Alabama Shakes Arrive With 'Boys & Girls'
Last July, Justin Gage, founder of music blog Aquarium Drunkard, posted a track by a then-unknown Athens, Ala., band called Alabama Shakes. Within a few hours of the post, which featured a slow-growing and soul-baring number called "You Ain't Alone," the inbox of the band's singer/guitarist Brittany Howard began to fill up with inquiries from managers, labels and publishing companies.
"They felt like we came out of nowhere, which was kind of true because we didn't have an Internet presence whatsoever," Howard says. "We were just playing shows the old-fashioned way. That's how it started. There were a lot of offers right off the bat, and I didn't understand what to do."
With the help of Gage, who says he can't take credit for the band's propulsive entry into the music scene ("I would never be so bold," he says. "I share what I like and am fortunate to have a large readership"), as well as Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood, Alabama Shakes began navigating the waters of an industry hungry to snatch up a piece of them. Hood connected the group -- which also includes guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, drummer Steve Johnson and keyboardist Ben Tanner -- with his band's managers, Kevin Morris and Christine Stauder at Red Light Management. It wasn't until the CMJ Music Marathon last October, though, that things really began to accelerate.
"I didn't understand at the time how important CMJ was," Howard says. "I just walked in there and we did our thing and that was it. I wasn't nervous. I didn't understand that the room was filled with industry people."
Numerous labels began vying for the group, which had spent most of 2011 self-recording its debut album, "Boys & Girls," which came out Tuesday on ATO Records. Starting in January 2011, Alabama Shakes had traveled to Nashville studio the Bomb Shelter every few months to lay down new tracks, paying for sessions themselves. They also helmed the project on their own with the help of a studio engineer, mostly because, as Howard puts it, they "didn't know what a producer was." The so-called EP the group released last September was actually what Howard considers a demo, containing four tracks that were always meant for the final album.
"We didn't want to release an EP," she says. "But we didn't have anything to give people."
A final recording session was held in November, this time paid for by ATO. After whittling down the list of labels, the band ultimately selected ATO because the label was willing to market the band in a way that felt natural.
"We wanted to make sure it was going to get the attention it deserved," Howard says, "but we also didn't want it to be pushed in anyone's face."
ATO marketing director Jon Salter is fully onboard with this plan. The label has balanced opportunities like a synch in a Zales commercial and "a patient and elongated plan" to push single "Hold On" to triple A and noncommercial radio with organic, word-of-mouth buzz. And a largely sold-out U.S./U.K. tour begins this month.
"We have a career artist here," Salter says. "So it's important to try and take it slow . . . When the band signed to ATO, the momentum was already under way and very thrilling. The songs and live shows were insanely reactive. So our marketing plan was essentially customized around optimizing and building on this natural velocity."
In the end, though, it's about the music, which combines R&B soul sounds with metal and old-school rock'n'roll.
"I see them as an alternative rock'n'roll band, where their music can transcend into different genres and demographics," Salter says. "Like so many legendary bands, they're taking from their favorite records and musical influences and reinterpreting in their own style."