Undertow Records is an independent label based in Chicago. In April, they are going to release Jay Bennett’s first solo album (with Edward Burch). They do a lot of other great stuff too, and I was lucky enough to interview Bob Andrews, the guy who runs the show. He had a lot of interesting things to say about working on the more human side of the Music Industry over the past decade or so. Check it out!
Interview with Bob Andrews of Undertow Records
Undertow is a Chicago company that manages, books and releases records by a variety of bands. Their philosophy is to “help guide our bands through the perils of the music business while keeping their dignity and artistic vision intact.” One of the artists managed by Undertow, Varnaline, recently placed in many critics’ “Best of 2001” lists for the album, Songs In A Northern Key.
On April 23, Undertow Records is set to release the new album by Jay Bennett and Edward Burch, The Palace At 4am. Coincidentally or not, this is the same day that Bennett’s last album with Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, will be released on the Warner subsidiary, Nonesuch.
Bob Andrews handles the record label and management stuff, while Meggean Ward handles the booking. Bob can be seen at shows selling the albums and t-shirts of his bands. I had the opportunity to talk with Bob recently and here’s what he had to say about running an independent label in 2002.
GLONO: You’ve got a pretty cool roster of groups you work with (Handsome Family, Ass Ponies, etc.), and it’s nice to hear about a label that can "get by" in this age of corporate consolidation.
Bob: Yeah, I’m pretty lucky that I get to work with all my favorite bands…
There’s a bunch of background info about Undertow, Meggean (my business partner) and me on the undertow website.
Your website says that you started out "tour managing Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, and the Bottle Rockets." Was that working for (long-time Wilco manager) Tony Margherita? What did "tour managing" consist of for those groups then?
I was working for Tony back then. I would work in the office with him when the band was not on the road and then would travel with the bands when they went on tour. Tour managing mostly consisted of coordinating travel plans, making sure we arrived at venues on time, helping set up the gear, keeping track of the money, making sure no one got left behind (which happened to me one time) and reporting back to the band office and record label, etc.
It was fun – I got to go to see lots of places and meet a bunch of nice folks along the way.
How’d you get left behind?
I got left behind once in Washington, D.C. Went in to check out of the hotel after an Uncle Tupelo show. Came out of the hotel and the bus was driving away. I ran after it but couldn’t catch it. They got lost on the way to the highway and came back to the hotel to ask directions and I was sitting out front waiting for a cab. Anyway, it all worked out ok.
We tried to leave a sound guy once. He was very obnoxious and we were all pretty sick of him. Figured we’d leave him behind just to be mean… But he caught us before we could get away.
Undertow is a record label in addition to doing booking and management. Can you tell me a bit about how these different roles complement each other? And do you see any potential conflicts of interest when acting as both an artist’s manager as well as their label? (The only reason I ask is that I just finished reading Fred Goodman’s Mansion on the Hill where he writes about David Geffen and his empire and how the major labels conduct business.)
That’s a good one… Lots of people wonder about the conflict of interest thing. But we structure things differently than most labels – the bands that I also manage and release records with we do an 85%/15% split – 85% to the band, and 15% to undertow, which is what I’d get in commission on record royalties anyway. Bands that I don’t manage but release records for we do a 50/50 split.
The bands have complete control over everything – we decide together how to spend marketing money, where to run ads, how the band is presented to the press, etc. everything that goes out of my office goes through the bands for approval.
The bands have access to the accounting and inventory – so there’s never any question about the money stuff.
I look at it more like a partnership between me and the band – not really a traditional record label/artist relationship.
What can an independent label, such as Undertow, offer an artist that they couldn’t get from a major?
There are some huge advantages for the bands to release records through undertow… First off, we all know each other very well. I’ve worked with Dolly Varden for 6 years, Centro-matic for 5 years, some version of Nadine for nearly 8 years, I’ve known Mark Ray from Waterloo for 5 or 6 years and he’s a partner in Undertow. He’s one of my best friends on the planet – I swear we were separated at birth. I’ve always been a Varnaline fan. I knew Anders through a mutual friend, and I’ve known Jay Bennett for 7 years. (In fact, I was the person that made the initial contact with Jay to see if he’d be interested in joining Wilco.) So I have a long history with all of these people. They all know where I live; I’ve stayed at their houses; attended their weddings; they were all at my wedding. I know their wives, husbands, girl/boyfriends, and parents… So it’s sort like a big family, and we all trust each other.
