Introduction and immediate confession…

I have a confession to make.

In finally succumbing to the world of “blogdom,” I am doing so with extremely conflicted emotions. Truthfully, if I were in any other profession aside from media, or had I ventured into something not so entertainment-specific that it would require the constant monitoring of the Internet and other forms of social media, you wouldn’t be reading this right now because I wouldn’t be on here.

Maybe I’d be weaving hemp spittoons for certain breeds of alpacas or translating the Dead Sea Scrolls into Mandarin (not that I know how to weave, speak Mandarin or can discern whether alpacas would use said spittoons in the first place) but the point here is I’m not thrilled about adding to the narcissistic cacophony that is presently defined by the “Me” generation, especially through the various avenues of social media that is eroding our privacy quicker than the procreation of mice.

That’s because for me, it’s always been about the work. I like writing. I like writing well. I like writing on all sorts of topics and making my clients happy, although through the years my specialty has been about writing about music and the music industry. The “me” portion of the equation has been secondary, at least in my mind.

If I truly felt that someone would benefit from the knowledge of how often I vent my nostrils or the fact that I had the latest variation tiramisu for desert (#1457 and counting), I’d be the first to offer up that type of info, with the thought I’d be contributing in some small, humble way, to humanity’s overall desire for self-improvement.

But I know better, so you will find none of that bloated insignificance here.

What you will find here are samples of my work, which you’ll hopefully find equal parts informative, entertaining and hopefully amusing. As this blog evolves, I’m going to be reconfiguring my web site and adding in new archives, maybe occasional sound bytes, and possibly overflow from numerous interviews that didn’t make the cut of the final piece (I always have more stuff than I can use in an article) and links to relevant sites.

And — here’s the shameless self-promotion plug — I’m hoping that you’ll find my samples of writing and voiceover attractive enough to hire me for something.

Except singing. ESPECIALLY if you value your windows and glassware…

So, as we begin this journey together, me — because I’m forced by the realities of social media to expose a bit more of myself to the world (not the fleshy parts, I promise) — and you, hopefully because you simply WANT to — the only thing I ask for is your patience as this thing morphs and burps through several configurations while I get my sea legs.

Thanks 🙂

P.S. I make great impressions. Just make sure the object you’re flinging me into is either high enough, or far enough, away…

 

 

Kelly Clarkson pleased that new album shows off her soul

Meaning of Life is a departure for the American Idol winner — one she’s been waiting for.

Nick Krewen

Music Mon., Oct 30, 2017

“Character, sass and attitude.”

Powerhouse singer, American Idol alum and current The Voice judge Kelly Clarkson nails a description of her new Meaning of Life album, just released, in just four words as she sits across her from her interviewer, resplendent in a black dress.

 

While she might be succinct with her summary of her eighth album, the 35-year-old Texas native has been long in patience, telling the Star during a recent Toronto visit that this 13-song effort is the one she always wanted to make.

But shouldn’t a superstar who has topped the charts with such hits as “Since U Been Gone,” “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” “My Life Would Suck Without You” and “A Moment Like This” — selling more than 24 million albums and 36 million singles in the wake of three Grammy Awards — be enough of a proven commodity that she’d be able to dictate the terms of her output?

“Well, I just got out of my Idol contract,” Clarkson admits, citing a 15-year relationship with RCA Records due to winning the reality TV music show’s very first season.

“It was an arranged marriage — and a very successful one — but I fulfilled a particular lane for that label. Luckily, it wasn’t that I hated my life. I like pop/rock and I like a lot of genres, but I sang soulful pop on Idol the entire time, so I don’t think (Meaning) is going to be a shock for my fans.”

That particular RCA lane didn’t include what Atlantic Records saw in her when she started the search for a new label home.

“Whenever I went to meetings with Atlantic and asked them what they wanted to do with me, they were like, ‘Man, we’d love to make an album like if Aretha (Franklin) were coming out now in 2017, what would that sound like?’

“And I asked, ‘Where do I sign?’ ”

Clarkson then played them the song “Meaning of Life,” a gospel-tinged, rafter-booming soul anthem co-written by Jesse Shatkin (Sia’s “Chandelier”) and U.K. artist James Morrison that she had been holding for consideration since her final RCA album, 2015’s Piece by Piece — and was buoyed by Atlantic’s response.

‘They flipped out on it and said, ‘This is perfect, because it’s hard to switch gears with people that have heard you for 15 years singing ‘Because of You,’ ‘Already Gone’ and ‘Stronger,’ etc.’ It was a nice song to be able to set the bar for the album.”

In terms of Kelly Clarkson albums, Meaning of Life is a bit more brazen, with barn-burning soulful blasts like “Love So Soft,” “Whole Lotta Woman,” “Didn’t I” and “I Don’t Think About You” providing plenty of grit and sweat.

Which brings us to the overall reason Clarkson — who performs at the Air Canada Centre on Dec. 9 as part of the iHeartRadio Jingle Ball — was eager to produce an album like Meaning of Life.

“Really, my goal was to showcase my vocals so people will stop telling me, ‘My God! I didn’t know you could sing!’” she laughs.

“That’s the entire reason I made this album. Because a lot of times I’d get mildly offended because I’d perform and people would be like, ‘Oh my God, you can sing!’ And I’d be like,’ What?!’

“It was perplexing me, but then I get it, because when you sing a lot of pop/rock stuff it comes off almost like jingles. A lot of artists can do that. So with this album, I focused on making an album that maybe not everyone could sing, just the strength of my performance. Because that’s my part in my art: I don’t really fly or dance in concert . . . I love writing, I love singing and I really wanted this album to sound solid.”

Either way, the mother of four (two by husband/manager Brandon Blackstock and two from his previous marriage) views this new work as a fresh start.

“I know it’s funny but, 15 years later, I feel like a first-time artist,” she admits. “It’s my first time to pick my label; the first time to pick my entire team and like really go for it. And it’s awesome to be at that point in your career, where if it does well awesome and if it doesn’t, still awesome. I’ve been dying to make this for so long that I don’t care either way. I’m just very happy.”

On the horizon for Clarkson, beside a world tour to support the new album, is a spring 2018 appearance as a coach on The Voice, one of the myriad reality TV music competition shows that seem to be in vogue at the moment.

Clarkson, of course, is the original winner of American Idol, which ended its Fox Network run in 2016 only to be resurrected by ABC for 2018. The Nashville resident says she was approached to be a judge for the new show but had already committed to The Voice.

“I’m like, well, if I have to choose between my husband, who manages Blake Shelton and has to leave us, and our family can all be in the same place, I’m obviously going to choose that,” Clarkson explains. “Honestly, I’ve given 15 years of my life to Idol; I’ve gone back every season pretty much and I’m so proud of my start, but I’m also pretty excited about sitting in a chair and not seeing or worrying about the esthetic appeal of someone, and just listening.

