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Dolph Ramseur: The secret behind the Avett Brothers' success

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The Avett Brothers have hit the big time. The band from Cabarrus County recently played to a sellout crowd at Merlefest in Wilkesboro. The band's sold 210,000 copies of its latest album, I and Love and You. Their talent as songwriters has taken them a long way, but Dolph Ramseur is the secret to their success. He's their manager. Ramseur has steered the Avett Brothers from his home office in Concord. His expertise is now sought out by bands who want to emulate the Avett's success. Scott and Seth Avett met Dolph Ramseur about seven years ago. It turned out to be a career-changing moment. But at the time, they thought Dolph could be a snake-oil salesman. They were playing at a Wine Vault shop in the University City area. Scott Avett well remembers when a stranger came up to them after a set. "He just said, 'Hey, this is my name, this is what I do, this is where I'm from, this is who I'm interested in and why I would like to work with you guys.' "I remember telling Seth, 'Well this guy is either a great guy and can help, or he's a name-dropper," Scott Avett says. Dolph Ramseur didn't have a whole lot on his resume. He had started a record label a few years earlier that the Avetts had never heard of, even though they're all from Cabarrus County. "It was a question of, did Dolph know what he was doing? Nobody really had a lot of experience in the music business or marketing a band proper or what that meant," Avett says. The hesitation disappeared when it became clear that Dolph really loved their music. They also like his plan: Make good music and build your fan base. "I learned that from seeing Richard Petty, because when I was a kid, Richard Petty would sign autographs until nobody wanted one," Ramseur says. Dolph Ramseur saw a lot of NASCAR growing up near Kannapolis. His marketing philosophy is an extension of how he saw drivers back then treat their fans, and how kids shared music. "People made mix tapes and then, I guess, people made mix CDs, trying to turn their friends onto certain songs, certain artists, and that's essentially how I look at Ramseur Records," Ramseur says. "It's my own mix tape that I try to get people turned on to. I just have a joy in doing that." His kitchen and living room serve as his office. There's no official Ramseur Records studio. He just rents space when he needs it. This is how the Avett's six albums under Dolph's label were created. Today, the Avett Brothers are with legendary producer Rick Rubin in California, but Dolph is still their manager. "I bet you I've seen them play 300 times over the seven or eight years. I'm going overseas soon with them for a couple of dates. I'm one of their biggest fans, and it never gets old. That's the great thing about them." And get this: He manages them with no contract. In fact, he's never worked for the Avetts with a contract. "My mom, my sweet mother as I call her, has always said you are only as good as the piece of paper you sign." That's his philosophy with all the acts he manages. Like the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The Chocolate Drops are an up-and-coming African-American string band based in Durham. Before meeting Dolph, the band received great reviews, but its fan base was small. So three years ago, the band's manager said they needed help and recommended Dolph because of his work with the Avett Brothers. Lead singer and fiddler Rhiannon Gidden says the Chocolate Drops needed to build a fan base beyond the arts festivals and small venues where they were performing. Gidden says it didn't take Ramseur long to make a difference. "And that's just been invaluable, because he did it. He did it with the Avetts. He's had all that experience of playing the small venues and playing for peanuts and now they are doing quite well," she says. The band is in demand for the biggest summer festivals. Next month's schedule includes Bonnarroo in Tennessee. And, it also includes The Fillmore in San Francisco. Dolph Ramseur is 40 years old. He didn't get in the music business until 10 years ago. Until then, he was a club tennis pro and even spent some time working for his father-in-law's venture capital business. Sure, he thought about music, but common sense told him he couldn't make the business a career. After all, he had no experience. But that fan passion took over. Dolph bought music directly from a British singer-songerwriter named Martin Steveson. Stevenson mailed the music with a note saying he was a big fan of Piedmont blues music and North Carolina legends Doc Watson and Charlie Walker. A friendship developed. When Stevenson expressed interest in performing in the states, Dolph left his old career behind. He promoted Stevenson's small tours of North Carolina without knowing what he was doing. "From there we released this collection of field recordings. The got my feet started with musicians here in the United States," Dolph says. The one-fan-at-a-time approach remains the Ramseur Records mantra. And it's something Scott Avett says he and his brother haven't forgotten. Now that the Avett Brothers are on the national stage, their one-fan-at-a-time approach is still in force, just at a larger scale. But the Avetts have never forgotten what Ramseur taught them early on. "We'll sign autographs until the last person goes because these are the people that brought us here. No dollar bill, no producer, no one person brought us here," Scott Avett says. Today, 12 bands are on the Rasmseur Records label, and Dolph manages five of them. And none of them are under contract.