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Photo by Jeanne RiceConventional wisdom says there's only one probable outcome when someone with little experience starts a company with the haziest of business plans: failure.
But Michael and Jody McFadin disposed of conventional wisdom when they founded Ubiquity Recordings 12 years ago. They didn't have much choice. They were unemployed club DJs. They had struggled to open their first business, a record store. It wasn't exactly a profile to pump confidence into potential investors. But they loved records and packed their store with their favorite rare vinyl grooves, and they took the same approach with their record label.
Over the years, the Newport Beach-based label has chalked up success and high praise from fans of Latin jazz, electronic music and soul jazz, as well as magazines like Rolling Stone, Urb and Alternative Press.
This month, Ubiquity Recordings will issue its 100th release, No Categories 5, a compilation featuring many of their artists. It's a testament to their unlikely success and their aspirations to be the alternative to the alternative.
Ubiquity counts itself among a small group of independent labels such as Ninja Tune and Compost that demand club kids listen to the music as hard as they dance to it. That's a tall order, but Ubiquity fills it by signing musicians who seem to drink the same aural bug juice as Brian Eno, Talking Heads, and a nerdfest of other folks who've reached into the ether and blended the unlikeliest of sounds.
Ubiquity has also rejuvenated the careers of such '70s soul jazz acts as the Pharaohs and the Sons and Daughters of Lite by rereleasing their music on sister label Luv N' Haight. CuBop, a second Ubiquity offshoot, did the same for the Afro-Cuban sound by putting out new music from legends Bobby Matos, Jack Costanzo and Dave Pike.
"I always knew I was going to own my own business," Michael says. "Otherwise, I'd be unemployable."
But how did he make the leap to culture czar of revolutionary sounds? Part of it was being with Jody, a club kid from Orange. And part of it was simply trusting musicians.
"I sort of believe you don't tell Babe Ruth how to hold a bat," says Michael. "We hire good musicians and then don't screw around with them. We might have to step in if they go over budget or if they have a kooky idea, but we hire musicians who we know, so we don't have to worry."
Ubiquity's artists confirm that the McFadins stay out of their way. When Nobody (born Elvin Estela), recently changed his musical style, he expected some objections. After all, Nobody's 2000 album, Soulmates, was a critical and financial success for the label. But Michael delivered no lectures when Nobody unveiled his brighter, less moody sound. "When I saw Mike's face light up," Nobody says, "I knew he got it."
Jazzman Matos says Ubiquity's approach is unique. "I was on a major, and I was a tax deduction," Matos says about his stint on the Phillips imprint. "Major labels are not looking for quality in Latin jazz. They want to hire an artist who is 18. They ask, 'How do they look in a muscle shirt? How can we sell them as a sex symbol?' None of that happens on a Ubiquity recording. Their only question is, 'Can they play or can't they?' If they can't, they don't get signed."
The McFadins' two-pronged approach—searching for the next unheard sound and treating their artists warmly—has helped build a mom-and-pop store into a profitable business with nine employees and gross sales of $2 million last year. They sell half their product overseas, including in England, Germany, Japan, Israel, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Twenty percent of their business involves licensing their music to movies (such as Get Shorty), video games and extreme sports videos.
But no one on the Ubiquity roster is getting wealthy. They sign their artists to contracts with advances that range between $10,000 and $30,000—chump change compared with the majors, who often start at $250,000. The major labels can also better absorb the blows of a bad economy.
Still, it's an okay batting average for a company that began as a comedy of errors. The McFadins moved to San Francisco in 1990 after a mini career of promoting parties in Costa Mesa and Santa Ana. They expected to support themselves with DJ gigs in the Bay Area, but seemingly everyone in town was already an overeager amateur DJ, and no one would pay them to spin records.
They sold their cars and sank their funds into a record store. Before they could even get comfortable, they found out their partner was stealing from them. So they opened a new place on Haight Street called Groove Merchant. It was there they first issued a small number of titles, which started selling out.
Part of their success was merely being at the right place at the right time. Acid jazz and electronic music started getting big in the mid-'90s, and Ubiquity was one of the few labels releasing vinyl in the early part of the decade. The pressure of keeping a business afloat also forced the McFadins to drop their slacker ways. After years of 15-hour days and nights spent reading books on tax law and management, they got good at running a shop.
They grew tired of the work, though, and wanted to start a family. So they sold their store in 1995, hired sales clerk Andrew Jervis as their A&R guy, and last year moved the label down to Newport Beach. Jervis maintains an office in San Francisco and has put his own stamp on the company by developing relationships with foreign labels like England's Talkin' Loud.
But are they becoming complacent? Perhaps, according to Jason Bentley, an A&R director of Maverick Records and a KCRW DJ who helped popularize electronic music in Southern California.
"[Ubiquity] is very well-respected, but it's fairly niche. I don't think they're achieving the crossover they could have," says Bentley. "They have a purist vision, and that's great, but it's a luxury for an indie not to compromise."
All true, the McFadins admit. But they like it that way.
"We have a saying here that we're in the music business, not the music industry," Michael says. "We're a group of people who love music, who make a living by selling it, but we're not part of the industry." Spoken like a true independent.