Bela Fleck invests in his music [classic article]

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Banjoist Bela Fleck started his musical journey at the age of 15. His influences included Flatt & Scruggs, bebop and pop. In 1982, he joined New Grass Revival, helping the progressive bluegrass band break through to the mainstream.

In 1989, Fleck formed his own band, the Flecktones, with bass player Victor Wooten and percussionist Future Man. The Flecktones still play more than 200 concert dates a year. Their live albums feature contributions from such notables as Amy Grant, Dave Matthews and Shawn Colvin. In addition to more popular forms of music, Fleck has also done groundbreaking work in the field of classical music, transposing such virtuosic pieces as Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” to the banjo. His latest classical and crossover collaboration is with bassist Edgar Meyer, on the album “Music for Two.”

Fleck is so versatile that he’s received Grammy nominations in a breathtaking number of categories: bluegrass album, contemporary jazz album, pop instrumental performance, country instrumental performance, spoken word recording, gospel album, contemporary folk album and world music. He won Grammys in the categories of best contemporary jazz instrumental, best classical crossover album and best instrumental arrangement. What are your latest projects?

Bela Fleck: Besides my work with Edgar Meyer and my triple album, “Little Worlds,” I’ve been touring — a lot of touring. I was up in the Northeast, but then I went with the Flecktones to Florida. In the winter, that’s where you want to be! You changed labels to Sony. What kind of changes in recordings or marketing did you expect to see?

Bela Fleck: To tell the truth, there’s not that big a difference between the labels. The key is, whether they are excited in you or not. They know they’re not going to clean up with me, but we do hold our own. We’re not a big money pit. They do hope that they’ll be some hits in a strong catalogue of our music. You’ve had to create much of the music you perform. Do you think there is an entrepreneurial side to you?

Bela Fleck: I have ambition, but mostly a deep love of music. It’s self-preservation, really; I have to figure out how to make a living for myself. I have friends in the business who aren’t doing so well. They say I have a great marketing sense, but I don’t see it. I’m really not into marketing. But I’m always thinking how to package myself, how to connect. It’s a lot of work. Do you think that your broad repertoire in several genres may be the key to bringing classical music to the younger generation?

Bela Fleck: My record “Perpetual Motion” sold a lot more than most classical records do. Now, people who listen to a lot of jazz usually listen to classical, too. But, people who listen to bluegrass don’t listen to classical music, but they listened to me. They usually listen to bluegrass, country or folk. I’ve had bluegrass people come up to me, thanking me for opening them up to another world. As you play with jam bands, one of their longtime traditions is acceptance of bootleg tapes. What do you think of this? Does your opinion change when it comes to mass marketing, like Napster?

Bela Fleck: It should be up to the artist what he puts out for free. My last album, I took two years to make, it was a triple album. I wouldn’t want to hear it was out for free. I was in the hole, time- and money-wise making it, as most people are! Now, when I perform with the Flecktones, we allow people to tape the concerts, we encourage it. It’s actually helped us to grow, I’m actually glad when people tape it. Now, I have performed with Phish and they complain about the bootlegging. I say to them, “Why complain about the record sales when you sell out Madison Square Garden?” Your recordings are not easily categorized in radio format. So many people are complaining about Clear Channel and Infinity Radio.

Bela Fleck: I have a satellite radio in my car, I think that’s nice. It puts choice into the consumer’s hands. I can listen to ’50s music or esoteric jazz, whatever I want. It’s very unfortunate what’s happened to radio, especially when some corporation in Texas can tell everyone else what to do. These people have too much power. A great DJ teaches about music, has a good ear to open you up to new things. Did you ever have another job to support your musical career?

Bela Fleck: In high school, I worked in the library, but I was fired! I was told I wasn’t serious enough, that I had to pick between the library and my music. You’ve been known for diverse collaborations — is there anything you’ve been wanting to discover, such as urban or hip hop, considering the banjo’s African roots?

Bela Fleck: I would love to do that! I wish someone would call me to do that! I think that some people might think that the banjo would make it sound country, but a good urban or hip hop artist would have the ear and give credibility to the project. Are you involved with any charities?

Bela Fleck: I do benefits for charities. I get lots of requests. I’m not affiliated with any particular one, though. If I were, it would probably be environmental. Or Amnesty International. Maybe Greenpeace, although some people tell me they are too aggressive. I don’t know them. I like that they have passion, though. Do you manage your own money?

Bela Fleck: I have someone who helps me; that’s recent, though. It’s someone I trust, who went into the money-management business, whose father is also in the money-management business. He’s a former musician. You have to be careful. You can be taken advantage of. I’m pretty conservative. Do you have investments?

Bela Fleck: My home. Also, my equipment — I have a home studio. Would you ever produce other groups?

Bela Fleck: No, probably not. Being me is a full-time job!

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