After a 30-year sojourn from the NYSE to Greenpeace to an indie record label, Collingswood native Louis Marks returns to his South Jersey roots.
By Matt Skoufalos | July 29, 2016
“Growing up in this area, I always felt like you’ve got to get out somewhere, and then it turns out it got real hip while I was away,” said Louis Marks.
When Marks “got out” of his Collingswood neighborhood in the 1980’s, it was as a budding commodities broker, trading South Jersey for a shot at the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Some 30 years later, he’s returned to his Camden County roots more Dexter Gordon than Gordon Gekko. As the CEO of independent record label Ropeadope Records, Marks is still responding to the pulse of industry—just a different one.
Ropeadope represents some 80 artists spanning genres from hip-hop to jazz to Afrobeat to funk, blues, and R&B, and its CEO hasn’t abandoned his understanding of economic theory, either. Marks credits a lot of his approach to the music industry to the theories of Jeremy Rifkin and David Byrne’s How Music Works. He believes an independent label like his can add color and artistry to a landscape dominated by larger, homogenized interests.
“You grow as much as you can, as soon as you grow, the margins go down, the quality goes down, and you’re going to end up at Big Mac every time,” he said. “What happens in that barren land, because people want creativity and quality, is things spring up. And that’s the model I’m doing.”
With a kaleidoscopic collection of talents like Michael League’s jazz-pop fusion group Snarky Puppy, New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott, and Killiam Shakespeare, the newest project from Philadelphia musicians Steve McKie and Corey Bernhard, Ropeadope is certainly filling niches that have been opened by the mainstream music industry. But Marks is also working to help evolve the relationships among labels and their artists into a model that works better in the age of digital music.
Commonly, labels will approach artists offering “360-degree” agreements, in which the artist forfeits a percentage of revenue for everything involving the work—apparel, commercials, movie trailers, live performances, etc.
To help facilitate musicians and their work, Ropeadope only licenses music from its acts once it’s a finished product. It’s a lower-risk arrangement for both parties that Marks said helps distinguish Ropeadope from other “transactional partners,” allowing artists to build their businesses efficiently, economically, and with transparency among a community of their fellow musicians and industry personnel.
“There are still some hybrid things where we will invest money for publicity [or]radio promotion, but for the most part, the artists have to finish their projects, bring them to us, and then we go to work for them,” he said.
“We’re the little guy, and it’s the music business, which has a known thing of being predatory,” Marks said. “We have to value everything on not just dollars.”
“Musicians are some of the most enlightened and dedicated people on the planet. If you show them trust, they’ll trust you, and if you let them be creative, you’ll get great results.”
—Louis Marks, CEO, Ropeadope Records
That approach to business sounds atypical at the least, but Marks has never been afraid to follow his own path. It’s a lesson he first internalized after leaving the financial trading business to go knock on doors for Greenpeace in the mid-80s.
“In New York, you could see music all day and all night,” he said. “I would go to the Village or Kenny’s Castaways; the Bottom Line, the Bitter End…[but]my heart wasn’t in [finance]; my head wasn’t in it. Advocacy became my life, my world. It was a fascinating time.”
Between the subsistence wages and the occasional political confrontation that turned physical, the work required a lot of energy, and could be difficult. Interest in environmental justice was just gaining a national profile, but much of the information available to the general public was often limited or confused.
Marks tried to stabilize his approach in the fall of 1989, opening Banzai, a Philadelphia retail shop focused on environmental and social justice causes. But that business dwindled, and he took a job running advocacy tables for Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network at Grateful Dead shows. At the time, social engagement at concerts was a novel concept.
“People didn’t do that then,” Marks said. “The Dead obviously wanted to support these things. We were out looking to try to raise money wherever we could.
“It was a nice contrast from canvassing in Cherry Hill,” he said.
A chance encounter at an event at Drexel University brought Marks more fully into the apparel business. He learned to tie-dye at the height of its resurgence, and spent the next decade producing a half-million shirts annually for clients like Harley-Davidson, Joe’s Crab Shack, and Bloomingdale’s. Eventually, Marks expanded to t-shirt printing and commercial fulfillment for a record label called Ropeadope.
“I said, ‘I’ll do it all.’ We started printing their t-shirts, picking and packing their orders, and that slowly replaced the tie-dyes,” Marks said. “Musicians came in pretty quickly to have that done.”
His client list expanded to include the hip-hop community OkayPlayer, recording artists like The Roots, and other independent labels like the Brooklyn, NY-based Daptone Records. About five years into their arrangement, however, Ropeadope—still his biggest client—was in dire financial straits.
“They were on their last legs, the music business was imploding, and they were looking for somebody to invest,” Marks said. “I said, ‘I’ll take on the debt to the company and keep it open.’ And things didn’t get better. Things got worse.”
Downsizing the business from a brick-and-mortar operation to an enterprise built to survive in a mostly digital environment involved a refinement of its operating philosophy and learning how to survive in the early, free-for-all days of Internet music.
Marks describes having had to learn “how to do business with no money.” He reduced the label to its core functions, closing offices and a warehouse, and relocating to Barrington. Now he operates a small storefront on Atlantic Avenue in Haddon Heights that’s a combination lounge, listening room, and event space. Hours are irregular—open during the Sunday farmers market; otherwise by appointment or when posted on social media—but he sees the function of the store as “more of a space to be.
“I really want to contribute something to Haddon Heights,” he said. “We’re an international label. We have people who can come through here who are touring musicians who travel the world, and they can pop in.
“I want people to be able to come in and hang out, see what we have, sit down, talk to each other, talk to us, listen to music.”
To Marks, music is a bridge among “some of the most enlightened and dedicated people on the planet.” As Haddon Heights starts to rebuild its downtown business district around it, with the resurgence of Gradwell House Studios and live festivals, he believes the town is opening itself to greater possibilities.
“Musicians are amazing,” Marks said. “If you show them trust, they’ll trust you, and if you let them be creative, you’ll get great results.”
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