Randall Jamail, president of Justice Records (Trail of Dead, Willie Nelson, Ian Moore) knows a thing or two about the recording industry — also about SXSW, one of the biggest music, film, and tech festivals of the year. With a twang as slick and steeped in Texas roots as a lap steel guitar, the troubadour spoke with us about his not-so humble beginnings, his second start, and what it was like to party as a 10-year-old with football demigods and the Red-Headed Stranger.
How’d you end up in this crazy business? When I was in Houston going to law school in the mid 80s, I started going to recording studios. At that time, jazz was the strongest scene in Houston. I was working with Kelly Gray, a jazz singer, when I realized that there were no record labels in Houston. I’m too egotistical to peddle my wares to labels in LA and go, “would you please, would you please, would you please?” It’s just not in my nature. So I started Justice Records in 1989. I signed Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and started moving into Texas Country. Then I took Johnny Cash to Seattle for a special project called “Twisted Willie.” I picked 15 guys from alternative rock bands from the West Coast — Supersuckers, L7, Reverend Horton Heat from Texas — and we did Willie Nelson songs as full on rock songs.
You’ve gone from jazz to blues to country to rock. Is Justice going to move into hip hop? When I started Justice in Houston, the only label that was here was Rap One. So they had that scene covered with Ghetto Boys and Scarface. When I started doing this, there was a fine hip hop/rap producer named Mr. Lee, and he and I became good friends. He didn’t have a strong business side, so I managed him. I did that for about a year but it’s not my … language. I was happy to do that because he was a good friend of mine, but the truth of the matter is, I would be misrepresenting the artist if I told them that we knew how to do that. We know indie rock well, but it’s not the same marketing skill set. It would be a misrepresentation to go out there and sign a rap artist.
What indie rock band do you wish was under Justice? I like Fleet Foxes.
Have you ever strayed from the recording business during your career? In 2002, I had produced almost a hundred albums. I was away from home a lot, I wasn’t seeing my kids … I hit a wall. The next three and a half, four years, I did a couple of records but really stayed home and raised my kids. Plus, at the time, the whole business model of how music was being marketed and distributed was changing.
Did you change anything when Justice started again? I knew I wanted to begin again with an entirely new vision. Traditionally in the record business, when an artist signs, they give up ownership of all that they create while they’re under a contract — all their copyrights — everything. I wasn’t comfortable. I knew I couldn’t do that any longer.
Why’s that? I think it’s unethical to give an artist a loan that he’s got to pay back, plus I get to keep all of his shit forever. We flip that so that the artist owns 100% of their masters. Plus they get 1% of the profits from the records they’ve put in on top of everything else. My belief is that if you empower them with ownership, the artist would realize that everything they did to promote that record was increasing an asset that belonged to them. Their willingness goes way up.
You’re slated to go to Argentina during SXSW, but can you give us a little preview of this year’s party? For three years now, we’ve done something called Music for Music’s Sake. We go out and pick music that we feel is not being fully addressed by SXSW. Traditionally we’ll have three or four bands come and play at Lucky Lounge. This year, we’ll only have two: Trail of Dead and before them, The Manichean.
Tell me about The Manichean. The Manichean. It started out with just a guitar player and a poet, and they would do a 30-minute story, weaving together spoken word and music. That developed into an eight-piece band with trumpet and violin. It’s very theatrical.
How does SXSW compare to ACL? It’s apples and oranges. ACL is a music event designed for the public. SXSW, while the public can buy wristbands, is an industry event targeted towards industry professionals. During the day, you have conferences going on, you have speakers. Originally, SXSW was a music showcase where A&R guys can go and hear unsigned bands. Now, half of the bands performing on official showcases are signed or have their own label.
So it’s like Winter Music Conference? More like the Cannes Film Festival, but for music.
Did you take music lessons as a kid? I took guitar lessons when I was really young. I had my first band when I was 12, in the sixth grade.
What was it called? I don’t think we were good enough to have a name. We played parties at school, which was fun and a big ego stroke. I was around music all the time. My parents were huge UT football fans, so every weekend, we would be in Austin. There used to be an old motel across the LBJ School of Public Policy called the Villa Capri motel, and in the evenings — this must have been when I was 6, 7 years old — after football games, my dad and Daryl Royal would get ten rooms.
Your dad knew Darrell Royal? My dad and Darrell Royal were best friends. The field is named after my dad. It’s Joe Jamail field. Darrell loved country music, so Willie and all those guys would come over to the hotel and pick guitars. My mom’s dad owned these buildings that became Armadillo World Headquarters, this Woodstock-like venue in Austin where one night you might go in and hear Bob Dylan and the next night Willie. It was all very eclectic, but I never thought that music would be my career. It just seemed like the normal insanity of growing up in my house. Shit, I’d wake up in the morning and go to school, and Willie would be sleeping on the couch.