Tired of being forced to relinquish artistic and creative control to major labels, Grammy-winning producer and Takoma Park native Charlie Pilzer decided to forge his own path. He founded Azalea City Recordings in 1996.
For Pilzer, the label gives his job as a recording engineer and producer a more personal touch.
“I’m immersed in music hours and hours every day. I’ve worked on well over 2000 albums. The cool thing about the label is that it keeps it on a personal level. It doesn’t become a factory to me,” said Pilzer.
Azalea City does not operate as a traditional commercial label. Instead, it functions as a co-op. Artists retain full ownership rights to their work and receive all related CD revenues. Artists contribute their money to a collective fund that prints CDs and markets to radio stations and concert venues.
“If you’re going to release your own record, you need to put stuff on a website, get stuff on the radio; there’s this whole list of things. Why not get together with other artists to do the same thing and share the burden?” said Pilzer.
The advent of streaming sites like Spotify and Pandora does not affect the label, according to Pilzer. He attributed this positive feature to the collective knowledge base the co-op was able to build up over the years. Artists who were familiar with the streaming sites could get those less experienced up to speed.
“As the world changed around us, our model made more and more sense,” said Pilzer.
The label focuses on roots music, showcasing folk, country, and jazz. Many of the artists on the label collaborate on each other’s recordings.
“We often guest with each other. Show up at each other’s gigs. We’re like one big extended musical family,” said saxophonist Seth Kibel, whose music is a mix of jazz and klezmer, a style of Jewish folk music.
The label has released 37 albums in its 21-year history, including “Hambo in the Snow,” a 2007 Grammy-nominated album for best traditional world music recording featuring Pilzer on bass, Andrea Hoag and Loretta Kelley on fiddle.
Azalea City has also released six sampler albums, where all of the label’s artists contributed a single track to the CD.
“We contribute whatever we can,” said country singer Karen Collins. “On the label, we’re all equal. We don’t have titles.”