It's easy for pop music fans to discover new artists: They just turn on the radio.
It's not so simple for fans of such non-mainstream genres as reggae and blues. An occasional Ziggy Marley or Robert Cray might break through, but outside of public and college radio there are few outlets for the styles.
"You have a rather large group of people who are disenfranchised," said Nauman Scott, who with his brother Hammond is the co-founder of Black Top Records, a New Orleans-based blues label.
One increasingly popular way to showcase artists in genres that don't get mainstream exposure is music festivals and package tours.
"If you're into what I am there are festivals all over the world," said Scott, 46. "People come for music they can't hear on radio or television."
Two such events will highlight the Memorial Day weekend schedule in Los Angeles: Reggae Sunsplash, tonight through Sunday at the Greek Theatre and the Hollywood Blues Festival, Saturday and Sunday at the John Anson Ford Theatre.
Sunsplash promoter Tony Johnson has watched his annual package tour grow into perhaps the top presentation of reggae music in the world, drawing large crowds composed of both neo-hippies and middle-class teens and young adults.
In addition to its three dates at the 6,000-seat Greek, this year's tour (featuring Maxi Priest, Dennis Brown, Shinehead and Andrew Tosh) will also be at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert on Wednesday, the Open Air Theatre in San Diego on May 31 and June 1 and the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa on June 2.
"This is a commercial audience," said Johnson, a 48-year-old Jamaican who was studying at UCLA when he saw Bob Marley perform at the Roxy in 1974 and became a reggae fan.
Returning to Jamaica, he was dismayed by the lack of live reggae there and in 1978 held the first Reggae Sunsplash festival--a seven-day event staged in Montego Bay. In the mid '80s he expanded the annual festival into an international tour, and now hopes that its success will be a springboard for new reggae artists, and a demonstration of reggae's commercial viability.
"It's a mistake for people to see reggae as a Jamaican phenomenon or a cult," he said, pointing to the size and breadth of the Sunsplash crowds. "It's gone beyond that. This tour has gotten bigger and bigger and hopefully the record companies will see that reggae has a strong base."
Blues promoter Scott's ambitions are a bit more modest. His label exists not so much to create stars as to give blues underdogs or forgottens some kind of outlet. Among them are most of the artists appearing at the Hollywood blues fest. The Saturday lineup includes New Orleans R&B artist Earl King, Louisiana soul singer James (Thunderbird) Davis and rising-star-guitarist Bobby Radcliff; Sunday features such Black Top acts as Texas blues band Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets, Joe (Guitar) Hughes and Los Angeles' Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers.
Where Johnson said that a relatively well-known reggae artist can sell perhaps 100,000 copies of an album in the United States--no big deal for major labels, but phenomenal for a small independent--Scott said that 10,000 to 20,000 is good for a Black Top release. The label's biggest seller is "Neville-ization," a 1984 live album by the Neville Brothers, which has sold 50,000 copies.
Black Top was founded in 1981 as an outgrowth of the Scott brothers' passion for the blues music they heard while growing up in the central Louisiana town of Alexander. While Nauman went to law school and then into the natural gas business, moving in the '70s to Dallas, younger brother Hammond went on the road managing Texas blues-country musician Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown.
By the late '70s Hammond, too, was in law school. Pooling Nauman's business skills and Hammond's experience with musicians, they started Black Top as a home for overlooked talent.
Even with Black Top's help, recognition outside blues circles is hard to come by for these performers.
"We had an Earl King record one year nominated for an R&B Grammy against (Michael Jackson's) 'Thriller,' " he said, dryly adding, "Incidentally, 'Thriller' won."