By music industry standards, Charlie Hunter is one of the most successful guitarists of his generation. But he hates the music industry. These days, he’s devoted to fostering young musical talents in a business designed to crush and exploit them.

Charlie Hunter is a go-to guitarist for D’Angelo, John Mayer, and Frank Ocean. (John McGloin)

Ever since Edison invented the phonograph, capitalism has etched itself deep into the grooves of the recording industry. The advent of recorded music created new opportunities for musicians and supercharged the evolution of popular music, but also complicated the social and economic bonds between musicians and their overlords.

Early twentieth-century record executives saw a market for black music, for instance, and worked hard to target this market. But there has never been a black music recording industry without exoticization and exploitation. Paramount Records, which produced one-quarter of all blues recordings released between 1922 and 1932, took advantage of this untapped market and devoted all its energies to scouting the American South for black musicians to record, produce, and rip off. The company had abominable business practices, refusing to give artists copies of their recording contracts, constantly cheating them out of royalties, and showing preferential treatment for white musicians, making black musicians record for longer hours without additional pay.

One such black musician was Arthur “Blind” Blake, a fingerpicking ragtime blues guitarist whom Paramount scouts found in Florida. Blake’s distinctive ability to play his guitar like a piano, coupled with his euphonious voice, made him a hot commodity for Paramount. Blake had a profound influence on the evolution of blues guitar, owing both to his eponymous work and his contributions to the recordings of other Paramount artists like Ma Rainey. Nevertheless, Blake would die of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-eight, impoverished.

One hundred years later, in a small shed in Greensboro, North Carolina, Blind Blake’s recordings are studied today with a monkish devotion by another guitarist, Charlie Hunter. Hunter has worked as a professional musician for over thirty-five years, most of them with his “hybrid instrument,” an electric guitar specially designed to allow him to play bass and guitar parts simultaneously. Over time Hunter’s language with his instrument has become more sophisticated. So, too, has his analysis of the ways the music industry fails artists.

By industry standards, Hunter is one of the most successful professional guitarists of his generation. He is also a scathing critic of the music industry itself, which continues to treat artists almost as poorly as it did Hunter’s hero Blind Blake. “The way our culture thinks is, let’s reduce everything to a commodity, to a transaction,” Hunter says. “But who is establishing that narrative? It’s not the people that develop the music. It’s the people taking and profiting from it.”

Streets to Studio

Hunter’s background, marked by both hardship and radicalism, primed him for a healthy cynicism about the music industry. After living on a school bus as a child, Hunter and his family settled in multicultural Berkeley, California. His mother was committed to radical politics, even hosting Black Panther meetings in Hunter’s childhood living room in the ’70s. He recalls these formative years as “very hand-to-mouth,” with the family’s survival dependent on welfare programs.

Hunter’s background, marked by both hardship and radicalism, primed him for a healthy cynicism about the music industry.

Hunter’s mother found work as a repairperson at Subway Guitars, a music shop whose leftist politics were not muted. Ultimately a guitar found its way into Hunter’s hands, and he took to disciplined practice. Many of his friends planned to attend music school after high school graduation, but for Hunter this was not an option. “I was not academically minded,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out simple things like how to interact with an institution. I didn’t have cultural access to that. Nobody was going to help me fill out a form. I had a friend from France who said if I could get over there he had a place I could stay for a month and play music on the street.” So Hunter went to Europe.

There Hunter hooked up with a hodgepodge of musicians — Swedish, French, Senegalese, Brazilian, Roma, Martinican. They collectivized their efforts. Living in squats, twenty of them at times sharing one bathroom, street musicians would congregate at the Left Bank café Le Mazet and spontaneously form a band to go out and busk. The groups made democratic decisions, and wages were split evenly down the middle. There were even relief funds when extraordinary situations arose; if a member’s mother got sick or someone injured themselves playing basketball, profits were pooled to accommodate the condition.

