After An 11-Year Uphill Run, Judy Dlugacz and Her Feminist Record Company Look to the Top
A hot new single from the Coast will hit the bins this week. Under the Cover of Darkness by Alicia Bridges pops with a boulder-crunching beat, a swooping, gutsy vocal, and seems sure to shoot up the dance charts. A slick new video is on the way as well, just as you'd expect these days from a big-time record company that sniffs a hit.
Except that Bridges' label boasts less than a dozen employees, all headquartered at a corrugated steel warehouse in Oakland, Calif. The company president travels to work by Volvo, flies tourist class on business trips and isn't likely to be caught shmoozing in a steam room with other record business bigs. Not that any of that bothers Judy Dlugacz, the 32-year-old head of Olivia Records and its subsidiary, Second Wave. In a business top-heavy with executive males, Dlugacz (pronounced d'loo-gatch) has turned Olivia into the most visible feminist record company in the U.S.
The trip began 11 years ago in a Washington, D.C. living room when Dlugacz and four others set up Olivia as a women's collective. Determined to "give women a chance to develop their own skills as engineers and producers, bass players and drummers," the group survived more on spunk than savvy. "We had no money and no skills in the industry," Dlugacz admits. "If someone had spoken of a 'track' on a tape recorder, we wouldn't have known what they were talking about."
With $4,000 donated by fellow feminists and the help of a woman engineer, the collective cut its first 45 in 1974. Featuring Meg Christian and Cris Williamson, a pair of folk-oriented singer-songwriters, the record sold 5,000 copies and gave the group a shot of much needed momentum. A first album followed six months later, made for a scant $11,000 and again produced, performed and packaged solely by women. At concerts, Dlugacz remembers, "We'd go to the audience and say, 'Okay, we need a distributor in Chicago. If anyone is interested, please see us after the show.' "
Such novel tactics—plus interest-free loans from supporters—kept the company growing, and these days Olivia sells about 150,000 albums annually from a catalog of 25 LPs. In March of 1983 Dlugacz launched Second Wave, a subsidiary label to which she signed established female performers like Bridges (whose I Love the Nightlife was a million-plus seller in 1978) and Tret Fure (former guitarist with Spencer Davis). Second Wave may forsake Olivia's women-only policy and, Dlugacz hopes, move the company more toward the mainstream.
For Dlugacz, that may seem like strange waters. Born in Queens, N.Y., she watched her mother lead Long Island's first ever teachers' strike in 1966. She collected a degree in psychology from the University of Michigan in 1972, and moved to Washington, D.C. where she became one of the city's first women electrical construction workers. After eight months under a hard hat, she switched to cab driving, then to teaching, and was headed for law school when she and her friends decided to form Olivia. Now the collective's sole survivor, she shares a seven-room San Francisco flat with a psychotherapist and her daughter, and spends 50 hours a week managing Olivia. The rigors of the business haven't dimmed her enthusiasm. Her goal now? Says Dlugacz: "I want to be the women's Motown."
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