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.
P.S. I make great impressions. Just make sure the object you’re flinging me into is either high enough, or far enough, away…
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 CompleteTribute 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.”
Is the Internet’s ability to help find and incubate talent coming of age?
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.
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.”
It’s one thing if you’re an established artist like Prince, who sold 40 million records during his Warner years and wants to forego the major label route in favor of his own Internet venture www.npgmusicclub.com.
It’s another, however, if you’re an artist that was perfectly happy to be nestled in the bosom of a major record company, only to have the carpet yanked from under you due to a corporate takeover, merger, restructuring, termination or some other measure beyond your control.
And if you’re just enjoying your first taste of success and banking on a long-term career, the sudden mid-stride cut-off can be devastating.
Santa Barbara, CA., pop rock outfit Dishwalla is feeling the pinch. In 1996, the A&M recording act seemed unstoppable, topping the charts with “Counting Blue Cars” and striking gold with its debut album Pet Your Friends. Two years later, the band was hoping to build further momentum with its sophomore effort And You Think You Know What Life’s About. Unfortunately for Dishwalla, Universal Music had bought A&M as part of its $10.4 billion takeover of PolyGram N.V. a year earlier and through corporate restructuring, effectively neutralized the label.
“The timing was bad,” Dishwalla singer J.R. Richards recalls. “Our second record came out right when A&M was sold and the label was purged. There weren’t very many staffers left and there certainly wasn’t much money to work the record. We paid ourselves to tour for a year, and continued to work the record any way we could.”
Despite Dishwalla’s efforts, the album stiffed. Although the band wasn’t among the estimated 3000 employee and 200 artist Universal casualties — shifting to Interscope under the reorganization – it was a temporary reprieve. Then-president Tom Whalley confessed he had too much on his plate – ostensibly brought on by the takeover – and Dishwalla negotiated its release.
“We wasted a year sitting in limbo trying to figure out what we were going to do,” says Richards.
Singer and songwriter Poe found herself in a similar boat last November when AOL Time Warner-owned Atlantic Records set her adrift, despite a sunny forecast for Haunted, her sophomore album.
“To this day I’m not exactly sure how it all went down,” says Poe, a direct signing of Atlantic-distributed Modern Records who had achieved earlier gold sales of 500,000 copies for her 1995 album Hello.
“From my perspective, I was on the road looking at a record that was growing beautifully. We basically had a hit on the radio with “Hey Pretty.” The tour was going beautifully and all the right things were happening. I think AOL taking over Atlantic (Time Warner) was certainly no small thing in terms of my fate there.”
At a time where majors seem more interested in shoring up shareholders than singers, an unprecedented number of major label castoffs are fighting for survival and exploring new opportunities. The good news is that for many of them, there is indeed life after merger, but not without sacrifice.
For Dishwalla, the answer is the independent route: The band recently released its third album Opaline on L.A.-based Immergent Records.
Richards describes Dishwalla’s deal with Immergent as “a joint venture where we basically split everything 50-50,” but admits there are tradeoffs, especially the clout of having a bigger star on the label.
“They don’t necessarily have the leverage a large label would,” he explains. “When things started happening for you at A&M, I know they could walk into The Tonight Show and say, `Look, Sting’s got a new record coming out. We’ll give you the first shot of him playing live if you put Dishwalla on.’ Now we’ve got to pretty much prove things on our own. It’s definitely tough for a band like us.”
The group is touring, and Richards reports that Opaline sales for the first two months are in the vicinity of “50,000-60,000” copies.
Radio accessibility is another concern. Jane Child, a former Warner Bros. artist who scored a 1990 gold hit “Don’t Wanna Fall In Love,” is attempting to reintroduce herself through Sugarwave, her own indie (www.janechild.com). But her attempts to get her new album Surge on the radio have fallen on deaf ears, and Internet marketing is posing its own challenges.
“Unless you’re on one of the five majors and you’ve got the machinery behind you, it’s impossible to get yourself any kind of promotion,” sighs Child. “So you have your distribution and everything taken care of through the Internet — nobody knows who you are. And there’s no way of sending any smoke signals to the world to let them know because all the major media outlets are tied up by the big boys.”
And Poe, who is weighing her options, is concerned about tour support.
“For an artist like me, touring is essential,” she notes. “But I’m intrigued by what Moby has done with licensing, just in terms of the idea that there may be other ways to get your music out there. There are a lot of different ways to move forward, and whatever it is, it’s going to be a uniquely structured situation. Music can be distributed differently, thought of differently, financed differently and frankly I find that extremely exciting.”
While Poe is still exploring potential partners, another artist may have found financial support through a centuries-old idea: patronage.
Click onto www.sheeba.ca and you can sponsor blocks of Jane Siberry’s studio time for donations in $100 increments through her Patron Of The Arts Programme.
