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Undertow the record label, meanwhile, kept busy releasing records. Albums arrived from the Redwalls, Dolly Varden, Monahans, ex-Wilco member Jay Bennett and locals Magnolia Summer and Waterloo. Like many labels, Undertow contracted with a distributor called Red Eye, to make sure its albums were in record stores and available to download on places like iTunes or eMusic.
But after releasing 35 albums through traditional distribution channels since 2002, Undertow has decided to return to its roots. For starters, it's reverted back to calling itself the Undertow Collective and hired recent SLU graduate Christine Sanley to be a project manager. (One of her first clients is St. Louis alt-folkies Theodore.)
While still involved in releasing albums, Undertow's website states it's no longer a label, but "a conduit to help [musicians] release their records through digital and physical outlets."
"Conceptually, we're all just managers now," says 41-year-old Andrews, who speaks quickly in a genial Southern accent that reveals his Nashville roots. Seated in a desk chair in the middle of the room, he constantly fidgets with his sneakers as he talks.
"I don't think we are really a record label. The reason is, because it just doesn't make sense. If you do a 50-50 profit-split deal — which is the standard indie deal — and you're getting half the money of a band's record income, it's still too much. It's a big chunk of money for really doing something [bands] can do on their own."
Adds Ray: "Bob really threw down in a long e-mail one day. He said, 'Look, guys, the best thing for Undertow to do is to get back to what we do best — and that's rely on our own resources. Besides, everybody's going to buy digital anyway. We ought to be on the front of that, because we were on the front of all this ten years ago.'"
Undertow's do-it-yourself aesthetic is a throwback to the '80s and '90s, when indie bands and artists were self-sufficient out of necessity. But its DIY ethic now is by choice — and it's aided by technological advances.
In fact, the collective is already seeing results for one of its artists. Ray and Andrews recently collaborated on a video for "Rat Patrol & DJs," a song by roots-rockers Centro-matic. The clip was filmed in Centro-matic's hometown of Denton, Texas; the video was then shipped to Portland, where Ray added animation and color treatment.
"Rat Patrol" premiered in mid-October on Stereogum.com, an influential music blog. A few weeks later it appeared on Pitchfork.tv, the video arm of music news and reviews site Pitchfork. Because of the clip, Centro-matic vocalist/songwriter Will Johnson was asked to do a podcast for MTV2. Andrews says there's even a chance the video might be played on the channel's underground-music video show, Subterranean.
Andrews contrasts this with the recent experience of another Undertow management client, Springfield, Missouri's Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. "Their label hired a video promotion company, and they got on Stereogum and Pitchfork. And Centro-matic got the same thing — for free." He laughs. "All you have to do is send it to people. If they like it, they'll play it."
One of Undertow's valued resources is TuneCore. For a reasonable rate, the company helps artists get their music onto online music stores like iTunes and Rhapsody. TuneCore now releases between 150 to 300 albums a day — more than a major label would do in a year.
Jeff Price, who ran the indie label spinART for nineteen years, founded TuneCore out of frustration, after discovering that digital distributors were no better than physical distributors. Neither one was artist-friendly — at least financially.
"[Digital distributors] said, 'When we put your music up in the digital stores and it sells, we're going to take this back-end fee, and we're going to control your rights and collect the money,'" Price says. "My response to these companies that approached spinART is: Go fuck yourself, with all due respect. Why in the world should we give you 20 percent of the revenue from the sale of the music?
"This is a band going out and busting their butt and the label busting their butt — working their hearts out. They beg, they borrow, they plead, they sleep on floors, they eat ramen. All you're doing is moving a digital file from point A to point B. Why in the world should you get an unlimited amount of revenue from the sale of the music, control my rights and collect all the money for just delivering a file via the Internet?"
Undertow's relationship with TuneCore has superseded its relationship with Red Eye. Grabau says it "made sense" to work with the latter company, "when we were still a little more tied to the physical realm of things." When Undertow had a release with the potential for big sales — like Bennett's solo debut, 2002's The Palace at 4 a.m. (Part 1), Red Eye could manufacture CDs for the label. They could also set up displays in record stores and secure print advertising.
As these things became less important, Andrews says Red Eye's function became obsolete. For starters, the distributor's financial model didn't benefit a smaller operation like Undertow. Because the label didn't sell that many CDs, achieving a break-even point was difficult.