The folks at the Little Village Foundation joke that they’re not the only nonprofit record label — they’re just the only one that’s not making money by design.
The California label, founded in an effort to expose diverse, lesser-known artists to a wider audience, last month released “20 x 20: The LVF Singer Songwriter Compilation” on CD and digitally. While previous LVF albums have focused on one artist at a time, “20 x 20” shines the light on 20 singer-songwriters, running the gamut from a Navy veteran to a musician amplifying the LGBTQ experience, from a woman who played in “The Tonight Show” band to a guitarist and harmonica player writing music for kids.
“This whole thing has been about diversity from the very beginning,” says Maurice Tani, a Little Village board member, graphic artist who has designed more than 30 album covers for the group (including “20 x 20”) and a songwriter and guitarist who contributed “Three Flights to L.A.” to the new release. “It’s funny, because we didn’t use that term, but as the catalog built, and now we must be 35 or 40 records into this thing; I think the first ones were a cowboy poet and a group of indigenous Indians called Los Tres Amigos. … Aki Kumar, the Bollywood blues record was among the first four.”
Keyboardist Jim Pugh, who over 40 years has played with the likes of B.B. King, Etta James and Van Morrison, founded the LVF in 2014.
“It’s an amazing group of people, and it took a musician to come up with the idea, to have the wherewithal to buckle down and make it work,” says Vicki Randle, a fellow board member and musician who contributed to “20 x 20.” “And I also appreciate his dedication to this incredibly wide range of music that Little Village has on its label or in its stable. You can barely find a record label that deviates from the norm. A record label will usually set itself up as a blues or an alternative label, etc.”
Randle, a guitarist, drummer and bassist who was the lead singer and percussionist for “The Tonight Show” band, now plays in the rock and soul band Skip The Needle, which has a release with LVF. Her song on “20 x 20” is called “Ruth 1:16.”
“I hadn’t yet written a song that talked about what it was like to come out in high school,” Randle says. “And coming from a very Catholic family, I felt like I was the only person in the world who didn’t know any other lesbians. I didn’t know what I was feeling. So I remembered that verse from the Bible, which I’ve always loved and always seemed like it would fit into a narrative about two women loving each other, which is expressly something Christians don’t say the Bible is about.”
While stories of artists being ripped off or having to buy back the rights to their own music are commonplace, Randle notes that at the heart of the LVF is the policy that “it actually expressly eschews the idea of holding onto anything intellectually, materially, and does everything it can to provide the vehicle for the musicians to get the music out there.”
In 2020, a musician can relatively easily record and release an album digitally, but as Tani says, “the question is, how do you get people to find out about it?”
The LVH has a recording studio and produces and masters its releases for the artists. It also has a publicist, Dennis McNally, the former longtime rep of the Grateful Dead, working on its behalf.
“We have the stuff in place to be able to do this sort of thing, and we truly just let the artist do what they do with a very small amount of artistic input from us because we don’t really care about commercial success,” Tani explains. “We’re not trying to make money on these albums. Little Village has never sold an album. Little Village has never signed an artist. Any sales of CDs have gone to the artists. We press them and give them a thousand CDs, and there’s no recouping of that. If they sell out, they can go straight back to the manufacturers. We don’t charge them because we own no intellectual property, we don’t own the masters, we don’t own the licensing. Then fly little bird.”
For more information on the Little Village Foundation or to donate, visit its website.