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Nashville Scene Major Key

Small pop label takes two of its bands nationwide

By Michael McCall

JULY 12, 1999:  After four years as a promising central player in the Middle Tennessee rock 'n' roll scene, Spongebath Records is preparing for its most exciting and most critical period yet. On July 13, two Spongebath-affiliated bands release new albums, both with the support of major record companies. The success of those albums--Self's Breakfast With Girls on Spongebath/DreamWorks and The Katies' self-titled album on Spongebath/Elektra--will have an immense impact on the future of this small but ambitious Murfreesboro-based record label.

"You can't overstate how important this is," says Spongebath founder and president Richard Williams. "To have two bands released nationally by major labels is the biggest step we've taken yet."

The record company originally emerged in 1995, when Self released its debut album through a partnership between Spongebath and Zoo Records, a major label that went out of business shortly afterward. Then, as now, Williams envisioned Spongebath as a breeding ground that feeds hip new bands to major labels.

Thus far, he has taken a double-edged approach: On one hand, Williams acts independently, releasing albums by up-and-coming artists who control their own creative ouput. At the same time, he has been pursuing distribution deals with major record companies, who help package and promote the records produced under such partnerships. Such an approach enables Spongebath to pursue more mainstream successes while also allowing room for side projects or interesting excursions that would appeal only to smaller segments of the rock audience.

Williams says that it has taken a while for the right major-label partnership to come down the pike. As with many young musical entrepreneurs, he has been stymied by the enormous changes in the music industry in recent years. It's frustrating, he explains, to release cutting-edge bands at a time when the music business tends to reward performers who stick closely to established formulas and easily accessible sounds.

"I've always said that I wanted Spongebath to be a mini-major," he says. "I want to to do things that hit the commercial market but have cutting-edge integrity. So we've been trying to work with companies that understand what we want to do and want to help us. To me, it seems like it's taken an eternity to get to this point, but four years isn't really that long."

Indeed, in the American rock music industry, Williams and Spongebath have gained a reputation as a company with a knack for finding and developing smart, distinctive young rockers who blur the lines between hard rock, melodic pop, funk, and hip-hop. In a sense, many of the bands Williams has worked with--Self, The Katies, Count Bass D, Fluid Oz., the Features, Gumption, and the recently signed Ruby Amanfu--represent a good sampling of progressive, modern rock 'n' roll.

"Our bands are definitely pushing boundaries," he says. "[But] the rock business today doesn't embrace those kinds of [artists] like it did before. Used to be, David Bowie or Peter Gabriel or R.E.M. were recognized because they were so different. Now it seems the business prefers bands that are disposable, that have a catchy hit and disappear. That's disheartening. But my spirits are high because we've survived, and we've got two very good albums coming out that I'm proud of."

Self, led by studio mastermind Matt Mahaffey, has slowly and steadily built support across the country. The band has achieved a strong critical following, and taste-making radio stations along both coasts have been eagerly playing the group's records. Williams believes that with DreamWorks' support, the time has come for Mahaffey and his bracing, cut-and-paste style of propulsive pop-rock.

As for the Katies, their crunchy combination of power chords and melodic choruses is both accessible and distinctive. "They recently got kicked off a tour opening for My Friend Steve, which we're real proud of," Williams says. "My Friend Steve is more of a laid-back jam band, so it was kinda like Nirvana opening for Hootie. As hard as the band rocks on album, they're even harder and more impressive live. They really have been blowing people away."

The bands will celebrate the release of their albums with a free show Tuesday at the Exit/In. While they rock, Williams will have his fingers crossed. Because of the way the industry operates, both bands will need to have a quick impact if they want to get support from their record companies and from radio stations. Their fates--as well as that of Spongebath Records--will likely be cast before the summer ends.

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