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Single Lock Records: More than a Label

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Abraham Rowe
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Ben Tanner at Muscle Shoals Sound

There is a long musical history associated with the Shoals in Northwest Alabama. The stories of Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios have been well documented. However, the locals say the area is not just a museum piece. The music continues to flow like the so-called singing river that passes through it. The area is home to musicians, recording engineers, and producers who have decided to pursue their creative goals on their own terms.
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Ben Tanner and John Paul White are two of the founders of Single Lock Records, a record label based in Florence. Tanner explains how the label grew organically out of the northern Alabama town:

“Forming the label and calling it something was almost like a formality. All these people were already playing together. I was already making records with a lot of people.”

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Tanner is the keyboardist of the Alabama Shakes. He has also worked at Fame Studios.

“We call ourselves a label because we couldn’t really figure out what else to call it and sometimes that’s an apt word but sometimes it doesn’t quite fit like in the old school…like Atlantic Records or Capitol Records or something… those people were really gatekeepers for all music and back in the day without a label you essentially couldn’t get music into the world. You had to have a label to do it. Now, it’s not the case.

Now, for us, to our fans, to our customers, to our audience, we are trying to be like curators and then for our artists, help them develop…”

White has gained notoriety through his Grammy award winning duo the Civil Wars, his solo career, and his work as a songwriter. When he’s not performing, raising a family, or helping to run a record label, he teaches songwriting, artist development, and production at the University of North Alabama. He’s a busy guy.

He explains that his generation couldn’t just rely on the reputation of the Shoals, but they had to learn how to make it work for them.

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Joshua Black Wilkins
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John Paul White

“We had a problem here in the Shoals, and there is probably still a little bit of it, with people resting on the laurels of what had happened here and no one revers that music and those players and those producers more than I but my generation of folks starting realizing that that’s not doing us any damn good, that’s not putting any food on my table and I can only go so far with “I’m from Muscle Shoals,” “Oh, that’s cool.”

White was one of several musicians from northern AL that found success in the early 2000s.

“So I think there were a lot of artists like Jason, and the Secret Sisters, and the Shakes, maybe 45 minutes away, that we all decided we have to do this ourselves.”

For John Paul White, this type of ‘do it yourself’ attitude evolved into the work ethic behind the origins of Single Lock Records. He mentions the idea of the label came from the need to help artists provide the capital that is essential in touring and in recording an album properly. Another inspiration came from the amount of talent in the area that needed a voice.

“I think the core mentality of it all is that we are very artist friendly. We are very much about being more of a partner than being the label with all the ownership. Our deals are very artist friendly. It’s not philanthropy but you sleep really well at the end of the day knowing that we are working with artists that we truly love their music, truly believe the world needs to know about it, and not chasing that ever-elusive dollar.”

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Not only does the label help with the costs of recording an album but it often helps with the production within its own studio. Single Lock sometimes does this by using several other studios and rooms to get the right sound as well.

Here’s Ben Tanner:

“There’s still this great studio culture in town and there’s a bunch of great recording rooms with different gear, different vibes, different sounds that are good for different projects so we will often like- let’s go track at Fame for a few days or let’s go to Muscle Shoals Sound or let’s go to the Nuthouse. Let’s go work on it there and then we will take it here and we will finish it here and mix it here. Most projects will at least pass through here. Some, they will all be done here.”

White says that one of the biggest problems is getting through the noise. By that, he means getting the ears of music customers on Single Lock records. He says that is hard for every label these days.

“Before you had to have the big label so you could get your album in the store. That’s not true anymore but that’s not true for any indie label either. We are all scrambling to be heard.”

The work is not easy, but it also has its benefits. One of them being- they get to build their success in their own back yard rather than moving to an expensive crowded city. White mentions that they solely work on stuff that they love. One reason Tanner does it is that it allows him to make interesting records that he wants to make, records he can feel proud of. Another reason is his contribution to our musical heritage.

“In the South, there’s this really really rich musical history that goes back centuries and to me most of that- most of the really good stuff and interesting stuff defies genre”

Single Lock Records continues to thrive in a town known for its history. As the music business changes, one thing remains constant- the ability for art to thrive remains on support from community.

Once again, Ben Tanner:

“It’s a really special heritage that’s ongoing and I would encourage people to find (on Single Lock, not on Single Lock), find local and regional music that they connect to and support those people. Go to the show, buy the record, buy the t-shirt. Those connections are really special for a fan and for an artist and we live in a place that has a lot of really special music going on around us and I just encourage people not to take it for granted.”

Single Lock has come a long way since it was founded by Ben Tanner, John Paul White, and Will Trapp back in 2013. The label supports a long list of impressive talent. You can find that list on the website Single Lock Records dot com.

Joe Moody is a senior producer and host for the APR newsroom. Before joining the team, Joe taught academic writing for several years nationally and internationally. He is a native of Montgomery and a proud Alabamian. He is currently studying library and information studies at the University of Alabama with a focus on archives. When he is not playing his tenor banjo, he enjoys listening to jazz records and 45s from the 1950s and 60s.
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