Oh Boy founder John Prine [centre right] with artist Kelsey Waldon [centre left] and Oh Boy team members [L-R] Collin Fidler, Fiona Whelan Prine, Eileen Tilson and Jody Whelan.
The IMI 13th Jun 2022

‘Put your fans first and they won't steer you wrong’

The A2IM Libera Awards return next week, on June 16. In the lead up to this year's ceremony, The IMI will be sitting down with the people behind the nominees for Best Small Label. This time, meet Oh Boy Records…

Based in Nashville, Tennessee, Oh Boy Records was founded by multiple Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter John Prine, his manager Al Bunetta and business partner Dan Einstein.

Having completed a recording contract with Asylum in 1980, Prine decided to launch his own label rather than sign another deal elsewhere.

“John wanted to deliver his music straight to his fans without having a middle man involved,” Oh Boy’s VP of Marketing Eileen Tilson tells The IMI. “I wouldn’t say they thought they were going to revolutionise the music business, but they had a loyal audience, who they knew would stand behind them, and they moved forward.”

Oh Boy’s first release was a red vinyl Christmas single with Prine singing I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus on the A-side and Silver Bells on the B-side. The label’s first full-length release was Prine’s Aimless Love in 1984, which was completely fan-funded and helped launch the label.

To date, Oh Boy has released more than 50 audio and video recordings by singer-songwriters Dan Reeder, Todd Snider, Kris Kristofferson, Kelsey Waldon, Tré Burt, and Arlo McKinley, as well as Prine himself, along with a dozen reissues of classic country music artists.

The label is the second oldest artist-run independent label in the US, spanning more than 40 years, and is run today by the Prine family.

We spoke to Tilson about Oh Boy ahead of the A2IM Libera Awards 2022, where the company is nominated in the Best Small Label category…

How do you define success from one release to the next?

Eileen Tilson: We really believe each artist is different, and each album campaign is its own unique adventure. For Oh Boy, we consider an album a success if our artist has gained new fans, sold more tickets at shows, seen more social engagement… We believe in helping our artists have long term careers, and that comes about by building fans one by one.

"We're not trying to help our artists become celebrities, we're supporting them to have careers that can support the creation of their art."

Why do you think you’ve been nominated for this award?

ET: We are one of the oldest independent labels in the country, and are at a place where we can work with artists that we believe in. We sign songwriters – the best of the best – and we believe that their art speaks for itself.

Where do you see the label in five years?

ET: Continuing the legacy that John Prine left us. Putting out good songs, and sharing them with the world.

How much power do you feel independents have in 2022?

ET: We don’t generally think of things in terms of power dynamics. We’re not trying to help our artists become celebrities, we’re supporting them to have careers that can support the creation of their art. Our success comes from having a healthy community that wants to support the type of music we release. So, we root for the success of other artists, labels, and venues in our ecosystem, but we don’t think of ourselves as competing with major labels.

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

ET: Streaming services have been amazing for music discovery, but they don’t do a great job of giving context around an artist’s story, or showing why something is historically important. There has been a little bit of progress over the last few years, but it’s been frustratingly slow.

What advice would you give to other independent labels at your level?

ET: Build a community. Go for depth over width. Stay true to your craft. Don’t try and compete. The way other labels do things doesn’t have to be your way. Put your fans first and they won’t steer you wrong.