“Because I love music. I grew up without MTV. I loved artists because I listened to them, which is what I feel like music should be.”

With the reality TV music scene seemingly heating up again — besides Voice and Idol, Canada is preparing its own program The Launch and NBC has green-lighted another one called The Stream — is there a chance all these programs may suffer from audience fatigue?

“Well, when are y’all going to stop watching them? “she retorts. “And the other question is, why aren’t people more famous from them? And that’s because there’s a frickin’ plethora of them now.”

Clarkson agrees that music is often the last concern with viewers.

“I’m going to be honest with you right now: I am 99 per cent of the time told that it wasn’t even my singing that drew them to me. People are like, ‘Oh, I loved your personality.’ It wasn’t always about the singing, it’s about the selling. But if you think about it, that’s also what happens in the industry. That’s why some people make it and some people don’t, because people gravitate toward them as a person as well. Like country music, for instance, the whole genre is based on lifestyle.

“I will say you’re lucky when you get to do it the way I did, because you have all this leverage. You have all these millions of people that already like you, though it’s like, what are you going to put out? They’re excited, they want something. A new artist doesn’t have that. They don’t even know you. You have to work for everything.

“There’s always going to be a different door and it’s whichever door comes in front of you.”

Kelly Clarkson pleased that new album shows off her soul | Toronto Star

What does $50,000 buy? The ultimate Gene Simmons fan experience

Or, if you don’t have that kind of cash, the KISS rocker will hand deliver his box set for just $2,000.

Nick Krewen

Music

Thu., Sept. 21, 2017

Gene Simmons is at it again.

The co-founder and bassist of legendary rock band KISS, who has gained almost equivalent public stature as an audacious and shrewd marketing tycoon, has set aside most of 2018 to deliver his latest project: The Vault Experience, a 17-kilogram, 10-CD collection of 150 previously unreleased demos and recordings that he boasts is the “largest and most expensive boxed set of all time.”

©Mark Weiss

And by “deliver,” Simmons means exactly that: For $2,000 (U.S.), the rock-and-reality-TV superstar will personally hand it to you at a location of your choice.

Actually, he’ll wheel it to you: The boxed set, which comes with an envious number of bells and whistles, resembles a small safe and is cumbersome enough that it rolls around on castors.

“Anyone that buys one — first come, first served because there are only a few thousand around the world — I will fly to you,” declared Simmons, who was in Toronto earlier this week to promote the venture.

“Whether you’re in Moncton or New Zealand, I will hand-deliver this to you in a convenient area — because if you live in the North Pole, I’m not going to the North Pole — I want to be upfront.

“But if you’re in Moncton, I’ll go there.”

For those willing to shell out the coin for Gene Simmons: The Vault Experience, the dates for Toronto delivery have already been designated: May 5-6 and Sept. 19, 2018, with the tongue-wagging rock star promising to buy his own “plane tickets, hotel rooms, security, insurance, legal stuff — at my expense.”

Why is he doing it? Simmons, whose cartoonish, on-stage “Demon” persona has helped sell 75 million KISS albums worldwide and filled arenas countless times over, says it’s his way of personally thanking his followers for 50 years of an unimaginably wonderful musical career.

“Well, the fans made my life possible,” reasons Simmons, born Chaim Witz, 68 years ago in Haifa, Israel, and who is married to St. John’s, N.L. actor Shannon Tweed. “I mean, I have a great life. My family is taken care of. I can spend money on anything I want, although I don’t need a lot of stuff. I don’t care about stuff, mostly.

“But how do you say thank you after becoming America’s No. 1 award-winning group of all-time? That also includes Canada — yeah, we have more gold records than A Foot in Coldwater.”

His reference to a classic Toronto rock band notwithstanding, the six-foot, two-inch Simmons, reclining on a couch in an RV next to The Launch studios in Scarborough, says he’s willing to do what other superstars won’t.

“I never had Elvis (Presley) knock on my door and say, ‘Hey man, here’s my new record and thanks for being a fan,’ ” Simmons notes. “But why not? If you can afford it and you’ve got the time and you want to do it . . .”

“I’m not going to make everyone happy. If one million fans buy these, I’m not going to go and spend 10 years visiting one million fans. But a few thousand? Sure. So, I’m taking a year off, starting January, and I’m going around the world. I don’t know what kind of tour you want to call it — but I’ll be going and visiting the fans.

“There will be people crying — especially if I step on their feet — and I’m going to well up as well . . . because once upon a time, I was a kid with a dream and I saw this dream come true on a scale that I never envisioned. By many estimates in the marketing world, those four KISS faces (Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss) are the most recognized faces on planet Earth.

“I don’t see (Bruce) Springsteen or (Bob) Dylan or anybody on that level who are going to go and meet and greet every single fan that buys their boxed set.”

Manufactured in partnership with Rhino Entertainment, the California-based specialty label that has previously released elaborately designed boxed sets for Ray Charles (a turntable suitcase) and Z.Z. Top (a barbecue shack), Gene Simmons: The Vault Experience includes a 50,000-word coffee table book, an action figure (which is kind of ironic, because it’s a likeness of Simmons standing with his arms crossed), a gold medallion and secret compartments, where fans will discover a unique piece of hand-picked memorabilia — “it could be a pair of leather gloves or a scarf” — from the Van Nuys, Calif.-based KISS warehouse.

A Vault “pre-pack,” including a signed golden ticket, an exclusive T-shirt, a laminate and a USB of the track “Are You Ready,” will arrive separately by email once an order is placed at GeneSimmonsVault.com or by calling 1-833-GSVault, the only way it can be ordered.

Musically, the set chronicles some of Simmons’ pre-KISS output dating back to 1966 — and there are some intriguing curiosities.

“Three of the tracks are Bob Dylan and Gene Simmons-written songs, including the Bob/Gene writing session in which he was kind enough to get into an unmarked van and come up to my house,” Simmons explains. “The Van Halen brothers — after I discovered their band and signed them to my company — were kind enough to play on three tracks. We have a power trio: Eddie and Alex and Gene Simmons. They played on ‘Christine Sixteen,’ the original version. Joe Perry from Aerosmith in 1978 plays on ‘Mongoloid Man.’ Also, it includes all the KISS guys — Ace, Paul and Peter.

“This set includes the very first song that I recorded — one of the songs that I wrote when I was about 14, called ‘My Uncle is A Raft, But He Always Keeps Me Floating.’ Oh yeah, that’s deep, Gene — but melodically, it’s not a bad song.”

Simmons is adamant that he wanted something tactile for this set and, with the exception of the single-song USB, has no intention of releasing it digitally.

“There’s no downloading, no social media — nothing,” he declares. “There’s no ‘cloud’ nonsense — get the f— out of here with that cloud s—. I wanted something real, a lifetime thing, not a ghost or a mirage.”

