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.”

 

Survival of the Fittest

Survival Of The Fittest

Nick Krewen

Grammy.com

July 2002

 

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.”

Dishwalla

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.”

Poe

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.”

Jane Child

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.

Jane Siberry

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.”

They’ve Got Game

Video Gaming and Music in the ’00s

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

Nov 2002

 

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.

Barenaked Ladies

“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.”

EA’S Steve Schnur

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.”

Busta Rhymes

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.

Chance Thomas

“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.”

 

 

Preserving Electronic Avant-Garde Culture

Electronic Music Foundation

Preserving Electronic Avant-Garde Culture

 

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.com

Sept 2002

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.

Pierre Schaeffer
Luc Ferrari
Iannis Xenakis

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.”

Joel Chadabe

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 Edgard Varèse’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.”

Edgard Varèse
Suzanne Ciani

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.

Morton Subotnick
John Cage, © Bob Cato

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.

Switched-On Bach anniversary album cover
Wendy Carlos
Thaddeus Cahill and an early model of his Harmonium

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.”

Robert Moog
William Blakeney
Hugh LeCaine

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.

Bob Doidge
Bob Doidge with Daniel Lanois
Brian Eno

“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.”

Farewell Fan Fair

Fan Fair

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

 

Farewell Fan Fair.

When it wound down June 8 with a rare reunion of The Judds, the door closed on a 32-year tradition. Upon its return in 2004, the annual Nashville country music festival – which encourages fans to mingle with its stars – will be sporting a different name: the CMA (Country Music Association) Music Festival.

More troubling to hardcore country music fans, however, is the CMA’s new willingness decision to welcome non-country talent into the mix.

Although acts such as The Beach Boys and the soap opera casts of Days Of Our Lives and Passions have made Fan Fair appearances in the past, this official policy change – combined with few details regarding the transition – have put country fans on the defensive.

Worried that their premier country music festival is going to be distilled by an onslaught of non-country artists, distraught fans – and some industry professionals – have been flooding CMA offices with e-mails and phone calls expressing their concern.

Published comments by CMA executive director Ed Benson, describing the annual love-in as “an event any Nashvillian could come to and not feel like something was going to jump off on them and infect them” – inferring an unsophisticated stigma attached to the words “Fan Fair” – weren’t reassuring.

“They make us sound like a bunch of nose-picker, butt-scratcher country hicks,” complained Fan Fair attendee Annette Wood of Davenport, Iowa to The Tennessean.

But a yearly attendance drop, a decline in superstar attractions and continuing money losses have left the CMA grasping for solutions, clearly puzzled at its fizzling mandate to expand country music’s audience.

The first major step towards growth came in 2001, when the CMA relocated Fan Fair from the self-contained 24,000-seat Tennessee State Fairgrounds  — its home since 1982 and a place where fan booths and artists exhibits were mere steps away from the concert venue, a converted racetrack  — to downtown Nashville.

“When we made the move (downtown), it was a commitment by our board to say we’re going to build this event for the future,” Benson told The Tennessean.

Fan Fair was switched from a week to weekend festival, downsized from five to four days.  Record label showcases shifted to the 66,000-seat capacity Coliseum for the evenings, and the much smaller Riverfront Park stages for weekdays. And booths where fans wait for autographs were transferred several city blocks away to the air-conditioned Nashville Convention Center.

However, these transitions came with a price to Fan Fair visitors. Camping, which kept costs economical for many tourists and added a social element to the outing, was banned. Admission prices were also jacked up: A $95 ticket that allotted you four nights and five days of country music, a free meal and – until it was scuttled in 1997 by Gaylord Entertainment – admission to their Opryland U.S.A. theme park, gave way to $115 tickets with no additional incentives.

Today, the top ticket for gold circle admission into the Coliseum for four days and nights of country music is $250 – a 211% increase from 2000 prices.  If you’re 18 and under, you can pay as little as $86 to attend the festivities, although you’re denied gold circle access even if you have the money.

Other implemented changes have made artist accessibility more restrictive. Stages once within handshake reach of fans are now heightened and inaccessibly barricaded. Photo lines that formerly allow shutterbugs to watch shows while they waited to snap their cameras are now re-directed through Coliseum corridors.