“It’s a tricky thing, because I don’t feel comfortable with charity, or people having strings attached, so I had to set it up in some way that people are going to get something special for it,” says Siberry, who has financed two albums through patronage.“ It started because people wanted to help; they wanted new music faster. So their name goes up on the website, they get a receipt from the studio, a signed thank-you from me and a CD at the end. I certainly feel grateful.”
When you hear the expression “He’s Got Game” in the future, it could mean more than just the competitive spirit.
Veteran music stars such as Busta Rhymes, Barenaked Ladies and Bon Jovi — and their respective record labels — are tapping into multi-billion dollar interactive entertainment software companies to explore new promotional opportunities.
By placing songs in such popular video games as John Madden Football, SSX Tricky and NBA Live Basketball, artists are receiving exposure to the gaming community –- no small potatoes when it comes to audience numbers. According to statistics published by the Interactive Digital Software Association, U.S. gamers bought 225.1 million computer and video games in 2001, generating $6.35 billion in revenue with video games accounting for 63%.
And although Bon Jovi launched its current single “Everyday” through Madden NFL 2003, established superstars aren’t the only beneficiaries. Alt rock rookies OK GO,Good Charlotte and Audiovent are also carving their prospective niches through video games, racking up strong initial sales while cultivating substantial fan bases.
“It’s a great alternative platform,” says Donna Clower, J Records’ Senior Director of Strategic Marketing. She spearheaded the placement of artists Flipmode Squad, Busta Rhymes, Monica and Lyric on the just-released NBA 2003 Live.
“You’ve got certain demographics of kids who are huge gamers, and their age span is quite a range. It’s just an alternative platform to reach the artist’s fans.”
But what is the gaming industry getting out of it?
Plenty, says Steve Schnur, Worldwide Executive of Music for Electronic Arts (EA), makers of NBA 2003 Live, Madden NFL 2003 and the upcoming James Bond: Nightfire.
“Music isn’t necessarily a factor in the sale of video games, but it is absolutely a factor in enhancing the experience,” says Schnur, a 15-year music industry veteran prior to his current post.
“The goal is to make video gaming the ultimate media experience.”
To reach that mandate, the Redwood City, CA.-based interactive software giant recently announced the formation of EA Trax, a co-marketing partnership between EA, recording artists and record labels. Under the program, EA Trax will create internal soundtracks for such EA SPORTS titles as Madden NFL 2003, NBA Live 2003, NHL 2003, FIFA 2003 and NASCAR Thunder 2003, featuring exclusive material by Snoop Dogg, Method Man, Papa Roach and others. Just don’t expect to hear much in the way of catalogue, because Schnur says EA wants to extend the gamer’s sense of discovery.
“The more we see the reaction to newer music versus catalogue music, the more we’re convinced that new music is the way to go,” explains Schnur, whose company posted fiscal 2002 revenues in excess of $1.7 billion.
Instead, both companies will focus on the future, partnering viral marketing, street teams, grass roots and retail alliance initiatives – undoubtedly music to the ears of record company marketers faced with dwindling avenues of artist exposure.
“EA Trax has created a partnership based on rotating music in every game and chyroning those titles so everybody who is playing can actually see who they’re hearing,” says Schnur. “We want to make sure that the music is a label priority, and that it has the ability in the weeks and months ahead to get on MTV and the radio.”
Should songs fall short of broadcast media expectations, Schnur says labels shouldn’t underestimate the power of XBOX, PlayStation and other game platforms.
“When you’re limited in your route of exposure through consolidated radio and MTV, you long for a place where you can get a record spun enough times to make an impression,” says Schnur. “Our research indicates that an average of three people play each video game 40-50 hours, so if you spin something twice an hour and an EA game averages between 2-5 million sales, you’re talking between 200,000-500,000 spins of a record with a chyron.
“So the numbers can almost match what it takes to have a #1 record in America. It’s pretty substantial exposure.”
Brooklyn-born rapper Rhymes has taken his exposure a step further: he’s actually part of NBA 2003 Live as an unlockable character.
“It was a natural fit because Busta’s a huge gamer himself,” says J’s Clower.
“During the launch of the game, we debuted Busta’s new single ‘Make It Clap’ with AOL and EA in conjunction with NBA 2003 Live. So it was a huge traffic builder, a nice setup for his album It Ain’t Safe No More which will be out November 26.”
Steve Schnur sees many more setups influenced by interactive gaming.
“If it continues the way we anticipate, we’re going to be part of mainstream marketing rather than the alternative.”
Although the amount of song licensing has doubled over the past year,
Emmy winning composer Chance Thomas says scorers shouldn’t panic.
“The best game composers understand the organics of game play – the ebb and flow of game design, the relationship of the music to various gameplay states, and the necessary relationships between game states and music transitions,” says Thomas, who counts Quest For Glory V and Dragon Fire among his credits.
