The little label that could
Over lunch at Marche recently, Dualtone founder Scott Robinson discusses the decision to get off Music Row and find a place that matched the ethos of the upstart label with back-to-back No. 1 debuts on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart — both in six figures. “There was an existing artist community in East Nashville,” he says. “From the economics and the community sense to the idea that the music should be what drives what you do with it, this just felt like the place.”
When The Lumineers and “Ho Hey” started topping the charts, the upstart label that defied convention was still occupying the floor above Pizzereal. The No. 1 Alternative, Triple A, Hot AC, and AC single in America came out of a few rooms, five people, and a little band who wasn’t afraid of big hooks and lots of touring.
The idea, though, that goliath success could be repeated seemed folly. Never mind that the little label that could won two Grammy awards in 2004 with recordings by June Carter Cash — Best Contemporary Folk Album (Wildwood Flower) and Best Country Vocal Performance (“Keep On The Sunny Side”), the latter beating Martina McBride, who performed on camera, in a total upset.
“The whole label had flown out there for it,” marvels VP of Radio Lori Kampa. “There they were in their tuxes, and John Carter (Cash) going up to accept for his mother. Martina had just sung, so nobody saw it coming.”
“Nobody saw it coming” is Dualtone’s strength. When Robinson and Dan Herrington founded their little upstart after a “life in the majors,” they wanted to do microfocus on smaller yields that bore greater overall returns. Hard country singer David Ball — known in part from his tenure with Walter Hyatt’s near legendary Uncle Walt’s Band — had a second wave of success with the single, “Private Malone.”
Dualtone monetized, proved their ethos could hunt — and never looked back. Even on their own success. Despite acclaimed and award-winning albums from Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley, Cowboy Jack Clement, Radney Foster, Robert Earl Keen, Brett Dennen, BR5-49, Matraca Berg, Robinella, Hayseed Dixie, and Bobby Bare, produced by Bobby Bare Jr., plus reissues (Merle Haggard, Townes Van Zandt), tributes (Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash), and compilations (No Depression magazine), they opted not to corner the Americana market, but seek vaster plains.
Beyond The Lumineers, who are headed to their second platinum album in a day when nobody sells albums, those plains include Langhorne Slim, Shakey Graves, Oh Pep!, Ivan & Alyosha, Delta Spirit, Noah Gundersen, Wild Child, Leagues (Nashville’s Thad Cockrell, Tyler Burkum, and Jeremy Lutito), and the recently signed Chuck Berry. As president Paul Roper affirms, “Being able to pursue art for art’s sake, and let the commercial rewards come as they will, is a whole other way of doing business. We are trying to build careers. It’s not lightning in a bottle, but going record to record. … It’s a culture of sustainability we’re trying to create, and have a longer-range vision.”
“That’s part of why we wanted to be in East Nashville,” Robinson explains. “It brings a culture, a lifestyle, a way of being where you’re outside the mainstream. There are no boundaries here — and the landscape is very entrepreneurial, very rich with ideas. It’s about exploring and being open to what can be instead of ‘this is what we do’ or ‘this is how we do it.’
“Americana and roots music will always be a pillar of our foundation, but I grew up on Triple A and Paul did, too. We wanted the label to be a place where we could say, ‘Oh, you wanna be a folk singer,’ or ‘a pop band,’ or ‘a rock band,’ or ‘a country artist,’ and feel free to commit to that.”
Laughing a bit, then leaning conspiratorially closer, Robinson’s eyes twinkle, “And being here lets us do what we do without having the magnifying glass on us. We’re on the edge of the Middle Tennessee music business for those things we need, but not really.”
Unorthodox and scrappy pretty much sums up the little label that could. Almost unmarked, save for the olive drab square sign with a bear on it — and a small engraved bar on the building — Dualtone’s world headquarters is a single story, rambling brick box that contains a small staff that makes things happen.
And for those who remember the days back on Music Row, back when the ping-pong table was kept in the attic without ventilation and the men stripped to the waste for brutal matches, the notion they’ve made it is measured by the fact that there are now two bathrooms. As Kampa says, laughing, “Scott actually likes to say we’re ‘corporate,’ because we now have a men’s and a woman’s bathroom.”
Joking aside, it’s a ragtag team united by passion and a love of music that makes it happen. For Paul Roper, who’d graduated from the University of the South in Sewanee and ended up working with country demistar/songwriter Radney Foster, being a label president wasn’t on the list of aspirations when he was helping the Del Rio-raised singer figure out life after the majors.
“I did, you know, work on his website, figured out logistics, some stuff with his catalogue,” the dark-haired, bright-eyed Roper recalls. And then, as sometimes happens, Foster’s need for outside help went away. But unlike many artists, the guy known for “Just Call Me Lonesome” and Foster & Lloyd’s “Crazy Over You” recognized the 20-something had talent.
“He basically helped me get this internship (at Dualtone) where he was signed,” Roper marvels. “And I haven’t had any other job in my entire life.”
Kampa’s experience is similar. Having graduated from the University of Wisconsin, she was working for Ricky Skaggs, running point in the office and doing whatever needed to be done for a family business that includes a label, managing the career of Skaggs and The Whites, and the nuts and bolts that comes with artist careers.