And the lack of superstar talent hasn’t helped. Whether the switch to weekends, normally the most lucrative booking time for recording acts, has had an impact is questionable, but both the 2002 and 2003 lineups were woefully short on marquee headliners.

Although Garth Brooks is in semi-retirement and annual no-shows include superstars Shania Twain and George Strait, other regular visitors decided to skip this year’s event altogether. Among the missing: chart-toppers Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Toby Keith and The Dixie Chicks, Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood and LeAnn Rimes, although Rimes did cancel a main-stage cameo duet with Vince Gill due to illness.

However, mid-level and up-and-coming artists such as Rascal Flatts, Tracy Byrd, Lee Ann Womack and Carolyn Dawn Johnson were also absent.

Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, Brooks & Dunn, Martina McBride, Patty Loveless and Darryl Worley were among the headline acts played for free, accepting a reported $100,000 contribution to the charity of their choice in lieu of payment.

But even the majority of those acts skipped the opportunity to greet fans and sign autographs at the Nashville Convention Center. After Jo Dee Messina and Montgomery Gentry, familiar names were rare.

Others chose just to keep it private, appear at their own fan club parties which are scheduled to run concurrent with the festival.

As a result, Fan Fair attendance dropped 1.7% — from an announced “aggregate” headcount of 126,500 in 2002 to 124,300 in 2003 – with CMA officially laying blame on a faltering economy and post-Iraq war fallout.

In a separate Tennessean article, however, Benson revealed that Fan Fair, produced at a cost of $3 million, has been losing financial ground for years, with out-of-town attendance topping out at 21,000 visitors. In the same article, CMA associate director Tammy Genovese acknowledged that tourists rather than locals accounted for the majority of ticket sales.

Whether the CMA can stage a reversal of Fan Fair fortune under its new CMA Music Festival guise remains to be seen, but Benson clarified that its country music core will not be supplanted by other genres.

“Any celebrities or musical guests we invite to Fan Fair will have a tangible connection to country music and this lifestyle,” Benson explained.

”Our primary mission is always to grow country music. We don’t want to limit it.”

By excising the word “fan” from the equation, however, the CMA may have bitten off more than it can chew, alienating the very loyalists that have kept Fan Fair alive for more than three decades.

Liner notes: FM, Black Noise

FM – Black Noise

 

Oh, the endless possibilities that can be stoked by science fiction.

It’s a realm where imaginations are stimulated, emancipated, and allowed to run wild; where boundaries are stretched and eliminated, and where the inconceivable can become an accomplished reality. It’s a topic that is so entrenched and valued in our society that sci-fi has gifted us with some of our most beloved cultural milestones, be they literary, cinematic, sculpted, painted, televised, or – in the case of Black Noise – musical.

In 1977, the year that the ambitious, timeless and innovative masterpiece Black Noise was conceived and delivered by Toronto-based violinist and mandolin player Nash The Slash; synth player, keyboardist, bass player and singer Cameron Hawkins, and fusion-influenced drummer and percussionist Martin Deller, collectively known as FM – the Star Wars movie franchise had just been launched and Star Trek had eclipsed its TV popularity several times over and was enjoying an unprecedented global run in syndication. Synth-driven, monophonic electronic music, especially in the context of pop and rock music, was still regarded to be in its infancy, although keyboard instruments themselves were on the cusp of polyphony (the ability to play more than one note at a time).  Progressive rock, long presented in elastic, exploratory and sometimes rambling movements that emphasized sonic sculpture and lengthy solos, was turning a corner towards shorter, more economic compositions.

Black Noise championed both worlds with a startling new sound that was both innovative and accessible; a lyrical voyage to the stars that sometimes wordlessly examined its surroundings, and expressed hope for the survival of a species at others.

From the plucked, reverberating ostinato of Nash’s space age mandolin on the classic and radio-friendly “Phasors On Stun,” through the glockenspiel-driven “One O’ Clock Tomorrow,” the warp-speed “Journey” and the epic three-movement opus of the title track, the eight-song album has been a touchstone of inspiration and resonance to the public and fellow Canadian groundbreakers, ranging from Saga and Strange Advance to rock superstars Rush, making for an impressive legacy.

There’s also a deserved sense of pride among its makers.

