The bigger the better is what the major-label business is all about.

But Columbia Records executives were exulting recently when an act’s debut album passed the 20,000 sales mark--a drop in the ocean compared to parent Sony Music’s 9 million-selling “Titanic” soundtrack, for example. What’s more, the album isn’t even on Columbia, but on Aware Records, a small Chicago independent label.

The band, San Francisco-based Train, however, is signed to Columbia.

What’s going on down there?


When Columbia Senior Vice President of Artists & Repertoire Tim Devine made the deal for the group, he didn’t think it was ready for the big leagues, so he farmed it out to Aware, much as a baseball team might place a young player in the minor leagues to hone his skills. Two other acts Devine signed are in similar arrangements--Zebrahead and P.J. Olsson, both on the Orange County label Dr. Dream.

“Sometimes it’s better for a band to be a big fish in a little pond,” Devine says. “This gives them time to develop both as songwriters and performers, as well as allow them a chance to build a small but perhaps avid fan base.”

Of course, bands used to do that on their own or through independent labels, and a major would sign the act when it was ready. But at a time when groups that have barely played live command bidding-war interest, a suitor can’t afford to wait.

The Columbia arrangement is not totally unprecedented. The Smashing Pumpkins started on the Virgin subsidiary Caroline before moving up to the big label. But Aware is not owned or managed in any way by Columbia. It was merely hired to release and develop Train.


The trick is to convince the bands, their managers and their lawyers that they should settle for such a deal. In this case, it didn’t hurt that Aware was where Hootie & the Blowfish released several albums before moving to Atlantic Records and massive sales.

“In this business, it’s so hard to work a band,” says Aware owner Greg Latterman. “We’ve been working Train since February and we sold a thousand units one week [in September] for the first time. Basically, in seven months sales have gone up every week. That doesn’t happen. With those relatively small numbers, a major would have given up on it by now.”

For Aware’s part, the label finds itself in a profitable alliance with a major that now has open ears for its discoveries--one Aware act, Dovetail, was recently signed by Columbia.