Despite Grammy-level success, tiny Nashville label Dualtone still remains under the radar

Nashville Scene
Why Dualtone Matters

Around this time last year, Wesley Schultz was working an array of part-time service industry jobs in Denver, Colo. For the better part of a decade, he had toiled in hopes of someday becoming a full-time musician.

One year later, The Lumineers frontman has received two Grammy nominations — for Best New Artist and Best Americana Album — as well as a gold record. While Schultz has witnessed the way songs like “Ho Hey” and “Stubborn Love” resonate with fans, he acknowledges that it wouldn’t have happened without Dualtone Records, a Nashville-based label with only five full-time staff members.

“We spent a lot of time of about seven or eight years of really nothing happening,” Schultz says. “[Dualtone] is a lot more hands-on and nurturing and tries to help something delicate develop. That’s what we needed. We needed people to believe in it.”

In a year when many questioned whether labels were still necessary, Dualtone quietly continued to prove its worth. In doing so over the course of 12 years, the Nashville enterprise has steadily established itself alongside other folk-focused stalwarts like Glassnote and ATO by catering to its artists on a personal and financial level in a way that few others can offer.

Among Dualtone’s acts are The Lumineers, who resided among indie rock’s biggest breakout stories last year and whose “Ho Hey,” as of press time, sits at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Dualtone also led The Civil Wars’ radio effort in 2011 following the Nashville duo’s self-released debut, Barton Hollow, which helped pave Joy Williams and John Paul White’s road to the Los Angeles awards ceremony.

Dualtone co-founder Scott Robinson and longtime label president Paul Roper see the repeated honors — 17 nominations and three wins, to be exact — as affirmation of its slow and deliberate artist development. It’s this emphasis on a gradual growth process, however, that made The Lumineers’ sudden ascent so surprising.

“We all like to hit one over the fence, but we’re not swinging for the fences,” says Robinson. “That’s not Dualtone’s model. A record cycle for us can be anywhere from 12 to 24 months, maybe longer. Some other organizations, it might be 90 or 120 days.”

Although Dualtone has achieved enormous success over the past two years, that philosophy doesn’t just apply to its most successful acts. In September, Charleston, S.C., duo Shovels and Rope releasedO’ Be Joyful via Dualtone. Roper says their label debut sold north of 3,500 records during release week — 250 percent more than the group’s prior album has moved to date.

Shovels and Rope’s husband-and-wife songwriting partners Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have each released several solo records in their own right. The former once endured a catastrophic “sign and drop” with a major label, and since then both have operated largely as independent acts. Just before SXSW 2012, though, Dualtone offered Shovels and Rope a particularly friendly deal. For the duo, they felt like it was a fair agreement that allowed them to leverage the label’s radio, press and marketing expertise.

“What attracted us,” Hearst says, “was that they really tailor-make each deal according to what they can actually provide to an artist and for what the artist exactly needs them to do.”

Robinson says his label manages to do this because they choose acts wisely. Before he started Dualtone, he worked at a major label and witnessed situations where “one act pays for 15 acts and 90 percent have lost money.”

“We have to be careful of how we fund these projects and incur expenses, as it might take longer than a normal project would in a more mainstream system,” he says. “The upside is that we have opposite results. A lot of our acts recoup.”

That approach ultimately makes the label more appealing to prospective artists. Ivan and Alyosha frontman Tim Wilson says his band had shopped their forthcoming debut record, even talking to a major label about a potential development deal. Dualtone was the primary suitor to fervently pursue the Seattle folk quartet, and now is set to release their forthcoming record, All the Times We Had, in February.

“It became clear that the Dualtone move was the right move,” Wilson says. “I think a lot of people liked the record, but nobody was interested enough to want to sign the band and commit to a specific timeframe.”

Ivan and Alyosha may seem small compared to The Lumineers or The Civil Wars at the moment, but that’s exactly where Dualtone thrives. Having already garnered attention from national media outlets like NPR and Paste, according to Roper they are “primed to take that next step.” That starts, though, with Dualtone truly understanding its artists’ expectations and goals.

“It’s rare we rush into anything,” Roper says. “We only take on a couple new bands a year and because we are in this for career development beyond the typical quick record cycle.”

Dualtone’s tactics can seem counterintuitive at times: passing up more opportunities in order to double down on a select few acts. But it’s worked out, as they’ve managed to provide impeccable support to acts of all of sizes, whether it’s a recent signee or a Grammy-caliber act. And to its artists, including The Lumineers’ Schultz, that dedication means everything.

“The amount of attention you get comes from people helping you promote the record and how it’s all handled,” Schultz says. “I think, for us, we’ve made a happy home.”