Murfreesboro's legendary Spongebath Records (legendary in Murfreesboro, that is) was born when fledgling artist manager Rick Williams became enamored with MTSU dropout Matt Mahaffey's band Self, signing both Mahaffey and local singer-songwriter Seth Timbs' Fluid Ounces with a paper-napkin contract in a Murfreesboro coffee shop. Spongebath and its diverse roster, which also included The Features, The Katies, The Roaries and Count Bass D, had an immediate knack for releasing critic-friendly records and soon served as both a breeding ground for hot new music and a feeder school for major labels like Columbia, Elektra and Dreamworks, who respectively plucked Count Bass D, The Katies and Self for themselves. In August 1997, the sparkling upstart had struck several major distribution deals and garnered enough attention for a Billboard Magazine cover story, which described Murfreesboro as a "buzzing center of music" and attributed its music scene's success to the logical and inevitable combustion you'd expect from cramming some 1,200 aspiring recording engineers, musicians and music-biz suits from all over the world into one tiny Southern town.
But how Spongebath went from the future of pop music to permanently closing its doors in 2001 has never really been nailed down in print. Williams, Mahaffey and Timbs were all quizzed via telephone and email, but their explanations differ considerably. Mahaffey and Timbs both blame Spongebath's downfall on Williams' management.
"Spongebath bit off more than it could chew. Plain and simple — too much too fast," says Mahaffey. "Rick Williams was [and is] really good at developing talent, and had he stuck to just that aspect of it instead of wearing all these hats, there is no reason Spongebath couldn't be around still today."
"I feel like I gave a lot of people a lot of great opportunities, but ... mistakes were made both ways," says Williams during a phone call on his birthday. At the height of Spongebath's success, he was hired as VP of A&R at BMI, sinking most of his new paycheck back into the label — a decision he regrets. Williams recalls doing his job well enough to get major labels to come see almost every band on the roster, with their careers then largely out of his hands after they got signed — but his hands were also tied when the labels just weren't interested.
Mahaffey suggests Williams might have believed in his bands more than he should have, allowing them too much creative freedom — his only instruction being "just give me something for the radio." With some bands trying to hit it big and others out to "reinvent the pop wheel," Mahaffey thinks this left a sizable gap in his idealistic vision of radio's future and the way it was actually going. Williams says that both he and Mahaffey decided during the recording of Self's Subliminal Plastic Motives that radio was straying away from pop and toward what was still being termed "alternative," and their efforts from then on were aimed in that direction.
Moreover, Williams touts Spongebath as the first of its kind, its intention never to be an "indie label," but one whose focus was to stress artist development over record sales and peddle the fruits of its labor through joint ventures with major labels and distributors. But this was the late '90s, folks, and not yet the golden era of Grammy-winning indie rock. Boy bands still topped the charts, and emo hadn't yet taught our youth how to make crying cool. It wasn't until the mid-Aughts that indie became the weapon of choice for taste-making outlets like Pitchfork, major retail outlets like Urban Outfitters or prime-time TV shows like Gossip Girl and The O.C., which would catapult indie into media that even your mom is familiar with now. Moreover, the word "blog" may or may not have even been coined yet when Spongebath shut down operations in 2001, with most record promotion still happening offline. "When you're doing something for the first time that's never been done before, mistakes are bound to be made," laments Williams.
On July 17, Spongebath Records alumni Seth Timbs and Matt Mahaffey will perform together as a duo, digging up selections from their respective catalogs, and will be joined by former Katies frontman Jason Moore. Though it isn't billed as such, it could make for a Spongebath-themed night to remember — or at least a night to remember Spongebath.