New West and Doolittle Records Come Together
A friend jokes that one day we'll die and find out that one guy at one company owns everything, like Oz's Man Behind the Curtain. Time Warner/AOL. Disney/ABC. GE/RCA/Thomsen Consumer Electronics. In a flurry of buyouts too Byzantine to keep track of, several major labels are engulfed by Seagram's, Sony, Universal, and a handful of other megacorporations. It all calls to mind an image of faceless corporate juggernauts with a will and momentum of their own, like Robocop's OCP. The merger of Los Angeles roots label New West and Austin's Doolittle Records, however, has a less ominous face and, in fact, seems to be a fairly ideal and logical pooling of resources.
Doolittle, the brainchild of president Jeff Cole and owner George Fontaine, got off the ground in 1992 with releases by Meredith Miller, Hamell On Trial, and Prescott Curlywolf. Early in the game, Hamell and Prescott Curlywolf's contracts were sold to Mercury in a move benefiting no one, since both acts were dropped by the label soon afterwards. Mercury now exists in name only, nestled under the wing of Island/Def Jam and dealing mainly in back-catalog releases.
In time, Doolittle had distribution via Slipdisc and a piggyback deal with Mercury, through Polygram's distribution arm, and was poised to take its place as a homegrown label with the capital to come up with recording budgets, back touring bands, and promote and distribute releases. The label eventually put together a stable of bands including Denton alt.country twangsters Slobberbone; Festus, Missouri's pride and joy the Bottle Rockets; Austin pop-rocker Trish Murphy; and bluegrassy Chicago swingers Mount Pilot.
Doolittle's bands were all tour-crazy roadhogs, living out of vans for much of the year, spreading the word on the interstates and gigging relentlessly. It was all adding up to a scenario that put Doolittle in a much better position than many of Austin's cottage-industry labels, complete with an office space and a full-time staff.
During the infamous "Black Saturday" label shakeout of two years ago, Doolittle's distribution via Slipdisc survived a cut in which some 40% of labels were axed. Jay Woods, the label's vice president and general manager, attributes that to the strength of Doolittle's artists.
"One of the last cuts was to eliminate all third-party [distribution] deals," he says. "Our deal wasn't considered third-party, but Slipdisc's deal with Mercury was considered third-party, and they let it run its course. That deal expired in January." That particular turn of events would help carry Doolittle through to the next juncture in the label's history.
New West, on the other hand, got its start in Minneapolis in 1997 with attorney Cameron Strang. Strang had wet his feet in Vancouver's legal profession, handing out pro bono legal advice to bands when he wasn't busy suing corporations or defending various criminal types.
All the while, though, the young lawyer had a passion for good music, country and roots-rock in particular; eventually he would move to Minneapolis, where Kelley Deal (late of the Breeders) sought his advice on recording deals.
Together, the two wound up releasing Deal's Go To The Sugar Altar album on Nice Records, but Deal showed little interest in signing bands or continuing on with the label, so Strang decided to press on.
"I suppose it really changed the course of things when I signed the distribution deal with RED [Sony's indie distribution arm]," he says. "I signed Shaver, since I was always a huge fan of Billy Joe and Eddie, I met Stephen Bruton one day at the Iron Works Barbecue and signed him, I saw Jon Dee Graham at the Saxon Pub and signed him, and it all just kind of came about that way."
With the help of RED behind him, Strang moved to Los Angeles in 1998, and New West was on its feet as a full-fledged label, with a roster that included former Wall of Voodoo frontman Stan Ridgway, the Kelley Deal 6000, Ann Arbor, Mich., singer-songwriter Jim Roll, guitarist John Tiven, and Vancouver troubadour Bocephus King.
New West's cred was also helped considerably by Strang's longtime association with Minneapolis music über-honcho Peter Jespersen. During his days at Twin/Tone, Jespersen was the man responsible for discovering bands like the Replacements and Soul Asylum; he officially came on board with New West in January of this year as vice president of television and film licensing and A&R.
Strang and Jay Woods ran across each other by circumstance and discovered a set of skills between them that would serve them well in the long run. Woods learned the ropes working in sales and distribution at Houston's Justice Records, the label founded by legal titan Randall Jamail and boasting releases by acts such as Kimmie Rhodes, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Shaver. Through the Twisted Willie release (a Willie Nelson tribute album by bands such as the Supersuckers, L7, Reverend Horton Heat, Tenderloin, and Gas Huffer), Woods and Strang made each other's acquaintance and soon discovered that they shared many common interests.
Woods eventually gravitated toward Jeff Cole and Doolittle after losing his job, and kept up his friendship with Strang and New West. In time, it was apparent that the two labels would do well by throwing their fortunes together.
"His label made sense to be in Austin, and we were here," says Woods. "We felt that Austin deserves to have a label that's involved in the city, supporting not only Austin artists but good music in general. Austin's been missing that for awhile, and we'd really like to be able to give something back to this town. There's a lot of talented people out there, in Austin and outside of here."
Given the shared visions of the two labels and their similar strategies, the time seemed ripe for the two labels to pool resources, with a good staff, solid distribution, and a small but dedicated core of bands and artists on their rosters. The deal was finalized on March 31.
"On both sides, it's been my experience that we'll roll up our sleeves and work unbelievably hard, and the bands do too, and we're all in it together," Strang says. "It's a different feel from 'let's see what we can get from the labelí' or managers that have to call and beat up on the label to get results. We're really focused on the records that we put out and coming up with a plan that makes sense."
Cole left Doolittle at the beginning of March, with the merger right around the corner. Woods cites a difference in philosophies between the owners and Cole's exhaustion with the whole business.
"He said that he was gonna be leaving and we had to figure out really quickly what we were going to do in his absence, for one, and also what to do with the Universal/Slipdisc distribution contract expiring, so we had to come up with distribution, and how to handle a lot of the things that Jeff used to handle, contract negotiations, lots of stuff," recalls Doolittle media director Bonnie Spanogle.
Though flummoxed for a time by his departure, the label's staff nonetheless hit the ground running and took up the slack, especially with new releases by Stephen Bruton and Slobberbone around the corner. For his part, Cole offered an official "no comment" on the whole affair, citing legal concerns. Attempts to contact label centerpiece Trish Murphy on the reconfigured label's prospects were also met with an official stiff-arm from her management.
Some may recall the well-publicized pissing contest a few years back between Cole and the members of Prescott Curlywolf, involving publication rights and mixdown chores, among other things. Sought for comment on the merger's big picture, Prescott guitarist Ron Byrd remarks "Any qualms that we may have had with Jeff are totally in the past and totally gone. That was years ago, and I think it's great for Doolittle, and I would gladly give them another record if it came up."
It's easy to count off the Austin labels that have run into a ditch. Just in the past few years, Dejadisc, Sector 2, Unclean, Watermelon, Trance Syndicate, and Freedom Records have all either collapsed amid bad debt and good intentions or are immobilized by various problems and lying dead in the water. There's a void that needs to be filled by an Austin-based label with the wherewithal to be a serious contender in the indie world. The marshalling of forces between Doolittle and New West could well fill that void. Mergers don't always have to be evil, after all.