“More importantly, the best game composers know how to create a music score of amazing quality. There will always be a demand for this kind of professional.”
Pierre Schaeffer, Luc Ferrari and Iannis Xenakis aren’t exactly household names in the world of commercial popular music, and the services the Electronic Music Foundation provides is unlikely to offer them any change in stature.
But they’re superstars in the world of avant-garde electronic compositions, and if you’re seeking out historical information or looking to hear and buy CDs of their pioneering work, the Albany-based EMF (www.emf.org) might be the best place to find it.
Established in 1994 as a not-for-profit organization by Joel Chadabe, an American composer who led the development of interactive systems, EMF is helping to foster and preserve the innovative electronic avant-garde culture whose influence permeates today’s commercial music scene.
“The Foundation is not only about history, but about information and materials having to do with the non-commercial end of things,” says Chadabe, who serves as EMF chairman and president. He also holds concurrent positions as director of the Electronic Music Studios at Bennington College and the Manhattan School of Music. “We’re basically championing artists of interesting, cutting edge work.”
In championing those artists through its website and other programs, EMF ascertains its role as more than just a time capsule: it serves as promoter (EMF Productions), publisher (EMF Media), publicist (ArtsElectric), software distributor (GRM Tools) and retailer (CDeMUSIC). It also provides listings for potential employment, grants, fellowships and other professional opportunities, and an Internet directory linking to other sites of similar interest.
Chadabe says he implemented CDeMUSIC after being stymied in the search of a work by one of his favorite composers.
“Back in the mid-90s when we started this, I saw a compact disc of EdgardVarèse’s Poême electronique,” Chadabe recalls. “I wanted to have it because it’s a classic. I was teaching, and I thought this would be really indispensable to play for classes. I looked around and I couldn’t find anyone who knew where to get it.
“I thought there was a real need for a distribution center for these niche materials. So we set up CDeMUSIC, which distributes compact discs, books and other items having to do with electronic music.”
CDeMUSIC titles include such varied works as the angelic new age sonics of Suzanne Ciani, the contemporary electrobeat stylings of D.J. Spooky That Subliminal Kid and the modular synthesis of the innovative Morton Subotnick. But the melodically subversive compositions of the late John Cage and Iannis Xenakis receive equal billing, sampled by downloadable MP3s that offer a small window into the radical world of the avant-garde.
Although avant-garde sales are minimal – Chadabe says a bestseller may move 1000 copies in a two-to-three-year period – CDeMUSIC falls well within EMF’s supportive mandate.
“It’s really important to have for cultural and historical reasons, so that the material will not disappear,” says Chadabe.
Although awareness of the synthesizer leaped into the mainstream conscience with the release of Walter (Wendy) Carlos’1969 classic million-selling Moog album Switched On Bach, electronic music has been with us since 1897 – the year inventor Thaddeus Cahill built a large keyboard instrument called the Telharmonium.
The 20th century marked the rapid evolution of electronic music, through technological invention, compositional experimentation, recorded sounds and synthesis.
“What is the avant-garde today matures and grows into the mainstream,” notes Dr. Robert Moog, President of Moog Music Inc. and inventor of the world famous affordable brand of synthesizers that bear his name.
Moog, an EMF corporate sponsor who received a Technical Grammy in February for his lifelong achievements, says the foundation serves as a valuable outlet.
“People who are interested in experimental musicians are finding that they need something like the EMF to satisfy their needs as an alternate to the mainstream commercialization.
“It’s a service that encourages people who are doing the experimenting who in five, 10 or 20 years from now will be part of the mainstream music, but today are evolving. And nobody has to turn a profit at the end of every quarter.”
One of the EMF’s more intriguing projects involves Bill Blakeney, a Toronto lawyer and producer who restored and recorded works by composer John Cage, Canadian inventor Hugh Le Caine and others.
“It’s our folk music,” Blakeney notes. “We’re all post-modern kids. We’ve grown up on this stuff, and it’s part of our culture in some ways. Especially if you listen to the stuff that these composers did back in the 50s and ‘60s, it really is going back to our roots. We didn’t grow up typically in the Mississippi Delta, so this is our cultural heritage.”
Collaborating with executive producer Chadabe and co-producer and engineer Bob Doidge, Blakeney literally spends hundreds of hours in Hamilton, Ontario’s Grant Avenue Studios — famous as the headquarters where Brian Eno and then-owner Daniel Lanois did the crux of their ambient music exploration — recreating and remastering avant-garde classics for EMF Media.
“The challenge has been to restore them without coloring the sound,” states Blakeney, who has worked on an estimated 30 projects over seven years.