“We’re here 37 years later, still talking about this music? It’s astounding,” says FM co-founder Cam Hawkins.

“I’m impressed by the longevity. The fact that it still around, still sounds fresh, still makes sense. It doesn’t sound like it’s old pop or anything like that.  In some ways, it had two essential ingredients: one was courage, and one was love. We loved the music that we listened to. We wanted to make that kind of music. We did it because that’s the music we felt inside us.”

Martin Deller, who contributed the stellar instrumentals “Hours,” “Slaughter In Robot Village” and co-wrote “Aldebaran,” says Black Noise was ambitious and encapsulated “a particular time full of heart and energy and commitment and youth.”

“It was done with a wonderful innocence, too,” Deller continues. “It wasn’t that we were jaded. This was the first big thing for all of us, and looking back, we’re proud of having done this record and what we were able to accomplish. Through the maturity of time, you can look back and say this was an important album. We’re happy that people are still really enjoying it.”

It was the beginning of something that would propel Nash, Hawkins and Deller into musical careers both individually and collectively that would touch people around the world.

While the tangible FM story begins in late ’76 with the introduction of Cameron Hawkins to Nash The Slash, the band’s history actually pre-dates its existence, thanks to a trailblazing CHUM-FM DJ named David Pritchard and an album called Nocturnal Earthworm Stew.

            Pritchard was an eclectic musician in his own right, using his bedroom as the studio laboratory to concoct his sonically adventurous soup. Aside from achieving the historic milestone of being the first Canadian album issued by Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, Nocturnal Earthworm Stew also features guest appearances by Nash The Slash, Deller and an uncredited Hawkins, although each of the participants made their contributions independently.

“It was a very classic example of an early independent,” says notes Deller. “David did it in his bedroom. I came in, played tracks, then he took them, flipped them upside down and had Nash play on them. Cam came in and played. None of us played in the session together.”

Cameron Hawkins’ first real awareness of Jeff Plewman, a.k.a. Nash The Slash, was witnessing him perform in the band Breathless, the opener for Scrubbaloe Caine at the Ontario Place Forum, a much-missed venue noted for its circular, rotating stage and unobstructed sightlines.

“There was this maniac out there on the violin, who, for a finale, blew a flame out of his mouth and set his violin on fire,” Hawkins recalls.

“Some of those flames fell off into the audience, several of whom jumped up and patted themselves out.”

Hawkins was neither impressed nor amused.

“I thought it was disgusting,” he recalls. “That’s not music – it’s theatre.  I’d never play in a band like that.”

But Nash was all about the performance art: aside from his Breathless commitment, Nash had taken up residency at the Roxy Theatre located on Danforth Avenue, where he also lived in an apartment behind the projection room. His legendary one-man shows found him dressed in a top hat and a tux, composing his own soundtracks to silent films.

Obviously, Hawkins’ curiosity was piqued. He invited Nash, whom he remembered was sporting “long, curly blond hair,” to sit in on a video shoot with Hawkins’ current band Clear. Later, the duo hightailed it back to Nash’s Roxy apartment – heavily decorated with Mike Hammer horror film posters – and over the course of the next six months, wrote some of the seminal songs that would appear on Black Noise: “Phasors On Stun,” “One O’Clock Tomorrow” and “Black Noise.”

The duo worked their magic on a Mini-Moog, an Elka Rhapsody string machine with a set of bass pedals, a sequencer and an analog synthesizer “that could repeat up to 16 notes endlessly,” Hawkins recalls. Nash provided his stringed menagerie consisting of the violin, the mandolin, an Echoplex and a drum machine that Hawkins remembers had settings like “Bossa Nova” and “samba.”

“Nash could turn it into a “thunder machine,’” marveled Hawkins.

“The string machine kind of sounded like a wheezy organ, but if you triggered and filtered it and plugged it into the Mini-Moog, and played the notes on Mini-Moog of what I did on the bass, you anticipated what polyphonic could do.

“So for a very brief period of time, we took a bit of an ingenious approach and it was what made us stand out. We also let the capabilities of the technology write the music. So we’d have songs that were at least five minutes long – sometimes, twice as long – and whatever Nash was playing on the Echoplex would loop around so we’d actually get two Nashes playing live on stage.

