Posted: April 20, 2006
by Bob Grossweiner and Jane Cohen
Attorney, social activist, music producer, organizer, writer and business owner Jim Musselman is the founder of Appleseed Recordings, an indie record label that donates a percentage of its profits to environmental, human rights and other progressive organizations. He literally took his father's advice to be CreACTive rather than just creative. Jim is certainly a man on a mission.
An Allentown, Pa., native, Jim graduated from Villanova University and Syracuse Law School. Following his 1984 law school graduation, Jim headed for Washington D.C.'s Center for the Study of Responsive Law, where he worked directly with consumer advocate Ralph Nader for eight years. As a consumer rights activist, Jim championed numerous safety and environmental causes, and a variety of consumer issues taking him all over the United States and the globe. In the automotive industry, Jim initiated the campaign that brought national attention to General Motors President Roger Smith's indifference to plant closings and tax abatements. During this time Jim started working with Michael Moore in Flint, Mich., and the two worked closely for two years in Michigan and Washington D.C. on issues of corporate responsibility.
Perhaps Jim's most noteworthy achievement was the mandatory installation of air bags in motor vehicles after years of going head-to head with Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca and Elizabeth Dole, former Transportation Secretary. Throughout his career, Jim succeeded in getting many health and safety bills enacted by Congress. Along with Nader, he conducted the research that lead to the publication of a few books including "The Heartbreak of America", "The Big Boys" and others. He has been featured on "Nightline," "CNN" and "60 Minutes" and in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other media.
After working with Nader, Jim was inspired to form Appleseed Recordings in 1997- an independent record label, whose mission and dedication is to sow social justice through music. It accepts no corporate or outside funding and donates a percentage of its profits to environmental, human rights, and other progressive organizations. "I had always been inspired to help people and to bring social justice, and I had done that with legal advocacy, organizing, and films but I always loved music so much," Jim explains. "I wanted to use music to touch and influence and educate people in a positive way. I saw how music could touch people in a way that speeches or books did not. I also saw a great void after Folkways' Moses Asch died. Folkways was no longer around, and there were no labels celebrating the wonderful tradition of political or folk songs. I also saw a lot of older artists who had so much to say and were being ignored by the music industry."
"The industry tends to care about who is new, and there is age discrimination in the industry in many ways," Jim continues. "Also, I saw many artists who had stopped recording because of how they were hurt by major labels over the years. These artists had influenced so many other musicians and had so much to say still. So for me, I wanted to start a label where artists would have full artistic creativity to do and say what they wanted but also be artist friendly and do music that matters."
In nine years, Appleseed has released close to 80 CDs worldwide. One of the highlights has been the trilogy of "Songs of Pete Seeger" recordings, which is a 5-CD set with 90 songs done exclusively for the set by artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie and the singing debut of actor Tim Robbins, among others. The CDs included the Grammy nominated song for Best Pop Collaboration "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" by Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. Jim served as executive producer on all the songs and helped with the arrangements. He also co-wrote with Seeger an updated version of the song "Bring Them Home," dealing with the Iraq war. The day of the invasion Jim decided to get Pete Seeger into a studio to do the song that included verses performed by Steve Earle, Ani DiFranco and Billy Bragg.
Appleseed has also released albums by established artists including Roger McGuinn, Donovan, Eric Anderson, Al Stewart, Tom Paxton, and Holly Near, among others. Appleseed has also discovered some young artists, including Tim Eriksen who producer T Bone Burnett loved enough to put him in the "Cold Mountain" movie singing three songs. The label has also released CDs that keep alive history and folk songs including songs of the underground railroad and the Spanish Civil War, among others.
"Folk-rock legend Donovan decided to do his first CD, Beat Cafe, in seven years with Appleseed," says Jim. "He turned down major labels, choosing to release a CD with an independent label with a "bohemian spirit." Jim also has worked to integrate different genres of music including putting together Wyclef Jean with Eric Andersen to perform an antiwar song from the 1960's integrated with a new rap by Jean at the end of the song.
In 2006, Appleseed came out with new CDs by Lizzie West and Michele Greene. "Michele is an Emmy-nominated actress who was on the "L.A. Law" television show for years," he says. "Her CD, Luna Roja, is mostly in Spanish and is beautiful. Her band, led by guitarist Ciro Hurtado, is top notch. The CD has a version half in English and half in Spanish of Bruce Springsteen's song "Across the Border." We're also working on a huge project to benefit homeless organizations. We're doing the CD with the Berklee School of Music and the University of Massachusetts. The CD is putting together homeless artists with famous artists, many of who have already signed on to the project from the rock and rap world. Danny Glover, Steve Tyler, Natalie Merchant, Journey are just some of the talent so far to do the CD. One in four homeless in this country are children under the age of 10.
How did Donovan wind up recording his most-recent album for Appleseed?
