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.
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.
But Undertow no longer needs to depend on a physical distributor to get its music into record stores or online music outlets. With the influence of brick-and-mortar music outlets waning, digital distribution is sufficient.
And because the collective pays less to distribute its records through TuneCore, its artists see career-sustaining money sooner. In essence, TuneCore gives Undertow the same access larger bands have at a fraction of the cost.
"The music industry was traditionally all about distribution, and the cost of distribution and infrastructure [was] really, really high," Price says. "There were only a few companies in the world that could do it effectively. Digital distribution changed all that. In the digital world, you have digital music that replicates itself on demand as a perfect digital file, with no up-front costs, and it never runs out of stock.
"The metaphor is: Twenty years ago, I bump into you on the street and in your back pocket you have a CD or cassette of your band," he continues. "And I say, 'Tell you what — pay me $30, and that CD of your band that's in your back pocket will instantly be available at every Tower Records, with infinite inventory. Every time it sells in Tower, Tower will take their cut and you get the rest. That's what TuneCore is."
The Undertow Collective stresses that CDs aren't going to disappear just because digital music is becoming a dominant medium. Their artists will still release them (especially because some have separate record deals with indie labels such as Polyvinyl or Barsuk). The relationship between the buyer and seller in many cases is just more direct.
"You're just cutting out retail, you're cutting out distributors," Andrews says. "You're selling right to the fans, whether it's digital or actual CDs."
Despite the illusion that the Internet has created distance between artists and fans, the opposite seems to be true. If anything, technological advances have facilitated closer relationships. Buying music directly from a band's website creates the perception of a personal, one-to-one relationship.
Sometimes customers even have a direct hand in the creative process. When it came time for singer-songwriter David Bazan to self-release a DVD called Alone at the Microphone this year, he and Andrews turned to fans to help finance it.
"Whoever pre-ordered it, we sent them a download code to get the audio tracks separately," laughs Andrews, Bazan's manager. "It was sort of the old, 'Let us borrow your twelve bucks for a month and we'll give you some MP3s for free.'
"We did [the DVD thing] not knowing how we would make our money back on it. We sold a thousand of them before we even had them. By the time we ordered the first batch, a thousand of them were out the door. It's amazing.
"If you can find your five or six thousand loyal fans, you can make a really amazing career out of that," Andrews continues. "They'll come to every show, they'll tell [their] friends. They'll buy everything you put out, they'll buy the shirts."
It helps that Bazan — who used to front beloved indie-rock act Pedro the Lion — makes sure that his fan base gets its money's worth.
"Any time there's someone in a room where I'm playing, I need to do whatever I can, so that if it's possible, they're going to freak out and want to come back and bring people," Bazan says. "People ask me, guys who are just starting out, 'What do you do, how do you get going?' You just have to be good. And if you can't get your friends to come see you and keep coming back, then you don't got it. You gotta work harder and be better."
On September 30, 2007, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood posted a brief missive on the band's official website, www.radiohead.com.
"Hello everyone. Well, the new album is finished, and it's coming out in 10 days;We've called it In Rainbows. Love from us all. Jonny"
The UK quintet directed fans to www.inrainbows.com, where they could obtain the album in two formats. For £40 (roughly $80), customers could buy a coffee table-book-like "discbox" which contained Rainbows on vinyl, CD and as a digital download. The other option was to order a MP3 download for whatever price you wanted to pay. Fifteen dollars, five dollars, even zero dollars — any amount was fair game.
Releasing new music exclusively via the Internet isn't a new concept. But never before had a hugely popular band so drastically cut out music industry middlemen when releasing a new album. Essentially, the quintet became a self-contained record label, distributor and record store — one that could operate independently from mainstream, traditional business models. Radiohead — and not the bean counters — controlled how and when fans heard its music.
The results sent shockwaves around the industry. Other big-name acts, like Brian Eno and David Byrne, followed the band's lead. Electrometal superstars Nine Inch Nails even one-upped Radiohead by releasing two free collections of music in 2008: Ghosts I-IV and The Slip.
Bob Andrews stresses that not every musician has the luxury to release albums in this way. "Bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails can, because they already have fan bases," he notes. "But you're not going to ever break a new band like that, because you're immediately assigning zero value to their music."
Indeed, Radiohead's stunt had psychological components: How much is its music worth to its fans? More important, how much are fans willing to pay for something that's essentially intangible? Or, for that matter, something that can be downloaded for free? After all, an MP3 is ephemeral, a piece of data that can easily be deleted.
As Grabau points out, it's all about what those zeroes and ones represent. He cites a recent cover of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." This free MP3 was available via Wilcoworld.net to those who pledged to vote.
"The context of the MP3 is what probably becomes valuable," he says. "That has no meaning whatsoever in itself. But it happens to be [performed by] a band that's pretty remarkable and new, Fleet Foxes, and a band that's been around for a while that has a very good career, Wilco. [They] got together on an iconic song, [and] you get it for free if you pledge to vote. That song is relevant because of the people that made it, because of what it represents."
Radiohead's October 2007 an-nouncement almost overshadowed one made by the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, twang-punk band Glossary. In September of that year, the quartet stated that it was giving away its latest CD, The Better Angels of Our Nature, via its website, www.glossary.us. Its previous two records came out on Undertow. But independent of Radiohead's decision, Glossary had decided to forgo familiar physical distribution models.
With that in mind, Glossary sent copies of Angels first to long-time supporters on an e-mail list called Postcard from Hell. When the album was released, fans were instructed to spread it freely on social-networking sites and message boards.
