Like a lot of great ideas, this one started on a cocktail napkin.
It was June 1992 in a café in Stockholm. Banjo player Alison Brown and bassist Garry West took turns with a pen, first drawing the rim of a wheel, then the hub and spokes, then scribbling “record label,” “touring band,” “publishing,” “management,” and “recording studio” along the radiating lines.
The two musicians – then on tour backing up folk rocker Michelle Shocked, now husband and wife – sketched out a life for themselves as musicians and entrepreneurs. On the entrepreneur side of the equation, West brought his experience as a record producer, Brown an MBA from UCLA and a two-year stint as an investment banker.
“We were kind of building the good life,” Brown says. “For us, that meant getting to make music but also helping other artists make music through a record label, and getting into management and publishing.”
Brown is telling the cocktail napkin story at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, where she and West will perform in less than an hour with the Alison Brown Quartet: banjo, bass, piano, drums. A blond 3-year-old in pink corduroy pants wanders into the room and Brown scoops her into her arms.
“I'm incredibly lucky that I don't have to leave my family at home to go out and do this,” says Brown. Hannah Brown West has been on the road with her parents since she was 3 weeks old. As a musician, Brown is at the top of her game. Her tenth album, “Stolen Moments,” came out earlier this year to critical acclaim (“ … as technically awesome as it is melodically seductive,” The Boston Globe rhapsodized). Compass Records, the couple's musician-friendly roots label, this year celebrates its 10 th anniversary and 200 th release. Playboy has anointed Compass Nashville's “hippest alternative label.”
Compass does about $2 million a year in sales and has turned a profit steadily since 1999. On busy days, Brown is knee deep in receivables and collectables. “I honestly don't think I could have done it without the UCLA degree,” Brown says.
At McCabe's that night, Brown banters between songs. “Who would have thought that a banjo and a piano, which are natural enemies in the wild, would do so well in a guitar shop?”
Halfway through the set, Hannah makes her way onto the stage and heads for a child-sized floor microphone. With her mom playing banjo behind her, the tow-headed toddler sings “California Here I Come.”
The house is full and the audience goes crazy. Hannah stands there wide-eyed. Finally, Brown kneels down and whispers into her ear. In a tiny voice, Hannah says “thank you” and walks off stage.