It's not every day that you encounter a successful business that relies on "the bumblefuck model." But it's not every day that you encounter a business as idiosyncratic as Ann Arbor's Quack! Multimedia and an owner as simultaneously pragmatic and philosophical as Al McWilliams.
You may not have heard of Quack! (the name simply struck McWilliams as cool-sounding), but if you've ventured even a little bit outside the mainstream of pop culture you've likely encountered some of their output.
This month Quack! has taken over a series of Thursday nights at Ann Arbor's Blind Pig to showcase its indie-rock-leaning musical stable. Quack! just released the latest full-length from Detroit rock 'n' roll kingpins the Hard Lessons (as a free download on the band's site, no less). The label is home to Northern folk-pop troubadours the Great Lakes Myth Society, and it counts among its key alumni Ann Arbor-based Atlantic Records quirk-pop maestros Tally Hall. Most recently, Quack! signed a deal to merge with Livonia-based indie Suburban Sprawl and its roster of bands and built-in community of faithful indie-pop diehards such as Javelins, Child Bite, the Pop Project and El Boxeo. All of these bands have come together for the weekly shenanigans at the Pig (which continue this Thursday with the Pop Project, Javelins, Child Bite and Great Lakes Myth Society).
But Quack! is a true multimedia outfit. It puts out issues and special projects from Ann Arborite Davy Rothbart's acclaimed Found Magazine and a slew of one-offs like coffee-table books of dinosaur comics. Quack! is responsible for the comedy video portal superdeluxe.com. And much of the content it feeds SuperDeluxe is homegrown too, custom-created for cable TV's wildly popular Adult Swim program block. Quack! has now made 30 episodes of such featurettes as Robots vs. Dragons.
That kind of diversity has always been part of a larger plan, according to McWilliams, a 27-year-old former competitive cyclist. And apparently that plan is working. Quack! has grown from three employees set up in a small downtown Ann Arbor space in 2003 to a 10-person company in a space a few blocks away that McWilliams says has "10 times the windows and is 20 times nicer."
Quack! started by producing work far outside the hipster universe — educational films.
"We made those educational videos and we basically ran out of stuff to make," says McWilliams. "I think it was when we did one on action verbs in Spanish. The returns were just getting smaller and smaller, but we just had all this infrastructure — directors, writers, etc. — so I wanted to see what we could do with the staff we had."
That led to video shorts for Adult Swim.
"The original plan was always to expand into music and TV and publishing," says McWilliams, rather like "putting a pizza place next to a video store. Our projects would help each other build and we let everything grow organically."
Case in point: A couple of guys who acted in those educational films mentioned that they had a band. So Quack! decided to put out its first record, Tally Hall's kaleidoscopic pop mindbend Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum.
With music, says McWilliams, it wasn't a matter of "if" but "when."
"Having Tally Hall was, I want to say luck, but so many things have happened so well that it can't be just luck."
And that's where we get into what McWilliams humorously describes as "the bumblefuck model."
The best example, he says, is meeting Jamie Kittmann, manager of They Might Be Giants and OK Go!
He had been trying to get Tally Hall out on the road with OK Go!, "badgering" Kittmann for months.
"One night we were having movie night at our office. I ducked out to have a couple drinks at my friend's dive bar and I started talking to this guy from New York. We had a great time, and finally after two or three hours he's like, 'I manage some bands' and I'm like 'Oh, god, who?'"
The guy was Kittmann, and the bands were OK Go! and TMBG.
"This was literally minutes after I'd hung up the phone with his assistant after two months of phone calls. Totally bumblefuck, but that shit happens every week," he laughs.
A tour ensued and Tally Hall parlayed their experience into a contract with Atlantic.
"We have to be doing something right, but we don't know what that thing is — we just don't want to interrupt it."
Still, McWilliams tempers trust in the unwritten laws of the universe with pragmatism. He takes the long view and hires people who know what they're doing and lets them do what they do best. That's not necessarily the kind of common sense you always find with indie labels or upstart, homegrown media companies.
"I firmly believe that when we sign a band, the creative decisions are left to them," says McWilliams. "If you hire a plumber and you spend the whole time telling them how to do their jobs, then why did you hire a plumber?"
"There's a tendency with people who are managers of labels to make a lot of promises, but we definitely don't do that," he says. "I almost try to talk people out of being in a band for a living, and if I haven't scared them off then we can work together."
McWilliams understands that real livelihoods are at stake. And that means using the different parts of the business to keep the whole thing afloat. When Quack! is flush with video production work, that feeds upcoming music projects and vice versa.
"We also go in on every project like it's going to be profitable — but profitable like $1," he says.
The equation is pretty simple, says McWilliams: "We make something good that you want and you give us money for it. I think that's something that's lost a lot right now. But when you approach it like that it's a good deal for both people."
While a key to Quack!'s growth has been a stringent vetting of new acts and projects, the right place, right time coincidences still play a strong role. Case in point: The deal to absorb and work with decade-old, Livonia-based indie imprint Suburban Sprawl. Sub Sprawl's Zach Curd now works full time out of Quack!'s offices, and he says that being able to dedicate the full force of his efforts to what was once an after-work and after-school endeavor is a luxury he couldn't have anticipated.
"It just so happened," says Curd, "that Al was surfing around MySpace and he had really gotten into a few bands. And it just so happened that those bands were all on Suburban Sprawl!"
Thus a relationship was started that last month became a partnership.
"One of the things that we have no idea how to do is put yourself out there effectively because we're all a bunch of liberal arts majors. Al and Quack! said, 'Here's how you let people know that your record is out, but not by just sending out an e-mail to a list that's not been updated in two years.'"
The association with Quack! was exciting to Curd and company from the get-go.
"My secret fear is that it's gonna come across like Al and Quack! are venture capitalists. He is a business guy but he's definitely tapped into the same mind-set that we are," says Curd.
"Like, I made sure to call Davy at Found and have a 'bro-down' about DIY ethics and how it factors into Quack! [Al's] not like a Jimmy Iovine — 'Nah, you gotta rewrite this and get more hooks' — he's into accommodating what we do and seeing how it pans out."
McWilliams' rare blend of idealism and pragmatism comes across immediately when you engage him in conversation about his business and his passion as it's expressed in Quack!'s growing world.
"There are a lot of people who do a lot of things in this world, but if you want to do things that are that sought after you have to be really good, really often and do it for really little money."
"There are a lot of things that I could be doing with my time and money that could make me more money than doing bands and Found," he says.
"If I wanted to work with assholes I could work much less hours and make much more money."
Blind Pig, 208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555. Quack's Cold Pork showcase continues Jan. 17 and Jan. 24 (with a Jan. 24 lineup that includes the Word Play and Thunderbirds Are Now!). More information at suburbansprawlmusic.com.Chris Handyside is a Detroit-area freelancer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org