True to Simmons’ entrepreneurial nature, those who have a little extra cash on hand can enhance their Vault encounter. For $25,000 — and only until November — fans will get the Producer Experience, which will include a Skype call with Simmons and an invitation to the studio, where they can make notes, suggestions and get their name etched on the inside of the safe’s door as executive producers.

And if you happen to have $50,000 lying around, Simmons will deliver the set and spend the day with you and up to 25 friends.

“If you’re nuts and you want Gene Simmons for a day to come to your town — invite 20 to 25 of your friends — do karaoke, pet the dog or, if you have a rock band and you want me to join the band, boom, $50K,” he says.

“Few people are going to do that and that’s cool. But again, it’s about changing the relationship: doing something that’s lifetime stuff, away from retail, which is a failing model, as you know.”

This isn’t the first time Simmons has gotten up close with his fans. In the mid-1990s, KISS staged a day-long convention tour and visited 23 cities, including Toronto. The day, held at the Sheraton Centre, included exhibits and memorabilia, several KISS cover bands and, in the early evening, an acoustic concert and Q&A session with the original quartet.

“It wasn’t personal enough,” Simmons recalls. “You came to the convention and it was like a mini-concert. You were onstage, you answered questions. Yes, we were the first ones to do that and I will take full responsibility for that.

“In those days, it was $100 per ticket but we paid for travel and everything else. But again, fans couldn’t come up and talk, touch or spend individual time, if you see what I mean. You’re still part of 1,000 people. This (The Vault Experience) is to try and change the relationship and get closer to our bosses.

“There’s this thing about celebrity — it’s far away and don’t touch me and don’t take my photo. I’m not that guy,” he adds. “I wanna do something that’s a tug of a heart. That’s why I’m doing it.”

Simmons has an estimated fortune of $300 million, has been “comfortable for decades” and has merchandised everything from urinal cakes with pictures of his face on them to KISS condoms, caskets and customized Axe guitars. But the one-time manager of Liza Minnelli remains busy, with ventures ranging from the Rock & Brews chain of 19 restaurants he shares with KISS co-founder Paul Stanley to books, films and his own line of cola.

Does money remain his main motivation?

“Well, look, (Warren) Buffett gets up every day and goes to work,” he says. “You can’t use the ‘Look Warren, you’ve got enough money, why do you get up every day?’ excuse.”

“What the f— is he supposed to do? Wait to die? Once you reach a billion or whatever that number is, what do you do? Play golf all day? I’d hang myself.

“You can amass large fortunes, and that’s great and chicks are great and fame is great. All of it is great. But unless you’ve got some passion that makes you get up in the morning, you’re just going to lay there and wait to die. So don’t minimize money or fame or sexy stuff.

“But the most important thing is that I can’t wait to get up out of this self-induced coma, sleep — which is a f—ing worthless piece of time. Let me use my brain 24 hours a day. I’d rather a shorter life and be fully awake the whole time than a long life and be comatose for a third of it. Wouldn’t you? So that’s my spiel and I’m sticking to it.”

What does $50,000 buy? The ultimate Gene Simmons fan experience | Toronto Star

30 Years of Farm Aid: Why Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp are still at it

Willie Nelson at Farm Aid 30 ©Ebet Roberts

By Nick Krewen | www.samaritanmag.com

Posted on September 23, 2015

CHICAGO — To say that Farm Aid, the annual music festival fundraiser for family farms and farmers, “celebrated” its 30th anniversary this month at Northerly Island would be a bit of a misnomer.

Certainly, there were some festivities, as an impressive lineup of top musicians including Farm Aid founders Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Farm Aid board member Dave Matthews, rock band Imagine Dragons, R&B legend Mavis Staples and singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, provided nearly 12 hours of music, entertaining an estimated 27,000 in attendance at the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion on Sept. 19. But the truth of the matter is that 30 years after Nelson organized the first Farm Aid in Champaign, Illinois — raising more than $48 million towards the cause over the last three decades, excluding the most recent event — the plight of the U.S. farmer remains in crisis.

Neil Young at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lists the current number of U.S. farms at 2.2 million; it also admits that less than 1 percent of the country’s 313 million citizens “claim farming as a profession;” that farm production expenses average $109,359 per year per farm and that “fewer than 1 in 4 of the farms in this country produce gross revenues in excess of $50,000.” Foreclosures, deep debt, industrial agriculture muscling in and manipulating prices to the point where non- corporate agriculturalists are lowballed for less-than-market crop prices, and high-level stress that often leads to depression and suicide.

The situation is still dire, warned the non-profit charity’s co-founder Neil Young at the Farm Aid 30 press conference. “The American farm is disappearing. This is a reality,” Young stated. “We keep saying, ‘We’re fighting…we’re fighting,’ but it is disappearing.”

Young says a dearth of younger generation farmers isn’t helping the cause, especially when aging farmers hand over their livelihoods to their kin, only to watch it be sold to corporate interests. “We’ve only got a few young people involved. The farms are going to change hands. We know when the farms change hands; that’s when the corporations come in and grab another slice.”

Still, war wages on, fighting commercial behemoths like agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology giant, and genetic seed modifier Monsanto and Tyson Foods Inc., the world’s leading processors of poultry, pork and beef, two companies whose multi-billion-dollar deep pockets and alleged government collusion have transformed them into formidable foes, said Young, whose latest album The Monsanto Years particularly takes one company to task.

“We’re up against a gigantic force that keeps coming at us from everywhere,” Young stated. “It’s centered in our government, and it’s backed up by multinational corporations who have taken over the farmland of the United States, who produce 90 percent of the corn.”

Young says the latest crisis farmers are facing is “seed control.”

“Seeds are owned by these companies, so farmers can’t trade the seeds,” he explained. “Currently, there’s a bill in the Senate that, if it passes, will make it illegal to trade seeds farther than 3 to 5 miles.

“Because of our government and the money that they’re taking from the multinational corporations, we are being forced to give up the right for our farmers to trade seeds,” he added. “We need seed justice in this land.”

John Mellencamp at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve

This public advocacy is one of the crucial differences Farm Aid has made in the lives of farmers: standing up for the little guy.

“The fact that Farm Aid even exists has given every farmer out there a stand against companies like Monsanto where they didn’t have one before,” country artist Jamey Johnson, who was performing at his eighth Farm Aid Festival, told Samaritanmag in an exclusive interview.

“If you don’t have a voice or a vote, there’s no way you can make anybody change. Farm Aid gives every farmer out there a platform to stand on while they make their case. Farm Aid helps farmers that get pushed out by ever growing corporate business and helps them make a new start on their own, helps them stand up against the Goliath.”

Besides offering hope, Farm Aid also supports farmers through third party administration with programs like The Family Farm Disaster Fund — which helps families survive weather-related disasters by providing emergency funds to buy food and cover living expenses, an emergency hotline and provides legal and financial counseling when foreclosure is threatened — and The Farmer Resource Network, a grid of 700 organizations recommended by Farm Aid that provides “resources, tools and opportunities to help (farmers) thrive.”