“Most of the analog restoration work is done under the supervision of Bob, and one of the great things about Grant Avenue is that it’s sort of a time capsule of older equipment. Most of the equipment that was there in the late‘70s is still in active service, plus it has fairly high-end digital facilities.
“Bob has a variety of different broadcast-quality analog decks, and a very good editor which is capable of doing 24-bit masters.”
Maintaining authenticity is the key.
“We take time to work with the composers,” says Blakeney. “We’ll do as many masters as are required in order to get approval, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve had such a good relationship with composers that work through EMF. We’re not cutting any corners. We’re trying to make it as authentic as possible.”
Recent restoration projects include the Cage compositions Birdcage and HPSCHD, the latter requiring seven harpsichords simultaneously performing seven different scores. Blakeney admits the work, which sometimes take two years to complete, isn’t easy.
“With HPSCHD, the technical requirements are staggering,” he explains. “It requires 72 tracks of digital audio, as well as 14 tracks of live music, so it’s a massive undertaking. Without the digital multi-tracks it couldn’t be done. And it has involved literally hundreds of hours of restoration of old tapes as well as doing live recordings of harpsichords at different locations. We try to keep them true to the analog originals.”
The challenges aren’t limited to the technical.
“When you listen to them hundreds of times at very high volumes, it does tend to scramble the grey cells,” Blakeney laughs. “ But on the other hand, the end result is really remarkable. They come up really sparkling.”
Blakeney says he and Doidge take great comfort in championing these composers as a labor of love, rendering a role unfulfilled by major record companies.
“A lot of the major labels are very fond of having composers like Cage, Xenakis and Ferrari in their stable of artists, but on the other hand the titles don’t traditionally sell in very large quantities. As a result, when it comes to mastering or restoration, it becomes a matter of economics.
“The projected budget for HPSCHD was something like $60,000 U.S. Essentially we were able to do it for a fraction of that just by being inventive and chaining the digital multi-tracks together.”
Noting that such pop icons as The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa were influenced by musique concrète forefathers Schaefer and Varèse, Blakeney says electronic music continues to influence the contemporary scene.
“I think we’re going through a renaissance of electronic music,” he explains. “DJ culture, and a lot of people working in experimental dance music have really gone back to the well. They’re sampling people like Xenakis and Cage and a lot of the great composers are being cannibalized. Some of it is very gimmicky, but others like Sonic Youth and DJ Spooky and Stereolab are real fans. They’re not ripping off the composers – it’s a homage. They really do appreciate the original stuff. They’ve educated themselves on it, and I think they’re trying to follow through on an evolutionary dead end. There’s a lot of great stuff out there.”
Joel Chadabe says you’ll find some of that stuff at EMF.
The more you’re interested in what’s conventional, and satisfied with what’s normal, the easier you’ll find things to be,” he states. “But if you’re looking for the real ideas, the exceptional things that fuel creativity, I think you would be interested in us.”
Starving for new challenges outside their proven abilities, recording artists are increasingly entering the kitchen to chase their next meal ticket: food and drink product lines.
Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, notably established pop, country, rock and R&B stars are offering edible commodities geared to any taste.
You can start the day off with some links of George Jones‘ Country Sausage and a cup of Ted Nugent‘s Nuge Java, which should ease your growling stomach until lunchtime, when the microwave heats up a hearty bowl of Smokey Robinson‘s delicious seafood gumbo spiced, perhaps, with Bob Weir‘s Otherworld Hot Sauce and chilled with that refreshing bottle of Moby‘s Teany Iced Tea with Lemon.
For supper you can go the heart-smart route, rewarding your discriminating palate with Linda McCartney‘s Portobello Mushroom Barley Pilau, followed by a Chaka Khan Chakalate Truffle for dessert and washed down with a vintage chardonnay or cabernet from Vince’s Vineyards, the Sonoma County, Ca. business co-owned by Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil.
If you’re looking to satisfy the carnivore within, then a serving of Dwight Yoakam‘s comforting Chicken Fries, lovingly smothered in Kinky Friedman‘s Private Stock Salsa and chased with a glass of Sammy Hagar‘s Cabo Wabo Tequila might do the trick.
Whether their products are in your local supermarket or marketed as a website specialty item, these musical multi-taskers are hoping to parlay their celebrity stature into profitable venture.
And if you’re a celebrity trying to break their product into a mainstream supermarket chain, the advantage of having a famous name associated with your brand is considerable, says John Marburger, president and CEO of Peru, Indiana-based Modern Foods, home to The Dwight Yoakam Bakersfield Biscuits brand that includes Boom Boom Shrimp, Chicken Lickin’s and other frozen food items,
“The main reason is product differentiation,” notes Marburger, who says Yoakam products are currently available in over 5000 grocery stores.
“For us, the consumer has a lot of choices nowadays. This gives us a way to break through the noise and differentiate ourselves from others.”
