In the summer of 2007, three ragtag college students — history major David Mansfield, musician Philip Frobos, and visual artist Allen Taylor — spent long hours hanging around their Georgia State dorm rooms. They were busy plotting, as Frobos puts it, "to take over the world."
Of course, the world as they then knew it could pretty much be boiled down to Atlanta's insular rock scene. But there was a problem with their plan. Frobos, the vocalist and bassist for Chainestereo (pronounced shin stereo), couldn't book a show to save his life.
It was a few months after the release of Deerhunter's second album, Cryptograms. Black Lips' Good Bad Not Evil was about to drop, and Atlanta indie labels Rob's House, Die Slaughterhaus and Douchemaster Records were pumping out a steady stream of local 7-inch singles. The scene was strong and tight-knit, and breaking into it would prove nearly impossible for a group of young newcomers.
"I tried to book shows anywhere but the responses always felt like, 'Get away from me, you annoying kid, you're bothering me!'" Frobos says. "For months I was obsessed with Rob's House. And seeing people that I knew from other bands like the Coathangers and the Selmanaires getting their records put out was really inspirational. I was determined to get a Chainestereo 7-inch out on Rob's House."
So Frobos harassed the label's co-owner Travis Flagel, but to no avail.
"When Philip started hitting me up, we had eight or nine singles waiting to be pressed," Flagel says. "We were busy, but I also thought they were a little tame compared to what we were doing."
By the time Flagel met with Mansfield and Frobos to offer advice on building connections via the Internet to help spread the band's name, Frobos had already reached his breaking point. "One day we were sitting around and I said, 'Goddamn it, we're never going to get a 45 released by anyone because we're too young and people think we're lame!'"
That's when Mansfield chimed in. "We don't need someone to do this for us, why don't I do it?" And so in November 2007, with the release of its first 7-inch — Chainestereo's "Anchors" b/w "Airplanes" — Double Phantom Records was born.
Though barely recognizable at the time, it was a sign that a changing of the guard within the local rock scene would soon be underway. When Rob's House founder Trey Lindsay moved to New York in August '08, much of the steam the label had helped create left with him. In its wake, Double Phantom began to foster a younger, more varied crop of bands no longer loyal to three-chord punk and garage rock. In doing so, the label has helped renew the spirit of the city's DIY scene. Suddenly, their plan to take over the world, or at least Atlanta, was coming together.
Friends since childhood, Frobos and Mansfield had long dreamed of being a part of the Atlanta music scene. The two attended high school together at Lakeview Academy in Gainesville, where Mansfield flirted with the idea of starting a record label. They met Taylor later on while attending classes at Georgia State University their freshman year, and his shy demeanor offered a counterbalance to Mansfield's business savvy and Frobos' wily social ways. The burgeoning operation drew strength from its founding members' talents. Mansfield had the financial means and the desire to spearhead a record label. Frobos took on the networking role. Taylor had an interest in visual art; more importantly, he had Photoshop on his computer and he knew how to use it.
After Frobos spent a year of glad-handing and getting to know as many people involved in the local scene as possible, things picked up for Chainestereo. The group's blissful, noisy pop, indie rock and tropicalia inflections made the band stand out from the local scene. But the divergent sound that once held the group back was now feeding Double Phantom's ambitions. Within a year, the label's roster filled up with a wide swath of the city's musical diversity: the improvised psych-rock dirges of the N.E.C.; the hallucinatory electronics of Living Rooms; the shoegazer drone rock of Abby Go Go; and the jittery surf punk of Balkans all found a home on Double Phantom.
But could a young indie label house such a wide range of acts without inducing an identity crisis?
"When I put out Living Rooms' single, I was a little afraid," Mansfield admits. Living Rooms are the only act on the label that falls well outside the rock category. The group's sound is a fluid blend of skewed, psychedelic electronics and pop experimentation. "It was so different from anything else I had done. But I like a lot of different music, and I like the challenge of getting it out there."
