Fully Aware

In the booklet for his record label’s second release, Gregg Latterman took time out from describing the music to describe how the music had changed his life: “I forgot how to tie a tie, my hair has grown out and now I wear sandals to work (if I decide to put shoes on).” In reality Latterman, who in the fall arranged a three-year distribution deal with Columbia for his west-Loop-based Aware Records, hasn’t exactly escaped the corporate world. But he has figured out a way to deal with it on his own terms.

Latterman, now 30, founded Aware almost exactly five years ago, when he was still working as a CPA for Coopers & Lybrand in Boston. Sick of the grind, he’d been mulling a number of ideas for a company of his own, among them an all-natural clothing store, but in the end his knack for turning friends on to unknown bands seemed the most natural of his interests to parlay into a career. That’s not really an unusual route into the music business, but unlike many of the industry’s better-known mavericks, Latterman has never shown even a superficial interest in pushing the artistic envelope. Like many other white, middle-class Americans his age, Latterman digs straightforward, melodic, guitar-based “meat and potatoes” rock. The stuff he was putting on party tapes for his pals, he says, “was just like R.E.M., Toad the Wet Sprocket, or Big Head Todd, but it was a few years prior to the bands putting out a record on a major label.”

On the business side, however, Latterman is about as daring as they come. He knew little about the music industry when he came to it, but instead of dutifully learning and following its protocols, he developed his own. His first release, Aware 1, wasn’t an album by one band he thought could be big, but a compilation of ten hippie-jam bands from around the country. He distributed it not through the usual middlemen but through the bands themselves. Most of the groups had devoted live audiences on their home turf and sold a good number of the discs at shows–thus helping other regional favorites gain national audiences. The bands also supplied Latterman with contacts at local record stores, and he shipped off compilations to be sold on consignment. Aware 1 sold 7,000 copies this way in its first year. The figure has since exceeded 30,000, and Latterman has fine-tuned the formula over the course of nine more releases. In the last few years, through notices in the CD booklets, he’s established a network of volunteer representatives around the country. As a reward for promoting local concerts, the reps can buy the records at cost, sell them to friends, and pocket the profit.

Aware 1 came out on Latterman’s final day as an accountant, in July 1993. That fall he moved to Vail, where he taught skiing and began assembling his next project. At the end of the ski season, after learning that he’d been accepted at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, he packed his bags for Dallas to hang out with Jackopierce, a band on the first compilation that had signed with A&M. There Latterman finished Aware II, which would firmly establish him as the man with the golden ear: among the then-unknown participants were Hootie & the Blowfish, Better Than Ezra, the Verve Pipe, and the Edwin McCain Band. All in all, about a third of the 70-some bands Latterman’s worked with have gone on to sign with major labels–an astonishing batting average.

In the fall of 1994, Latterman moved to Chicago and ran Aware while attending a full schedule of classes at Kellogg; he got his MBA in 1996. “I was an accounting and finance major in college and I’ve literally read Business Week and Forbes since I was in high school, so it was easier for me than it might have been for others,” he says. Aware, which now has eight full-time employees, has released five national comps and one featuring Michigan bands (Latterman grew up in East Lansing and studied at Michigan State). Realizing that for the company to grow it needed to hang on to some of its acts, Latterman has also put out four full-length albums, by Thanks to Gravity, Stir, Farmer, and Nineteen Wheels. A fifth, the debut LP by an “earthy, honest” San Francisco band called Train, is due in a few weeks. (Train, Nineteen Wheels, Guster, the Push Stars, and Dovetail Joint–one of the few Chicago bands Aware has worked with–perform at an Aware showcase March 14 at Metro.)

In addition Latterman is putting together an irony-free compilation for Columbia of songs about America–covers of “classic rock tunes that haven’t been updated, like ‘Hotel California’ and ‘America’ by Simon & Garfunkel,” he explains. But Aware is his first priority. “We’re trying to build up our catalog, build up our presence on the Web, keep increasing our mailing list,” he says, “and more than anything build up the brand name, so that if you buy stuff from us you know you’re going to like it.”

Latterman’s not oblivious to the fact that the sort of music he peddles is slipping from the charts. Matchbox 20, who appeared on Aware 3 as Tabitha’s Secret, is the only Aware discovery with an album in Billboard’s top 100 at the moment. Past smashes like Better Than Ezra and Hootie have watched their sales dwindle as fast as they rose, while more recent signees, like Mighty Joe Plum, Fat Amy, and the aptly named Ho-Hum, have stiffed miserably. “I do worry about it,” Latterman concedes. “But I figure the world will catch back up with us. We’re in the middle.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Greg Latterman photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.