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Switchfoot was founded in 1996 as Chin Up, consisting of Jon Foreman and his brother Tim, along with Chad Butler on drums. After playing only a few shows, the band was contacted by Charlie Peacock, and eventually signed to his indie label Re:think Records under the current moniker Switchfoot. Re:think would distribute the first three Switchfoot albums, The Legend of ChinNew Way to Be Human, and Learning to Breathe. Because Re:think was bought out by Christian giant Sparrow Records before Switchfoot's first release, however, the band's and Peacock's intentions of being marketed outside of the Contemporary Christian music scene and reaching a wider audience were put on hold. Consequently, the band was mostly marketed exclusively to Christian radio and retail outlets early in their careers, a time Jon Foreman has described as when "half of who we were was lost.

Of Switchfoot's first three albums, Learning to Breathe was the most successful, being certified gold by the RIAA, and receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Gospel Album.

In 2002, Switchfoot's music was featured prominently in the movie A Walk to Remember. Singer and actress Mandy Moore, who starred in the movie, sang Switchfoot's song "Only Hope" during a scene in the movie. The movie's soundtrack album also featured a duet with Jon Foreman and Moore, as well as four other Switchfoot songs, in addition to Moore's cover of "Only Hope".

In 2004, following the commercial success of The Beautiful Letdown, a compilation titled The Early Years: 1997-2000 was released. It featured Switchfoot's first three indie albums released under re:think records and included the original artwork for all the albums.