Tapping into the artist’s loyal fan base also provides immediate credibility and an instant market, claims Jeff Brain, CFO of the Glendale, CA-based Smokey Robinson Foods that offers gumbo in Seafood and Rice And Bean flavors.
“They’re very loyal to him,” says Brain. “We knew they would try the food once out of curiosity. What keeps people coming back for it is that the food is actually very good. In Smokey’s Motown tradition of quality, we wanted to make sure the food was also being held to that high standard.”
Another unique aspect is the degree of involvement of artists in their product. Modern Foods’ Marburger says he consults “Bakersbilly” country rocker Yoakam on a weekly basis.
“It’s not really an endorsement, he’s deeply involved in the process,” says Marburger, a veteran food manufacturer who operated his own company for a dozen years prior to forming Modern Foods.
“He names all the products and is involved in developing products. We’ll come up with an idea that is generally based on research on food trends and try to be health-conscious and innovative.
“If you look at our chicken fry product, there was really no such thing before we started doing that: It looks like a French fry but it’s made out of white meat chicken. It’s really innovative and different and Dwight was involved in its development.”
The music celebrity track record for launching food product lines has bred its magnates, with both Linda McCartney’s self-titled line of vegetarian meals and country singer Jimmy Dean‘s breakfast sausage products generating hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Did their triumphs motivate other recording artists to build their own recipes for success?
“Food was just the final decision of something I’ve been intending to do for awhile,” contends Smokey Robinson, the Motown legend who introduced his first “Soul In A Bowl” brand of gumbo products early last year.
“You know Leon Isaac Kennedy? He and I have been best buddies for better than 30 years – he’s been in the movie producing and acting end of show business and I’ve always been in music. We always talked about doing something that had nothing to do with entertainment.”
Robinson, who credits Kennedy for approaching him with the idea of creating a gumbo line based on their respective family recipes, chose to launch a frozen food line because he says it’s better for consumers.
“When making frozen foods, you don’t have to put in as many preservatives or as much sodium as you would normally if it was just a normal shelf item,” he explains. “We wanted to make it as healthy as possible.”
There’s another factor behind Robinson’s decision: community inspiration.
“We’re going to use part of the proceeds from this to have forums, seminars and educational classes for young, inner city and minority kids to teach them that they don’t have to be sports figures or entertainers in order to make a good living for themselves,” notes Robinson, who will be introducing a Chicken and Sausage gumbo in the fall as well as three additional new products by March 2006.
“There are many great minority businessmen – and when I say minority, I don’t mean just black — and the kids don’t see these people because they’re behind-the-scenes people. We want to let them know that they’ve got just as good a chance at being an entrepreneur or something else as they have being a sports figure or an entertainer. That’s very attractive to me.”
Meanwhile, the Smokey Robinson gumbo rollout continues, with placements in the Safeway, Albertson, Kroger and Ahold supermarket chains, and the artist making personal in-store appearances to promote his product.
Robinson hopes to eventually snag a significant share of the $27.1 billion frozen food industry.
“I want it to be successful,” Robinson declares. “I want it to be worldwide.”
But you don’t have to align your product with a major supermarket chain to have fun.
For 15-and-a-half years, Bill Wharton, the Florida bluesman better known as The Sauce Boss, has been literally cooking up more than onstage music for his audiences.
At the end of each performance, Wharton serves his patrons a bowl of gumbo laced with his personal line of Liquid Summer Hot sauces.
“The thing that’s really unique about the original Datil pepper sauce I make – I have three now – is the flavor and that it’s got this creeper burn: It takes between five and 15 seconds to become really hot, ” explains Wharton, who sells bottles of Liquid Summer at his shows and on his website, www.sauceboss.com.
“It was New Year’s Eve 1989 when I decided to make a big pot of gumbo and illustrate to everybody in the audience how good this sauce is when you cook with it. 125,000 bowls later, here we are.”
Wharton — the only performer who demands a gumbo rider for “okra, onions and peppers” — says his healthy mail order business moves “8,000 to 10,000 bottles a year” but remains a sideline to his music.
“It’s a little hook,” Wharton admits. “Some people call it a gimmick but I think of it more along the lines as an extension of my own personality. It’s me. I’ve always enjoyed cooking and I’ve always been a musician. It’s not a Madison Avenue scheme.
“But it’s kind of a shoo-in. People get curious and when they hear the music, that’s my secret weapon.”
When Nathan Meckel wants to write a song with his musical partner Pam Reswick, he no longer hops on a plane to Los Angeles and drives to her home studio, guitar in hand.
Instead, Meckel walks down the stairs to his own Nashville studio, flicks on his computer and turns on the camera. Then he and Reswick create beautiful music together — in real time.
With a simple, inexpensive set-up that includes videoconferencing software, cameras and a broadband connection, be it cable or ISDN, today’s creators no longer have to be occupying the same physical space in order write their music.