"We put the record out for free, we've basically leveled the playing field between us and a band that has a big company behind them," says Glossary singer-songwriter Joey Kneiser. "All of a sudden, we have worldwide distribution of our record. Anybody who has an Internet connection can go get our record. And if they like it, they can listen to it and come see us, or they can order the hard copy. If they don't like it, they can just delete it.
"We decided that we didn't really sell enough CDs to where it would really hurt us, and the exposure would be much better," he continues. "We actually thought that it would probably make us sell more CDs."
Kneiser's hunch was right: The gamble paid off "way beyond our wildest dreams," he says. Glossary hoped Angels would be downloaded for free 5,000 times from October 2 through the end of the year. The band hit that amount within two months. More important, Glossary saw a spike in total album sales across the board — including physical copies of Angels.
"People started buying the CD off the website that was free," Kneiser recalls. "We were selling pretty much about one a day for the whole rest of the year, up until we just ran out. That was crazy, because they're ordering a CD on the same site that's free. There were those people who still want to have a physical copy of the CD."
While Glossary satisfied its rabid fan base — which was happy to spread Angels around — it also gained some new admirers.
"A lot of the people who were buying that new CD wanted to buy everything that we had for sale," he says. "Most of the time we would get our orders in, they would be for three CDs — they'd want the new one and the other two that we have."
Magnolia Summer's Chris Grabau is a fan of the "long tail concept." Conceived by Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, the idea posits that immediate gratification isn't a sustainable model for economics — or entertainment. So it's not about how many CDs or digital downloads the new Lines From the Frame sells in the short-term. Grabau is more interested in amassing a Magnolia Summer catalog that endures.
"As a musician, the sole intent for us above all is to make good music and get it out there somehow," he says. "People who would want to support my band will eventually — and I don't know if that will be at the merch table after the show or ten years down the road. I'm willing to take the time to find out, because it's about building a body of work."
Indeed, Grabau's band isn't a household name, but it's generally well-received. The band's last album, 2006's From Driveways' Lost View, earned favorable reviews from national publications Harp, Allmusic.com and No Depression. The band also plays every year at South by Southwest, as part of a popular showcase curated by Undertow.
Magnolia Summer also contributed a song to the three-CD project called Of Great and Mortal Men — 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies. That track — "Czolgosz's Dream," about William McKinley's assassin — was one of three featured MP3 downloads on an NPR story about the collection.
Grabau recorded Lines from the Frame at Sawhorse Studios with Jason McEntire. Supporting him are long-time collaborators John Horton (guitar), Greg Lamb (bass) and John Baldus (drums). Joe Thebeau of Finn's Motel co-produced and lent backing vocals. Sonically, Frame is crystal-clear and dynamic. Grabau's keening, wistful vocals mesh well with mournful violin from Kevin Buckley and the occasional curl of pedal steel.
The music ranges from slow-burning alt-country (the Whiskeytown-esque "Like Setting Suns") to pensive ballads ("Birds Without a Wire," a gossamer duet with Glossary's Kelly Kneiser) and gnarled, loud rockers (the wiry "Wrong Chords"). "By Your Side" is a Wilco-like track on which strings explode like a sunrise by the end. The jaunty jangle and springy cowbell of "Pulling Phase to Ground" recall the rowdiest moments of R.E.M.'s Life's Rich Pageant.
Even though Magnolia Summer is three albums into its career, Grabau doesn't yet consider it an established band. He's not interested in any of the clichéd paths that lead to equally clichéd ideas of "success" either.
"I don't exactly identify with the angle of 'trying to make it,'" he says. "I'm making it already. It just seems like...there's this implicit [pressure for] a band at my stage to shoot for something higher and greater. That should be understood; we all are doing that. I don't even know what that 'something greater' thing is at this point. What I'm actually shooting for is the journey, not the end.
"You might as well make what makes you happy — or make what you think is your own. Maybe that's the brass ring — this sense that you are chasing after your muse in the best way that you can, and in the best possible forum you can. If that's on a national stage, great. If that's on a regional or local stage, well, that's great too."
It's well past midnight, and fatigue is setting in. Grabau is twirling a pen in his hands and sitting on a red chair sprinkled with white flowers. Too chilly to stay outside, he's in a cozy second-floor loft that doubles as a playroom for his kids and as a living room.
Grabau suddenly jumps up and walks over to a shelf and pulls out a CD. Not finding what he needs in its liner notes, he returns to the chair and types on a gleaming-white Macbook. After a quick search, he pulls up a website with the lyrics to a song called "Everything Is Free," by sweetheart-country ingénue Gillian Welch.
The song is about the compulsion to write and perform music — even in the face of exploitation and indifference, financial or otherwise. Its ending is particularly cutting:
"Cause everything is free now,
That what I say.
No one's got to listen to
The words in my head.
Someone hit the big score,
And I figured it out,
That we're gonna do it anyway,
Even if doesn't pay."
"It sounds pretty bitter, and to a large extent it is — it's bittersweet," Grabau says about the song. "There is no map, really, like what we said. But in the same sense, you're going to do it anyways.
"When I was a kid growing up," he goes on, "I had a great-uncle. I was told that he was a musician, a guy that would play in the bars and play out in the square. A guy that just had music to play, and would do it. It wasn't about all of this peripheral stuff. It was about making music. That's what I've always gleaned from this song. You know?"
He laughs. "It's a whole different world. Everything is free and there's no money to be made. The well's dried up, but that's not really why you started making music to begin with."
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