Left to right: Kelly Ogilvie, Colby Underwood (back with white hat), Michael Garcia (green vest), Bret Nielsen, Kris Matheu and Isaac Sims-Porter. Photo credit: Stefan Scherperel of Fueled Creative.
Left to right: Kelly Ogilvie, Colby Underwood (back with white hat), Michael Garcia (green vest), Bret Nielsen, Kris Matheu and Isaac Sims-Porter. Photo credit: Stefan Scherperel of Fueled Creative.

Not many underground artists can say that they’ve been there and back by choice—“there” meaning a deal with a major recording label, and “back” as in relying on themselves for financing. But the lack of professionalism and creative freedom forced Clockwork, a local hip-hip group, to break away from DreamWorks Records just months before the company went under in 2005.

“We could see that something just wasn’t right and we had to get out of it, even if it meant going back to doing things on our own,” says Michael Garcia, one of the members of Clockwork.

From there the guys thought they’d be going back to the old way of doing things: selling CDs on the side, booking local shows and producing low-budget YouTube videos with hopes to go viral. But then they heard of a team that was looking for up-and-coming artists.

Clockwork, along with a few other groups, were chosen out of a pool of about 60 applicants to collaborate with a production company that was looking for talent to believe in, not just make a quick buck on. The two groups soon found out that they shared the same vision: to create a business model that worked more like a partnership and could achieve mutual goals of growing the careers of independent hip-hop artists. That system focuses on giving creative power back to the artists and leveraging the resources and skills that other team members can bring to the table.

It also aims to prove that mixing business and friends can be a very successful equation.

The label, Designated Hitters, was launched two months ago and is a hybrid of old tricks and new thought. On the management side, Bret Nielsen, Kelly Ogilvie and Colby Underwood dabble in sustainable energy, fundraising, video production and politics. Like the designated hitter in the game of baseball, the management team lets its star players—in this case the artists—do what they do best and then fills in where they are needed to carry the team.

Being backed by this management trifecta is reassuring to the artists. “The management team is diverse in skills and reliable. That means a lot to us,” says Garcia.

By combining social media with traditional face-to-face interaction, Ogilvie says they are creating something he calls, “private label media.”

“Designated Hitters isn’t the usual underground label, it’s a start-up label,” he says. “Our artists have a mainstream sound but a grassroots and holistic way of doing things.”

A college tour is already in the works for Clockwork. Touring will not only help cultivate a more connected fan base for the group, but reinforce public safety and community engagement, ideals hip-hop has recently been reclaiming.

The artists’ family and friends are intentionally included in their music videos and promotions. This is not because they are working on a low budget. The idea is to further promote the community experience. Ogilvie says the label’s traditional train of thought is that it’s important for their artists to make a name in their hometown before trying to expand further.

On the production side, Nielsen’s media company, Fueled Creative, is the source for the label’s video production needs, matching their artists’ talent with equally, high-quality presentation. The production crew shoots with a Red One digital cinema camera, a groundbreaking piece of equipment that is the future film industry standard. “The difference between two kids with a camcorder and us is filming that costs thousands of dollars a day,” says Nielsen.

These guys mean business. Everything the label produces comes out in full force, with intentions to match and even surpass the standards of any major recording label out there.

“Life is chess, not checkers,” says Ogilvie. The team has put all their pieces in place, creating a unique dynamic between talent and management, and is an example of a grown-up, strategic approach to surviving in today’s music industry.

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