In 2015, Hamilton County's tourism industry raked in a record $1 billion, and more than 2.2 million nights worth of hotel rooms were booked in metro Chattanooga.
For all the rah-rah back patting those statistics elicited at the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, Cole Sweeton, 32, and David Castaneda, 29, say the Scenic City could be doing a better job at driving guests to partake in local arts and cultural activities.
"When visitors come to Chattanooga for the first time, ...it looks like, in a lot of regards, a simple, boring city to drive through," says Sweeton, a freelance graphic designer. "They don't know where to go to listen to live music or find comedy or get into cocktail culture."
With their app-based audio streaming service Undaground, Sweeton and Castaneda hope to change that by providing a single platform that can promote all aspects of Chattanooga's cultural diversity to residents and tourists alike.
"What Undaground does is to offer a pathway to all the stuff in the city," says Sweeton, Undaground's chief creative officer. "It says, 'Here's where the food comes from and how it's prepared. Here's where you can listen to music after dinner. Here's where to catch a comedy show. Here are the musicians. Here's what they like.'"
A University of Tennessee at Chattanooga alumnus, Castaneda conceived of Undaground as a concept to enter in the 2015 iteration of the Company Lab's "Will This Float?" — business pitch competition whose focus that year was on proposals relating to music and entertainment. After submitting his idea for consideration, Castaneda contacted Sweeton seeking help with creating a pitch package.
As it was presented during the competition — and as Castaneda initially conceived it — Undaground would stream live and pre-recorded audio content created by local musicians and exclusively focused on aspects of music culture, from concerts to insights about life on tour.
Sweeton and Castaneda admit Undaground wasn't initially intended to have legs beyond Will This Float? Creating an appealing pitch during a 72-hour creative blitz was supposed to be a way to attract more clients to Sweeton's freelance graphic design business and to Castaneda's work as a web technologies consultant.
Being awarded Best Overall pitch during the competition drove them to greater ambition.
"We felt more of an obligation to pursue the project," Sweeton says. "That got us really excited, so we pursued it some more and talked to a lot of people who wanted to create content."
What they discovered through those conversations was that, while music was something people wanted to know more about in Chattanooga, the appetite for content was broader than they anticipated. They soon realized bands and concerts represented just one of the "pockets of culture" for which Undaground could serve as a viable promotional platform.
"It could also include arts and sports," Castaneda says, ticking topics off while sitting in Undaground's headquarters, an office nook in a single-story house Sweeton rents off Bailey avenue.
"When we started our project, we surveyed a bunch of people — a bunch — online," he continues. "We were looking, in the initial stages, for curators and contributors to the project. [The focus] has been narrowed down a lot."
Castaneda and Sweeton are resting their hopes for Undaground on an in-development smart phone app for which Castaneda is serving as the sole software developer. The app is currently in a private beta testing phase and is being made available to those who express interest in helping them test it out.
In its current state, the app launches to a screen full of square icons, which provide access to various audio streams. In addition to several music programs, the offerings include local comedy show "Improv Cha," the Chattanooga Football Club-centric "Chattahooligans Radio" and "Brew Chatt," a weekly podcast aimed at cinemaphiles and craft beer lovers.
Sweeton says the goal is to graduate to a public beta test of the app by the first quarter of 2017. In the mean time, Undaground is making its presence felt as a co-producer of community events and programs, including various activities during Startup Week in October, producing the after parties for this year's Chattanooga Film Festival and an ongoing partnership with the Chattanooga Football Club to provide commentary during matches.
Looking ahead, Sweeton and Castaneda say they plan to amass more programming by adding to their network of cultural "curators." Their plan is to fund production of this content and pay their curators via sponsorships secured from local businesses in exchange for providing targeted, location-based advertisements to those using the app.
"We want to become the ubiquitous answer to the question 'Hey, what is there to do here?' — like an Uber of local culture," Sweeton says. "We've already spoken to probably a couple hundred local businesses about being involved, and everyone was really into the idea.
"The platform isn't ready to host ads yet, but when it is, we have a lot of people lined up."