In the fall of 1995, Grammy-winning multi-platinum artist Michael W. Smith met with Don Donahue, then Smith’s A&R director at Reunion Records, to discuss a dream they shared: the creation of a new, independent Christian record label that wouldn’t play by modern music business rules. Their dream meant building a label where great songs were the focus rather than the musical fad of the day. They hoped to develop artists, not acts. To establish a label that felt like a family.

It was a dream that led to the launch of Rocketown Records, a label that’s sold nearly three million records in its short, ten-year history. In today’s competitive music market, it’s an impressive figure, especially for a small company that’s managed to remain independent for a decade.

“I’ve always wanted to invest in younger artists,” says Smith of his label. “I don’t want to invest in the stock market because I don’t know much about it, but I do know about the music business because I’ve been doing it for 25 years. I thought it was time to start something organic and independent and invest in some new artists, new thoughts, new songs.”

Donahue, the president of Rocketown, recalls, “We started talking philosophically about what it would be like to go back to the way it used to be: a couple of executives and a couple of artists in a house trying to do things differently, outside the corporate lines. Rocketown was founded with a desire to be about great songs and great songwriters… Our goal is to state the gospel message in a way that is challenging and comforting to those who believe the same thing while being relevant and interesting to those who don’t.”

From the beginning, Rocketown focused on the artist and ignored corporate protocol. “We definitely look for the whole artist picture,” Donahue says. “We want our artists to be writers, players and have production ideas. The whole package is important. We haven’t done anything that’s been manufactured.”

Although Smith isn’t involved in the day-to-day operation of Rocketown, his presence and perspective are vital to setting the tone for the label and its growing roster. “I can’t give Michael enough credit for the launch of this label,” Donahue says. “His name and his trust in the industry opened all the doors that we needed, including our original distribution deal. Michael’s entrepreneurial in that he likes to start a lot of things and then empower people to run them. Outside of his top career in Christian and pop music, he has about six other things that revolve around him constantly so he’s not here every day. But I wouldn’t sign an artist without running it by Michael. I wouldn’t make a significant financial move without advising him. He’s kind of the father of it all, and I think he’s proud of what our artists and staff have accomplished.”

The label’s first artist came in early 1997 with the unexpected signing of 30-something singer/songwriter Chris Rice, who went on to win the 1999 Dove Award for Male Vocalist of the Year and sell more than a million units. Rice’s June 1997 Rocketown debut, Deep Enough to Dream, was an instant hit. “It just blew up,” Donahue recalls. “Instantly we hit the ground running, and we weren’t expecting that. Chris, therefore, gave us our original sound.”

Watermark’s Nathan and Christy Nockels were propelled to Rocketown after hearing Chris Rice. “They were in their hometown of Houston and heard Chris on the radio,” Donahue says. “They just pulled the car over and said ‘What in the world was that? We want to be part of it.’ Hearing Chris on the radio literally brought Nathan and Christy to our label.”

The 1999 Dove Awards proved to be another milestone for Rocketown when the Michael W. Smith-produced project Exodus which features such artists as Rice, dc talk, Sixpence None the Richer and Jars of Clay received the award for Special Event Album of the Year. The project has sold more than 450,000 copies to date, making it the top-selling release for the label.

Rocketown’s Ginny Owens captured the Dove Award for New Artist of the Year in 2000. “When Ginny came to us, everyone in town was vying on her,” Donahue says. “She liked the fact that we had a little house in Franklin, and our meetings consist of plopping down on the couch with a Diet Coke and talking. There is truly nothing corporate about what we’re doing here. We really are like a family. Our artists like that relaxed environment. We draw our marketing stories and plans on who they are, so of course they’re a big part of the entire picture.”

Other artist milestones over the past decade include the following:

* The first four artists signed to the label were all nominated for Dove Awards for New Artist of the Year, representing the label’s foresight in developing unique artists with mass appeal.
* The distribution of Wayne Kirkpatrick’s solo album, The Maple Room, following his Grammy Award win as the co-writer of Song of the Year “Change the World” (recorded by Eric Clapton) in 1997. Kirkpatrick has struck gold again recently with the discovery and development of top-selling country group Little Big Town.
* Four successful label-based tours signaled not only the strong draw of the individual artists but the consumer’s growing trust in the Rocketown brand as the “Night in Rocketown” (1998, 1999) and “Gloria Christmas” (2004, 2005) tours performed to large crowds across the nation.
* Will Hunt/apt.core’s world music/ambient projects garnered a diverse audience, scoring No. 1 singles at Christian radio and boasting placement on cable TV shows, most recently on ABC Family’s “Beautiful People.”

The philosophy on which Rocketown was first founded continues in 2007 as the label stretches its wings with the launch of modern rock imprint RKT, the new home for touring bands High Flight Society, Hyper Static Union and The Turning. HSU’s Lifegiver and The Turning’s Learning to Lose found ardent fans among critics following their 2006 summer debuts, and High Flight Society’s eagerly awaited self-titled debut album has received great acclaim.

In addition to the relaxed, creative environment Rocketown fosters for its artists, Donahue is convinced the artists should also make money from their record sales. “My goal is for all of our artists to receive profits on their record early on, so we spend conservatively on production and promotion,” Donahue says. “By doing that we’re securing a larger, long-term return for our artists and their families. I want to be fiscally responsible for everybody that I’m tied to-and that includes the employees, the artists and the distributor-because it’s their work. And it’s an investment that’s going to pay off for years. That is a personal and professional goal-to take care of my friends, and I’m friends with everyone that is involved with this label. If I had to drop one of our artists, it would be like losing a family member. It’s that heartfelt. It’s everything we put our hearts into, and I think that’s why we’ve been successful.”

Edited by rocketownjosh on 2 Aug 2007, 20:27

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