By Susana FerreiraStarting in 1999 as an online magazine and web-development company, URBNET parents Darryl Rodway and Janusz Jarosinski have watched their baby come a long way. Short for the Urban Entertainment Network, the condensed, all-caps version of the title caught on in such a way that, by the time the pair decided to launch their own record label three years later, URBNET had already established itself as a brand for hip-hop in Canada.
A Nation of Locals "A lot of our clients were independent artists running their own bedroom labels, frustrated in the market, unable to get their records on the shelves," Rodway explains. "We decided to play the role of the suit and get things rolling." URBNET's active roster now includes 14 artists from all across Canada, a domestic distribution deal with Outside Music, and active plans for U.S. expansion. For a scene so focused on regional sounds, the sheer geographic diversity is remarkable. They make a point of "looking for [artists] that will have appeal to a national fan base as opposed to a regional one," explains Rodway, and despite the heavy volume of demos that pass through their mailbox, much of URBNET's recruitment strategy is still based on very organic and personal methods. "We keep our eyes and ears open for people who are making great singles and developing a buzz for themselves." To get a feel for an artist's personal dynamics and business approach, URBNET will typically start off by licensing a single track for one of their Underground Hip Hop CD compilations.
Stickin' It Out URBNET, says Rodway, is "a label that's in it for the long run," and this focus extends to their relationships with artists. While most major labels shy away from development deals, Rodway explains how, when a new artist is signed to URBNET, it's generally understood that it may take them one, two, or even three albums before they begin to hit their stride. To that end, every artist on the URBNET roster has a personalised contract. "A lot of [our artists] are handling a lot of their biz," says Rodway. "We may jump in and handle mixing or mastering from our funds, but we like the recording to be handled on the artist's end. That way, they have the most creative control over their project as well. At the end of the day all we're doing is giving them the tools to put a record in the store."
Hearing the Future Much of Rodway and Jarosinski's experience with URBNET the website comes in handy for URBNET the label's marketing, promotion and distribution attack. They tackle traditional media but are also very careful to balance hand-to-hand grassroots strategies with online or electronic means of getting the music out there. Hip-hop in Canada is very closely tied to campus and community radio; over 90 percent of URBNET's vinyl goes strictly to mix-show DJs. Pressing and mailing vinyl is a big expense and comes directly from each release's promotional budget, but Rodway stresses how important it is to service the industry. "Word of mouth is still the number one way of selling records," he says. "If the record's hot, and the industry does have the record, and they have something to say about it, good or bad, there's going to be a lot more awareness around it." While he waits for the day when DJs start favouring MP3s over wax, URBNET has already begun to make overall good use of electronic distribution.
"We thought this year was big," says Rodway, " but I think next year we'll be able to double what we're doing." URBNET's American distribution deal is set to kick in during the new year, and plans for expansion — including an expanded roster featuring a 50/50 American/Canadian split — now in motion, the sky's the limit for a new peace bridge URBNET in 2006. "With the States, rule of thumb is that you'll do ten times what you do in Canada. That scares me sometimes, because ten times what we do in Canada means well over a million dollars a year. If it happens it happens. We've lived off of nothing in this business; we're just committed to what we're doing."