By Christopher Hess
SEPTEMBER 8, 1998: That's what I really want to be known for," says Jeff Cole, nodding and grinning as if, at long last, the essential point were finally made. "Bringing stock-car racing to Austin. This is all just a means to that end."
Cole's "means" is Doolittle Records, the Austin-based indie he launched in 1992 with Meredith Miller's Bob. Recently upgraded by a major distribution deal through another indie, Chicago-based label Slipdisc, Cole's Doolittle will piggyback onto a distribution deal with Mercury Records through Independent Label Sales, the indie arm of Polygram Group Distribution.
The first release to benefit from this arrangement will be Boston-based rock & roller Todd Thibaud's album, Favorite Waste of Time, released by Doolittle through smaller outlets early this year. Then, in October, the entire Doolittle catalogue will be available through Polygram distribution: Favorite Waste of Time, Slobberbone's two releases, Crow Pot Pie ('96)and Barrel Chested ('97), and Mount Pilot's Help Wanted, Love Needed, Caretaker.
"Todd Thibaud is at critical mass just because he's so accessible," says Cole, explaining how the timing of the Slipdisc agreement was ideal. "And with Slobberbone, we've hit that point too, where the next record is primed to be big. It's in the works. We'll have it out in time for South by Southwest. Probably the next Todd Thibaud record as well."
After the release of both their albums, Denton's alt.country dust-kickers Slobberbone, like Cole, have been tempted with offers from major labels, but have remained with Doolittle. Cole reciprocates with his own dedication and deems that the most important element of his relationships with bands on his label.
The national scope and long-term ideals that are in place make up the core of Cole's vision, which he hopes can supplant the notoriety the label attained through its previous deals with Mercury Records; the ones involving Prescott Curlywolf's temporary disappearance into the major-label machine after putting out Dang on Doolittle in 1995, and the painful plummet of Hamell on Trial, also at the hands of Mercury following a debut with Cole ('95's Big As Life).
"It was what it was," says Cole, "a band that had yet to play a gig outside of Austin got a major label deal, and I know there are hard feelings there, but ... the guys made a buttload of money. The only thing they really have to be bitter about is that Mercury didn't make their rock & roll dreams come true."
Hamell on Trial is a touchier subject; Mercury and Doolittle made a deal to re-release the one-time local's first album, Big as Life, on the major and Mercury bought the option for his second record as well -- last year's The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword. Says Cole:
"In hindsight, his first record should never have been on a major. It was never intended to be, we didn't record it that way. ... We thought they really had a vision for it. Watching something like that die on the vine just sort of breaks your heart."
Though Cole maintains that keeping a roster small is important in order to maintain tight relations with his artists, he also says the time is right for Doolittle to grow. On his terms, this is a slow process, one that focuses on each band's development more than on short-term gain.
"None of our bands have day jobs," says Cole proudly. "We're real big on the tour support, getting them a van and whatever they need. I want their job to be getting out there spreading the word, and they can't do that if they have to worry about where the rent is coming from. That's why we keep the roster small. Right now, I'm not supposed to be profiting; I'm investing in the future of the label and we're building a roster that performs. ...
"We want that third record to be the one that hits, so you're making basically two records' worth of setup. If it happens sooner than that, that's great. It's icing on the cake. But you can't count on it."
Two new acts with major distribution and potential for mass appeal, the keystone band (Slobberbone) set to release a "breakthrough" album, and possible new signings that have the potential to boost the label's identity puts Doolittle at the threshold of breaking out. The "put up or shut up" phase, as Cole calls it.
"We're really gonna have to start performing," asserts Cole. "It's no longer me and one other person out of a room in my house. We have downtown office space, six employees, and now is the time we really have to start making it, which is why we chose to do this deal at this point. It came at a good time."
However inspirational last month's trip to Bristol, Tennessee may have been, NASCAR aspirations, for now, will have to wait.
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