“We rely on webcasting using a software called iVisit (www.ivisit.com),” explains Meckel, an independent musician, recording artist and producer. “For an annual fee of $39.95, they provide you a few more options that include audio and video recording.”
Meckel says the inexpensive video conferencing software allows them to pursue spontaneous composition without leaving the comfort of home.
“We hook up instantly,” Meckel explains of his partnership with Reswick, a noted songwriter who penned Natalie Cole‘s “I Live For Your Love” and Jo Dee Messina‘s “Burn.”
“We send a direct feed from her camera into her computer, so it’s coming into my speakers and my studios. She’s seeing me, hearing me and I’m seeing and hearing her. We throw ideas back and forth – we’ve been doing it almost daily for a year-and-a-half.”
When it comes to actual song demos, either Meckel or Reswick will work on them at their respective studios and e-mail an update.
“We have space on a server that we rent out in Southern California and we send each other Pro-Tools sessions that we’re working on,” says Meckel. “When we get to the mix process, most of the final mixes are done at her place.”
While much of the media focus on the World Wide Web has focused on almost daily reports relating to downloading and piracy issues, the advent of such collaborative platforms as GarageBand and the ability to compress MPEG audiowaves for e-mail transferal yielded unexpected dividends for creators, causing some recording veterans to rethink their approach to songwriting.
Erasure’s Vince Clarke told The Toronto Star that the Internet helped bridge the distance between him and singer Andy Bell during the writing sessions for the duo’s latest album Nightbird.
“We compiled the songs and arranged the songs via the Internet and then got together at the end to make some tracks in London,” he says. “It was great. Andy would send me an MP3 for a vocal idea for one particular track, I’d send him a bass line or something and then we’d kind of compile the tracks in cyberspace.
“I’d not done it before, but it’s a fantastic way of working. I’m not sitting around in the studio waiting to do a particular track. And if I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for the middle section to a song, I can work on it right there and then just zip it off to Andy.”
Patrick Shevelin is another convert.
As the staff producer and chief engineer of Burbank-based independent label Suburban Noize Records, home to Kottonmouth Kings, The Dirtball, Judge D and others, Shevelin says he’s been instantly connecting with his clients for 15 months and loves the convenience.
“Some of my artists are out on Venice Beach or Redondo Beach or even as far away as Bend, Oregon,” note Shevelin, whose extensive engineering and production credentials have include 2Pac, KORN and Dr. Dre.
“We use iChat and video cameras connected to our Macs, but the guy in Oregon is a PC user who connects to us through AOL Instant Messenger.”
Shevelin admits that not all the artists he deals with are open to the experiment.
“The problem I’ve had with a handful of artists is they think that because you’re making music across the Internet, people are going to able to steal your music. They’re afraid their music is going to get stolen in transit.”
But he agrees that’s a perception only remedied by participation. For his part, Shevelin says his iChat collaborations have saved him a lot of time and money.
“It’s changed my life pretty drastically,” he admits. “I’ve definitely saved a lot of mileage on my car, not having to drive. That’s probably the main thing – with gas at nearly $3 a gallon here, it’s a big, big help.
“Gas would be the #1 thing, telephone bill would be the second and of course you save time not sitting in Los Angeles traffic, which takes an hour-and-a-half sometimes, so you’re saving time. All the way around it’s made life a lot easier.”
For people living long distances from one another, you can also throw in airfare and accommodation savings.
“When an artist says they need help to write, they usually have the option of coming to either Nashville or L.A.,” notes Nathan Meckel. “This way is much cheaper and very immediate. For Pam and me, even though she lives in California and I live in Tennessee, we can still work together every day.”
The process has even inspired Meckel, his father Mark and partner Pam Reswick to form Spin Box Club (www.spinboxclub.com), an Internet-driven company specializing in production, publishing and an in-house record label.
“We’re focusing on this project as an Internet and digital download record label, but the idea directly came from the fact that we could create and communicate spontaneously from our homes,” Meckel explains.
While videoconferencing isn’t a perfect system, with Meckel noting the odd technical glitch and an occasional milli-second signal delay during transmission, he feels it’s the digital wave of the future.
“I think more and more people will start doing this,” he says. “I can also see it covering great distances.
“I mean, we haven’t tried the trans-Atlantic route yet, but we’re willing to learn.”
The Resurrection of Rockers And Rappers On The Radio
“Debbie Gibson is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child,” he musically boasted in 1988.
But even during the most infamous stages of his recording career, Mojo Nixon knew his days as an outrageously outspoken cult roots rocker were numbered.
“I knew, and I knew early on, that if I continued doing what I was doing, I was going to die,” said Nixon, who recorded 10 albums between 1985 and 1999 with such partners as Skid Roper, The Pleasure Barons and The Toad Liquors.