I think everyone knows that I’m always looking out for his or her best interests. And that I’d never do anything to jeopardize their careers. So that removes any of those weird, "record label is trying to screw us" feelings that most bands have toward their labels. Most bands never know what’s going, what’s being spent, what’s getting charged back to the band, how many records are being sold, etc. So if you remove all those worries, the band can focus on what they do best — making music.
I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with bigger labels on behalf of bands I’ve worked with… Most big labels are run so poorly — no one will take responsibility for anything — everyone always seems like they are worried about getting fired or laid-off, or they are looking to step up to a bigger job. So you can never get anyone to really fight for you to get things done. I’ve run across a few folks that do a great job, but that’s pretty rare.
I think a good portion of being a good label manager is based on not doing what a bigger label would normally do.
I also don’t have anyone under contract or own their masters… They are free to release records with any label they want to. As long as I’m doing a good job then they’ll continue to work with me. That’s worked pretty well so far.
How did introducing Jay Bennett to Wilco come about? Was he still doing Titanic Love Affair?
Honestly, I never heard of TLA until after Jay joined Wilco. I knew Jay from playing with Steve Pride who had opened for the Bottle Rockets a few times. Ran into him at the last Uncle Tupelo show — he was doing sound for the opening band. Then I saw Jay on Conan O’Brien playing with Tommy Keene. I thought he seemed like a cool guy and a good guitar player so I mentioned it to the band. They asked me to call him up, and the rest is history.
How has the booking side changed since when you first started? Does Ticketmaster affect the kinds of shows you book, and if so, does it make it easier or harder for the artists to do their thing? Is it getting more difficult for an independent agent to book shows in an era where Clear Channel is gobbling up everything?
I don’t really do any booking. That’s all handled by Meggean, my business partner who I’ve been friends with for 8 years before we started working together last year. Again, I trust her to do the right thing. We work together closely when planning touring for one of the bands that I also manage [Centro-matic, Dolly Vardin, Nadine, Varnaline, Waterloo]. I plan out a tour with the band, and then give her the cities, dates, and venues, and she does all the legwork, negotiates the money and details.
As far as the clear channel thing goes, I don’t think we run into them very much at our level. The venues most of our bands play are below their radar. There are still a lot of great venues across the country that are booked in-house. You really have to start getting into 1,000+ seat venues to have to deal with the big promoters, which is fine by us. I’d rather a band play 2 nights at a smaller venue than step up to a big venue. They make a much bigger percentage of the ticket price playing smaller venues. When you get into the big places the expenses are insane — you pay for union stagehands, ticketing fees, security, sound, lights, towels, plus a promoter fee of 15-20%.
You have to nearly double the ticket price so the band can make the same amount they would have made at a smaller venue. I think the higher ticket prices reflect poorly on the bands. Most people just see the $15 ticket and assume the band is making all that money. When in reality, everyone makes more money than the band when you play those bigger venues, which I think is very wrong.
Overall, I think the more indie you can do things, the better the results will be in the end. I think I’ve built lasting relationships with people I trust and I’ll work with for a long time. I hope those people think the same about me.
You can make a decent living doing this without being on MTV. It just takes a little longer to do it.
That’s very cool. I’ve got a lot of friends in bands, and they tend to write really great songs, make decent recordings by themselves, play some good local venues, but never really make it to that "quit your day job" phase. What advice would you give a band that’s struggling to take it to the next level?
Make amazing records, play as much as you can regionally but not too much in your hometown — lots of bands play local shows every week and get the "local band" tag that’s really hard to shake. Start your own label — D.I.Y. as much as possible. Be nice to people. Good kharma goes a long way.
I saw the Handsome Family at Schuba’s on Friday. What a great show! Undertow handles their booking. The ubiquitous Edward Burch joined them on several songs. That guy is everywhere! I thought he was out on tour with Jay Bennett but I hear he was at the Hideout with Leroy Bach on Monday and then I saw him on Friday. Are there any plans to release a Bach-Burch album on Undertow?
