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Red House Records' president Bob Feldman dies at 56

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Feldman nurtured the label from a small business that he ran out of his apartment, to one that now employs about nine people and was nearing $3 million in gross sales in 2005. (Photo courtesy of
The folk world is mourning the loss of Bob Feldman, the president of St. Paul-based Red House Records. He died Wednesday at the age of 56. For nearly 25 years, Feldman's independent label has been a major force in the national folk music scene, with an artist roster including Greg Brown, John Gorka, Lucy Kaplansky and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. What began as a hobby for Feldman became an American roots music institution.

St. Paul, Minn. — When Bob Feldman began Red House Records in 1983, he didn't know anything about the music business. But he had a passion for music and a desire to create more opportunities for people to hear the sounds he loved. He knew there was a limited audience for the artists he recorded. But, as Feldman said in a 1994 interview, his goal was not to make hits.

"We say around here that we don't sell a lot, we sell them one at a time," Feldman said. "And it's almost like even though we might sell 10,000 or 30,000 of a record, we feel like we know every person that's buying one of those albums. It's not like selling hundreds of thousands of albums."

Bob Feldman was born in St. Paul, but was raised in Jacksonville, Florida. In the early '80s he was back in the Twin Cities. He was teaching a high school course called "How to Start Your Own Business With No Money" when he re-launched singer/songwriter Greg Brown's label, Red House Records.

Today, Red House has a roster of nearly 70 musicians. Feldman said they were the reason for the success of Red House Records.

"They're wonderful artists that we picked and got involved with, because of how they are in front of an audience more than anything else. Not, 'Do they make a record that sounds like what the radio's playing today?' or anything like this,'" said Feldman. "It's for their longevity, and their importance as an artist and how they move audiences."

Bob Feldman's understanding that folk is a fan-driven music is what Boston Globe critic Scott Alarik credits for the success of Red House Records. He also describes Red House as a prestige label with a reputation for taste and quality.

Peter Ostroushko says Bob Feldman gave many acoustic folk artists the opportunity to reach beyond their local fan base. He says the Red House label has had a huge impact on acoustic folk music around the world.

"I think the Red House sound is just crisp and clean and well-recorded. I think if there's a sound to Red House, and I really mean this, it's just good," said Alarik. "That it's going to be first-rate if it came from Red House, and that it's going to sound just how the artist wanted it to sound. And that's very important in the folk world."

The musicians who recorded for Red House appreciated the respect and freedom Bob Feldman gave them. Peter Ostroushko was one of the earliest Red House artists. He's recorded 10 albums for the label, and for each them Feldman allowed Ostroushko to do what he wanted.

Ostroushko says no other label would have treated him that way. When he and Feldman had differences of opinion, Ostroushko says they had a unique way of resolving them.

"I think there were two or three times that we actually settled our differences of opinion by literally getting down on his office floor, calling in the staff, explaining the deal, and then doing two-out-of-three Indian leg wrestling matches on the floor," Ostrousko recalled. "And he always lost, so I always got to do what I envisioned."

Ostroushko says Bob Feldman gave many acoustic folk artists the opportunity to reach beyond their local fan base. He says the Red House label has had a huge impact on acoustic folk music around the world.

Bill Kubeczko is the artistic director of the Cedar Cultural Center, a Minneapolis venue that's featured many Red House artists over the years. He says he's amazed by its national and international success.

"I saw his records when I was in Europe on business trips. I'd go into Tower stores and see his records on end-rack display," said Kubesczko. "And that's pretty special to get that kind of thing, when you're a small label out of St. Paul."

Kubeczko says Bob Feldman's passion was the driving force behind Red House Records. Still, the company's vice president of operations, Eric Peltoniemi, says the company will continue recording and releasing new material.

Boston Globe critic Scott Alarik says even without Bob Feldman, Red House Records should remain successful.

"I don't think Red House today is seen quite as much as Bob Feldman's label as it was 10 years ago. I don't know if he did that on purpose. I know that he did want to broaden the vision of the label," said Alarik. "So if it continues to be run the way Bob Feldman ran it, I think Red House has a very bright future."

A memorial service for Bob Feldman is scheduled Friday morning at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Mendota Heights.