Donovan wanted to make a CD tying in the Beat Poets and the Beat Tradition. We had communicated back and forth on email for years after he did a song for our "Songs of Pete Seeger" CD. I was proud because he had offers from major labels, but he wanted to do a CD with a label that came out of the "Beat Tradition." He felt that the label's political and social justice emphasis fit right into what he was doing with the CD and felt Appleseed was the label most tied to the "Beat Tradition" and independent tradition.
How did your background of working with consumer advocate Ralph Nader prepare you for starting your own record label?
Ralph taught me persistence, to never give up and to be disciplined. When the Reagan Administration killed air bags in the 1980's, I got discouraged. Ralph picked up the phone and called the Government Services Administration which bought cars for the government fleets and convinced them that they would save money and lost work days if they equipped the Government Fleet Cars with air bags. So while the Reagan Administration was killing air bags Ralph was finding a solution. This thinking of solutions and persistence that Ralph taught me has served me very well in running my label. People say "make sure your heroes are dead so that way they will stay your heroes."
Ralph and Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson are my heroes, and all of them taught me to speak out at injustice and fight for what you believe in no matter what the odds or the consequences. The day of the invasion of Iraq I decided to get Pete in the studio with Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco and Steve Earle to do a song against the war and for democracy and speaking out called "Bring Them Home." At that time, most people were for the war so the song was called "unpatriotic." To me true patriotism is making your country better and being a citizen who takes the responsibilities of being a citizen seriously. Ralph is a genius in so many ways and has done so much to save lives and help people in this country.
What brought Lizzie West, who recorded her first album for Warner Bros., to Appleseed?
Lizzie was looking for independence and to have the right to record what she wanted and say what she wanted. We give artists full artistic creativity to say or do what they want. She had done some political songs two years ago that Warner Bros. wasn't too happy with, and she was drawn to that we give artists full artistic creativity. She is traveling the country connecting to the real America in a Guthrie and Kerouac way.
What kind of artists do you want to sign for Appleseed?
Artists who have something to say and who use music to bring hope or healing or who keep the wonderful tradition of folk songs alive. Immigrants came to this country with very little -- just the clothes on their back and the songs they had learned. These songs have been kept alive for hundreds of years, and we have a duty to keep the songs alive. We've signed well-known artists and unknown artists. I take pride in signing Tim Eriksen and Cordelia's Dad years ago. Tim was a rock artist who found a book of folk songs in the garbage and started singing the songs and loved them. We released two solo CDs by him, and T Bone Burnett was blown away by his voice and songs and included him in the "Cold Mountain" soundtrack and more. For years I signed artists who were the Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie's of their countries. One of the CDs I'm most proud of is by Vedran Smailovic, the "Cellist of Saravejo," who played his cello for 22 days straight while Sarajevo was bombed. We've released a CD by Sharon Katz and the Peace Train. Sharon worked in South Africa teaching people how to vote in the first elections and using music by taking a Peace Train around South Africa that Mandela participated in. We like to give the artists full creative control of the music and art work that they do also. We all love music at Appleseed. Alan Edwards who is in charge of our in house publicity and radio has about 20,000 records in his collection and I have the same. For us the music comes first.
What is the story behind The Songs of Pete Seeger?
The "Songs of Pete Seeger" trilogy came about when I realized that Pete was really not recognized for the great writer that he was. People knew him as an activist and performer but not as a writer. I wanted to not just do a CD with the top songs and artists, but to really do a lot of his songs and have artists young and old and black and white on the CD. I wanted to do it differently and included actor Tim Robbins, making his singing debut, and Studs Terkel reading Pete's poetry. I remember someone from Sony saying to me, "If you just did the top 12 Pete songs with the top 12 artists, it would have sold tons." To me it was not about that; it was about painting an accurate picture of Pete with silly songs, political songs, love songs, etc. The CD trilogy had 85 songs done by numerous artists and all but one song was recorded exclusively for the project.; Peter Paul and Mary's "All Mixed Up" was the only song not recorded exclusively for the project. The project has also raised over $150,000 for progressive organizations over the years.
How did you get Bruce Springsteen in on the Seeger project?
I approached Bruce and his manager Jon Landau, and at first they turned me down as Bruce was very busy. I went back a few months later, and they were interested. It taught me a lot about persistence and trying again. Bruce did seven songs for the project in a week, and we were only allowed to release one of the songs, "We Shall Overcome." Although Bob Dylan did not keep his promise to participate, Bruce came through in the end. "The irony was that Bruce had not been helped by Pete with his career and the other artist had in a major way.
What happened to the other six songs?
Bruce is releasing them on his "Seeger Sessions" CD coming out in May.
What is your involvement on Springsteen's forthcoming Seeger Sessions CD?
I feel the project came about because of the persistence I showed with the original Seeger project. I sent Bruce songs in 1998, and he really enjoyed playing them. We had also discussed how Pete is, many times, not given the respect he deserves. I helped with other aspects of the project and the title song is the one we released in 1998.