“I was going to be dead.
“I was taking the rock ‘n roll lifestyle bad boy idea to its illogical extreme. People I knew, like Country Dick (Montana) of the Beat Farmers, Top Jimmy (Konceck), Jeffrey Lee Pierce and other buddies of mine had already died, and I also knew that nobody wanted to see the exorcizing, sober, nice, safe, boring Mojo.
“My show was all about anarchy and chaos and pandemonium and WTF is this crazy guy going to say? And to be honest, my talent really wasn’t as a guitar player or as a singer or a songwriter: My talent was in the bulls*it.”
So former MTV host Nixon segued into a medium he says is a natural fit for his talent: radio.
“Radio’s made for bulls*it,” laughs Nixon, who hosts three shows on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and is known nationwide as The Loon In The Afternoon on Outlaw Country Channel 63.
“Play a song – bulls*it – play another song,” he explains.
As the afternoon drive host of Outlaw Country (4 p.m. – 8 p.m. ET, M-F) and two other SIRIUS shows: Manifold Destiny on SIRIUS NASCAR Radio (8 p.m. – 11 p.m. Tuesdays) and the hour-long Mojo Nixon’s Political Talk Show (Thursdays, 11 p.m. ET) on Raw Dog Comedy, Nixon indulges in his favorite interests and feels he’ll enjoy a long life expectancy.
“It worked out really good,” Nixon allows. “If it wasn’t for radio, I’d have to become a big-time wrestling manager or late-night used car salesman – some kind of motor-mouth job.”
Nixon, who still pursues his craft on the side, isn’t the only musician to find new life in front of the microphone.
Turn the dial on the radio – both terrestrial and satellite – to practically any location, and you’ll find any number of recognizable rock, country, hip-hop, R&B and jazz names hosting their own shows.
The explosion of high profile musicians assuming the role of radio personality include everyone from “Jeopardy” hit-maker Greg Kihn and Gonzo rocker Ted Nugent to jazz Grammy winner Ramsey Lewis, The E. Street Band’s Little Steven (Van Zandt), female rap pioneer MC Lyte, dance pop/R&B singer Lisa Lisa, hip-hop Godfather Grandmaster Flash, New Age instrumentalist John Tesh, Grammy-winning country duo Brooks & Dunn’s Kix Brooks, the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, Van Halen loudmouth David Lee Roth and even music’s most influential troubadour, Bob Dylan, hosts his own “Theme Time Radio Hour” on SIRIUS XM Radio 15.
It may not be such a surprising transition given the touring nature of a musician’s career. Thanks to today’s technology, it’s easy to give up life on the road and extended periods of travel for the luxury of broadcasting from the comfort of their own home.
“Believe me, I would not have done it this long if I had to get dressed,” chuckles Millie Jackson, the controversial legendary R&B singer who has hosted the afternoon drive show on Soul 73 Dallas KKDA-AM for the past decade from her Atlanta home.
“But due to the fact that I could do it naked if I wanted to,” adds Jackson, breaking into a deep, hearty laugh.
“The main thing that attracted me (to radio) was that I wanted to prove to people that I could talk for three hours without cursing.”
Those familiar with Jackson’s performing style — and top-selling albums such as Feelin’ Bitchy and Live And Outrageous (Triple XXX) – recall her tendency to talk a blue streak.
But she felt her career prepared her to be a natural on the airwaves.
“Even when I was supposed to be singing, I was doing a lot of talking,” Jackson recalls. “I never had a singing lesson in my life, and I didn’t grow up like everybody else in the church, so I did on-the-job training.
“A friend of mine – one of the local biggies in Brooklyn, said, ‘Well, they came to see you – just go out and attack ‘em.’ So that’s what I did. We would have our little confrontations from the stage and let’s face it – I learned a long time ago – if you’ve got the mic, you’re the winner.”
Aside from the fact “I get paid,” Jackson also enjoys her unsupervised freedom.
“I have nobody breathing down my neck,” she states. “I can do practically what I want to do.”
Smooth jazz saxophonist Dave Koz, currently a host on the Premiere Radio Networks’ Smooth Jazz Network, says his 15-year radio career has given him an opportunity to rub shoulders with musical giants.
“Getting a chance to talk on the radio with some of my heroes has opened the door to many opportunities to work with them and develop good relationships with some of my absolute musical idols,” explains Koz, who hosts the Monday-to-Friday 2.p.m. – 7 p.m. block on 40 stations across North America.
“Whether it’s David Sanborn, George Benson, Anita Baker, Vanessa Williams, Stevie Wonder – it’s just been a dream come true for a guy like me.
“If I wasn’t on the radio, I’m not sure I would have been able to develop relationships with these wonderful artists.”
As well as being a cheerleader for the genre he loves, Koz also says that listeners usually benefit when an artist interview is conducted by one of their peers.
