liked that idea.

GM: How has the overall industry’s decline in record sales affected the label? Has that impacted your ability to deliver your socially conscious message?

With retail shrinking, there are less places to sell the project. I’ve tried to counteract that by trying to go where the people are, as opposed to just where the stores are. So we have a lot of CDs in museums, libraries, progressive catalogs and more. I still believe that the album concept shouldn’t be thrown away. In these days of ringtones and digital downloads, I want to start the “Save the Album” campaign. I feel the music industry is giving up on the album concept too fast. We tend to do projects around various issues and CDs that have themes and I think this is still important to do. Our catalog will also be available on digital downloads…

How were you able to persuade the bigger name artists on your label — people like Donovan, Al Stewart, and Roger McGuinn — artists with a history of having big hits and wide recognition — to go with your new — and early on, unproven — indie label?

JM: Many of the artists you named had become disillusioned with the music industry and I told them they have full creativity to do the CD they want to do, from the music to the artwork. We had approached Roger McGuinn with the idea of going to artists’ homes and recording folk songs with them and others. I’m proud of a recent CD by David Bromberg, Try Me One More Time, because David had not recorded for seventeen years and we persuaded him to release another CD. Donovan hadn’t done a CD in seven years when he did Beat Cafe, and he could have gone with a larger label, but he trusted us. I also only promised them what I could deliver — not any more or any less.

GM: How did you manage to convince some of these huge superstars — Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and the like — to participate in some of your compilations? Were there ever contractual difficulties?

JM: That took a lot of persistence at times. Bruce Springsteen had turned us down twice when we went back a third time. Bruce and his manager Jon Landau have always understood what we were doing and I’m proud that we have released four exclusive Bruce tracks over the years.

Many other artists, like Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, I have known through working with them on various social issues, and they knew our heart was in the right place. On our 10th Anniversary CD, Sowing the Seeds, I decided it might be good to have an “O. Henry”-like ending to Bruce’s “Seeger Sessions” chapter. So I had Pete recite Bruce’s song “Ghost of Tom Joad,” and I sent it to Bruce and Jon Landau. They liked the idea, and Bruce added vocals and guitar to the song.

GM: What is your criteria when you’re scouting for new acts for the label?

I like to sign acts who have something to say. Artists who know the power of words and also have some connection to the tradition of music and the roots of music. We signed Cordelia’s Dad a few years ago when they were a bunch of former punk rock musicians who did a folk-type CD. The lead singer, Tim Eriksen, did a few solo CDs for us and T Bone Burnett heard them and was blown away. He later featured Tim on the “Cold Mountain” Soundtrack.

You’re based in West Chester, Pa., not exactly the center of the
music biz.  It’s certainly not Nashville or Austin, much less New York or L.A.

JM: Yes, it is a challenge because most of the music is in L.A., Nashville and New York City. I go to New York a lot and I’m in the studios there a lot. I live here to be close to my daughter, Justine. In fact our first CD number was 1016 because her birthday is October 16th).  Many people ask us where our first 1,015 CD’s are.

GM: Part of your mission is to educate — but being in the music biz, one presumes it’s also about entertaining. How did you come up with the idea of integrating education with entertainment?

JM: We try to make CDs that are fun and entertaining. Like having actor Tim Robbins make his recording debut by singing on the first Seeger tribute CD. Or integrating folk music with rap music and having Wyclef Jean together with Eric Andersen on Eric’s CD celebrating the Greenwich Village writers.

GM: The music business is very fickle — how does Appleseed manage to keep and cultivate its devoted following?

JM: Our following comes from people who still love music. Who know there’s more to music than ringtones and digital downloads. Vinyl junkies who love the concept of an entire CD that ties together. I think the music industry has forgotten about the baby boomers who still buy music. Our releases by Al Stewart, Donovan, David Bromberg and others have done well because people still love to buy CDs. We also have a following in Europe where they love the depth of the CDs that we do.

GM: How do you measure the benefit of what Appleseed has accomplished in terms of your mission of sowing social justice?

JM: We feel we’ve done a lot over the years. With our work in Northern Ireland we brought Catholic and Protestant school children together using music for the first time. John Hume, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, said that our music was important to the whole process there. We also have had musicians who were instrumental in positive social change in South Africa, Bosnia and other places around the world.

It’s with pride that I say that in our 10th anniversary booklet we have quotes from Nobel Peace Prize winners — Bishop Tutu, Nelson Mandela and others. With our Give Us Your Poor CD, our goal is to raise awareness and funds for the homeless. I took on the project on when I learned that forty percent of homeless men are veterans, and that one out of four homeless people are children under the age of ten. It’s a historic CD because most of the songs feature famous musicians together with homeless or formerly homeless musicians.

We also like to make our CDs available to charitable organizations so that they can sell them to raise money for the organization.  Our Songs of Pete Seeger trilogy raised over $150,000 for various organizations.  We also get so many letters saying that a song we released helped someone through a time of adversity.

GM: Did you ever imagine Appleseed would last 10 years? What’s in store for the next 10 years?

Well, it is nice to survive and prosper in 10 years in this industry. I’m an optimist but I never believed I would see what would happen with the label.  To see the seeds we planted on so many projects sprout, and to have such well-known musicians record for us has been a dream.

To see our songs used for hope and healing and for social change in Northern Ireland, South Africa and other places has been a dream-come-true. As to the next 10 years, I can never say what will happen, but I know we will continue putting out real music from real musicians who deserve to be heard. I feel the music industry discriminates against older artists. Everything old is what is new and sometimes these writers and musicians still have so much still to say. I call them the wisdom-keepers.

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