Every annual Farm Aid concert funds a year of activity, as artists and crews donate their time and talent, with all proceeds going to the cause save for a small amount of production expenses.

Here’s how it breaks down according to Farm Aid website: 41 percent of proceeds go toward promoting “fair farm policies and grassroots organizing campaigns to develop and bolster family farm-centered agriculture;” 39 percent goes toward “helping farmers thrive; providing farmers with the services and resources they need to access new markets and transition to more sustainable and profitable farming practices;” 14 percent to natural disaster and emergency response and 6 percent towards “growing the Good Food movement,” a crusade that espouses finding and shopping for organic, naturally grown farm food rather than the genetically altered stuff.

Dave Matthews at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve

“When we started Farm Aid, crisis was gripping farm country,” said Willie Nelson, who launched the idea following a remark he heard from Bob Dylan at Live Aid regarding a similar charity for farmers, at the press conference. “Farm Aid called on America to stand up for family farmers. They showed up then and they’re still showing up. All different types of people are coming together for family farmers, and we’re making a difference.”

Farm Aid has also influenced other musicians to lead by example and make a difference.

Jack Johnson, and his wife Kim, for example, have implemented a healthy snack program via their Oahu-based Kõkua Hawai’i Foundation called AINA in 16 local schools, a farm-to-school initiative that promotes childhood health by pushing healthy eating habits, contributes to a healthier local food system by supporting Hawaii’s farming community and their produce, and connects children to the land and water that sustains them.

For this school year, AINA is in 16 schools across the state, where students will experience garden-based learning, compost and nutrition lessons.

“Basically, during the school hours you can come into the classroom with locally grown food,” Johnson explained. “We have parents come down in the morning, they cut it all up, it comes from the farmers, it gets put into the classrooms and kids get to taste it.

Jack Johnson at Farm Aid 2015
©Sabine Carey

“Any kids who don’t want to finish it we get them to put it in a little bin, and we take that off to worm composting. They’re learning about how it goes back into the soil, and what healthy soil is, and we’re happy to be part of it.”

Jack Johnson told Samaritanmag that because his foundation is self-financed, there is a lot more flexibility and direct action in what they’re able to do.

“We’re pretty lucky with our Foundation, it’s all self-funded,” he admitted. “We’ve gotten some grants, but we’ve done music festivals that kind of support it and a lot of the touring I do, I pour money into it from there. So it’s been different than a lot of non-profits that have to rely off the grants, year after year. In that sense, the finances haven’t been a huge challenge but I know it’s been a challenge for other non-profit groups.”

Jamey Johnson at Farm Aid 30, 2015

For the Imagine Dragons, Farm Aid is an inspiration to change their eating habits. Guitarist Wayne Sermon, whose grandfather and father were farmers, said the band is doing its part to promote better eating by setting an example and actively searching out farm-to-table restaurants whenever they’re on tour.

“When I first started this band and we actually got successful, was when I first realized that I can’t eat the way I used to eat,” Sermon told Samaritanmag exclusively. “I have to eat fresh meat and vegetables, making sure knowing where my meat comes from, the non-GMO stuff. It became apparent and actually made a difference in my life. We also definitely encourage people to go out to grocery stores that support local farms as well.”

Even Micah Nelson, son of Willie and brother of Lukas, who fronted his own Insects Vs. Robots and joined Lukas’ Promise of the Real to perform with Neil Young at Farm Aid, said he’s going to Kauai this winter to help his cousin start a food forest. “I’m going to go help him out and learn as much as I can and apply it to my own life, instead of just going out there and preaching about it,” he said.

The fact that a trio of second generation artists, Micah and Lukas Nelson, and Ian Mellencamp, all performed at an event that initially took place either before they were born or just after, suggests that the Farm Aid will take the fight for the farmer well into the future.

* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.

30 Years of Farm Aid: Why Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp Still at It | Samaritanmag.com – The Anti-Tabloid

Golden Globe or Golden Throat?

Actor Musicians

Nick Krewen

Grammy.com

October 2003

Golden Globe or Golden Throat?

There may be a sizeable increase in the number of actors pursuing their muse as recording artists these days, but trying to earn respect from the masses, the music industry and critics is still an uphill battle.

Some, such as Hilary Duff or Jennifer Lopez, are talented television and movie multi-taskers who seem to have no trouble climbing the Billboard charts and finding millions of fans to buy their albums.

But others, such as the Oscar-winning Russell Crowe and ex-Party Of Five ingenue Jennifer Love Hewitt, are still struggling to find an audience for their music.

While public choices concerning such matters as talent and material may be subject to individual tastes, at least one fledgling actor musician feels there’s a bigger obstacle to overcome.

“People just don’t take actors seriously,” says Crazy/Beautiful star Taryn Manning, who is simultaneously pursuing a career as singer of Dreamworks recording act Boomkat.

“It’s been one of my biggest hurdles. The whole deal is the perception that anybody can act, but not everybody can play instruments or write songs.”

Manning, whose Boomkatalog.One was released to critical acclaim earlier this year, says the notion that acting is an easier profession to conquer doesn’t help.

“If you have a pretty face and a nice body, you have a chance to make it as an actor unfortunately. You really do.”

Academy Award winner Billy Bob Thornton, who recently released his sophomore album The Edge Of The World on the Sanctuary label, also feels actors are at a disadvantage when it comes to establishing their musical legitimacy.

“We’re definitely under a microscope,” says Thornton, revered for his starring roles in such films as Monster’s Ball, The Man Who Wasn’t There and his self-written Sling Blade. “I don’t think you have as fair a shake.”

He says the perceived glamour of Hollywood lifestyle often creates suspicion both within public and music industry circles.

“I think that people think that the only reason actors have the opportunity to record music is because they’re rich guys who can get what they want, or that maybe they have an ‘in’,” Thornton explains. “And maybe that’s true to a degree. But there’s a downside – there are people within the music business who have a prejudice against actors doing it.  They watch you with one eye kind of squinted – ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing in my yard?’”

He also feels that much of the bias is media-driven.

“The media creates it and perpetuates it,” says Thornton, who has toured with Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello. “A critic may be slamming your thing for many reasons. You may have slept with his girlfriend, or whatever he thinks you did. If you get a critic who’s got a bee in his ass about you and they want to talk about you in that way, that’s the only way a guy in Wichita, Kansas hears about that. There are people out there always looking for this angle that’s easy for them, a soundbyte.”

And then there’s the residue from the “Golden Throats syndrome,” the ‘60s and ‘70s era of big-name movie and TV idols that regularly savaged pop classics through ill-advised recordings. Remember Leonard Nimoy’s “I Walk The Line?”

However Rhino Entertainment A&R manager and staff producer Gary Peterson, co-creator of the four-volume Golden Throats series for Rhino Records, says a return to such an ear-cringing movement would be unlikely.