“There’s like this privileged conversation that happens when you get two artists together that’s got a different texture to it,” Koz admits.
“That’s the No. 1 thing that I hear from fans of the show that have been listening for years – they feel like they’re eavesdropping on an original conversation that they can’t get anywhere else.”
Thanks to her volatile 1995 multiple-Grammy-winning masterpiece Jagged Little Pill, Ottawa-born Alanis Morissette will always be remembered and associated as the young woman who gave what-for to an ex, spawning a host of copycat singers (Meredith Brooks, Tracy Bonham) who suddenly felt safe to vent their own frustrations to a receptive audience and striking enough of a public chord to sell more than 33 million copies of the album around the world.
While Morissette’s albums Pill, So-Called Chaos and Flavors Of Entanglement have largely been inspired by the ups-and-downs of her romantic life, she returns August 28 with Havoc And Bright Lights, her first work since marrying rapper Mario “MC Souleye” Treadway in 2010 and giving birth to their son Ever Imre on Christmas Day that year.
There’s another big transition: this is Morissette’s first U.S. album outside Madonna’s former Maverick imprint, and she’s licensing it out territory-by-territory. Grammy.com caught up with the seven-time Grammy winner during a recent promotional stop in Toronto.
You captured four Grammy Awards in 1995 for Jagged Little Pill and by proxy, “You Oughtta Know,” for Album Of The Year, Best Rock Album, Best Female Rock Vocal Performance and Best Rock Song. What do you remember about that evening?
I was a little bit of a deer in the headlights during that evening. I just remember having this inner conflict of my ego being so gratified and feeling very grateful for being recognized in that way, and God Bless Glen Ballard (album producer) for being bowed-down-to: It was so lovely for me to behold. And at the same time, the idea of competition in arts to me is sacrilege. So I was up there going, “Thank you, I think, and I’m sorry, and wait a minute, I am grateful, and what am I doing here?” There was a lot of inner conflict around that time, and to this day, the idea of competition in any art form seems kind of silly. It’s like comparing oranges with yellow.
Many artists have not been able to reinvent themselves as completely and successfully as you did when you transitioned from pre-L.A. Canadian dance pop diva to expressing your own voice with Jagged Little Pill.
For me, it was just adding what was already there, but was dormant in terms of public perception. As a kid I’d listened to Etta James and Aretha Franklin and Heavy D and hip hop music, and a lot of technological music. And I listened to what a lot of what my parents listened to — Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan – so for me it was this combination of loving hooks, loving technology and loving rocking out, sweat. As a teenager, I was working with Leslie Howe, so (pop) was the focus then, and the autobiographical aspect of writing songs was not something I was encouraged to do during that time — in fact, quite the opposite.
So when I emancipated myself as such and moved to Los Angeles, I just knew I wouldn’t stop until I was writing songs that felt really authentic to what was going on at the time.
Your new album, Havoc and Bright Lights comes after experiencing the profound life changes of marriage and motherhood. Did parenthood impact your songwriting?
It just meant that I drank a lot of coffee. I didn’t use to drink coffee because I would have anxiety attacks from it, and it just became this imperative drinking. And I was sleep-deprived. I still am. So instead of having three hours to just commune and write and be introspective, I had three-and-a-half minutes, so everything became very concentrated. The writing process was always pretty accelerated process to begin with, but I relied on it. And then, it just became the 17th priority – after marriage, family, and friends – and then living the serviceable vocation that I was born to live.
You’re licensing your work to different labels in different territories – Columbia and Sony in the U.S., Universal Music Canada north of the border. Why?
It’s kind of like dating: I wouldn’t want to date someone who didn’t want to be on a date with me (laughs). I want to date someone who’s courting me madly. So the other aspect of this that is really exciting for me is that it’s a whole new paradigm of partnership: win-win. The old antiquated system was 80% record company, 20% artist, and any artist who complained about that was just going to be seen as an ingrate. We were caught between a rock and a hard place; whereas now, it’s a one-record-cycle deal – if everybody’s winning, let’s continue. Win-win or no deal: That’s really what it’s become all around the world. So I actually feel real partnership for the first time, and I think that’s the new frontier. Partnership is the way. Dictatorial win-lose is so old school.
What excites you most about the future?
What I’m excited about is the idea of having some constancy. So, as opposed to the old school, writing a record, touring it, falling into a deep depression, writing it, touring it, falling…I think the new cycle will just be staying consistent on the social networks and writing articles – I’ve been really enjoying writing articles – and writing music and music for movies. I’m writing a book for next year that I’ve been talking about since 1999 and I don’t want to hear my voice talking about it anymore. So I’ll finish that next year and it touches on all the topics I care about. So really, just to be active in the conversation of evolution and women’s issues. Sign me up.