Written by Henry Lake | Photos by Steven Thackston
Written by Henry Lake
Photos by Steven Thackston
Lance and April Ledbetter have an ear for saving what others might ignore.
In October 2020, the Ledbetters, founders of the Grammy Award-winning archival record company Dust-to-Digital, took one of their daily walks along the leafy streets of Atlanta’s Ormewood Park neighborhood. It was the week of the release of their most recent CD boxed set, “The Harry Smith B-Sides,” and the couple were enjoying a break from the rush of fulfilling orders from the basement of their home.
On their walk, the Ledbetters heard a mew of distress and looked up to find a small, orange cat perched high in a tree. The animal appeared to have been attacked and bore serious injuries to one leg.
April and Lance have more experience rescuing gospel and global folk music from the ashes of history, but whether the little creature deserved saving was never up for debate. Even in the midst of the biggest week of their business year, the couple took the stray to a veterinarian’s office for surgery and began the long process of rehabilitating this new member of their music-driven family.
This same ethic of preservation carries the Ledbetters through every facet of their lives and business. Dust-to-Digital’s compilations and boxed sets span time and space, from the American South in the 1920s to the lands of Siberia’s indigenous people. No artist is too niche, no country’s music too distant to deserve inclusion. It’s all about quality — sharing music the Ledbetters believe their listeners will love.
William Reynolds Ferris, a celebrated folklorist and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, speaks with reverence about the Ledbetters’ seemingly magical ability to pick out the music that will capture people’s hearts.
“They have an ear for good sound. They know what is beautiful. They don’t release a selection unless it’s beautiful and beautifully produced,” Ferris says. “You’re not as concerned with, ‘Is this the kind of music I’m going to like?’ If it’s from Dust-to-Digital, you will like it. It will expand your realm of taste, and it will do it with recordings that are exciting.”
Lance cultivated this skill through practice. During his time at Georgia State, he constantly discovered new music as a DJ for WRAS, the college radio station.
He hosted a show focused on music from the 1920s and ’30s. His time slot was on Sunday mornings, which meant listeners would often call in on the way home from church to request Southern gospel tracks.
Because it was the time before YouTube, before Spotify, Lance would visit local record shops trying to find music for the show. When that didn’t work, he reached out to record collectors who would copy tracks onto cassette tapes and mail them to the station in the Student Center.
“I would listen to these tapes during the week, and I’d play them on my radio show,” he says. “I couldn’t believe how incredible the music was — and how nobody could hear it.”
Even two decades later, there’s a distinct emotion in his voice at the thought that this music could have been lost.
A collection of images of musicians from around the world pulled from Dust-to-Digital’s more than 60 publications and its large social media outreach.
MAKING OLD MEDIA NEW
April was among Lance’s early listeners. The couple met at Georgia State when April’s roommate and friend took a 101-level filmmaking class Lance was also in. The class relied on decades-old 16mm cameras shared between two students, so Lance would visit April’s place to work on class projects with her friend.
As he struggled to operate the dusty old cameras, he and April got to talking. Those conversations ignited the romantic spark that would grow into the partnership that drives Dust-to-Digital’s daily operations.
For April, being with Lance meant being all-in with his love for music. In 1999, when Lance came to her with the news that he wanted to start a business that would make this hard-to-find music commercially available, neither of them knew where the journey would take them.
“I thought at the time that he was trying to break up with me,” April confesses, laughing at the memory of Lance’s solemn business proposal. “He said he was going to be busy with this project and didn’t know how much free time he would have. I told him I’d help him with whatever he needed help doing.”
Contrary to April’s fears, founding Dust-to-Digital bound them together around a mission — saving and sharing history’s great music — that has carried them higher and further than they ever expected in those early days. Among the label’s accolades are three Grammy Awards and a dozen nominations, as well as awards from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, the Society for Ethnomusicology and Living Blues magazine.
Where Lance had a vision, April showed an expansive ability to manage the day-to-day needs of the business, taking it forward one step at a time.
“Lance is a very driven person,” April explains. “I find the most pleasure in putting pieces together to make something happen. We pair well together.”
To Michael Graves (B.B.A. ’98), a fellow Georgia State alumnus and the audio engineer behind much of Dust-to-Digital’s acclaimed catalogue, the pair’s success is no surprise.
“As an audio engineer, this is the dream. You want to work with people who have a very high bar,” Graves says. “With Lance and April, I’m so lucky that I get to work with some of the best of the best.”
The Ledbetters’ work always comes back to its heartfelt core: saving music that would otherwise be lost and making it available in new formats to people who can enjoy it.
The mission led them to start the nonprofit Music Memory, which digitizes rare recordings without commercial ambitions, just to preserve them.
“What the Ledbetters are doing is global,” Ferris says. “They are like bees to honey. They will go to Indonesia or Morocco, as well as to the Mississippi Delta, and they find these repositories of music and liberate them in ways that are highly accessible and beautifully designed.
