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The new guard in Nashville: With major labels faltering, new kids arise on the block

By Brian Baker, May 2001

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"There were a lot of artists, who were very good artists, had very good fan bases, still loved to tour, still were recording, but had no outlet to get their music to the people. We felt that it was a great time for an independent label to come into Nashville."

Artist-run labels have risen dramatically during this time as well. Steve Earle's E-Squared, Charlie Daniels' Blue Hat and Kenny Rogers' Dreamcatcher labels all began ostensibly as homes for the artists themselves and ultimately began operating like regular labels with the signing and promotion of outside talent.

Other indie labels, such as Bloodshot, Checkered Past and New '

West, have made reputations for themselves by blurring the lines between musical styles, mixing varying amounts of country, rock, and folk into a fascinating genre blend that defies categorization and, quite often, airplay.

When it comes to promotion, indies have to play by a different set of rules than the majors. Deep corporate pockets insure that the majors can invest heavily in their developing artists, while an indie's razor thin margin means they will have to be more creative with less resources.

"Independents have always been locked out of radio in the past and simply couldn't afford to play with the big boys," says Roy. "Our approach has been that there are a lot of opportunities, as long as the artist understands that this totally isn't going to be a radio game. We have the ability to get their records to retail, to market, and to use all the alternative methods that we feel make sense. Because of our distribution and sales strengths, we feel that we can go out and sell 25,000-150,000 copies of an album for an artist, they'll make money, we'll make money, and everyone's happy, even though they're not in the Top 20 of the country music charts."

VFR's Hester concurs. "We call it connecting the dots," says Hester. "We have to connect the dots better. Theoretically, we should be better at crossing the t's and dotting the i's than the majors. When we get something, it matters. When we get a newspaper article, we need to maximize the potential of everything we get."

Chris Neese, vice president of A&R for Broken Bow Records, works a similar angle for his artists. "One of our key marketing objectives is to market from a grassroots level," says Neese. "We definitely don't want to ignore the national blitz, but along with going from the top down, we have to build from the bottom up. When we get action in any one market, we saturate that market with press, making sure that retail is onboard. We have street teams that go into these markets, and they'll make sure our product is in the stores, they'll make sure that there are bin cards, they'll call the radio stations and request the songs, they'll go to the colleges and hand out T-shirts and samplers. It's a real grassroots ap-proach."

Audium Records, home of Loretta Lynn, Ricky Van Shelton and the Kentucky HeadHunters, has found success promoting its releases by compiling a specific network of radio stations that are sympathetic to the label's direction. Audium President Nick Conner says that it may not be the newest idea in the mix, but you can't argue with success.

"We've put together what we call the Audium List of Radio Stations," says Conner, a former Warner Brothers exec. "We're dealing almost exclusively with non-reporting radio stations, and we've told these people that they are as important to us as the major reporting stations are to the big labels. That's been one of our main lines of offense, so to speak."

One of the biggest challenges across the board for independent labels is distribution of its product to brick-and-mortar stores around the country. Many of the corporately-held indies have ties to distribution chains - Relentless utilizes the established Madacy network, and VFR's distribution is handled through RED, which is partially owned by Sony - but the biggest roadblocks are reserved for the true independents that have to subcontract distribution.

But, as Hester notes, finding distribution can be the least of an indie's problems. "The biggest challenge for an independent is how to expose their music to the masses," he says.

The most important piece of the indie puzzle is the artist. Every artist who signs a contract knows that losing that contract is a distinct possibility, and every artist will react differently to being dropped. Some may want to jump back into the fray right after being dumped, and some may want to retreat and regroup, wary of anyone bearing a similarly voidable paper.

Jim Lauderdale deliberated on his next move before signing with Dan Herrington and Scott Robinson's DualTone Records, which will release Lauderdale's new album, "The Other Sessions," in June.

"I've been fortunate to have been with several majors, and DualTone seemed like the best home for my work at this time," says Lauderdale. "The album has not been released yet, but I feel encouraged by the set up this album is getting. I have a lot of music I want to get out, and this also seems like the best route. I could see staying in the indie world, but I have the freedom to do projects with majors if they arise."

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