After three years, Hunter returned to Berkeley, feeling that he had more to learn musically than cobblestoned streets could offer. Over the next two decades he sustained an accomplished and varied career. His first band back in the United States with musician-activist Michael Franti opened for U2. He turned down major label record contracts with Interscope and Warner Bros., inking a deal instead with legendary jazz label Blue Note Records, where he made less money but felt he was in more careful hands. Hunter toured the world, no longer squatting, and his hero status as a guitar player became solidified. Uber-successful artists like D’Angelo, John Mayer, and Frank Ocean have all approached Hunter to write music and play guitar on their albums.

But even while ascending its ranks, Hunter maintained an aversion to the industry itself. He describes it as an allergy. “It’s a cultural thing,” he says. “I don’t come from the culture that the people who run the business come from.”

Conditions in the industry have always been bad, says Hunter, but in his view they’ve gotten even less musician-friendly in recent decades. “One big difference in my own empirical experience from thirty years ago versus now is, yeah, every deal you signed was a relatively bad deal, but those were still music people on the other end,” he says. “The executives liked and felt strongly about music. Now there’s no music people. There’s tech people, and they don’t even know music.”

The Algorithm and Its Discontents

Nobody embodies the modern music industry’s merciless technocapitalist ethos better than Spotify’s billionaire CEO Daniel Ek. In a recent Instagram post, Ek compared the music industry to professional sports, saying that while soccer is played by hundreds of millions of people, only the exceptional few can expect to make a living playing full-time. His public statements throughout Spotify’s reign have consistently showcased this dismissive “tough luck” attitude toward artists. Take for instance Ek’s 2020 comments encouraging a more “rise and grind” attitude, scoffing that artists “can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough. . . . It is about putting the work in.”

Ek’s public image is that of a modern tech guru, but his perspective is a century old — the same one responsible for chewing up and spitting out artists like Blind Blake. What is new is how the technology advanced by these executives has stripped the industry of any pretense of artistic reverence, subordinating all to a series of cold hard algorithms.

When Hunter returned from his European street schooling, there was a system in place, albeit limited, that allowed artists to plug in and play. There was a community back at Berkeley, musicians to meet, bands to join. With today’s hypercompetition among artists for pennies from streamers, who can afford a career in music? This state of affairs inspired Hunter to action, setting him on a course of experimentation propelled by a desire to save the art of music from an industry set up to cannibalize it.

With today’s hypercompetition among artists for pennies from streamers, who can afford a career in music? This state of affairs inspired Hunter to action.

In 2017 Hunter was teaching at a jazz camp in Guadalajara, Mexico. Some of the students in his ensemble had taken ten-hour bus trips to come to the camp. He was tasked with teaching them a jazz standard, a blues shuffle, and a bebop tune. “I didn’t see the point,” he says. “Here I had these young musicians, and Mexico has great music, so I asked who had written some music. They push this nineteen-year-old girl named Silvana Estrada forward and she played the cuatro,” a guitar-like Latin American stringed instrument, “and sang these songs that blew my mind.” Hunter knew that there was no path forward in this industry for someone like Estrada without concerted intervention.

When the camp ended, Hunter told Estrada that he wanted to return to make a record with her. “I knew nobody was going to help her,” he says. “And it was now my responsibility to do whatever I could do to get her to the next level.” Coming back on his own dime, they made an album independently, setting Estrada up with a recording career. In 2022, she won the Latin Grammy Award for Best New Artist. And Hunter had a new calling.

Nurturing New Voices

Today Hunter’s efforts, undertaken from his home in Greensboro, North Carolina, are primarily oriented toward shepherding young musicians out of the technified swamps of the industry and into more musical pastures.

One such musician is native Greensborian Sam Fribush. Formally trained at the New England Conservatory, Fribush, like many musicians, found himself back at home and out of work during the early days of the COVID pandemic. A mutual friend introduced him to Hunter, and before long they were in Fribush’s garage, masked, playing music together four or five times a week.

“It was like a mentorship,” says Fribush. “Charlie was putting a lot of energy into helping me grow as a musician. His approach was not like the teachers I’ve had before. He treated me as a collaborator and peer. Because of that, my playing was elevated so quickly.” Once pandemic precautions loosened, Fribush and Hunter set up a well-attended residency every Wednesday night in Greensboro. Freed from the garage, Hunter’s mentorship began to transcend the musical.

