Most baseball players that make it to the big leagues have to start out in the minors. Put in your time at rookie ball, A-ball, AA and AAA, and then you just may get a shot at the "big show," as they call it. It's not always an exact science, but the concept is the same -- it takes development before a player is ready for the bigs. Such is the very philosophy of Aware Records, founded in 1993 by former accountant-turned-record executive Gregg Latterman.
Nine years later, Latterman has moved from Boston to Colorado to Chicago, and in the process has released nine compilations of independent artists. The idea was originally put in motion to feature bands that made their living by touring relentlessly and releasing music on their own, but by selecting only the cream of that crop. Judging by the artists who make up the label's latest release, Aware's Greatest Hits, it's safe to say that in the modern rock/AAA genre there is no better evaluator of talent than Latterman. Some of the early success stories are Better Than Ezra, Hootie and the Blowfish, Edwin McCain and Vertical Horizon. The next class featured the Verve Pipe, Guster and Tabitha's Secret, who later changed their name to Matchbox 20.
Do I have your attention yet? Wait, it gets better. In 1996 Aware began a developmental relationship with Columbia Records, which gave them the necessary clout to break artists such as Train, Five for Fighting and John Mayer. Let's put it this way: If Latterman were a baseball scout, his big league employer would be the Yankees.
"I don't think we necessarily do anything different than anyone else," says Steve Smith, an A & R rep with Aware now for four-plus years. "Based on our situation with Columbia, I think we are afforded some luxuries some other labels are not, and when I say luxuries, I'm referring to the ability to survive in a certain space free of some of the traditional pressures. We have to break every band we sign, so I think we take a little more time in making our decisions."
While some of the artists on Greatest Hits are currently signed to other labels, Smith was responsible for signing and developing Five For Fighting, who contribute the smash ballad "Easy Tonight" to this collection. Other better-known tracks are Better Than Ezra's "Good," "Meet Virginia" from Train, "3AM" from Tabitha's Secret and Hootie's "Old Man and Me." But in my opinion, the real gems are Mayer's "My Stupid Mouth," "The Man Who Would Be Santa" from Vertical Horizon and Edwin McCain's "Solitude."
McCain* is one of those artists whose people were contacted early on by Latterman, for Aware 2, and after seeing the success of the artists on Aware 1 said, "it seemed to be a no brainer" to contribute a track. He also knew Aware was something special as far as breaking new artists, and that being a part of it helped him to ink his first deal with Atlantic Records. "That whole class from Aware 2," says McCain, "with Vertical Horizon, Better Than Ezra and the Verve Pipe -- I think eight out of 10 of us got signed after that."
What Aware does is find the bands that not only have a good following and a certain charisma, but also those that write great songs -- songs loaded with melody, emotion and insightful lyrics. One might call it a relatively simple formula, but not with the difficulty of breaking new artists on radio. According to Smith, radio stations today are "more and more 'programmed' and similar. You can pretty much drive from one part of the country to another and never notice that you're listening to a different station. They are so similar and their play lists are so small." McCain was not as kind when he added, "Ronald Reagan f-d up by deregulating corporate radio stations, allowing the homogenized stations we have today." He then qualified that by saying, "The [music] industry's going to change and radio will become a better outlet. There will be more options to listen to and then it's all going to come down to who's willing to tour."
Having a major label parenting you makes the fight for airplay a little easier, but still people like Smith and Latterman have to be extremely selective while searching for the next big thing. Among the hopeful artists on Aware 9 (released earlier this year) in this category are Wheat, Bleu and Alice Peacock. "Any of the three could blow up," says Smith hopefully. "Guess we'll have to see what the record buyers of America say."
Meanwhile, Aware's Greatests Hits is something for everyone involved with the label to be very proud of. It's hard to imagine making a mix CD at home that could be any better. But while Aware is still in the business of making its own compilations, there's always good reason to keep coming to the ballpark.
* Check out Edwin McCain's latest release, The Austin Sessions, on ATC Records.
Click here for Mike's review of Aware 9: The Compilation and send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org