Rough Justice

Last week, a Seattle-based Austin native's latest album marked the resurrection of one of Houston's few non-rap record labels to ever truly get off the ground. The album is Ian Moore's To Be Loved, and the label is Justice Records, active again after half a decade of dormancy as a tiny sliver of RCA's vast back catalog.

Justice is still owned by Randall Jamail, now 50, but the son of legendary Houston attorney Joe Jamail says his role this time around is much more hands-off. GM Jan Mirkin, Moore's former manager, will handle Justice's day-to-day business out of her Austin office, while former Supersuckers manager Danny Bland will coordinate touring out of Seattle. In Houston, Jamail plans to handle A&R and occasional production — but where he once may have produced ten records a year, today he says he'll be content with one or two.

"I started talking to Jan and realized her time as a manager, really what she was doing was interfacing with every part of what a record label does," says Jamail. "I knew I wouldn't be on the same treadmill as before, and the excitement came back."

"Dealing with music is his No. 1 passion," agrees Mirkin. "Justice Records couldn't exist without him, but he's not a control freak.

"He gives me enough rope to hang myself with," she laughs. "A lot of ­freedom."

Jamail says he signed Justice's catalog — which includes albums by Willie Nelson, Ray Price, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, New Orleans jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and former Houstonians Carolyn Wonderland and Jesse Dayton — over to RCA because after running the label since 1989, he was burned out and tired of watching his three young sons, now 12, 15 and 17, grow up without him. (He also has a 30-year-old daughter in Denver, who recently started working for Justice.)

"This is the kind of business where the minute you finish a production, you're looking for the next record," he says. "I was having lunch with my son, who was four or five years old at the time, and thinking, 'What am I chasing here? I could do another record, but I'm going to look up in 15 years and he won't ever have known me.' I tell him all the time he saved my life."

Because Jamail chose to distribute Justice releases directly to retail outlets instead of through a third-party distributor, the label was hit especially hard when, around 1998 or 1999, the rise of file-­sharing and illegal downloading caused an abrupt downturn in music sales. Justice depended much more on its artists' heavy touring schedules than on radio airplay to drive record sales, so when record stores began shipping unsold product back to the labels after about 60 days instead of six or nine months — giving artists a much smaller window to pass through any given market — it really hurt.

"Trying to figure out how to go forward, I realized I didn't have the energy to completely reinvent the company at that point, and continue producing records and try to be a dad," Jamail says.

This time around, Justice is distributed by Fontana, the boutique arm of industry giant Universal. Knowing the widespread availability of studio-caliber technology like ProTools combined with the ease of making music available on the Internet means artists have much less incentive to sign with a label at all, Jamail cooked up the motto "Freeing the Slaves One Master at a Time."

Artists on Justice retain ownership of their master recordings, licensing them to the label for a preordained period of time. Justice does take an administrative fee off the top, but other­wise Jamail says the label and the artist split any money right down the middle, and when their licensing agreement is up, it's entirely up to the artists to re-up or not. If they decline, everything they've recorded for the label goes with them.

"Usually in a recording contract, the label has the unilateral right to decide if the artist is going to do another record, and the artist is compelled to," notes Jamail, who has a law degree from the South Texas College of Law, and once taught entertainment law there for a semester. "What happens is you have a lot of artists continuing to make records for companies when they don't want to be there, and they're not happy with the way things are going. This is supposed to be a team ­operation."

Does it work? Obviously it's too early to tell with Justice 2.0 — its current roster also includes Willie Nelson's sister Bobbie, whose first-ever solo album Audiobiography comes out next month (featuring two new songs from her brother, a longtime Jamail family friend), and New York-based blues singer and guitarist Greta Gaines — but according to Jesse Dayton, who put out 1995's Raisin' Cain on Justice and played on several other Jamail productions, it won't be for lack of effort­.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray