Dualtone: Small and Proud

May 1, 2003 12:00 PM, BY BARBARA SCHULTZ


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Especially in these economically troubled times, independent-label owners wear their difference from the majors like a badge of honor. They are quick to point out that whatever success they achieve is accomplished on lower budgets, with smaller marketing machines and fewer connections. Scott Robinson and Dan Herrington — partners in the two-year-old, Nashville-based Dualtone label — have earned their badges and wear them proudly. “With the majors' budgets and their business models, they sign 10 artists, seven or eight fail, one or two breaks even, and one pays for all 10,” Robinson explains. “With our business model, our first year of business, we had nine deals. Seven made money; two failed. So, we had the complete opposite of the majors' result. We're not making 500 million dollars a year, but we're filling a void that exists within the industry, and it's working.”

Robinson and Herrington are both former major-label insiders who worked in artist management (Robinson), marketing and sales (Herrington) for Arista and BMG, respectively. Their inside knowledge gives their boutique roots/country label a leg up on a lot of other indies; when they need to, they can play the majors' game. “We have major distribution,” Robinson says. “We're with BMG. When Dan and I started this company, we did research into why a lot of great independent labels fail. There are a lot of cool labels out there that put out great music, but a lot of them were operated by folks who didn't come from the industry. They didn't know how to get records on the radio. They didn't know how to get records written about in Rolling Stone. They didn't know how to get records into Wal-Mart or Tower or Best Buy. We know the buyers at the chains and the mom-and-pops. We know the writers at the major publications. We know the radio programmers. We had access to a lot of resources. Our first year in business, we almost had a Gold record; our second year in business, we won a Grammy.”

Singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale received the Best Bluegrass Album Grammy this year for Lost in the Lonesome Pines, his second collaboration with the legendary Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Lauderdale is typical of the Dualtone roster, which also includes artists such as David Ball, Chris Knight, Radney Foster and Victoria Williams — all talented writers and performers who had careers before signing with Dualtone but have flourished since. “I just think the industry as a whole has to be really conscious about careers,” Robinson says. “Artists' careers are not a disposable commodity. I would like to see a return to the days when artists have multiple-record careers instead of one-record careers. You look at the Billboard Top 200 today, and it's very hard to find any names who are even on their third or fourth record.

“I've been on both sides of the table,” Robinson continues. “I've been pitched, and I've made the pitches. I know how a label works, and I know the artist's needs. So when we created Dualtone, I said, ‘Lets create something more artist-friendly that is more realistic, and let's sign artists that we believe need to be around for the next 10 albums.’ We're not about signing an act, dropping an act, signing an act, dropping an act, but signing an act and building a career across multiple records. It's about making the right kind of records, smartly.

“A perfect example of where we can cut corners and be more cost-effective is recording costs. Our costs are probably from an eighth to a third of what the majors spend. We spend anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000, depending on the project. The majors spend from $75,000 to $350,000. We never felt like if we made a record that cost us $30,000, that if we spent another $50,000, we would have sold 100,000 more records.

“Or online distribution,” Robinson continues. “It's not the main source of income, but it is a revenue center. We put our site up for $1,500 or $2,000 when we started our company, and within 60 days, it had paid for itself. Not that we're selling thousands of units, but we're selling hundreds of units, and it's a great information site: a great way to help promote and sell product.”

Dualtone is working from its own well-conceived, self-determined plan and having decent success at it, far from the madding crowd at the major labels. But Robinson believes that the solution to the majors' problems is pretty obvious. “They just need to have great music,” he says. “Look at Norah Jones, Buena Vista Social Club, O' Brother — records that didn't have a lot of airplay in the beginning. I think the industry needs to stop making records for the 13- to 16-year-olds and start making more great music, because when it's offered up, people react. In other words, let's not make a lot of disposable music. Let's make great music that we're proud of and can stand the test of time.”

Barbara Schultz is Mix's senior associate editor.

Dualtone's Scott Robinson speaks out on the label's latest release: Lonesome, Onry and Mean: A Tribute to Waylon Jennings, and on adding June Carter Cash to the artist roster.

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