After all of the years that City Weekly has participated in the South by Southwest and North by Northwest Music Conferences, sending Salt Lake bands to Austin and Portland to showcase for record labels and just maybe ink a deal, how ironic is it that locals Choice of Reign (who placed sixth in 1998’s NXNW Showdown) simply drove to Las Vegas last June and got it done on their own?
At the 2000 EAT’M (Emerging Artists & Technology in Music) conference—an annual industry meet ‘n’ greet similar to SXSW, but on a slightly smaller scale—Choice of Reign’s heartfelt post-grunge tunes and passionate delivery attracted the attention of EAT’M owner Lisa Tenner. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just COR’s music that drew her in.
“I lost my dad in Las Vegas,” says singer-guitarist Steele Croswhite of the late Bill, who worked tirelessly as the band’s manager and producer. “My father died the day before we were scheduled to play our showcase. We decided to play the show anyway because of all he had fought for. Lisa had received word about the situation, and decided to come and listen. After the show, she told us that she would like to be the band’s new manager. After months of negotiation, we made it so.”
Soon, the connected Tenner had shopped Choice of Reign to majors Interscope and Island, as well as start-up label Redline Entertainment. Reps from all three flew into Salt Lake to catch COR’s next two performances: A slot on the Warped Tour and, appropriately, the band’s tribute show to Bill Croswhite at Liquid Joe’s. Subsequent meetings with the interested trifecta ended with Croswhite and his bandmates (bassist Dave Christensen, drummer Jim Stauffer and percussionist James “Jammer” Stauber) signing with the lesser-known Redline. “Redline has international distribution and all the benefits of a major label, but with the benefits of an indie—i.e. personal attention,” he explains. “We signed in December.”
International distribution and major-label benefits may be somewhat of an understatement: Redline Entertainment is a wholly owned subsidiary of Minnesota music-retail giant Best Buy, which owns over 400 stores in the U.S. and a substantial Internet shopping platform. It’s more than just another indie deal, and the going for the band doesn’t necessarily get easier from here.
“I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” Croswhite says, currently between recording and mixing sessions in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Indiana. “But this album is everything that we’ve wanted to do as a band, and we’re excited about it. Recording this has given us an opportunity to work with some top professional people, and helped us to bump up to the next level with confidence. We’ve introduced new instruments to our sound—more guitars, keys and some background vocals. However, the most exciting part is that this record is 95 percent new material. I had a chance to write quite a bit, before and during the recording.
“As far as changes in style, Choice of Reign still sound like Choice of Reign, only bigger and better. I want people to expect a national album—we’re a bit more radio-friendly now. However, let me say that the integrity of the music has not changed a bit!”
For now, you’ll have to take his word for it. It’s been a long time since Choice of Reign has played a local show—or any show, for that matter. The four have been in studio lockdown for months, “rehearsing the same 14 songs over and over again,” Croswhite says with a mixture of pride and exhaustion. “We haven’t been allowed to play any shows since we got into the final stages of recording, and now we’re preparing for our pre-tour showcase.
“Probably by the next time you see us, we’ll have added two side musicians—not new members, but a guitarist and keyboardist we’re in the process of hiring in order to replicate the sound of the album. We’re pumped about the possibilities and the flexibility it’ll give all of us onstage. I’ll be able to focus as much on singing as I do the guitar, and it’ll allow the other guys to really sit in the pocket.”
Choice of Reign’s brand of guitar-hooked angst and well-muscled melody is the very stuff current rock radio is made of (e.g. Matchbox Twenty, Lifehouse, Vertical Horizon, Three Doors Down and, God help us, Creed), and things aren’t likely to change by February 2002, the projected release date for COR’s as-yet-untitled Redline debut. Tour details, either headlining clubs or opening for bigger acts, are sketchy at the moment, as “where, when and how we tour is almost 100-percent based on radio play,” Croswhite says. “I do know that sometime in November, we’re supposed to have our label showcase for endorsements, booking agencies and so forth.”
Contrary to common opinion, and probably logic, Croswhite emphasizes that the label won’t downplay the band’s Zion roots. “In fact, I think it’ll be to our advantage,” he says. “I think the fact that we’re from Utah will be mysterious enough in itself, and might gain some extra attention since we’re not from L.A. or Seattle.
“I think being a band whose roots are in Salt Lake has had a great effect on our attitude towards the business,” Croswhite explains. “The fans who follow local bands here are more dedicated than in any other town. I think it’s because we’re a small pool with a lot of talented bands in one place. I also think it’s created a stronger work ethic for those of us who want to be recognized on a national level.”
Stepping down off the local soapbox, Croswhite concludes with a reality check: “It’s smart to realize that that failure in this business is more common than not. We just want to play music. It’s really that simple.” n