With decades of record company experience under his belt, few people know the music business better than Mark Freeman. As head honcho of a well-known and respected record label, Rebel Records, he’s got his pulse on the present – and the future – of getting music out to the masses.
He selects the acts he signs based on something very personal. Perhaps, very subjective. “It’s stuff that hits me right in the gut,” he said of the artists he signs. “It’s just music that hits me, that hits my soul. Hits my heart.”
He and his father both have developed a penchant for aligning their hearts with what people actually want; the continued success of Rebel Records attests to that. The artists releasing music on the label might be read as a “who’s who” of the business. Talents in their past catalog include notables such as Ralph Stanley, J.D. Crowe, Del McCoury, and Rhonda Vincent, to name a few. The current roster of artists active with Rebel includes Larry Sparks, High Fidelity, and Peter Rowan.
“My dad ran the label for close to 40 years, and I just took over from him a couple of years ago,” Freeman said. “Before I took over, I worked for my dad for 20 years.”
Over those two decades, Freeman said he witnessed quite a bit of change in the music business, and Rebel Records has rolled with those changes.
“When I started, it was album releases…you didn’t worry about single releases,” he explained.
Things have also obviously changed in evaluating methods for marketing those releases now that the dynamic has changed in print vs. digital media, with the addition of social media having a real impact on the industry.
Freeman hints that when artists are tuned to the new marketplace, it might increase the odds that he’ll take the leap and sign them to the label. Once an act has “grabbed him,” he does a next-level evaluation to decide whether his label is a fit.
“You wanna focus on your music, but these days, people are also paying attention to your visuals,” he said.
He also advises that musicians “be patient” and work toward building a future, but with a realistic vision of how long the process takes.
“Just be patient,” he said, advising people who hope to be discovered by a label. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not gonna happen quickly. Just work the promoters out there; work on your visibility.”
“You want a group that gets the people off their seats,” he added. “When they do, labels take notice. They just have that ‘something,’ that stage presence.”
Freeman said personality also plays a role when he decides whom he wants to work with, which might seem an obvious point for almost any business partnership in music or otherwise, but aspiring artists might want to heed this often-forgotten fact of human nature. Freeman said he is no fan of “pompousness” or a “cocky attitude” in potential artists.
“For a label, some of them just suck it up and deal with it,” he said. “But for me, personality plays a role, too.”
Freeman said he is lucky; his label does not need to resort to doing things that don’t feel right viscerally.
“I have not had to sign a group I’m not crazy about but that I know will sell a lot of copies,” he explained. Some labels have no choice but to do that, and he’s not envious.
Part of the pleasure he gets from doing what he does is not just signing already-proven powerhouses but also the feeling that comes from elevating burgeoning acts to the next level of exposure or finding a genuine diamond in the rough.
“We’re just excited to work with young talent and introduce them to a big audience. That’s the joy that I get,” he said, with a tone that reflected true genuine emotion. “If it makes money, then that’s just the cherry on top.”