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The new labels

Country Standard Time Editorial, March 2006

All of a sudden, Nashville is home to a bunch of start-up record labels. This is not the first time this has happened, but there are several huge differences this time. These newbies - Aspirion, Big Machine, Category 5, Equity, Midas, ShowDog Nashville, Sustain and 903 - could be poised to make a run at the major labels like Sony/BMG, Universal and Warner.

About five years ago, a bunch of small labels started up as well. VHR had a hit with Mark McGuinn's "Mrs. Steven Rudy." Dualtone did the same with David Ball's "Riding With Private Malone."

But most were unable to continue. Dualtone still exists and does well with edgy country acts, but VHR and others are long gone.

The current new labels owe a debt of gratitude to Broken Bow Records, the home of Jason Aldean and Craig Morgan, started about five years ago by a California car dealer.

Broken Bow has managed to successfully do what Morgan's former label, Atlantic, was unable to do - get his career going with hits and albums that sell. And more importantly, Broken Bow was able to successfully push the career of Aldean, whose album has sold more than 500,000 with 2 top 20 hits.

Some labels can get lucky and get a surprise hit, but to do it with two artists means that the label has got the ear of the radio stations, an oh-so-important ingredient in determining whether an artist's career will take off or not.

Equity, the label started by Clint Black after breaking with RCA, is another bright sign for new labels. Interestingly, Equity has enjoyed greater success with Little Big Town than it has with Black's own CDs due to his past success. What Equity and Broken Bow have done is open the doors for the new labels at country radio and therefore with listeners.

That doesn't mean, of course, that the start-ups will necessarily attain commercial success.

But they also have another aspect going for them - signing acts of quality and/or track records. Success at ShowDog would be no surprise because that's Toby Keith's label. Big Machine has had early success with Jack Ingram, a worthy artist, putting in career best chart numbers.

Category 5 is well poised with Travis Tritt and giving him the artistic license to make the kind of album he was to make.

The approach of Category 5 is particularly encouraging because label founder/owner Ray Termini said he favors a traditional country approach. "What we hope to do is move things in that direction," he said.

If the new labels are able to succeed - and that's a big if giving the costs involved, not to mention the need for music with artistic merit - it would doubtlessly come at the expense of the majors as the radio pie may be only so big.

If the ultimate result of the new players in town is to dish out quality, sometimes edgy country music, it's all to the benefit of music fans.