The front of Spacebomb Records' new headquarters is deceptively small.
Behind the unassuming single-story brick and smoked glass facade, the complex of offices, control room and studio space stretches back for more than half of a long block between Robinson and Mulberry, just south of Cary.
It's the label's third home, which started in the attic of founder Matthew E. White's Libbie Avenue house, then combined with Trey Pollard's Songwire Studio in Shockoe Bottom. Starting with White's debut album, "Big Inner," the label built a reputation for a sound at once warmly down-home and stunningly cinematic. Other artists, including Natalie Prass, Cocoon and Foxygen, came to town to record. Then indie-rock powerhouse Glassnote Records came to invest. Hence Spacebomb 3.0, an integrated entertainment company under one roof.
"There are the four main things: the label, publishing, production and management," says Chief Executive Ben Baldwin. "The record label makes money in the traditional way, except we often make the records as well, which is nontraditional as of the last 20 years. The publishing company makes the money from selling the rights of the music … from radio plays, synching onto adverts, or whatever. The production [company] is where the artist or the record label pays us to do something, whether it is the strings or a whole record. And the management company as well, which handles a handful of artists around the world."
The advantage, Baldwin says, is cross-pollination of ideas.
"There has been a separation between someone who makes music and someone who works in the music industry and never the two shall meet, other than if you are arguing," he notes. "Everyone in the same space helps keep everyone on the same page."
And it lets them do things in-house that were impossible before. Trey Pollard's lush orchestral arrangements of Prass' "It Is You" had to be recorded in small sections and then assembled layer-by-layer. Most of the time when a large group of players were required, they went to the larger space at Montrose Studios. With the new space Pollard can conduct a sizeable string section — 20 players for White's next album — with plenty of room to spare.
The label has become the most evolved realization of the unified creative vision of the Patchwork Collective, the concept launched by White along with guitarist Scott Burton and Chris Elford in 2005. "That was what we talked about. Importing people into Richmond, so people could experience this," White says. "And exporting people out so that people could experience Richmond."
What is it about Richmond that makes it special?
"It's not that it is less expensive than [larger markets]," White insists. "It's not just a cute destination. I think it has a lot to do with VCU and Doug Richards in particular. And there is a strong black gospel tradition here." Those two things create a unique environment, he points out, as do the individual musicians who make a difference.
"Trey's writing is because it is Trey. And Trey lives here, period. Daniel Clarke makes a difference. Devonne Harris makes a difference. Cameron [Ralston] and Pinson [Chanselle] and Alan [Parker] make a difference. It is specific people. There is a unique product here that isn't replicable anywhere else, not in New York or LA or London."
While a core group of individuals play in the house band, and there is arguably something like a iconic Spacebomb sound, the ethos is to keep things as varied as possible.
"I have always modeled the label after Atlantic," White says. "Where there is the flexibility to release a wide variety of music, but [always] a high aesthetic bar."
Reflecting on the mix of musicians at a South by Southwest showcase, which featured Andy Jenkins, Jackie Cohen, Bedouine, Sleepwalkers, Lola Kirk and Angelica Garcia, "They all come from different places, but they are all strikingly artistic. You will be healthiest if [like Atlantic] you can have Led Zeppelin, Ray Charles, John Prine and John Coltrane on the same label."
As for the future, Baldwin is optimistic.
"We are not advertising, it is the music. Whether it's Matt releasing a Spacebomb record, or someone else [recording] here and releasing on another label, once it is out in the world is it our biggest selling point for us. Every time something new drops, more production jobs arrive at our door. The beast feeds itself."