It's not unusual when a local label and its resident bands find a wildly receptive audience and enjoy some measure of grassroots/word-of-mouth success. It is unusual when the label and bands are based in Nashville and the audience is in Cincinnati.
That's the situation with Nashville indie label Theory 8 and its flagship band, Forget Cassettes. Theory 8 owner/operator Aaron Hartley has seen his label's fortunes rise exponentially here in Cincinnati over the past four years, some of which is related to his focused marketing efforts and some of which boils down to pure luck.
"The ironic thing is that my wife is actually from Cincinnati," Hartley says from his Nashville home. "So I'd been visiting Cincinnati for about four years prior to starting the label as we were dating throughout college. I always thought it was a pretty cool city and, of course, I was always going to see shows at the Southgate House."
When Hartley started Theory 8 in 2000, he remembered listening to WOXY-FM when he was visiting the area and hoped that he might be able to place some of his artists on the then-Oxford-based terrestrial station's playlist. With the 2003 signing of Forget Cassettes, then a duo featuring guitarist/songwriter Beth Cameron and drummer/keyboardist Doni Schroader, Hartley felt like he had found the sonic answer to cracking WOXY's airwaves.
"I hired big, fancy radio people to push it to college radio, and that was the only station I really cared about," Hartley says with a laugh.
"We did a three-month campaign, and they never added it and I was so bummed. But about three weeks after that, they added four of Beth's songs to heavy rotation — this was obviously back when they were terrestrial — so when that started happening all of a sudden Cincinnati started coming up. We were getting order after order, and Shake It was calling, saying, 'Everyone's coming in and asking for your record.' The first time we ever played Cincinnati, we headlined and sold out a 350-seat club. At that point, we started to realize we had something going on in Cincinnati."
With exposure on WOXY and strong street level support, Forget Cassettes' local success translated to other bands on Theory 8's roster, including Apollo Up, De Novo Dahl and The Carter Administration. Even as WOXY's effectiveness in promoting attendance at local concerts has waned with its switch to Web-only broadcasting, Hartley says the Cincinnati audience has remained loyal to Theory 8 bands.
"People have kept in touch with what we're doing as a label as opposed to being committed to just one band," he notes. "Cincinnati has slowly embraced each and every band that has come up from Nashville through there with the label."
Theory 8's broader acceptance has been spearheaded by the initial success of Forget Cassettes, which benefited from WOXY's on-air commitment as well as Shake It's involvement, which has included heavy in-store play and live appearances to promote local club dates. Cameron, Forget Cassettes creative sparkplug, is pleased with the positive response she's experienced here.
"We'd been asked to do an in-studio performance when WOXY was in their old studio, and we were like, 'Oh this is going to be fun,' " Cameron says. "We did the in-studio and people were calling in and asking questions, and then we were like, 'That was interesting.' When we played our show that night, we sold it out and we just weren't expecting that at all."
Cameron began Forget Cassettes five years ago. A guitarist in the same mold as Tara Key and Sylvia Juncosa, Cameron founded the Cassettes with an ear toward emotional intensity through a balance of shredding volume and pastoral quietude. The sonic fingerprint of Forget Cassettes' first album, 2003's Instruments of Action.
"(Her former band) Fair Verona ended in 2001 and Doni started touring with other people and I sat at home and wrote songs," Cameron says. "As I was writing I started thinking, 'Maybe I want to play these songs out.' When he got back in town off of tour, I called him and we got together and it went from there."
Almost as soon as Forget Cassettes became an entity, Hartley offered his services.
"He was like, 'If you want anybody to put out your record, I'll do it," Cameron recalls. "That's when I decided, 'Oh, if someone wants to put out my record, maybe I should seriously consider finishing a record.' I wasn't really thinking about it in that way, I was just writing songs."
Cameron and Schroader did Forget Cassettes as a duo for a couple of years, ultimately opening for ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Schroader began playing drums for Trail of Dead on tour and then worked with them in the studio, which led to his semi-departure from the Cassettes.
For the Cassettes' sophomore album, last year's Salt, Cameron expanded to a trio comprised of bassist Jay Leo Phillips (from Apollo Up) and Aaron Ford (ex-Sincerity Guild). While Phillips, Ford and Schroader all remain involved with the Cassettes, Cameron's bandmates for the group's upcoming Southgate show will be Schroader and new bassist Jason Dietz.
Although a lot of recent press seems to have made a big deal over Cameron's gender and role as guitarist and bandleader of Forget Cassettes, she feels no pressure to represent from that perspective.
"No pressure other than being a good musician," Cameron says with a laugh. "It has nothing to do with gender at all. I think when I was younger I definitely felt that kind of pressure, but there are so many women playing music now, whether people want to admit that or anyone knows that. It's confusing why people still bring that up. When you listen to the radio, it's pretty dominated by females, especially in Indie Rock. It's kind of almost like a joke, you have to say it these days."
As Forget Cassettes' fortunes rise around the world (Cameron signed with One Little Indian, home to Björk and Twilight Singers, for European distribution and Salt will be coming out in Japan shortly), Hartley's role as label head changes as well. He's already shepherded De Novo Dahl into a major indie deal with Roadrunner Records (he's subsequently become the band's manager), a scenario he sees happening with Forget Cassettes as they begin working on demos for their third album.
Although Hartley notes that Theory 8 does well in the Atlanta market as well, he says that there's really nothing that compares anywhere in the country to the success he has enjoyed in Cincinnati.
"We have friends in Cincinnati, you know? Fans that have become friends through us playing there and the support they've given us and the excitement they've had about the bands coming there," Hartley says. "I can go up there for family stuff and hang out with people I've met through the label. In all honesty, we don't have that in too many other places. That has been very unique and very fun."
FORGET CASSETTES headlines a Theory 8 showcase at the Southgate House Friday with De Novo Dahl, The Carter Administration and Save Macaulay.