“We weren’t really following any rules, except for one: what sounds was the technology telling us to make?”

When it came to performance, Nash — still four years away from adopting the mummified bandage look that would become his trademark – schooled Hawkins about showmanship.

“I learned a lot from Nash about the performance side,” Hawkins acknowledges. “It’s not just what people hear, it’s what they see: It’s about the show. For the first six months that Nash and I wrote those songs, it was just hard work making music. But when we did shows, there was a rear screen that projected movies and slides…it was important to entertain people as well as play them good music.”

FM, named after radio frequency modulation at a time when it was most experimental, continued on as a duo, appearing on TV Ontario’s NightMusic with host Reiner Schwarz and booking a three-night run at the A Space Gallery on Richmond St., where a multitude of Canadian record company A&R reps, those emboldened with the power to sign new acts, witnessed their show, heaped praised upon them and promptly told them that they wouldn’t be contracted to any deal unless they incorporated a drummer.

“Nash and I thought that was a fair assessment,” Hawkins recalls.

Enter Martin Deller, an accomplished stickman with a jazz pedigree who had a weekly gig with a blues band called Cueball and occasionally sat in with Hawkins and Nash. He passed the FM litmus test by proving he could complement the metronomic and rudimentary drum machine rhythms, as well as injecting his own persona into the mix.

“I remember when we were doing ‘Dialing for Dharma’ and that song features a sequencer. And I remember them thinking, ‘oh, how is he going to react to this?’ I walked out of the booth and both Cam and Nash had an ear-to-ear grin, going, ‘well, he fucking nailed that one.’”

After Deller joined in early ’77, the next six months were spent playing clubs around Toronto and quickly establishing themselves as a must-see act. It should be noted that the 1970s was a sensational decade for working musicians: the club scene was healthy, and bands would enjoy six-day residencies in most taverns that would enable them to practice in front of an audience, hone their chops to impeccable standards.

Returning to the A-Space run for a moment, there was one other audience member who would prove to be an important catalyst in getting FM into the studio.

Keith Whiting had recently arrived from England and his producer position at Decca Records, bringing with him future Juno Award-winning engineer Mike Jones in tow. Whiting was about to preside over national broadcaster CBC Radio’s recording division.

CBC Records, however, was unlike any other record company, in that its federally-mandated purpose was not to compete with other labels, but chiefly providing programming for CBC stations across Canada.

How it worked: usually a jazz or classical act would be booked at a CBC recording studio, cut three or four songs that would be compiled onto an anthology, and then that anthology would be issued on a minimum pressing run (averaging 500-1000 copies) and distributed for airplay, with a few copies left over for potential mail order sales.

Whiting, who had served as an assistant engineer on No Answer, the debut Electric Light Orchestra album, and a producer for Dusty Springfield and many others, was hooked from the moment he witnessed the FM experience.

“I was knocked out with it right from the start,” Whiting recalls.  “As soon as I got an opportunity to do something with them, we did. They were good musicians and they had that material for a while.”

Whiting remembers an FM audition tape floating around the CBC, which helped expedite the sessions. He also went a few steps further than his predecessor Hedley Jones, who was also very aware of FM: not only did Whiting feel that the trio deserved an entire album of their own, but he also successfully argued with his superiors that FM deserved more than what the antiquated CBC recording studio equipment could provide.

“FM brought Marty Deller on; we got a small budget from CBC, booked Sounds Interchange (on Adelaide Street) for a week and did the album,” Whiting remembers.

Actually, it was a tad more than a week, but even at 10 to 12 days – eight for recording, two for mixing – there was no room for error. As Whiting recalls, however, FM was up to the task.

“The sessions were quite frantic,” Whiting recalls with a laugh, noting that the “record” button was pressed at around 2 p.m. each day and that the sessions would conclude sometime around 6 a.m.

“We put in really long hours, and it got pretty crazy. To let off steam in the middle of the night, we’d have ‘bog roll’ fights: we’d go around the studios throwing toilet paper rolls at each other at 3 a.m. You couldn’t do too much damage,” he chuckles.

The vestiges of time have impacted the associated memories of those involved to recall exactly which song was the first to be worked on, but Keith Whiting does remember the sessions pretty much sailing along without too many glitches, mainly due to FM’s solid prep work.

