By Roy Kasten
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It is a Friday night in late September and Saint Louis University's Billiken Club is bustling with homecoming-weekend activity. Alumni and current students pack the Busch Student Center's basement. A few are listening to Seattle singer-songwriter Damien Jurado, who's quietly strumming onstage.
Chris Grabau, the center's building manager, is mingling with the crowd. Clad in a navy blue shirt, sneakers and a pair of black-framed glasses, the 36-year-old looks like he could be a bookish grad student — certainly not a father of two who's been involved in the local music community since 1993, most notably as a member of Stillwater and Magnolia Summer.
He hands over a promotional copy of Magnolia Summer's new CD, Lines From the Frame. Like many album advances, the packaging is nondescript. Housed in a plain white envelope, the CD itself contains song titles and contact information printed in a sturdy font. The word "Undertow" also appears, written in elegant, swirling script. Grabau is a part of the collective, which is helping facilitate Frame's release.
Although Magnolia Summer is celebrating the album with an Off Broadway show in just six weeks, Grabau says he isn't sure how the final product is going to shake out. He muses aloud about options he's considering. Pressing vinyl is expensive. How many CDs should he press? Should he even press physical copies? Is it feasible to use vegetable-based ink or recycled material for the packaging? Should he give away a card that's good for a free download instead of CDs?
Five years ago, these questions didn't arise when bands released albums. But the music industry is in flux. According to Nielsen Soundscan, album sales are down 12 percent through the first three quarters of 2008. Yet in the first half of this year, 31.6 million digital albums were sold — a figure equal to 15.5 percent of all albums purchased, and an overall increase of 34 percent over 2007 figures.
"It's not about the physical product, it's what the physical product contains," Grabau says.
A few weeks later, he is seated on the tiny, screened-in back porch of his south-city home, barefoot and wearing a brown T-shirt.
"It's not that you got the music from the CDs," he explains. "You got this music from a friend, or you found it on Last.fm, or somebody traded it out, or you heard it on MySpace maybe, or Pandora. Or you saw a band. The CD is a delivery device, an extension of an experience that you have. You can have that experience so many different ways now."
Grabau's insight has been integral to the evolution of the Undertow Collective. Although in recent years it has built separate record-label and artist-management arms, the eight-member group has decided to combine its resources and embrace the music industry's many changes. By relying on each other's expertise and ideas and adapting to technological advances, Undertow feels it can help its artists cultivate satisfying careers.
"There's no template, and there's no brass ring anymore," Grabau says. "It was clear that you had certain levels of attainment ten years ago, fifteen years ago. But that's all gone. What's left is way better than that — which is the chance to be the artist you want to be in the way that you want to be. There's a lot more questions than answers in that pursuit, but it's a lot better. It's a lot more fulfilling."
It's a freezing February afternoon in Champaign, Illinois, Undertow's distribution headquarters, which just happens to be located adjacent to Bob Andrews' unfinished basement laundry room. Stacks of neatly folded T-shirts in a rainbow of colors line three of the walls. Boxes of CDs take up the other wall.
The main office space is far more inviting: Professionally framed concert posters advertising shows by American Music Club, David Bazan and Centro-matic — current and former management clients of Andrews — hang on the butter-yellow walls. A couch separates two desks, on which sit matching Mac monitors.
On this day, Andrews is trying to get in touch with one of the Undertow partners, Mark Ray, via the video-conferencing program iChat. But the sound connection keeps crackling, his visage pixelating on the giant computer monitor like a television with bad reception.
Founded by Ray, Andrews and several other St. Louis musicians in 1996, Undertow began as a collective that pooled its creative talents. "It was truly just all of us helping each other record and release the records," Ray says. After much troubleshooting, the Portland, Oregon, resident is now coming through loud and clear on one of the Mac monitors.
"[Album] releases at this point were purely Bob calling [independent] record stores and self-distributing," he says. "It was more of a true collective at that point, just six or seven people helping each other out."
Over the next several years, Undertow evolved as its operations grew. Andrews moved to Chicago in 2000 and split off the management branch into a separate (but parallel) business. Members based in Boston, Massachusetts, and London, England, joined the collective.