Tom Donald ‘s label celebrates the work of local artists

Tom Donald started hiTrecords three years ago, to showcase the work of local artists, including himself. Donald, a producer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, said the inspiration for the label harks back to his earliest musical memories. “We based the company around the same concept I had when I was a teenager,” Donald said. “Let’s run down to the record store and buy the hit single I just heard on the radio and go home and play it over and over. We’ve released one compilation, but the main focus of the label is on putting out the newest songs from my favorite artists, one at a time.

“I’ve lived long enough to see the end of the era of hit records. There are Taylor Swifts, but for most artists today, there are no hit records. There is no mechanism for getting a hit the way there used to be. Naming my indie label hiTrecords was an ironic statement. My wife, Mitzi Ngim, is our designer and thought the lowercase letters would get your attention.  

“Since I’m a songwriter and composer, I wanted to present my newest work, but I have a lot of artist friends who don’t have the means to display their new work. I decided to expand the roster to give them a chance to get some exposure. Sometimes we co-write songs, sometimes we do covers, all to broaden the scope of the music,” he explained.

The latest hiT release is “Soul Good” by The Soul Bros, a combo that includes Donald and several friends. It’s a tribute to the Memphis sound of the Stax/Volt family of labels, with a sharp horn section and a driving dance beat. “Soul Good” was first released in 2019, just before the COVID lockdown. 

“We’re a studio group, not a live band,” Donald said. “Our model is the studio-based bands in New York City who created hits, without touring, or being a real band. I love the idea of musicians getting together to create something, putting out a record and perhaps never working together again for months, or years, or ever. 

“We’ve put out 10 singles by the Soul Bros, but different players show up for each session. Oftentimes, the musicians don’t even see each other, especially in the past few years. They email the parts to me, and the production takes shape here in my studio. It’s also appropriate for the post pandemic time we’re living in now, a way to not place yourself in jeopardy. ‘Soul Good’ is the 53rd single we’ve released, over the past three years,” said Donald.

Also, hiTrecords has put out “real” records, pressed on vinyl, but most are digital only releases, available on the label’s website (hitrecords.co) and the usual platforms. “The return from investment in ‘real records’ is low, and digital is here to stay, like it or not. I’m old enough to remember the time when you wanted to sell singles and albums. Now, you can listen to everything for free on digital platforms.

“The carrot for anyone doing what I’m doing is that someone will hear the music and like it. One single we put out, ‘Just Another Sad Song’ by Fred Ross, a local soul singer, got 50,000 hits on Spotify. That’s not enough to generate royalties, but there’s satisfaction in having the music you create being heard by other people. It’s not easy, but incredibly satisfying, to get feedback from peers and people we don’t know,” he said.

After 15 years in the business, playing in clubs five nights a week and working in production, Donald decided he wanted more out of life. “My father had been a Mad Man in New York, so I gave advertising a go. I became a copywriter and, eventually, a film director doing commercials. After 30 years, I aged out of advertising, but I hadn’t aged out of music, so I started playing in bands again. Eventually, I put together a studio in my home and started hiTrecords. 

“When I was in advertising, my chops went away. It took time to get them back, but I’m grateful and healthy. I enjoy the music and stay in the moment, digging the hell out of it. One day I’ll be gone, but for now it’s on, so let’s do it. 

“When I first walked down these streets in 1968, I felt free, like I could make myself into anything I wanted to be, and in a sense, I have,” Donald explained. “I want to keep making music for as long as I can. I’m living a life I dearly love, with a woman I dearly love, so I want to keep going and see what’s going to be on the next record we make and what else we’re going to come up with.”

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