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Big Fish: When Local Bands Go National
October 25, 2012
The Avett Brothers’ career arc can be traced by their live albums. In 2002, they recorded a set at the Double Door Inn; by 2010’s third live volume, they were playing Bojangles’ Coliseum. The band’s meteoric success, built on the nearly worn-out “one fan at a time” credo of their manager Dolph Ramseur, has moved the Concord-based act — now a quintet — from a fiercely beloved local darling to one of the nation’s biggest draws. In September, The Avett Brothers brought their commercial career to a new peak when The Carpenter — their sixth studio album, and second produced by Rick Rubin — debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 200 albums chart. Their previous best, 2009’s I And Love And You peaked at No. 16. Even The Avett Brothers’ annual New Years Eve show has outgrown Charlotte, and will this year be held at the 23,500-capacity Greensboro Coliseum — the same venue that hosted the only North Carolina date on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s blockbuster 2011 tour.
With their increasing fame, most every superficial attribute, from sound to personnel, changed to the point where thinking of The Avett Brothers as Concord’s — or even the Charlotte area’s — favorite sons now seems kind of quaint. The impact of their well-publicized success lingers, though. In the past year, four prominent Charlotte bands have inked record label contracts that promise greater exposure and possible fame — perhaps an opportunity to be the Next Big Thing out of Charlotte.
Modern rockers Sugar Glyder inked a deal with the Warner Bros. subsidiary Org Music, whose catalog includes reissues of alt-rock icons Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Helmet, as well as new releases from the metal band Darkest Hour, former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, and Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski. Junior Astronomers joined the like-minded roster of the Georgia-based indie Favorite Gentlemen, which mostly matches the indie-earnestness and blustery dynamic of its charter band Manchester Orchestra. HRVRD (once known as the more vowel-friendly Harvard) signed to Equal Vision Records, the Albany, N.Y. indie that launched the careers of Coheed & Cambria and Say Anything. Matrimony, the family band helmed by husband and wife Jimmy Brown and Ashlee Hardee Brown, carried its folk-rocking blend of Avetts rollick and Swell Season elegance to a Columbia Records contract.
For other ambitious locals, the road to exposure, and presumably success, hasn’t come through the traditional label model. Singer/songwriter Jon Lindsay dodged tempting label deals in favor of assembling his own team under his Bear Hearts Fox imprint (through publishing company North Star Media). And local rapper Deniro Farrar has been making waves in the press for two heralded mixtapes, both self-released.
In fact, the notion of a rock band pursuing a career at all seems counter to the Free Culture currents that have helped to bring about the much ballyhooed Death Of The Music Industry. In other words, if people aren’t buying records, what good is a record label?
For Sugar Glyder, at least, working with a manager, and then a label, offered an opportunity for the band to expand upon its own self-directed efforts. “We’ve always pushed ourselves to succeed in any way possible,” drummer Bobby Matthews says. “We did a lot of touring since 2008 just trying to garner as much attention as we could on our own, and fortunately then we signed a contract with Outer Loop Management and they pushed us to kind of climb the ladder, to get to where we are now.”
Commercial success has always been a goal for the quartet. They honed a sound that feels equal parts Muse and Incubus with a tenacious touring schedule, logging more than 500 gigs since 2008. They’re strategic in playing hometown shows infrequently, so as not to saturate the local market. “It keeps our audience excited to see us, so, you know, they’re not seeing us every other weekend,” Matthews says. “They’d get tired of it.”
But early on, not fitting easily on the small-club circuit, Sugar Glyder often found themselves sharing bills with metal bands. Making inroads with a large label might help the band reach the audience its music is intended for. “We’ve always been very conscious of who our audience is,” Matthews says. “In the early stages of writing, I think we were more writing for ourselves more than any sort of target audience. The more that we grew up and became more mature musicians and people, we had a better sense of what being in a band is all about, and what it means to write music for not only yourself but for the audience as well.”
Their Org debut, due in February, was recorded by producer Steven Haigler, whose credits include The Pixies and Brand New, but the members of Sugar Glyder are gently adamant that their musical direction is the result of their own ambition, not a producer’s direction or a label’s demands.
Sugar Glyder’s clear marketing strategy, and their willingness to confess it, is still anathema to many indie rockers who remain wary of major labels after the 1990s post-Nirvana alternative rock boom-and-bust. Junior Astronomers edge closer to the current indie philosophy. Their deal with Favorite Gentlemen is informal, the product of their frequent tour mates in Atlanta’s O’Brother putting in a good word. “We didn't really have to sign anything which was a pretty cool deal,” Junior Astronomers singer Terrence Richard says. The way Richard describes it varies markedly from the way Sugar Glyder’s members describe the “security” that accompanies their two-album contract with Org.
But as the definition of indie rock has become increasingly nebulous, the staunch ethics of indie standard bearers like Fugazi or Shellac frontman and legendary producer Steve Albini have loosened as well. Today’s biggest “indie rock” bands can find success with either a major (like Band of Horses, on Columbia) or an independent label (like the Arcade Fire, on Merge).
Even a major label contract is no guarantee. Charlotte ex-pats Paper Tongues — with the co-sign of American Idol judge Randy Jackson — earned a deal with A&M Records that resulted in a self-titled 2010 album, and a minor hit in “Ride To California” (which peaked at No. 45 on Billboard’s Rock Songs chart). The band, now based in California, has been mostly dormant since.
To mirror the Avett Brothers’ success, though, requires building a solid regional fan base first. “You should always strive to mean something to your city,” Richard says. “We live in the age of buzz bands though and a lot of cats just want the fast track. But for me, you have to make the city you’re from care before you take your act around the road.”
Sugar Glyder’s front man Daniel Howie agrees that a solid hometown identity benefits a band’s national prospects, too. “We’ve never been fans of bands that pick up and move to Nashville or move to New York or Austin because they want to make it big,” he says. “I think your environment is a big part of what your band becomes.”
This piece is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.