“When an artist from the movies or television or another type of entertainment field wants to do a recording now, there’s a safety net of recording technology at hand to fix up the mistakes because the production values are higher,” says Peterson.

“Of course with these artists now, and the high profiles that they maintain, they’re much more guarded about what comes out.”

“The fact of the matter is that you’ve got to look at people for what they’re doing and not who they are,” says Billy Bob Thornton, who received critical acclaim for his Marty Stuart-produced first album Private Radio.  He says he considers music and acting equal priorities.

“I consider it all the same thing,” he says. “ It’s all about telling stories and moving people in some way or another. But there are different feelings you get from it. What movies do that music doesn’t do for you is put you into a different world for a long time, whereas a song might tell a story and put you in another world, but you’re not able to develop it that far.

“What music does for you is more immediate. You can write a song and go cut it that night. If you’re writing a movie, it’s going to take you awhile, and then you have to go get it financed or set up in a studio.  Then they’ve got to cast it, so it’s a long process.”

Boomkat’s Manning says she shouldn’t be pigeonholed.

“I like to dabble in and hone all my talents, which range from singing, acting, and dancing to making clothes, doing hair and makeup.”

Manning, who has begun working on Boomkat’s second album, says she’ll honor her musical commitment through action.

“You’ll have to start believing in me when I’m five records in, because I never plan to stop making music. People should open their minds and not be so judgmental.”

Postscript:  This was published by Grammy.com in either October or November 2003. The site has since been upgraded and some of the archival files are no longer available.

I also remember Billy Bob Thornton telling me during this interview that he wrote the script for his Academy Award winning Sling Blade while Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich served as the soundtrack.

Customized Instruments

CUSTOM DESIGNED

 Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

January 2005

Wish you could play the electric guitar like Angus Young or pound the drums like Mike Bordin?

While they may not be able to guarantee you a spot in the AC/DC or Ozzy Osbourne camps, major music instrument manufacturers like Gibson and Yamaha are striving to bring you one step closer to realizing your dreams with their exclusive lines of signature, custom-made instruments.

“It is our finest stuff,” proclaims Henry Juszkiewicz, chairman and CEO of the Nashville-based Gibson Guitar Corp., whose product line also includes the familiar Epiphone, Kramer, Baldwin and Slingerland brands of musical instruments.

“Virtually every model that comes out of that business is hand-built because they’re constructed in very tiny quantities. They are the vanguard of our production line.”

And they appeal to the diehard fan, whether you’re an aspiring musician or an avid collector. With the right amount of cash, you can wail along to “You Shook Me All Night Long” on your Gibson Angus Young Signature SG electric guitar ($1900) or use your Yamaha Mike Bordin SD-6455 MB snare drum  ($1079) to ride the rhythm of “Crazy Train.”

According to Joe Testa, artist relations of Yamaha Drums, the sound of a signature instrument is just as important as its appearance.

“When you’re talking about a signature snare drum, it’s supposed to capture the sound of that particular artist,” explains Testa, whose division imprints include customized products by renown drummers Manu Katché, Dave Weckl and Steve Gadd. “If you’re a fan of that artist, one would think that would help sell that drum. That’s the thinking behind it.”

Jimmy Chamberlin, the Smashing Pumpkins alumnus who recently launched a Yamaha signature snare drum of his own – the SD-2455JC ($699) – says reputation carries influence.

“One of my favorite drums to this day is an old Gene Krupa Radio King,” states Chamberlin.

“As soon as you hit it, you know it’s his drum.  That’s what you do as a young drummer — you emulate your heroes. And anytime you can get your hands on some of their gear, it just gets you that much closer to the mark.”

Gibson’s Juszkiewicz estimates that custom and signature lines represent only a tiny fraction of his company’s annual sales of $300 million – “less than 5%” – but the product associations with such icons as Jimmy Page, Paul McCartney, Emmylou Harris and Earl Scruggs offer instant credibility.

“To have an artist like Paul McCartney or Jimmy Page associated with Gibson just reminds people of the quality,” says Juszkiewicz, “We acquire the professionalism and the musicianship of people like Les Paul — who at the age of 90 is still out playing every week — and B.B. King and Joe Pass, guys who are exquisite instrumentalists.

“Equally, the brand stands for excellence, and artists acquire some of that prestige through our relationship.”

But are they paid for that relationship?

“We don’t pay anybody to play Yamaha drums,” admits Joe Testa. “Never have. Once you do that, you dilute the whole meaning of an endorsement. It’s embarrassing to say, ‘We had to pay this guy to play our drums.’ Al Foster and Steve Gadd have been with Yamaha for 30 years because they really believe in the product.”

That’s not to say some financial consideration isn’t a factor. When Paul McCartney agreed to partner with Gibson to issue his Epiphone Signature Texan, the former Beatle only warmed to the idea as a charity fundraiser.

“When we presented it to Paul in the right way, which incorporated benefiting Adopt-A-Minefield, it really made sense to him,” says Pat Foley of Gibson Custom, Art And Historic, who liaised with the living legend on behalf of Epiphone.

“A signature guitar to him is an honor, but it’s not something he needs to add to his legend.”

When Serial No. 001 rolled off the production line 18 months and three prototypes later, Sir Paul auctioned the guitar and raised $50,000 for Adopt-A-Minefield.

An additional consumer incentive is the hands-on involvement of artists throughout the process. Jimmy Page personally selected and tested the first run of 25 Les Paul Honey Burst guitars – but not before spending years helping Gibson perfect the instrument.

“We did a Jimmy Page reissue that had a very unusual electrical set up involving a lot of switching,” Henry Juszkiewicz recalls. “Getting it right took the better part of four years to satisfy him.

“But we’re highly committed to ensuring that the instrument you buy is exactly the instrument the artist is playing. It takes a lot of work to do that.”

Juszkiewicz says a Gibson custom-made signature guitar is also a good value for investor: just recently, Christie’s auctioned a Gibson SG electric played by George Harrison for $567,500.

“On average our Gibson guitars have appreciated 12-17% annually,” says Juszkiewicz.

As far as signature artists are concerned, Jimmy Chamberlin says the advantages of his Yamaha association range from access to a community of musicians to a natural outgrowth of his current career.

“As time goes on and I’m touring less, I’d like to wrap my head around more developmental drums and get more into the Yamaha R&D department,” says Chamberlin, who premieres his signature snare on the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex’s upcoming album Life Begins Again.

“But the snare drum is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ll do more snare drums. Then ideally, I’d like to see a Jimmy Chamberlin kit down the road.”

The Russians have landed!

 

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

March 2003

Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchiakovsky the news: The Russians have landed!

While recent breakthroughs of controversial Moscow pop duo t.A.T.u. and Grammy nominated country sextet Bering Strait may not be as prevalent as the British invasion that first introduced The Beatles, the message that North America is finally open for business is resonating throughout the former U.S.S.R..