Still, not every experiment has gone smoothly. Double Phantom's second release, a 7-inch and follow-up full-length by Athens' hip-hop group Future Ape Tapes, was far from a hot seller. "I don't think they're bad, but they're an Athens band and it was hard to keep a hold of them by physically not being around them," says Mansfield. "I love hip-hop dearly, but I didn't know as much about it as I knew about the rock community."
As the fall of '08 approached, Chainestereo's songwriting continued to evolve, and the more refined band changed its name to Carnivores to signify its growth. As the band began booking out-of-town shows, the whole operation quickly gained momentum. Double Phantom's approach to selling homegrown talent to the rest of the world possessed a certain Internet savvy that added a new dimension to their potential.
On Nov. 6, two years after the label's first release, indie-rock tastemaker Pitchfork reviewed "A Crime" from Carnivores' debut LP, All Night Dead USA. The track earned a seemingly mild six out of 10 from the website. But over the next two days, Double Phantom sold twice the amount of songs online than it had the entire month before. "The power of Pitchfork is undeniable," Mansfield muses. "That's just the way it is."
On paper, Double Phantom's practices resemble an exercise in socialism. "Whenever someone approaches me to do a record, I tell them, 'You're not going to make any money off of it,'" Mansfield says. "By simple math we pretty much break even with each release, and all of the money we make gets circulated back into the label."
Double Phantom's releases are predominantly vinyl with CDs tucked into the sleeves. No more than 300 copies of each record are pressed, and many of the label's songs are sold online through outlets such as iTunes and Rhapsody. On the surface, Double Phantom follows the same blueprint most indie labels have since 1980, when Washington, D.C., musicians Jeff Nelson and Ian MacKaye of the seminal hardcore band Minor Threat started Dischord Records. But over the last decade, the rise of the Internet has altered the dynamics of selling music. "When Dischord was started, there were no CDs and there were no digital downloads and there were no computers," MacKaye says. "If you started a label the same way as Dischord now, the context would be entirely different."
With MP3s only a mouse-click away, online distribution shaped Double Phantom's approach from the outset. But while the Internet holds vast potential for independent labels and artists, it also presents an endless maze of options. "One of the benefits of the Internet is that you can find anything there, but the problem with the Internet is that you can find anything there," MacKaye deadpans. "It's like walking into the most insanely massive box store in the world and trying to find a pair of tweezers."
That's where Taylor's design aesthetic comes into play. After designing the cover art for Chainestereo's 7-inch, Taylor was charged with the task of giving the label a recognizable identity. He sites as influences the Animal Collective-run label Paw Tracks and the Warwick, N.Y.-based Woodsist Records, which released early material by Wavves, Kurt Vile and Vivian Girls. "Every record has a similar look and feel in its design and sound, tying it to part of a larger and recognizable body of work," Taylor says.
His illustrations feature hand-drawn typefaces and busy geometric shapes personified by the circling ghosts that form Double Phantom's logo. In a sense, Taylor's cluttered, hallucinatory shapes and colors embody the irony of being an indie label that uses the Internet's global reach to sell local music. It's a business model that's still taking shape, but it's worked well so far. Mansfield and company are throwing the first PhantomFest on Dec. 12 — something that would've been unthinkable a year ago without the momentum the label has since gained.
The old guard has also taken notice. Flagel, for one, is glad Frobos' frustrations with Rob's House pushed him and his band to start something new. "It's like passing the Olympic torch," Flagel says. "If you do the legwork, things will happen for you, and there needs to be new blood in this town."
Now things are happening for Double Phantom in Atlanta and abroad. "Balkans have done well, and the N.E.C. sells well in England," says Mansfield. "Living Rooms played a show with Neon Indian, and after that people started buying their records like crazy. Carnivores have done well internationally as well. I've sent records to Canada, France and England. ...
"How do people in these other countries find out about them?" he wonders aloud. "I don't know. But one person in France recently bought everything Carnivores have done."
It isn't exactly what they had in mind when they were sitting around their dorm rooms plotting their big move. But world domination can get a little unwieldy sometimes.
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