Nine years ago, the Avett Brothers were at a crossroads. The Concord-based group was working hard to establish itself, but Scott Avett had been accepted to art school at Florida State.
So he delivered an ultimatum to Dolph Ramseur, the groups one-man business operation: Get the Avetts booked at MerleFest, the big annual folk festival in Wilkesboro, and hed forgo art school to stay with the band.
Shortly before MerleFest, Ramseur finally got the call that the Avetts had been accepted an unpaid slot, playing for free.
But Scott hadnt said anything about us getting paid, so we played MerleFest for free that year, Ramseur says, laughing at the memory. We did a lot of that from 2003 to 2006, playing for free to get established. I remember a tour where Scott Miller put us on as opening act for $50 a night, and I thanked him so much.
The Avetts days of playing for gas money are long gone. Beyond North Carolina, theyre one of the top live acts in the country, headlining major national festivals, including Bonnaroo and Coachella. Theyre bigger than ever in their home state; they spent New Years Eve playing Greensboro Coliseum for a crowd of nearly 14,000.
The Avetts have been a hit as a recording act, too, hitting No. 4 on the Billboard charts last fall with The Carpenter. The album was also nominated for a Grammy Award, best Americana album, which will be presented Sunday night.
Another Ramseur client is nominated for a Grammy Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Triangle-based old-time band he co-manages with Tim Duffy. The Drops Leaving Eden is up for best folk album, a category the group won two years ago. In his capacity as manager, Ramseur has had a lot to do with the success of both acts.
Hes a genius at tour management, Duffy says of Ramseur. When he started with me and the Chocolate Drops, he told us, Well start in markets where well draw 10 people at first. When we come back it will be 50, then 300, then 1,000. And it worked. Thats how he built the Chocolate Drops, just like the Avett Brothers one fan at a time.
Business on a handshake
Ask 10 different artist managers what the job entails, and youll probably get 10 different answers. Ramseur says hes the Avetts biggest fan and cheerleader, sometimes bad cop to their good cop. For both the Avetts and Drops, he oversees tours, recordings and pretty much everything else.
Ramseurs former careers include the venture capital business and country club tennis pro, where he learned the gift of gab. But he was always angling to get into the music business, especially after seeing an early Avett Brothers show and being blown away by their combination of stately folk-rock and punky energy.
I remember coming home and telling my wife I could not even describe what kind of music it was, but I knew they had that thing, Ramseur says. They were totally different, very unique.
That was the first of about 400 Avett Brothers shows Ramseur has seen, and he says they still never get old. He signed on as their manager, holding down a job moving furniture while getting the group launched.
There was no literal signing involved, however. Then as now, Ramseur operated with the Avetts, Chocolate Drops and the other five acts he manages based on nothing more than a handshake.
Ramseur, 43, might be the only artist manager in the music business who oversees a top-10 act without a written contract. It is, he admits, a leap of faith.
I decided to get into the music business to have fun and be friends with the people I work with, he says. I dont want a piece of paper to get in the way of that. Is that the smartest legal advice? Probably not. But life is short, and I just want to work hard and do great things for the folks Im working with. My mom always said a contract is only as good as the person signing it.
Missing the climb
After years of relentless touring and recordings self-released on the Ramseur Records imprint, the Avetts were big enough by the summer of 2007 to sell out the 2,700-capacity N.C. Museum of Art Amphitheater. A year later, they filled Carys 7,000-capacity Koka Booth Amphitheatre on their way up to Bonnaroo, Coachella and other national festivals. Theyll be back at MerleFest this spring as a headliner.
Around the time the Avetts sold out Booth, Rick Rubin (who produced Johnny Cashs last decade of recordings) signed the Avetts to American Records. Major-label marketing moved the Avetts into the upper reaches of the charts their 2009 album I and Love and You has sold nearly 500,000 copies, on the verge of a gold record and onto bigger stages. Last year, they played alongside Mumford & Sons on the Grammy Awards telecast, backing up Bob Dylan.
Life is good and getting better for the Avetts as well as Ramseur, who works for a percentage of revenues and still operates out of Concord. But there are a few things about the hardscrabble climb to the top that Ramseur misses.
Theres something about seeing that look of discovery, Ramseur says. It still happens, just farther away in bigger rooms. But seeing that up close with 200 people whove never seen the Brothers before and are just mesmerized, thats pretty powerful. I do miss that. There were a lot of shows we opened where people came for the headliner, but wed steal the show. Rarely did we not steal the show.
The Chocolate Drops have also had a very healthy growth curve, becoming a top live draw while selling 100,000 copies worldwide of their Grammy-winning 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig.
Dolphs role with the Drops has been to bring a level-headed experience to the business side of it, says David Bither, senior vice president of Nonesuch Records. The fact that he understands the music and where its coming from is important, in that the Chocolate Drops are not your everyday project by a long shot. It takes management with a particular vision.
Thats the case for the other acts Ramseur manages, too.
All the bands I work with play music sort of outside the norm, really quirky and unique, Ramseur says. Were not in the music business, were in the Avett Brothers and Carolina Chocolate Drops business. I work hard, but its not even work. Im so fortunate to work in music, even though I get whipped up at times and complain some. But Ive got nothing to complain about.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat