The Dualtone Brain trust: (l-r) Lori Kampa, Paul Roper, & Scott Robinson at their former East Nashville HQ in August, 2016. Photo by John Partipilo

Dualtone Records turns 20

In a tough business, a damn good independent label started up next to the Krispy Kreme on Elliston Place in 2001: Dualtone Records. The brainchild of co-founders Scott Robinson and Dan Herrington would expand into a bungalow on Music Row and then move over to the East Side in 2013. Along the way, the label racked up sixteen Grammy nominations and four wins, becoming the home of The Lumineers, Hayes Carll, Langhorne Slim, and Kathleen Edwards, among others, and includes towering talents like Matraca Berg and Darden Smith in their back catalog.

The Dualtone crew got a bit of a jump on the rest of the world as far as working from home courtesy of the tornado that barreled through the heart of East Nashville’s business district last year. The wind ripped away the HVAC machinery from The Basement East and a couple of other buildings and threw it across McFerrin Avenue and into the front of the building housing the offices of the label.

“I was in New York with The Lumineers where we had two sold-out shows in Brooklyn,” says Robinson. “I came back home to a destroyed building, and then, boom, the world shut down.”

The building was a total loss, but the one truly irreplaceable thing was Dualtone president Paul Roper’s hard drive. And that was recovered. The only real lasting damage was a muted sense of survivor’s guilt, which prompted a conscientious effort to keep a lid on any celebrations in the wake of a calamity that took people’s lives mere yards from their destroyed office.

Nevertheless, in order to work from home, 12-ish employees tend to need an office they can work at home from. And so, Dualtone sits now in the building owned by their parent company, Entertainment One, which bought the label in 2016. It’s just a couple of suites on Fifth Avenue South, on the west side of the river, but it’s apparently all they need. As Robinson and Roper met with this reporter on a blisteringly hot day in June, they were sitting at a table in the air conditioning and radiating the serenity of people who are at peace with their place in life.

A curious thing happened during the annus horribilus. The world may have shut down, but art didn’t. The gigs, yes, they shut down, but the artists themselves went into hyperdrive. “We didn’t really have to push back any of our releases,” says Roper, who came on board as an intern in 2002. “For a lot of our artists, it became this thing where music was the salve and the balm that held people together.

“Our artists were just doing what they do and creating at this time,” he continues. “They were at home, couldn’t tour, so they were writing, and they were recording new content, cranking out songs. We have five or six albums we didn’t anticipate that just came to us during the pandemic.

“Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites of The Lumineers both delivered solo albums we didn’t know were happening, which was an awesome surprise. Hayes Carll recorded what he called Alone Together, which is kind of acoustic renditions or reinterpretations of a lot of his big songs. We had Langhorne Slim, who lives in East Nashville and has been on the label for several albums; he started recording one-take recordings every day. For a lot of artists, being isolated is just the worst thing. One of Langhorne’s friends told him he just needed to write songs, so he started writing a song a day and recording it and putting it on Instagram. They’re some of the best songs he’s written in his career. The fans were engaging and commenting on the songs like we’d never seen before for him, and it was really exciting to see that fruit come to life. That became a 20-plus song album.”

“My love for Dualtone starts a long time ago,” says The Lone Bellow’s guitarist Zach Williams, whose band was formerly based in New York City but is now ensconced on the East Side. “Back when we put out our first record, there was a bidding war and we were flown into L.A. Very hoity-toity, guys with flames on silk shirts all standing in their back yards with waterfalls and saying, ‘you want to sign?’

“We were very excited; there was a month or two of back and forth, and I get this phone call. ‘Hey, they’re not going to go with you all. There’s another band with two guys and a girl called The Lumineers, and they want them instead of y’all. They’re on this little indie label out of Nashville and they’re just going to take them from that label.’ Then six months later I found out that The Lumineers said ‘no’ and stayed with this little label called Dualtone.

“We ended up signing with Sony and that was great. But when the opportunity rolled around and I got to meet Paul Roper for the first time and really sit down with him and hear his story, I felt like, ‘This is good.’ I felt like I’d been on a huge cruise ship lost on the seventh floor when I could be on a little speedboat that knows how to zip.”

And zip they do. After three albums for Sony, The Lone Bellow moved to Dualtone in 2020. Meanwhile, under Dualtone’s guiding hand, The Lumineers have gone triple platinum. In addition to the artists mentioned earlier, there are Mt. Joy, Shovels and Rope, Robert Earl Keen … the mind reels.

But back to the biz part of things. Roper says, “The Dualtone store just exploded during the pandemic. And we bought Magnolia Record Club from the artist Drew Holcomb two years ago and started kind of a parallel store where we sell exclusive pressings. It’s not Dualtone-centric, it’s any label under the sun that has great records we’re trying to curate for the audience. I think we’re just tapping into and filling a void that people have.

“People know what Dualtone represents,” Roper continues. “Here we are at 20 years, and the stores represent the brand and they both complement each other. Dualtone has really established itself for people to know where to go for a certain type of record. I think we have succeeded to some degree at filling that gap for this type of artist. It’s very singer-songwriter-oriented. There are a few curveballs in there like a jazz record or a blues record, but as long as it’s great, we’re all about it.”

So, what’s next?

“I think we’re going to keep doing what we do,” says Roper. “Keep putting out music we believe in and can give a voice to. That’s always been the core of what Scott’s built the company on. Let’s put out great art and hopefully the commerce will fall in line.

“But we’ve never been driven by chasing a ‘hit song’ or the next hot thing,” he continues. “It’s always been to put out music that’s culturally relevant and that’s going to stand the test of time. Something that holds up. So that’s the art that we’re trying to find and hang our hat on. We always want to be in a position where we feel we’re adding value to an artist’s career.”

Nevertheless, and as you might’ve guessed, things have evolved since the label’s humble beginnings. “Twenty years ago, when the company started, we were calling Tower Records on West End trying to work to get our records in there, and now technology has changed the game,” says Roper. “From home recordings to DIY services, anybody can get on Spotify or iTunes. I think that’s created a conversation around the nature of labels; why do you ‘need’ a label?”

Good question. The genesis of Dualtone’s relationship with their artists begins with it.  “Every time we sign a band, we have that conversation,” explains Roper. “I think being able to lay out a vision for each artist specifically that we work with and help them understand the value that we can bring — and really mean it and have it be legitimate — is something we’re really proud of. Success looks different for every act but defining what that is on the front end and helping people achieve those goals … can actually bring that value to the table.”

Leave it to co-founder Robinson to sum up. “That is really the DNA of Dualtone: treating our artists like partners. Yes, we are a record label from the outside looking in, but the deals we’ve structured and the way we communicate is really a partnership. It’s a really great time for artists to take control of their art and find the right partners and the right team. Paul and I, in all the meetings with artists, say, ‘We’re just an extension of you. You’re the CEO of your company, we’re just experts in this division of your company.’

“Even with The Lumineers, I remember industry friends saying, ‘You fools! You didn’t sign them for four records?!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, one, the band didn’t want to do that, and two, we’re really thankful we got to do the one record with them and have the worldwide success and prove to the industry and to the world that you don’t have to have a major to have a massive hit record. And we all won, and it was pretty amazing. And now here’s the band delivering their fourth record to us.’”

And that’s how Dualtone’s karma ran over Music Row’s dogma. Happy 20th to the little indie that could.