Warren Hildebrand was born into the New Orleans music business. His father, Henry Hildebrand, founded the city’s largest wholesale record distributorship, All South, in the early 1960s. He also supplied the New Orleans market with R&B 45s from Johnny Adams, Earl King, Professor Longhair and more on the Watch label. The younger Hildebrand eventually succeeded his father at All South, but in addition to wholesaling music, he also retailed it, one-stopped it, rack jobbed it, rented it, manufactured it, leased it, published it, licensed it, promoted it and produced it. If there is a way to make money in the music business, Hildebrand has been there and done that.
“I started working summers at All South when I turned 14 in 1965,” recalls Hildebrand. “I ran the shrink wrap machine, shrink wrapping skids of LP (vinyl) returns. It was hot, miserable work. Back then, All South was huge. It was the regional distributor for just about every independent label in the country. We also had ABC and Warner Brothers, but Motown was the hottest label back then. Those were the good years for the music business.”
After Hildebrand graduated from Tulane, he took a fulltime position at All South as a buyer and operations manager. In 1976, Hildebrand took a cue from his father and got into the manufacturing end of the business, forming Mardi Gras Records.
“All South distributed all of the local Carnival music, but it was all on 7 inch (45 rpms, the little record with the big hole)—there was no album. Phillipe Rault, who worked for Barclay Records in France helped me put one (album) together.”
The result was Mardi Gras In New Orleans, still the best selling item in Mardi Gras’ catalog and one of the most important reissues of New Orleans music. It introduced New Orleans Mardi Gras music to the masses and exposed then-obscure artists such as Professor Longhair, Al Johnson and the Wild Magnolias to larger audiences.
“It’s been out 30 years,” says Hildebrand. “It’s slowed up the last few years because it’s got competition now. For 15 or 20 years, it was the only Mardi Gras album available.”
Other early Mardi Gras releases included a ragtime piano LP, Professor Longhair’s Rock ’n’ Roll Gumbo album and a Cajun music collection.
“I licensed those early titles,” says Hildebrand. “But I got away from licensing albums. I wanted to build a label with my own content. The first thing I did was with Milton Batiste and the Olympia Brass Band.”
On the wholesaling front, Hildebrand took over All South after his father passed away in 1977. At the time, regional record distributors were beginning to experience tough times. Major labels were setting up their own distribution systems and absorbing independent labels like Stax and Motown, labels that had been the independent distributor’s bread and butter. All South no longer had access to in-demand labels. To make ends meet, Hildebrand got into retailing, purchasing Mushroom Records on Broadway. By the time All South closed in 1988, he’d also opened four Record/Video Connection stores, the flagship location being on the corner of St. Charles and Louisiana avenues.
“The movie rental business was also good for several years,” says Hildebrand. “But then the major chains like Blockbuster moved here and took away that business.”
One by one, the Video Connections closed, but Hildebrand continued to build up Mardi Gras’ catalog.
“I used to only sell Mardi Gras releases locally,” says Hildebrand. “But around the 1980s, movies like The Big Easy came out and you started hearing Cajun and New Orleans music in television commercials. This coincided with Paul Prudhomme and Cajun food’s new popularity. All of a sudden ‘New Orleans’ and ‘Cajun’ were golden words. I started selling Mardi Gras Records to distributors all over the country and tourists that came here bought lots of local music to take home.”
Mardi Gras continued to grow, and by the middle of the 1990s, expanded genres, going into the Southern soul/blues market. He had a few misses, but he had some hits with Peggy Scott Adams and Sir Charles Jones.
“It’s a pretty small market, but we had a good run at it for about three or four years. It was one of the last markets that didn’t get hit by downloading or CD burning. But now, no market’s immune.”
Still, Hildebrand’s major focus is on promoting and selling New Orleans. Since closing the last Video Connection in 1999 and opening a new office/warehouse in Metairie, his local catalog rapidly expanded. Today, no other label has amassed a larger catalog of New Orleans music than Mardi Gras. Like most New Orleanians, Hildebrand is adapting to a post-Katrina Crescent City. Three feet of water in his building contributed to Mardi Gras not putting any new titles out for nine months. Hildebrand’s also dealing with a shrinking local market.
“We repackaged some titles and put out nine new releases since June. But they were pretty much put out to show people we were back up and running. Virgin, and now Tower closing, was an unreal blow. But we also depend heavily on the tourist trade and the tourists just aren’t coming back. We’re not going to give up on the tourist market, but no one knows if or when it’s going to rebound. We can’t attract tourists if the city is a mess, and frankly, New Orleans is a mess.”
To take up some the slack, Mardi Gras CDs can now be purchased on line from Amazon, tracks can be purchased from iTunes, and he’s constantly upgrading his Web site. For 2007, Hildebrand has at least three soul/blues releases ready to release, is repackaging some current titles, mining his 1,300 track catalog (he also owns the rights to Lanor and Hep Records) and plans several brass band CDs.
Because independent labels have to innovate to compete with the major labels, he’s going to experiment with digital-only releases and plans to test market a line of musical greeting cards.
“It’s not a business where you can stay stationary anymore. You’ve got to keep moving and coming up with new ideas.”
Hildebrand has been doing just that for a lifetime.