“I loved them,” she says. “Ricky and his family were just the nicest people … and so great to work for, whether it was setting up interviews and doing publicity or pulling together stuff for a record release.”
After a few years, however, Kampa wanted more than the world of bluegrass, but wasn’t quite sure what. Like Roper, she laughs recalling, “I didn’t want to be a promotion person. I wasn’t even sure what all it took. But I found myself in a meeting with Scott who was asking me if anyone had talked to me about the drug policy? And I’m like, ‘Um, okay. ’ And he says, ‘You have to be on a certain amount of drugs to work here,’ and just started laughing.”
Evoking Jack Clements’ philosophy — “it’s a fun business; if you’re not having fun, you’re not doing your job right” — Dualtone built a model where you worked hard, but nobody took it so serious they lost their love for music — or the game. And in that, they’ve been able to dig in and outperform the majors.
When The Lumineers started evoking a low level hum — less than a buzz, but something A&R types were picking up on — Roper refused to back away. He recalls, “The living room concert was racking up views, people were figuring it out — and it took a long time to get the deal done. They were playing Atlanta and we drove down to see them, and there was a guy from Atlantic Records talking to them before the show. But we just kept showing up.”
And in the end, they prevailed. Independently minded themselves, the band with the rapidly ramping clicks, views, and downloads aligned with the little label over the pizza shop. “Ho Hey” was obviously something important, only no one knew just how important.
A meeting with Country Music Television’s now SVP of Music Strategy Leslie Fram, a radio programming veteran from Atlanta’s 99X and Manhattan’s WRXP, proved sobering. As Kampa recalls, “Leslie listened, then she leaned across her desk, and asked Scott, ‘It’s a hit. Are you going to be able to deliver this?’ ”
Roper nods. He remembers, too. The pressure was on, and that meeting became the gauntlet. There are plenty of songs, they realized, that can have a good run on momentum, but never realize their full potential.
Dualtone, who’d quarterbacked The Civil Wars’ promotion drive for “Barton Hollow,” left no stone unturned. Beyond placing the song in Silver Linings Playbook, The X-Files, and Guitar Hero Live, they reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped a number of the magazine’s song charts, including Alternative, Hot Rock, Adult Alternative, Adult Pop, and Adult Contemporary — all for multiple weeks; plus landed at No. 2 on the Pop Songs chart. “Ho Hey” also went to No. 49 on the Country Songs chart without even trying.
“When they won Independent Label of the Year,” The Lumineers’ lead singer, Wesley Schultz, says on the phone from Ireland, clearly savoring what he’s about to say, “they had like four employees. It was awesome.”
Lifers may well be the reason Dualtone can run on such a short staff. They bring in specialists for “just what we need,” including a campaign that earned the folk-driven DIY trio not just a Best New Artist and Best Americana Album nomination at the Grammys, but also a coveted performance slot.
Just as importantly, The Lumineers, who’d signed a one-off deal, returned for Cleopatra. The follow-up album sold in excess of 100,000 copies its first week and debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart. If it was unthinkable the first time, the approaching gold second album suggests Dualtone knows how to make things happen without compromising an indie act’s ethos.
But this isn’t the story of a small label, and a big act. For Dualtone, it’s about the roster — and the growth of artists. It’s about relationships, and success based on what an artist dreams and where the act starts.
For Guy Clark, who recorded four albums for the label, it meant seeing the legendary Texas songwriter finally win his first ever Grammy in 2013 for Best Folk Album for My Favorite Picture of You. After all those nominations, an all-star tribute album winning a Grammy, Clark finally had a Grammy of his own.
For Shovels & Rope, the energetic roots rock duo that recorded three albums for the label, it was going into the Americana Music Awards nominated for Emerging Artist, Duo or Group and Best Song for “Birmingham.” The nominations alone, given how competitive Americana has become, were terrific for the South Carolina-based act; only the pair walked with a pair: Emerging Artist and Song.
“There was a party at this house they rented outside town, because they’d had a lot of family and friends come in,” Kampa recalls. “It was a very big deal for them — and us — and it’s all in the documentary, The Ballad of Shovels and Rope.”
“You look at the acts that come in and win two,” Roper continues. “You’re talking Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell. They all end up going on to great things — and there was our act that we believed in.”
Believing. It sounds like a cliché. Yet Dualtone works from that premise. For Robinson, that belief extends to the staff. “We’re seven, eight people and some interns — in a 5,000-square-foot building,” he says. “We try to utilize the best possible resources all over the globe, to get the right people for the job.
“It’s tempting to romanticize all this, but really it’s the people who make it work. My whole team lives in East Nashville, so being here keeps them near their friends and families — and that’s a good thing.”
Roper laughs thinking about it all. But in the end, he realizes the esprit de East Nashville permeates everything about Dualtone in a very good way. “Some things we changed — we lost our laundry and the shower when we moved, but sometimes we still have happy hour out in the parking lot.
“But more importantly, we can all walk to lunch together, we can walk to work — or ride our bikes. There’s a real community vibe to everything over here, and that’s everything we’ve tried to build with this label. Every act we’ve got, there’s a sense of connection — and many of them share that with each other.
“To us, to have that, to watch our bands grow, that’s what Dualtone set out to be and do. And it’s why being in East Nashville is just the right place for us to be.”