And that gives new hope for Russian artists hoping to tap into a potentially lucrative new market, says Bering Strait’s Ilya Toshinsky.

“Maybe t.A.T.u and Bering Strait will be part of the movement that’s going to change the face of Russian show business,” says Toshinsky, the multi-faceted guitarist and banjo player who grew up with his fellow band members in the scientific community of Obininsk, 60 miles west of Moscow.

“There are a lot of talented artists and writers in Russia who don’t get the chance for exposure. I’d like to help them out eventually. There are a lot of artists there who need to be heard.”

Whether any of those artists — ranging from ‘NSYNC-like popsa hitmakers Na-Na and gender-bending singer Shura to Enrique Iglesias duet partner Alsou and Parliamentarian Josif Kobozo – will be able to navigate the waters of American consumerism is debatable, but the commercial headway made by t.A.T.u. offers plenty of incentive.

Fueled by high-pitched vocals, pounding electric beats and a racy schoolgirl video supporting the classically trained Lena Katina and Julia Volkova’s hit single “All The Things She Said,” t.A.T.u. has taken the world by storm. Its debut album, 200 km/h In The Wrong Lane, is a heartbeat away from gold in the U.S., and has already sold two-and-a-half million copies around the world – including an unprecedented one million in its native Russia.

The brainchild of Ivan Shapovalov, a former child psychiatrist and advertising executive with a gift for exploiting Lolita lesbianism, t.A.T.u. is only the tip of the iceberg in a country whose population numbers 146 million people.

“I think it could be the beginning of a discovery by the West of Russian talent,” admits Interscope’s Martin Kierzenbaum, the A&R executive responsible for tattooing t.A.T.u. to a North American record deal.

“The impressive aspect of t.A.T.u. is that a band is coming out of Russia and traveling across the world is actually appealing to people on a global scale, something that has never, ever happened in rock music.”

Kierzenbaum credits a post-communist era of liberal expression that has allowed the artistic community to “have one foot in the tradition of Russia and the other foot in MTV culture.”

“Julia and Lena are part of the first generation to have grown up after communism, reach out to the West and beckon us to pay attention. They’re able to communicate some of exoticism and the excitement of Russian talent to us in the West because they speak both languages culturally.

“There are a lot of super-talented people in Russia that we may have been closed off to until now.”

Not that there haven’t been previous attempts to crack the West. While such revered composers as Petr Ilich Tchiakovsky, Modest Mussorgsky and Igor Stravinsky had no problems establishing Russian classical music supremacy, pop acts have largely met Iron Curtain resistance from American audiences.  Despite eight albums and three movies, the stylistically outlandish Leningrad Cowboys largely remain cult favorites, while Boris Grebenshikov, the “Russian Bob Dylan” whose album Radio Silence was given a serious push by Sony in the late ‘80s, failed to gain any lasting foothold.

Even Kiev-born supermodel and actress Milla Jovovich has been ineffective in convincing the market to support her music, although her 1994 effort The Divine Comedy received critical acclaim.

 

The only exception has been Ukrainian émigré Dimitry BrillSuper DJ Dimitry – whose tenure in now-defunct New York disco troika Deee-Lite in 1990 landed him a gold Top 10 hit in “Groove Is In The Heart” and a platinum album in World Clique.

Although he applauds the success of artistic comrades t.A.T.u., Ilya Toshinsky says Bering Strait is taking a decidedly more organic approach to global domination.

With “Bearing Straight” receiving a Grammy nomination last month for Best Country Instrumental Performance and the recent release of a new self-titled CD on Universal South, Toshinsky finally feels some vindication for the decision to relocate from Obininsk to Nashville five years ago.

“If we stayed in Russia to play country music — which was considered exotic — we’d be bound to Moscow bars and restaurants for the rest of our lives,” notes Toshinsky, who co-founded Bering Strait as an instrumental bluegrass band in 1988 before going the country route.

Speaking on behalf of singer Natasha Borzilova, keyboardist Lydia Salnikova, steel guitarist Sasha Ostrovsky, drummer Alexander Arzamastsev and bass player Sergei “Spooky” Olkhovsky, Toshinsky admits Bering Strait’s street of dreams was almost the road to ruin.

After signing with Arista Nashville, Bering Strait decided to follow label president Tim DuBois to his next venture after a downsizing prompted the executive’s departure. It took DuBois five years to land at Universal South, and through the transitional phase Bering Strait signed four contracts.

“For awhile, I didn’t believe the record was ever going to come out,” said Toshinsky, who became infatuated with the banjo at the age of 10 after hearing an Earl Scruggs recording of “Cumberland Gap.”

“ Some of our families started losing faith. And now with the Grammy nomination, and a huge push in Russian media, now they can see what it can be. I think they believe again.”

He’s also happy that band members have a chance to earn a living again.

“The worst time for us was a few months before the MCA deal,” Toshinsky explains. “The money was extremely tight, and with the visa situation  we could only work in the music business. We couldn’t work at K-Mart or Burger King and make any extra money. It got really tough. It was discouraging.”

But with recent appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and a favorable slot on 60 Minutes, Toshinsky is much more optimistic.

“We’re still not making too much money because people in Russia think that with the Grammy nomination, we’re now millionaires,” he says. “Hopefully it will lead to wonderful things.”

Even though t.A.T.u. and Bering Strait are exploring new commercial frontiers, not everyone from the homeland is convinced U.S. success is a good thing.

“The Russian music scene is generally horrendous, just second-rate derivative American pop,” says Mark Ames, editor of eXile, a Moscow-based alternative weekly.

“The only lesson learned is that if you use under-aged lesbian sluts to Trojan Horse your shitty pop music, then you might make it in America.”

 

 

Casino Royale

Casino Royale

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

March 2003

As the concert business continues its uneven ebb and flow, the casino circuit is continuing to establish itself as an increasingly safe anchor for the touring performer.

Not only is the $25.7 billion casino gaming industry on an upswing — with over 430 commercial establishments operating in the U.S. alone — but many locations outside the seasoned hubs of Las Vegas and Atlantic City are now booking high profile acts as an incentive to increase consumer traffic.

And it seems to be working.

“There’s a marked increase on the revenue we make off our gaming floor on the nights we have concerts,” reports Leslie Herslip, Events Manager for the New Town, North Dakota-based 4 Bears Casino And Lodge.

“I don’t have a percentage figure, but it’s substantial.”

Concert headliners have also proven to be a very effective calling card for casinos located in remote, rural areas.

“You’d be amazed at the number of people willing to travel 75 or 100 miles for quality entertainment,” says Herslip, who has filled her venue’s future calendar with country legend George Jones, classic rock icons Grand Funk and veteran Motown favorites The Commodores.

“It’s a great avenue for us to bring in new people who may not come out here to gamble and expose them to the experience.”

