Page last updated at 23:36 GMT, Thursday, 13 December 2007

Rare soul gems find new setting

By Robert Plummer
Business reporter, BBC News

Lurking in the racks at a small record shop in the South London suburb of Putney is quite possibly the best soul album you've never heard in your life.

Understand Each Other by Lou Ragland in Soul Brother's shop in Putney
Many reissued albums are easier to find now than they were at the time

Admittedly, it's not much to look at. The cover is in black and white, the artwork crude and hand-drawn.

But given its history, it's surprising that it ever made its way to a retail outlet at all.

The album, Understand Each Other by US singer Lou Ragland, was recorded in the mid-1970s.

More recently, it was reissued by specialist shop Soul Brother Records, which also has its own record label.

But Laurence Prangell, who owns the shop and label jointly with his brother Malcolm, had a tough time tracking down this rare example of the artist's work.

"He recorded it in Cleveland in the mid-1970s and he moved to LA," Mr Prangell explains.

Laurence Prangell of Soul Brother Records in Putney
Laurence sometimes spends years securing rights to reissue LPs

"He had a market trader's licence and just sold it out of his front door - he played it out of his front windows through speakers.

But then disaster struck. The house burned down, destroying the masters and the majority of the LPs, so only about 400 to 500 copies escaped.

"We had to find an original copy and master it from that," says Mr Prangell.

"Those bad luck stories tend to come with the territory. I suppose it's what stimulates the music in the first place. It's soul music, it's music from the soul. There's often a story behind how it was made."

Digging deeper

Soul Brother is just one of a number of small labels reviving music that the big record companies have allowed to languish in their vaults - or in Lou Ragland's case, music that never reached those vaults in the first place.

With the history of recorded sound growing longer by the year, reissues have become an increasingly important part of the music industry.

But at the same time, the major labels' back catalogues are often bulging with old tunes that they have neither the patience nor the expertise to market effectively.

Some of the Soul Brother label's releases
The Soul Brother label began nine years ago

That's where small, specialist firms come in, striking licensing deals to re-release those forgotten discs - often in small pressing runs that the majors would consider uneconomical.

Since the Soul Brother label began in 1998, it has issued 57 albums.

Many of its releases are career-spanning compilations of veteran soul and jazz artists who never quite gained the recognition that their talents arguably deserved.

"It was really just a natural extension of what we were doing with the shop and the mail order," says Mr Prangell.

"People kept coming in the shop asking for things which weren't available and no-one seemed particularly interested in putting them out, so we found a way of doing it ourselves."

Soul revival

Mr Prangell says each album issued by Soul Brother has to sell between 1,500 and 5,000 copies to break even, depending on the level of fees and royalty payments negotiated.

The label is run in partnership with another firm, Passion Music, which takes care of royalty accounting and legal issues.

Soul Brother's most successful release to date is an anthology by Marlena Shaw, whose closest brush with the mainstream came when her rendition of California Soul was used in a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial on British television in 2003.

"That sold just in excess of 30,000 copies, the majority on CD," says Mr Prangell. "Having said that, that one sold pretty well on vinyl as well. We've probably done 6,000 or 7,000 on vinyl of that."

Soul Brother Records in Putney, south London
But is Soul Brother just dealing in "historic" music?

During her 35 years as a professional singer, Marlena Shaw has been signed to a number of different record companies. As a result, EMI, Universal and Sony BMG all have the rights to some of her recordings, with independent labels owning the rest.

"We had to deal with five different people to get that one together and obviously that took a bit of time," says Mr Prangell, adding that in rare cases, it can take up to five years to secure the rights for a compilation.

However, the impact on Marlena Shaw's career has been positive. Since the album was released, she has toured regularly in the UK and has performed at big European jazz festivals.

Changing times

But is Soul Brother catering to a dying breed? Its speciality, soul music, has been elbowed aside in the race to win the public's ear.

These days, major record labels prefer to concentrate instead on promoting its flashier, pushier descendent - the pop music of black origin now known as R&B.

Mr Prangell admits that the majority of his customers are "of a slightly more mature age" and less likely to have embraced downloading as a way of purchasing music.

Beyonce
R&B has supplanted soul in the music industry's esteem

But he points to the label's brand-new releases by modern US soul artists, including April Hill and Marlon Saunders, as evidence that there is still life in the genre.

"I've got a bank now of maybe 250 American artists that we're either currently working with or we have worked with over the last few years," he says.

But one problem that he has encountered in seeking to issue new soul music alongside classics from the past is the weakness of the dollar.

"We wouldn't put anything out that was already out in the US," he says. "With the exchange rates at the moment, if we put something out that's available in America, your sales are going to be undermined significantly by imports coming in at a cheaper rate."

Image conscious

A lifelong fan of soul and jazz, Mr Prangell is critical of big record companies' attitude to his favourite music.

"I think they and certain sectors of the media, the Mobo awards being a classic one, seem to regard soul music as a historical music rather than current music," he says.

Poster promoting Soul Brother compilation album
The label features some compilations by various artists

"The major labels only seem to be interested in more mainstream R&B and a pretty face that they can market.

"I don't think they really know how to market a record based on somebody's voice and the material, as opposed to their image."

As for the other side of his business, Mr Prangell is certainly aware that life is hard for independent record shops at the moment.

"It's certainly not easy.

"But I think that if you've got a niche market that you're in and you've got sufficient presence in that market, and you know your product and you've got a passion for what you do, people do relate to that.

"And thankfully, we have a pretty loyal customer base of people that keep coming back for their music."

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