This is American Music's Jay Cooper and Corey Flegel, shot on location at Venkman's in Atlanta.
Words: Sheyda Mehrara | Photos: Caroline Fontenot
How one independent record label is redefining the Southern music landscape.
We live in a time where a single, influential voice matters. There exists a reality where an artist like Taylor Swift can successfully take on a corporate juggernaut like Apple and radically alter the landscape of the music industry in the process. You can stream music you don't own any time you like with a few taps on your smartphone. Digital single scales skyrocket from competition shows like "The Voice" while the album as an art form slowly slips through our fingers. Distribution is a new frontier. Profits are elusive. And major labels like Universal, Sony and Warner are struggling to evolve. "Times," as Bob Dylan once sang, "they are a-changing."
Meanwhile, quiet and steady, independent record labels are coming into their own, finding a space among the chaos to thrive by traveling light; nimbly adapting to and embracing the changing climate of the music industry. They are the fittest who survive when the all of the old rules have been tossed out of the window.
Corey Flegel and Jay Cooper.
Niche labels like This is American Music (TIAM), who hone in on independent talent based in the South, recognize this Darwinian landscape as a massive opportunity. TIAM's Corey Flegel, Jay Cooper and Nick Nichols believe it is up to them to change the worldview of Southern music by turning outliers into hitmakers the old-fashioned, grassroots way.
As tour manager for cult industry favorite Tennessee’s Glossary (known unofficially as “your favorite band’s favorite band,”), Flegel traveled with the guys on tour, eventually crossing paths with Nichols at their shows. Around 2010, with the encouragement of the band's lead singer Joey Keniser, Flegel and Nichols decided to start a music blog that provided coverage for what Nichols refers to as “our bands that we loved.”
TIAM labelmate Tedo Stone, out of Atlanta, Georgia.
Given the team's insider, ground-up access to emerging talent, the blog grew into a promotional powerhouse, significantly boosting the artists they most believed in. In the early days, says Nichols, “We put out a lot of content and found that we really built a following pretty quickly. Lots of these bands we were focusing on had great followings already, and I do think we hit a time when social media was really taking off.” The next logical step was to make things official and start a label.
Building their roster around the bootstrapping soul of DIY and good old-fashioned Southern family values, TIAM began signing independent talent, approaching the partnership like an adoption into their (musically talented) brood. They are willing to do it all for family, and so the guys of TIAM wear many hats; manager, promoter, lawyer, publicist, accountant, distributor, and secretary.
The formula is fairly simple: to sign bands that play good music, as mutually agreed upon by Flegel, Cooper & Nichols. While their catalog varies in genre, TIAM's musicians share a brotherhood of soul.
“We want the whole package. The spirit has to be there, it has to be more than just music.” Flegel says.
To understand what gets their toes tapping, Nichols suggests a line from Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” where Levon Helms delves into his take on what makes Southern music great.
“If it mixes with rhythm, and if it dances, then you’ve got a great combination of all those different kinds of music: country, bluegrass, blues music, show music. You can make a solid argument that rock is just a melting pot of music that originates from the South – blues, jazz, country.”
TIAM labelmate Great Peacock, out of Nashville, Tennessee.
Even though Flegel, Nichols and Cooper all reside in different parts of the Southeast, they still reverb each other when it comes to the mission of their label. Separately, both Flegel and Cooper sound like they have an invisible pair of tin cans strung between them, “I bet Corey said this.” Or, “I’d have to agree with Coop.”
Nichols' 9-to-5 job has made it difficult to serve in his original capacity, but he’s earned his spot on the Board of Trustees. “I’m a founding father" he jokes, "so my portrait still gets a spot on the wall.”
“The vision is pretty simple: we want to remain collaborative" Cooper exacts. "We see little pockets in the South in their own bubbles, and we want to tie them together.”
TIAM does not simply cover their eyes and point when it comes to bringing on new talent. They stay plugged into the vibrant big-picture culture of the South, which they believe is key to finding new artists before anyone else. It is community that scratches their figurative backs, one they scratch right back. It affords TIAM the ability to stay niche and become intimately invested in the musicians they sign. It’s the relationship, not the transaction that fuels them.
“Every new release day is special" Nichols says proudly.
TIAM labelmates DanaSwimmer, out of Athens, Georgia.
Country singer and songwriter Caleb Caudle loves being a part of the This is Americanan Music label family. When he played the AmericanaFest Showcase in Nashville, Tennessee last year Flegel and Cooper were in attendance - unheard of at larger labels, and evidence of the team's abundant belief in their artists.
“I wouldn't have it any other way and neither would they” Caudle affirms. "I don't have to call some suit and talk to him about numbers before art. They aren't putting out records that they don't believe in.”
Nichols continues, “We've all learned that the music business it tricky and has its unique challenges, but I think it starts with dealing honestly with people. If we can say we've done that, and we can succeed in doing so, everything else is gravy."