Yeah, that was a great show. I love the Handsome Family — very nice folks.
Edward will be touring with Jay starting next week. And then a bunch more dates with Jay in April. Edward is a good guy — and yes, he does get around.
I’m not sure if there is a Bach-Burch album in the works. I don’t know Leroy at all. I may have said hello to him once, but I’m sure he had no idea who I am. I was long-gone from the Wilco camp by the time he joined the band. Plus, I can’t really afford to release much more than I have planned now.
Can you tell me a bit about the artists you manage?
It’s hard to explain what bands sound like sometimes, but I’ll try.
Dolly Varden – boy/girl vocals – indie-pop-alt-country-soul-roots-rock sorta thing. Sounds like Richard and Linda Thompson, Van Morrison, the Band.
Nadine – sounds like Neil Young, Tom Petty mixed with a little Pink Floyd. That sounds bad but I can’t think of a better way to describe them. Great songs.
Centro-matic – prolific band from Denton, Texas — like 6 records in 5 years. By far the best band I’ve ever seen live. Very indie rock — like Pavement, Guided by Voices, Sebadoh, etc. they are not afraid of the anthems! I mean that in a good way.
South San Gabriel is Centro-matic’s alt-country-ish alter ego. Will Johnson (main man from Centro-matic) writes so many songs they had to start another band. SSG is more laid back — less guitar and more fiddle, Hammond b3, and pedal steel. Sounds like the Dirty Three, Smog, Will Oldham.
Varnaline – smart and lean songs about things you usually don’t want to talk about. sorta low-fi, sorta hi-fi. I think Anders Parker is a genuis!
Waterloo – it really takes a few listens for their record to hit you. But once those songs are in your head you can’t shake ’em. Kinda like Red House Painters, Daniel Lanois, with a little bit of Nick Drake mixed in.
Are you accepting new bands for the label, booking, or management? If so, what would a band have to do to get a deal with Undertow Records?
I’d be crazy to try and take on any new projects right now. I’m so busy I hardly ever see my wife these days. I try to keep the rosters very tight and never spread myself too thin. I’d rather do a great job for a few people than a half-ass job for a bunch of people. I’m good friends with all the bands I work with, and I feel very strongly about making sure I’m giving 110% to each of them. So I guess I’m not actively looking for new bands, but if I did take on something new it would have to be something I love and something I know I could spend the proper amount of time on. With the record label there’s the issue of money — we don’t have any outside investors and I try my best to keep us running debt-free. It’s pretty expensive to release a record and do the proper promotion. I can’t really afford to release much more than I have planned now. Again, I’d rather keep it small and do things right.
I really like your website. It’s very easy to find what your looking for, and everything is very simple and straightforward and informative. You also offer mp3s (albeit low-bitrate ones) of most of the bands you work with.
Thanks! Yeah, I wanted the website to be very simple and easy to navigate. I hate going to websites and waiting forever for stuff to load and then searching all over the place for the info I need. The other half of our company that does design, film, and commercial music is based in Saint Louis – they have the fancy hi-tech website that’s obtuse and hard to figure out: www.undertowco.com.
We made the mp3s low-bitrate just so they’d be smaller and download faster. Hosting 25+ mp3’s really eats up server space and bandwidth.
Have you looked into the seemingly unviable electronic-distribution model as opposed to pressing physical CDs?
I’m all for that if someone could figure out a way to do it and the artist still gets paid. I am very anti-Napster-style distribution. I certainly don’t mind offering up a couple of mp3s for free so people can check out a band before they spend their money on a record. I think people should be able to hear music before they buy it. But there’s nothing worse than finding an entire Centro-matic (or whoever) record available for free on the Internet the day after it’s released and not being able to do anything about it. It really does take money out of the pockets of smaller bands and labels. We all work really hard to be able to do this and make a living, so it’s a real bummer when someone steals the only viable thing you have and gives it away for free.