“He’s a mentor on every level,” says Fribush. “He’s very savvy when it comes to business stuff. He’s advanced my career. On the business side of things, he taught me what gigs I should take and how much money I should ask for and when I should say no.” One might imagine these pragmatic lessons are baked into the century-and-a-half-old syllabi at New England Conservatory. “No way,” Fribush says. “Those guys are all old, kooky professors with their heads in the clouds. A lot of them are scared that you are going to take their gigs.”

A local studio engineer then set Hunter up on a blind session with a young singer-songwriter, Tori Elliott, professionally known as Victoria Victoria. The two clicked, and at the end of the day Hunter asked Elliott if she could write an album’s worth of songs in two weeks and come back. Though daunted by the task, Elliott returned to the studio, where Hunter helped her hone the tunes.

“Charlie would be like ‘This is really working,’ or, ‘Let’s change this up,’” says Elliott. “One of the biggest things he’s mentoring me on is asking why I am using certain chords and how they are working within the song. He is helping to inspire in me the confidence that I can make good choices musically.”

Elliott and Hunter’s second studio album was released in May, and they have spent much of the past two years touring together. “My first tour ever I was on the road with Charlie,” Elliott says. “I didn’t know how to advance a gig. I didn’t know to ask what time to get there or about mapping out drive times, getting hotel rooms, or how to settle up with the venue at the end of a gig.” But Charlie was there to show her the ropes and teach her how to advocate for herself.

A Generational Calling

The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson developed a compelling theory of psychosocial development. The stage associated with middle age proposes that the individual can adopt either a generative or stagnated stance. For Erikson, generativity meant a genuine concern and care for the next generation, while stagnation meant self-absorption.

The only generativity that Ek and other tech-minded music executives are interested in is the generation of profit. With such titanic self-centeredness at the helm of distribution and business, who else do young musicians have to turn to besides their music-minded elders?

The only generativity that Spotify CEO Daniel Ek and other tech-minded music executives are interested in is the generation of profit.

Young drummer Corey Fonville met Charlie Hunter at the Montreal Jazz Festival. A few years later, in 2020, Hunter was asked to write and produce a record for old Blue Note alumnus Kurt Elling and hired Fonville to help. For a musician of Hunter’s caliber, writing the album’s music would have been no problem. But rather than keep the task to himself, he recruited help from the next generation.

“Charlie leaned on us because of the age difference and the different perspective,” says Fonville. “He could have reached out to a more notable drummer, but he said he felt it was important to give the younger guys a chance. That we bring new vibes.”

Fonville recommended DJ Harrison, the keyboardist from his main outfit Butcher Brown, a popular jazz fusion band from Richmond, Virginia, and the trio worked out some songs. The group, dubbed SuperBlue, has since released two acclaimed albums.

“With other OGs it’s often their session, and they know what they want,” says Fonville. “But with Charlie, he was like, ‘You guys got something special, and I am trying to be a part of it.’ He killed his ego every time. He understands how important it is to allow others to get involved and bring in their personality. He’ always learning. He’s a student.”

Centering the Music

Although Blind Blake’s records were regularly rotated from Hunter’s mother’s collection while growing up, it wasn’t until two years ago that he started to seriously study Blake’s distinctive guitar playing. “You have to go back that far if you really want to know where it comes from and what it means,” says Hunter.

Music’s centrality to our lives can often mask the industry’s brokenness and depravity. A song appears to us commodified on Spotify, the labor and social relations that went into making it totally concealed from view. But those relations are increasingly bad, with the streaming era marked by dwindling compensation and career prospects for artists.

If musicians have a chance to make something authentic and long-lasting in today’s climate, it’s through banding together, taking chances, and making thoughtful contributions that are counterintuitive to business as usual. Hunter sees his role now as arming younger musicians with the tools to remain centered on music when the industry tries to wrench their attention away.

Fonville recounts a viral moment a few months ago where The Roots’ drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and other notable figures were sharing clips on social media of Hunter playing through his D’Angelo songs. “I called Charlie up to talk about it and he was just not caring about any of it. I was like, ‘What are you doing right now?’ And he was at his house, in his shed, practicing Blind Blake.”

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