“If there’s good music out there and it’s not being used, they will find it and share it in ways that are very powerful.”
Ferris worked with the Ledbetters to create 2018’s multimedia boxed set “Voices of Mississippi.” This collection of field recordings, made over the course of Ferris’ career as a scholar of Southern culture and restored to high quality by the Dust-to-Digital team, won two Grammy Awards: one for Best Historical Album and one for Best Liner Notes.
Ferris believes Lance and April are the modern-day stewards of a vital tradition of music preservation.
“The Ledbetters build these platforms to deliver their work in ways that the artists of the past might have imagined but certainly could never have done,” Ferris says. “They’re the next generation of what music is all about. They respect and know those ancestral figures like the Lomaxes.”
That’s John and Alan Lomax, a father and son known for their field recordings of American folk music, work which helped to ignite the folk revivals of the 1950s and ’60s.
“I THINK RIGHT NOW, PEOPLE ARE EVEN MORE IN NEED OF MUSIC AND ART — THINGS THAT CAN TAKE YOU TO A DIFFERENT PLACE.”
“I THINK RIGHT NOW, PEOPLE ARE EVEN MORE IN NEED OF MUSIC AND ART — THINGS THAT CAN TAKE YOU TO A DIFFERENT PLACE.”
CHANGING WITH THE TIMES
For Dust-to-Digital, paying tribute to the past also means looking ahead to the future, especially as new forms of media allow people to enjoy and share music in new ways. In this century of rapid change, it would be easy for a company that first found acclaim for its CD boxed sets to despair at the rise of social media.
Instead, the Ledbetters see social media as a natural next step to share music even more.
“In 2016,” Lance says, “I had the idea to approach our social media like you’re sitting on the couch with me and we’re watching video clips together. I decided to put music on there that, even if it didn’t relate to the label, would teach people something new. The second or third clip we posted, it just exploded.”
Dip into Dust-to-Digital’s Facebook, Instagram or YouTube accounts and you’ll find a wealth of video and audio content — enough to send you on a journey around the world. Dust-to-Digital has more than 220,000 followers on Twitter, 405,000 on Instagram and 1.2 million on Facebook — remarkable numbers for an indie record label originally created to save music from dusty academic archives, back rooms and rubbish bins.
Adaptability has also led the label to opportunities for new successes in the age of COVID-19.
Before releasing “The Harry Smith B-Sides,” April says they questioned whether people would be willing to spend any extra income they might have on a boxed set.
“I think right now, people are even more in need of music and art — things that can take you to a different place,” she says.
This time of change has also given the Ledbetters the courage to try a new tactic with their latest release, “Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History of the World’s Music.” This 100-mp3 set comes with a 186-page collection of essays — and no physical product at all. With this release, for the first time, Dust-to-Digital has gone fully digital.
“It was a bit of a risk, but it seems like most people are enjoying it,” Lance admits. “Our email inbox has been kind of crazy these days. We’ve been getting orders from Istanbul, from Ireland, from all over. People can order it and listen to it right away. They don’t have to wait for shipping. It’s instantaneous.”
The work of Dust-to-Digital isn’t just about the music. It’s about people — the musical artists of yesteryear who have mostly passed on, leaving only their art behind.
What’s more, many artists in Dust-to-Digital’s catalogue had their voices silenced during their lifetimes. The Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll artists featured on 2015’s “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” compilation perished in the Killing Fields when the Khmer Rouge came to power. In the United States, the chronic toll of white supremacy cut short the lives of many of the African American musicians featured in Dust-to-Digital’s releases.
Do the Ledbetters feel a sense of personal responsibility to the artists they represent, in saving work that would otherwise be lost?
“That’s baked into the mission of our company,” Lance says. “So many of these artists did not get their due when they were alive. We want our work to be something that if these artists came back and saw what we’ve made and held it in their hands, they would be proud.”
“My home and my heart are Southern,” adds April. “It feels important to show appreciation for Black people, who’ve experienced systemic racism, and to share their music and their voices beyond their time.”
MUSIC FOR CATS
Lance and April engaged the same fix-it-up skill set used in their business to care for the stray cat they found on their walk back in October. The vet they consulted had doubts about the orange tabby’s chances, but the Ledbetters made a place for their new friend, dubbed Mama Kitty, in their basement stockroom.
They’re working up to introducing her to their other cat, Louie.
“She’s got a big personality for a little kitty. She’s kind of like our manager and supervisor,” April says. She and Lance share a laugh.
Readers with a discerning ear might wonder what music the Ledbetters listen to in their spare time. If you look at their Spotify account, you might not find what you’d expect.
Lance has a confession to make: “We actually found some playlists of ‘Music for Cats’ that we put on in the basement for Mama Kitty. My Spotify last year had cat music in the top three spots.”
April and Lance patch up great old musical tracks that need some extra TLC. Then, in turn, they share the music they love, enriching the lives of everyone they meet — even stray cats.
That’s Dust-to-Digital’s mission, and that’s the Ledbetter way.