Plus, I’m old fashioned — I love buying records (yeah, I still call them records). I like getting the artwork, I like reading the liner notes, I like reading the lyrics, and I like having stuff on my shelves. You don’t get any of that with mp3s. Then there’s the audio quality issue — even good mp3’s sound about as good as a cassette tape. Everything is compressed, squashed, and quantized. Bands spend lots of time and effort making records — it’s a shame that folks are missing all the dynamics and subtlety that makes music such an amazing thing.
What did you think of this interview? Let us know!
12 thoughts on “Declarations of Independence: Interview with Bob Andrews of Undertow Records”
I would love to have that man’s job! When he was mentioning how busy he was, did he hint that he was looking to hire a guy named Nathan, by chance?
“I think people should be able to hear music before they buy it. But there’s nothing worse than finding an entire Centro-matic (or whoever) record available for free on the Internet the day after it’s released and not being able to do anything about it. It really does take money out of the pockets of smaller bands and labels.”Hmm…the words of a smaller, indy-type music biz guy carries a lot more weight to me than the RIAA or Metallica. Still, I wonder…is there a way to compare how much money is ‘lost’ due to internet file-swapping (especially for smaller, lesser-known bands) vs. more people willing to shell out the cash for bands you’ve had a chance to listen to (and more than 1 or 2 songs)?
Nathan, i wish i could hire someone. maybe i’d get to see my wife more often. but who knows? maybe someday i’ll like a band that has “hit song” potential and i can afford to get someone in here to screen my calls and to tell people in in a meeting (ha ha). btw: gloriousnoise.com is my new favorite website. anyone who mentions hasil adkins gets a gold star in my book.
Wow, I didn’t expect a response directly from you. The rejection is much tougher to take directly from the source. Ahh, maybe in a few minutes I’ll go listen to Passenger Pigeons by the Handsome Family and drink a beer in my car to get me through the rest of the day at this god-awful job.No, just kidding, I already had the beer and listened to the song before I read the post!In agreement with both of you, I have friends who occasionally ask to burn some my cds because they know that I have such a large collection. I’m comfortable letting them do so with the major label releases (even though that’s still illegal) but I refuse to let them burn independent stuff. Most often I’m met with looks of disgust and irritation.Why can’t people see that Napster and copying may be skimping pennies off the top of Columbia or Arista but when they do that to a band that sells 30,000 cds, they truly are stealing from the band?Anyone else feel that way?
“Why can’t people see that Napster and copying may be skimping pennies off the top of Columbia or Arista but when they do that to a band that sells 30,000 cds, they truly are stealing from the band? Anyone else feel that way?”Ugh – I don’t want to start the whole Napster debate up again, but I will give my standard response: I bought about 4 times more cd’s when I was using Napster (I’m a Mac user, so I can’t use Kazaa/Morpheus/etc. Limewire/Gnutella is available, but they’re a poor substitiute for Napster, at least on the Mac side). Now that I can’t preview albums, I’m a lot less likely to shell out cash for them. In the past, some albums (like ‘Mwng’ by Super Furry Animals) I had to keep around and listen to for several weeks or more in mp3 form until it grew on me enough to buy it. It’s a lot harder to do that now. Does that mean smaller, independent artists are losing or making money? I dunno – I always tend to buy the stuff I like. But am I typical?
