Paying the Costs
When local honky-tonker Chris Wall parted ways with Jerry Jeff Walker's Tried & True imprint in 1994, he had two choices: wait around for another record deal or open his own vanity label.
"I shopped a little and found nobody was really interested in a 40-year-old cowboy singer," says Wall. "And yet, my people were clamoring for a record. I said, 'Hell, I know how to do this.' So, I made a record, put it out, and it went well, in that I sold some records and learned a lot. Of course, I'd do everything completely different now. But boy, did I learn a lot." In fact, after self-releasing Cowboy Nation and 1996's Any Saturday Night in Texas on his Cold Spring label, Wall learned enough about the independent record business to question whether his label needed any acts other than Chris Wall.
"I eventually started talking with my business partner, Danny Gillespie, about whether an independent label can actually make money," says Wall. "The distribution game and the airplay games make it the most difficult thing in the world. But we figured if you had a bunch of acts that will work with you – which means do it cheap – you have a chance.
"And the acts that we've got are acts that really believe in their music and are willing to take little up front in order to make it up on the backside – by profiting on the record. And then, of course, the essential thing is playing a lot and touring. The theory is that if we build our own markets together there's a possibility we could do it."
The type of young, hard-touring country outfit Wall began looking for actually found him. Last year, Reckless Kelly called and asked Wall to help them with an album they'd begun making with what they believed was the wrong producer.
"They were in a bit of a jam and we were able to bail them out," says Wall, who bought the album, brought in a new production team, and put out the local band's debut, Millican, last October as Cold Spring's third release.
Since then, Millican has sold more than 10,000 copies – a bona fide indie success story. With that kind of success out of the box, Cold Spring was able to lure what is perhaps the only other Austin-based act that plays as much in town as Reckless Kelly, the Asylum Street Spankers.
"They have a tremendous fanbase in a particular type of music where we don't have to compete with Virgin records or whoever," says Wall. "In country [music], we're going to get our brains beat in by the big guys, but that doesn't exist in the Spanker's kind of music."
The Spanker's Cold Spring debut, produced by steel guitar legend Bob Brozman, is due early next year, as is a record from Mike Blakely, another artist with a specialty the major labels rarely touch – cowboy storytelling. A bestselling Western novelist, Blakely also plays over 200 dates a year at cowboy poetry conferences and campfire sing-alongs.
Along with the new signings, Wall has also entered into two important arrangements that will improve distribution and bulk up his catalog. First, E-Squared, Steve Earle's Nashville-based label, has agreed to allow Cold Spring to piggyback on their deal with ADA, one of the country's largest independent distributors. They've already put Millican in stores nationwide and will begin distributing Wall's back catalogue next month.
In addition, E-Squared will be releasing albums from Cold Spring's new partner, Fume Records, an indie label that local scenster John Riedie launched with 1996's Austin Prince tribute, Do Me Baby. Riedie was already working with Cold Spring on radio promotion and tour coordination for Reckless Kelly, and has now brought to Cold Spring not only Do Me Baby, but also a star-studded country soundtrack to the Chasing the Dream rodeo documentary and plans for a second Prince tribute, I Feel 4 U.
Add Wall's new Reckless Kelly-backed album, Tainted Angel (due October 6) to the list of new Cold Spring releases, and it's obvious the label's principal player and small staff are going to be busy next year. And although Wall admits he still makes the bulk of his income off his own publishing and touring, he maintains Cold Spring is worth the effort.
"We're trying to turn out quality projects that sound good and are cost-effective with a little left over to work them," explains Wall. "That's fun. And it's amazing to me. If somebody had told me when I came to town nine years ago that I'd have a business partner, three employees, and four companies, I'd have told them they were out of their mind.
"Somebody asked me the other day, 'You're into so many things. If you could pick one thing in country music to do, what would it be?' I said, 'That's easy, I'd be Shania Twain's masseuse.'
"In the meantime, I think this is pretty great. We're paying the bills, and for an indie that's a real accomplishment."