The Little Label That Could

Courtelis says he eventually dished out more than $100,000 before the CD turned a profit for Coconut Grove Recording Company, which at the time was essentially Courtelis and his laptop computer. "What I said to myself was, 'If I get all my money out and then make a little money, then I'm going to hire a proper record person and have an office somewhere.'"

Enter Peter Wetherbee. Last August he was working as label manager for Axiom Records (a New York-based subsidiary of Island Records) when he noticed a small classified ad in the music industry trade magazine Billboard. The ad began, "Wanted: Fearless Leader." It then listed all the qualities Courtelis was seeking in someone to head CGRC, including experience in negotiating contracts, publishing, A&R, and hands-on production work. "I looked at it and said, 'I know how to do all that stuff,'" Wetherbee says now. "But then I talked to Pan on the phone, and it was a Hawaiian group and it was a company in Miami, and I was like, 'Well, sounds pretty cheesy.'" But something clicked during the conversation between the two, and Courtelis persuaded the skeptical Wetherbee to come down for an interview.

"I was very happy at Axiom," contends Wetherbee, who had been with that label for four years. "I never thought I would do anything else. That was my life and it was definitely sort of a mission. We had all these ideas about changing the world and fighting the horrible mechanisms of the music business, a lot of ideas I still hold and would perpetrate happily."

However, the lure of taking a fledgling roots-music-oriented label to its next level was too strong for Wetherbee to resist. "This was a great opportunity for me . . . to get away from major labels," he explains. "We're not just an ornament on this huge, monolithic company. We're flexible enough to actually do something with music and maintain a kind of integrity with what we're doing throughout the process, instead of just taking something and having to sort of glom it into this structure that's pretty inflexible and has a lot of yucky elements that are products of this huge corporate, capitalist mentality. I'm very aware of how silly I sound when I talk about that kind of stuff, but it's true."

Wetherbee hit the ground running. Even before reporting for work at CGRC last November, he lined up a mainland U.S. distributor for Hapa's CD and entered negotiations with Jef Lee Johnson, a Philadelphia-based guitarist whose resume includes work with Billy Joel, Huey Lewis, and Aretha Franklin, and whom Wetherbee had lobbied Axiom to sign. "I always thought he was the ultimate person to sign," notes Wetherbee, "because he's got a very engaging, accessible music, and he's funky, and he's really smart, and all that kind of stuff." Johnson's CD, a funked-up power trio work entitled blue, was released this week.

By January, Wetherbee had succeeded in signing the aforementioned Ross; the guitarist's first solo effort in twenty years was recorded at Criteria Studios and is set for release next month. Rochlin joined the CGRC staff in February, and the label's roster since has grown to include Haitian rasin band Kanpech and Boston-based funk guitarist Steve Rossiter. The company also has cut a development deal with local Afro-Cuban outfit Shank. Obviously there are no preconceived notions of how a CGRC act should sound. "The major-label A&R team can be told, 'All right, we want a female folksinger in the vein of this who does that,' and that's what they have to go out and find," muses Rochlin. "For us it's like, if something really just kicks our ass, if the music speaks and speaks loud, then that's what we're interested in pursuing."

Wetherbee says the relative smallness of CGRC -- excluding Courtelis, who also is busy running Venture Productions, the full-time office staff totals just three people -- works to the label's advantage. "You can spend a sensible amount of money to make a record, use your brains in terms of how you market and promote a record, and then everybody makes money, including the artist," the general manager explains. "In the major-label context, there's like this 'Throw a lot of money at it [mentality].' And if you do that for ten or twenty records, if one of them hits, it pays for all the rest and then you're fine. We can't afford to do that." The bottom line, according to Courtelis: "Ten, twelve thousand units pays for everything. In many cases, that's the first or second order from the distributor. Which requires a lot of work from these guys [pointing to Wetherbee and Rochlin] who each wear, like, five hats."

In addition to producing and promoting, those duties include haunting local clubs for potential acts. "There's a lot of great stuff down here," observes Wetherbee, who cites Manchild as a personal favorite. "And it's a little bit untapped, in terms of the local record companies. There are very strong genre areas, but there really isn't anybody like us who is wide open, who could sign an alternative band or a very traditional ethnic kind of band from one culture or another."

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