4 Bears isn’t alone in its findings. Casinos across North America are bolstering their bottom line by booking renowned singers, groups and comedians. In turn these renowned singers, groups and comedians are discovering a substantial increase in the demand for their services from on-land, riverside and racetrack gaming houses.

“This market has actually grown pretty rapidly in the last few years, largely because of the growing number of Indian-based casinos,” observes Pollstar Magazine Editor-In-Chief Gary Bongiovanni. “We’ve never done an analysis on it, but I know there are more and more places for artists to play than ever in terms of gaming situations.”

The growth has been phenomenal. Considering the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which legalized gaming operations on reservations in a number of states, wasn’t passed until 1988, the movement has catapulted from an upstart $100 million industry to an $8 billion powerhouse in less than two decades.

Now there are 300-plus Native casinos booking a stylistic gazpacho of established acts, from dancehall reggae veteran Eek-A-Mouse and former Partridge Family heartthrob David Cassidy to rock ‘n roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis and electrifying blues combo Little Charlie And The Nightcats.

The venue is satisfied whether an act sells 2000 tickets or 20 tickets.

“We’re not so concerned that we make a profit off the act itself,” says 4 Bears’ Herslip. “We’re more concerned about making a profit off the gaming floor, making good money on the nights we actually have shows.”

An unexpected benefit, however, is casino circuit compensation for other music business downturns.

“Country acts used to rely heavily on the fair circuit, ” notes Al Schiltz, partner in Nashville-based management firm The Consortium and personal manager of country singers Billy Ray Cyrus and Tammy Cochran.

“But with country music sales suffering, we’ve lost about 20% in the number of venues as a hard ticket sales revenue source. Today fairs are bringing in the Christina Aguileras and older acts like the Three Dog Nights or the demolition derbies instead of country stars.”

Schiltz believes that the casino circuit has filled the void with a winning situation for performers regardless of genre.

“It’s exposure to a market the artist may not normally play to,” says Schiltz, “Usually it isn’t a hard ticket date and the casinos pay well, especially since they use free entertainment as an incentive to expose people to the casino.”

And the long-term benefits?

“The hope is that the people who wouldn’t have initially seen the artist are turned on enough to buy an album and buy a hard ticket to go see them in concert the next time they’re in the area,” Schiltz explains. “It helps build a fan base and there’s not a lot of risk involved.”

Then there’s the pampering. Although his band hasn’t had a blockbuster pop hit since 1978’s “Kiss You All Over” — and hasn’t topped the country charts since 1987’s “I Can’t Get Close Enough” — Exile co-founder J.P. Pennington recently sat in an opulent lounge at Rama, Ontario’s Casino Rama with a big smile on his face.

“The staff here are falling over themselves trying to please you,” said Pennington a few hours prior to the first of two Exile performances.

“Believe me, the accommodations for most gigs aren’t this nice. They actually gave me a suite, and I’m so ridiculously low maintenance.”

Pollstar’s Bongiovanni says the casino circuit provides the perfect forum for nostalgic memory lane bands like Exile.

“All of the acts that are out there touring – whether it’s a Paul Revere And The Raiders, acts like that that pretty well have established names, but no contemporary caché or heat about them, those are environments where they can be successful.”

“The casino circuit has opened up additional opportunities for those acts who are still viable to the consumer, still have a fan base that can draw 1000-1500 people to a venue, and may not have a record deal,” adds Al Schiltz. “It will continue to grow.”

The sincerest form of low-budget flattery

Tribute labels

Nick Krewen

Grammy.com

May 2003

 

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but some record companies are using it in a low-key manner to help pay the bills.

Behold the tribute record, that seemingly unassuming piece of product that sits innocuously on record racks alongside the CD catalog of your favorite artist. Unlike some of their higher end brethren that include star-driven lineups and often make a dent in the retail sales charts, these albums sport reasonably generic titles like Pickin’ On The Grateful Dead or The Complete Tribute To Shania Twain.  The musicians associated with the title usually remain anonymous and the record isn’t generously supported by marketing dollars.

But fans still buy them, and often they generate an income substantial enough to support the core operations of some independent labels.

“It’s something that we don’t want to promote or talk about,” admits Brian Perera, CEO/president of Marina Del Ray’s Cleopatra Records, owner of Big Eye, a tribute label that includes the aforementioned The Complete Tribute To Shania Twain and The Complete Tribute To Garth Brooks in its catalog.

“It’s a label that kind of funds the stuff that we do for Cleopatra.”

While Perera admits that the label releases a dozen titles a year, respected Los Angeles bluegrass label CMH Records claims a more substantial lineup, boasting over 100 titles of instrumental tribute product.

“There’s definitely a market in this,” states CMH president David Haerle, whose company not only offers a bluegrass Pickin’ On series and a succession of String Quartet Tributes on its Vitamin label, but dabbles in electronic and lounge music salutes as well.

While the subjects of such encomiums include the classic superstars you might expect – The Beatles, Elton John and The Eagles – there are some unexpected surprises as well: Martin, Medeski & Wood, Alanis Morissette and Tool.

Haerle says the CMH series, which began with Pickin’ On The Grateful Dead in 1993, says whether it’s the all-instrumental cocktail flavored Joyful Noise: The Lounge Tribute to Ani DiFranco or the pulsating The Electronic Tribute To ABBA, fans relish alternative versions of tunes by star artists. And he says they really love the Pickin’ On series of instrumental bluegrass renditions.

“We feel we have two audiences,” he explains. “One audience is already existing fans of bluegrass music or the existing series itself, who like the instrumental virtuosity of the players that we feature on the albums, and like the unique repertoire in that it’s obviously not traditional bluegrass compositions. It’s often music rendered in a way outside that world as evidenced by Pickin’ On U2, etc.

“The second audience would be the fans of those artists we’re “pickin’”on, who would be interested in hearing those compositions that are favorites of theirs, and related somewhat to the group because it’s the songs they know and love. That’s a significant second component to the series.”

Cleopatra’s Perera, who estimates his tribute album releases – both low and high profile — account for 35% of his business, notes it’s a matter of timing.

“You’re getting an audience which is very mainstream,” says Perera. “When something’s hot, they want anything with that name on it. They want posters, they want stickers, anything affiliated with that band. It’s striking while the iron’s hot.”

Perera says some of his Big Eye profits allow him to finance higher profile tribute projects, such as his industrial, metal and punk tribute to Metallica, which have brought him over 250,000 unit in sales.

Sales figures aren’t as high for the more anonymous projects – Haerle estimates most of his CMH titles average in the “3000-12000 unit range” – but insists the numbers don’t have to be astronomic in order to secure a profit.

“Being an independent label, we tend to keep our eye on costs, and our breakeven is often quite low,” he explains. “Most of the Pickin’ On titles are brand new recordings. We have a great group of producers who work with us, and they keep their eye on costs. A low breakeven is particularly important for a label like ours.”

