Lessons from the Bass Fiddleman

 

According to his song, Joe Gittleman has never had to knock on wood, but whether he’s Mr. Gittleman to students at Lyndon State College or“The Bass Fiddleman” to fans of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, this music master makes the grade.

The song refers to the Bosstones’ single“The Impression that I Get,” which climbed to the top of charts in 1997 and sold 2 million copies worldwide. The mainstream success catapulted the Boston band into the mainstream after a long, successful run of sell outs in their hometown. A major record deal followed, as did appearances on primetime television and an international touring schedule.

Thirteen years later, Joe was looking for a new challenge when he accepted a position in LSC’s new Music Business and Industry program. Only three years old, the program has more than 100 students, but then again, who wouldn’t want to learn from someone with more than 20 years of experience playing and producing, as well as the founder of arguably the most successful ska band in music history.

Formed in Cambridge, Mass. in 1983, the eight-piece band is sometimes credited with the creation of the ska-core genre, a form of music that mixes elements of ska and hardcore punk. Ska is believed to have originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s as a precursor to reggae. The Bosstone’s sound is hard to describe, but easily distinguished by the horn section and unique vocals.

The view from the Gittleman’s kitchen table is tranquil; a quality the couple was seeking when they moved to the Northeast Kingdom last fall. It was an area they were modestly familiar with. Joe’s uncle has a farm in West Glover and they’d vacationed in Greensboro. Apparently, that’s all it took. Now, a large window is the only thing between Joe and 20 acres of thawing Peacham ground. Spring is close, but a small pond’s icy surface is a gentle reminder of change, something Joe is familiar with.

“The program at LSC was growing and they needed a full-time teacher,” he says. When he applied for the job, he was hoping the institution would see past his lack of traditional credentials and focus on his professional experience.

Obviously, they did.“They say experience makes the education, and they mean that.”

In addition to his performance experience, Joe spent the last few years on the West Coast working for a small independent record label, Side One Dummy, as a recruiter and producer. He says the business side of the music industry has always interested him. In fact, that aspect of the industry always held sway over the Bosstones instead of the partying side of fame.

Teaching is a completely new challenge for Joe, but at least it’s in his blood. Several members of his family either attended Harvard University, taught there, or both. Students at LSC can take classes like: Introduction to Music Industry, Publish& Copyright, Songwriting and Rock& Roll Form and Style.

The flexible teaching schedule allows Joe to rejoin his band for about 20 gigs a year, including three sold out concerts at the House of Blues this year. The Bosstones now live all over the world, according to Joe, but they started as a collection of friends from the greater Boston area.

The mainstream success of the band in the late 90s was actually the band’s fifth full-length album and their grassroots success in Boston’s music underground is a tremendous source of pride for their founder, who had no idea he had something special when he wrote“The Impression that I Get.”

“When it comes to bands becoming famous, a lot of it is luck,” he explains.“There’s always some band being played on the radio and signing a big record deal. I have always been more proud of the work we did leading up to that point. To me, that was special. The band has always been about live performance, not commercial success.”

Joe’s performance in front of his students may be producing future leaders in the music industry, but he says it’s not difficult to keep a level head when you’re dealing with college-aged students. During a recent meeting with a student and mother, Joe was reminded of generation gaps. The student’s mother noticed Bosstone memorabilia in Joe’s office and asked her son if he remembered the band. The student insisted he didn’t, but the mother persisted. As it turned out, the mother was remembering a Sesame Street video called“Elmopalooza,” she used to play for her then toddler son.

The Bosstones were in good company on Sesame Street, joined by the likes of Gloria Estefan, John Stewart, En Vogue, Rosie O’Donnell, Steven Tyler, Jimmy Buffet and Celine Dion.

Humility, check!

Unlike Sesame Street, the music industry wasn’t all fun and games. A topic of great passion for Joe is the current trend of illegal music downloads, or bootlegging. It’s a cause he has devoted much of his mind and a little of his body to fight for.

In 1993, the Bosstones were touring with the Stone Temple Pilots in Italy. After the concert, Joe and the rest of the band noticed an Albanian vendor selling unlicensed merchandise. Joe grabbed a handful of tee shirts and threw them into the crowd.

“That turned out to be a stupid move,” he says. The vendor pulled a knife and stabbed Joe in the side, nicking his lung. To make matters worse, Italian officials determined the band was in the wrong since vendors in Italy need only a government license to sell their goods.

Internet bootlegging, or illegal music downloads dealt a vicious below to the music industry in the mid 90s, according to Joe, including cutting CD sales in half. Simply speaking, this underground phenomenon began with Napster, a free program computer users downloaded which gave them the ability to retrieve music tracks from Napster’s database for free. It was created by a student at Northeastern in Boston. According to Joe, labels threw an inordinate amount of effort at shutting Napster down. They were successful to a degree, but the train had already left the station. Various other free music downloaders started appearing across cyberspace, and they had a distinct advantage over their predecessor when it came to fighting record companies, their music was not stored in a centralized database. Users all over the world were downloading music directly from each other’s computers. This made legislation, detection, and enforcement difficult.

The Internet changed the music industry landscape, according to Joe, but plenty of artists, the Bosstones included, are using new technology to their advantage. Recent album releases are being distributed digitally, through reputable Internet companies that offer either a pay as you go or a subscription-based payment system.

Some aspects of the business have changed for good, says Joe. Where in the past, artists toured to promote their latest album, now the album has become something artists produce so they can tour.

While he’s sitting in his kitchen with a giant glass of tea, it’s hard to picture Joe as an energetic bassist dancing around on a stage. It seems like time with his students or at home in Peacham is both rewarding and relaxing for the Bass Fiddleman.