Prop, I do the same thing when burning disks. I don’t copy indie releases. Even with some majors, I won’t do it right away. I feel that buying albums is like voting. Even if your one vote doesn’t make a difference, labels with the balls (or whatever) to release Wilco or Sparklehorse or the Dandy Warhols need to know that there are enough people out there who care, so they will be able to record and release more stuff as cool as that…
“buying a record is like voting” – that’s a very good way of putting it. and yes, every vote does count. remember florida? but i think most labels don’t put out records like Wilco or Sparklehorse (or whoever) because they have balls (or whatever). those kind of bands/records rarely lose money for the label because the label does not spend any money to promote them. sure, they do the minimum amount of promotion so that it appears that they are promoting the record – they’ll service it to press and radio and use the label’s in-house staff to do the promotion – but “real” promotion costs a ton of money becuase they’ll hire a whole team of outside people that specialize in radio promotion, video promotion, tour promotion, pitching songs to tv and film people to get them included in tv shows and film soundtracks – it’s a pretty amazing web of people that have to get invloved to make a “hit” record. Bands like Wilco, the Flaming Lips, Sparklehorse, etc. make most of their money from touring. and as long as they are touring the label generally sells more records. so everyone remains happy.the money bands get from the label usually just covers to cost of making the record most of the time. So if a label gives a band $200,000 to make a record they only have to sell 30-40k records for the label to break even (don’t get me started on the royalty structure and ownership of masters – that’s a whole other conversation) — so as long as those bands sell 40k+ records and they don’t rock the boat they’ll probably stay on the label forever. but if that same band only sold 1500 records, complained that they were not getting the attention they needed, or were really agressive about getting more money, they’d be dropped like bad habit. which brings me to why i think big labels put out those kind of records – first, they know they won’t lose any money – that’s the most important thing to remember. most labels have about 25% of their staff working directly with the music. the other 75% are legal and business people making sure they are making a profit.They mostly have those “indie-cred” bands on their rosters to lure other bands with the old “we are an artist friendly label who will develop your career – look at how we have stuck with over the years” — i know this because a couple of friends of mine do A&R at big labels and they tell me they do this everytime they are trying to sign the next big thing. just my 2 cents.so yes, please buy records/vote for bands you like. that’s the only way the good bands will be able to keep making music.
You may have bought four times as many albums when you had a chance to preview them, sure. I’ve also purchased a lot more stuff that I wouldn’t have taken a risk on if I hadn’t have had the preview feature of the MP3. Though, how many people do you know that research bands, download some tracks, preview them, then go purchase the album if the like it?I actually had a friend, for my birthday, give me about 5 burnt cds of mp3’s and some of his discs. He thought it was a great gift. It was all stuff that I loved, but personally I would rather just have received one album then all of that burnt stuff. How many albums do most of our beloved indie bands sell typically?We’re music snobs, we value the liner notes and album art just as much as the album itself. If we want to continue to hear the music we love so much (and are willing to pay for), we need to help the artists stop the piracy.At least that’s what I think. . .Bob, that’s a new insight about the industry. Do you think Wilco was dropped because the label was hoping to move them forward into the “big budget category” and the new album wasn’t what they considered to be viable?On a sidenote Jake, I cracked up because I have a Wilco, a Sparklehorse and all threee Dandy Warhols albums in my bag right now.
Here’s my Napster arguement….I have to echo the comment about buying more because of MP3s. While I don’t download very much, I do MP3 CD swap with some of my friends, and that’s repeatedly led me to purchase Indy and “small” label discs from my local record store. I never would have purchased any Superchunk or Mojave 3 if I hadn’t first gotten some tracks to listen to. Usually that leads me to a band’s wider catalog.MP3s and file swapping is just an evolution of the 70s/80s mixed tape. For the big labels, it gets more of their music to people who wouldn’t have purchased it. For the small labels it gets their name out to people who will pay for a live show, or maybe some merch. It’s no different than bands like Less Than Jake, who for years have had a $5 T shirt at their merch booth. The idea being that dispite the fact that the shirt cost sometimes more than $5 to make, all those kids wearing it was like cheap advertising!With music such as Madonna or Britney Spears, I’d never fork over my money for that crap anyway. Getting one track for free only gives their labels some tiny bit of exposure where they’d never have had it.
Expensive t-shirts are my new pet peeve. I used to be a concert shirt junky; I don’t think I’ve bought one in three years. Why do I have to pay $25 to advertise your band when I’m already an avid supporter? Any bands out there listening? The last shirt I bought was in ’98 and it was a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion shirt for $10.
The only rock shirts I buy now are for Jolie. Girlie tees are way cooler than guys’ ones. I got recently got her shirts from Wilco, Weezer and Liz Phair. Very cute. You look like a roadie if you wear a black band t-shirt, don’t you? I haven’t seen a cool concert shirt in years. Have you?
Expensive t-shirts are my new pet peeve. I used to be a concert shirt junky; I don’t think I’ve bought one in three years. Why do I have to pay $25 to advertise your band when I’m already an avid supporter?