And there has been the occasional grand slam.

Pickin’ On The Eagles SoundScanned 43,480 copies,” Haerle proudly proclaims. “And The String Tribute To Tool (Third Eye Open) sold over 50,000 copies. Those would represent winners.”

There are losers, too: Haerle notes sales of a bluegrass album based on hits of the 1950s fell flat while Pickin’ On Frampton failed to come alive at retail.

“By and large, the two series are quite successful.”

Founded in 1975, CMH has expanded from its bluegrass base, releasing an album by Buffy The Vampire Slayer actor Anthony Stewart Head, finishing up a new Wanda Jackson project and on the verge of launching their Cross Check punk imprint.

“The company is definitely in a growth mode,” Haerle declares.   “The mission of the company is to be a creative company, a good place to work for artists. We’re also making it known that if mid-and-upper-level acts aren’t happy with their current label, we’re ready to deal in those arenas as well.”

But even as CMH shoots for more stars, Haerle says the label has no intention of abandoning either Pickin’ On or its Vitamin agenda.

“People dig our Pickin’ On series,” says Haerle. “We get letters. It’s totally exciting.”

Searching the Web’s haystack

GRAMMY Magazine – November 27, 2002

 

Searching The Web’s Haystack

Is the Internet’s ability to help find and incubate talent coming of age?

 

Nick Krewen

Grammy.com

When talking about the music business, Grant Dexter isn’t above using a few hockey analogies.

And when it comes to artist development, the puck stops here, at the spacious Toronto headquarters of his Internet-driven record label, MapleMusicRecordings.com (www.maplemusicrecordings.com).  Dexter says his record company, operated in tandem with MapleMusic.com (www.maplemusic.com)  an Internet e-commerce service for more than 160 Canadian recording artists specializing in CD, merchandising and concert ticket sales, helps prepare fledgling talent for the big league.

“We’re the farm team,” says Dexter, 31, who co-founded the company in 1999 with $700,000 (Can.) of venture capital and partners Evan Hu, Mike Alkier, Skydiggers singer Andy Maize and Maize’s manager brother Jeff. The company received further low-seven-figure investments from Standard Broadcasting and earlier this year, Universal Music Canada, with whom it negotiated a distribution agreement to brick-and-mortar retail outlets.

“I told Universal, `You guys are the Toronto Maple Leafs. You have one roster spot but you’re interested in five guys. So you sign one, but what do you do with the other four? You don’t have an AHL (American Hockey League) team. How are you going to track them?’”

“They saw it right way, and said, `You’re right, we need a farm system to develop new talent.’ Our goal is to be a stepping stone for young bands to major label models.”

Dexter didn’t wait long to score his first success: Montreal singer and songwriter Sam Roberts. Released in July as MapleMusicRecording’s marketplace debut, Roberts’ EP The Inhuman Condition has stormed out of the gate on the strength of its first single “Brother Down.” With the song flooding Canadian radio airwaves and plastering the influential MuchMusic video channel, Universal Canada has shipped 25,000 units of The Inhuman Condition and sold 15,000.

Those may seem like nominal numbers, but Dexter runs a tight business based on practical goals. His break-even target for The Inhuman Condition: 7500 units. He’s exceeded expectations by 100%.

“We offer a low front end and offer the opportunity to share in a bigger back end,” he explains. “That’s difficult to understand for a lot of the gatekeepers – managers and lawyers, even bands who are used to getting big stuff up front and then never seeing anything. It’s an education process, showing them spreadsheets, sales projections and where every dollar is going. We’re not based on the home run.”

Dexter has also attained the second part of his mandate: Roberts recently inked a worldwide co-venture deal with Universal’s New York and Canadian offices, and will record his first album in October following a sell-out cross-Canada tour with the country’s most revered band, The Tragically Hip.

The company is growing: Dexter’s staff, which also encompasses a new media company, an online magazine and an Internet business solutions venture under the MapleCore umbrella, now sits at 28. He’s also expecting a 100% revenue increase over 2001, and feels the Web is just beginning to live up to its promise.

“There’s enormous untapped potential here,” says Dexter.

The Universal Music Group seems to be taking notice. In November 2001, Universal partnered with publisher Penguin Putnam Inc. to establish InsideSessions, an Internet-driven multimedia education and mentoring program that could net them a future superstar or two.

Enrollment in the $69.95 Demo To Deal program at www.insidesessions.com guarantees a listen and assessment of your demo by a Universal A&R exec. You’ll also get Internet access to a ten-session course featuring such superstar insiders as Sting and Elton John – and on the executive front, Emmy-winning manager Sharon Osbourne and Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola.

“The program has been tremendously successful,” says Lori DeWolfe, InsideSessions’ executive vice-president. “We have sold several thousand units direct-to-consumer, and are also now working with over 20 colleges which are integrating the material into their curriculae.”

She adds that InsideSessions recently sponsored eight bands on the Locobazooka tour and will award three publishing deals in October. However, DeWolfe denies that InsideSessions’ primary function is as an A&R buffer for Universal Music.

“Our main objective is to educate and inspire those looking to break into the business,” says DeWolfe. “Should InsideSessions find an act for Universal, that would be great, but it is secondary to the program’s educational value.”

Universal, along with other multi-national and independent labels, has also been an outreach beneficiary of TAXI, the Los Angeles-based, self-billed “World’s Largest Independent A&R Company,” founded in 1992.

For $299.95 (U.S.) and an additional $5-$15 submission fee, TAXI subscribers are promised access to 150 industry veterans who will critique demos and if they like them, pass them onto their contacts at record labels and publishing companies.

TAXI boasts a 6% success rate on its website www.taxi.com, “because they trust our ears.”

But MapleCore CEO Grant Dexter feels Internet companies such as his MapleMusic.com and MapleMusicRecordings.com can offer more, even changing the way record companies can do business.

“We give checks every month,” says Dexter. “We don’t put anything on hold. Every month we do the accounting on what bands have sold, and we have an open-book policy, where artists have access to their own stores. They set the pricing and we take a handling fee.”

For artists directly signed to MapleMusicRecordings, Dexter offers two intriguing concepts: sales bonuses and profit-sharing.

Fledgling artists such as Sam Roberts and Ottawa roots artist Kathleen Edwards receive non-recoupable sales bonuses when they reach modest sales levels, as few as 15,000 units. Established veterans such as The Headstones, who have sold hundreds of thousands of records in their career but no longer have major label homes will share profits after costs are recouped.

“We pay off the costs of the album from every CD, so artists aren’t paying off everything at $1.50 per unit,” says Dexter. “After we break even we split the profits by whatever the percentage is: 70/30, 60/40, 50/50. We pool all the money, pay off all the debt, and then start splitting the profits, because we think you’re at that stage of your career where you deserve that kind of treatment. You built the brand.”