As a political and social activist, do you try to make socially conscious records?
Yes, I do try to make socially conscious records. Music that gives you hope and heals but also educates and teaches a lesson; music that touches the mind, soul and heart. Music that builds bridges, not walls. We get so many letters from people who say that a song inspired them or gave them hope or educated them. We have released songs that have been used around the world ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone" in Northern Ireland, "We Shall Overcome" in the U.S. for healing and peace and making a difference in lives. Music has great power and can be used as a positive force. Plato once said, "Watch music; it's an important art form. Rulers should be careful of what songs they allow to be sung."
How do you feel about free downloads off the Internet?
I don't like free downloads on the Internet at all. It's stealing many times and cheapens art. When we released our Seeger CDs, many of the songs from famous artists, like Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Bonnie Raitt, etc., would turn up online to be downloaded for free. Considering I funded the money for most of the recordings and done the work, it felt like stealing. A lot of the money was going to charity from the CDs so money was taken from them in the end. The first Seeger CD cost me over $100,000 in studio costs. Having the songs taken and put on the Internet for free was stealing. The music industry didn't do enough at the time to stop the flow of free downloading. When you come up with the idea for a song and fund the recording of the song and see it free on the Internet, it's stealing, plain and simple.
But what about free downloads on your unknown artists?
I think this is how the music industry got into trouble they let the genie out of the bottle by putting so much free music on the internet that everyone assumed it should be free forever.
What kind of tour support do you offer your artists?
We do a lot in that area. We contact local media and radio and set up interviews and try to draw attention to the shows for the artists.
First concert attended
Roger McGuinn in Philadelphia, 1976, at the Mann Music Center.
First concert worked
Producing the Nader Super Rally at Madison Square Garden in 2000, featuring Eddie Vedder, Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, Ben Harper, Michael Moore, Patti Smith, Ani DiFranco, and others.
First industry job
Running my label.
Having songs used for healing and hope around the world; signing artists who have made a difference on peace and social issues around the world; Having Bruce Springsteen release his first new song (We Shall Overcome) in three years on Appleseed; Having persistence and hard work result in Springsteen's new forthcoming Sony CD "Seeger Sessions"; and having the song we did with Catholic and Protestant school children, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone", become the anthem of peace in Northern Ireland.
Having Bob Dylan record "Water is Wide" for our "Seeger tribute" CD, and then Dylan getting sick as he was re-cutting the vocal, leading him to not want the song to be released because of his health association with the song.
Trying to get media attention for artists who speak of peace and social justice in a world where sensationalism and violence tends to get more attention; and knowing that people do love the music we put out when they do hear about it.
Best business decision
Teaming up with Bob Feldman at Red House Records as we worked together for years jointly as labels. Bob helped us with distribution and marketing. Also putting out music that spoke to my heart and music that had a passion and depth.
Best advice you received
From my father Jim Musselman Sr., to be CreACTive rather than Creative, as he always told me that you need the act after the idea in order to accomplish anything, and that nobody ever succeeded by working an 8-hour day. Also from Harry Chapin: "Let your errors in life be errors of commission not omission as errors of commission have less regrets and when in doubt do something! Follow your passions in life and to be persistent."
Best advice to offer
Let your dreams not just stay dreams but be blueprints for the next year. To realize that in life there are always two roads, one may be paved but not take you where you want to go in the end and the other is unpaved but you pave it yourself and you take it where you want to go in the end. Always take the unpaved road. Follow your heart and passions over the mind and logic.
Most memorable industry experience
Getting a nomination in the best Pop Category of the Grammy Awards with the song "Kisses Sweeter than Wine" by Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne in 1998 for best Pop Song. Also getting five Grammy Nominations over the years and various NAIRD awards.
The Chicago Cubs. I have always been drawn to underdogs in my life and love Wrigley Field. Also the Villanova Wildcats in college basketball.
Any hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., so you can bike ride on the beach with the sunset on the Pacific Ocean.
What friends would be surprised to learn about you
My friends wouldn't be surprised to learn anything about me as my life has been unpredictable and never normal.
Industry pet peeve
The hidden secrets of payola on radio and the co-op buy in money required at stores. And last but not least, how Wal-Mart has destroyed the independent record stores that are the backbone to new music and new artists. They have been destroyed by the Wal-Marts of the world.
Drawings and notes from my daughter Justine and photos of my daughter; a lithograph by Jackson Browne; posters of Appleseed Releases; news article and photo of the first Air Bag being deployed by Ford Motor Company with myself and Ralph Nader present; and music books and records.
If I wasn't doing this I would be...
...making films that are social justice based, writing comedy or teaching a course on non-violent conflict resolution.
Bob Feldman from Red House Records, Moses Asch of Folkways.
Jim can be reached at: (610) 701-5755; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or Jim@appleseedrec.com