“The band had played around the Toronto scene as a three-piece for about six months and the songs were for the most part, worked out,” Hawkins remembers. “Marty and I would rehearse, just the two of us without Nash, to make sure that we got the bed tracks right.

“Plus, we were in our mid-20s, so the sessions were spirited:  we knew that we were getting the opportunity that we were looking for. We had a lot of fun recording the record.”

However, there ended up being one major hitch that ended up shocking both Hawkins and Deller. Cameron Hawkins picks up the story…

“I was playing pinball at the studio to let steam off, and someone came in and said,   ‘Cam, it’s time for the synth solo in “Slaughter In Robot Village”’, which is one of Marty’s songs.

“And I said, ‘I don’t have a solo in “Slaughter In Robot Village” – Nash does.’ And he said, “You do now, because Nash has left the band.’”

According to Hawkins, Nash’s departure was triggered by a combination of factors: the frustration of repeatedly tuning a mandolin paired with a testy engineer who kept fooling around with the Varispeed control on the analog tape recorder.

“Tuning a mandolin is really hard, because you don’t just have four strings, you have eight strings in pairs, all tuned in unison,” Hawkins explains. “And mandolins are notorious for losing their tuning, so it was very frustrating for Nash. Mike (Jones) had apparently had it with what he perceived to be this prima donna musician thing, flipped the Varispeed up to its proper pitch, let the tape roll, and Nash came in, way out of tune. Nash got frustrated, put the mandolin down, and walked out.”

When Nash left, both Deller and Hawkins thought he was just blowing off steam.

“We’re thinking, ‘oh, he left the building. He’ll come back,” said Deller.

“He didn’t play with us again for six years,” adds Hawkins.

This cone of silence was apparently a Nash quality trait that would be repeated in later years.

“Nash was about moving on,” says Hawkins. “There were times when Nash needed the lift of having collaborators, and when he didn’t, would say, ‘I don’t need it now – I can go back to being Nash The Slash.’”

Deller suggested that the addition of a drummer to what had been a two-man set-up also troubled Nash.

“Nash had a vision when he was doing his solo stuff, and when he meets Cam, he says, ‘Ok, here’s a cool guy,’ and Nash can really easily still incorporate all of his vision. And then I come along, and it just changes it up again: I got the sense that, suddenly, three was a crowd for him, and along with all of that other frustration and pressure, he thought, ‘I‘ll just go and do it my way.’

“He was a very complex guy. He couldn’t maintain that sense of commitment to that larger thing. It seemed to be very characteristic through his career.”

Nash’s lack of involvement with FM post-Black Noise was a conundrum that would later be solved by the addition of future k.d. lang producer and collaborator Ben Mink, but for now, everyone was enjoying the fact that the album sessions were complete and that everything sounded stellar.

“Keith got us in and out in 12 days within budget, made sure we were ready, navigated the politics within the CBC and made it fun to record,” Hawkins remembers. “In fact, we did the next record (Surveillance) with almost the same set up.

“I think that spoke to his success as a producer. He never got in the way. There’s a deft touch to that.”

After completing a stereo mix and a quadrophonic mix (the latter mix is still M.I.A. 37 years later, as are the album master tapes), Whiting and the CBC pressed up 500 copies of the album sporting a different cover than the publicly familiar Paul Till artwork.

Whiting, FM manager Malcolm Glassford and the band then shopped the disc to every Canadian and U.S. record company and heard…nothing.

Finally, Passport Records, a New Jersey based indie label specializing in imported British art and progressive rock, picked up the album for the U.S., and eventually distributed it in Canada through GRT.

But here’s the irony: the Canadian arrival of Black Noise in 1978 meant that it wasn’t the first FM album to be released domestically. In the time it took to secure a record deal, Hawkins, Deller and Mink had been afforded the opportunity to record and release Direct To Disc, an album that bypassed the usual analogue tape recording method and was cut directly to vinyl.

However, Direct To Disc, with its two 15-minute compositions, fell short of having the immediate impact of Black Noise, which received instant radio airplay due to the classic single “Phasors On Stun,” and eventually drove album sales to Canadian gold (50,000 copies sold) and probably platinum (100,000 copies) levels.  (FM would be continually plagued by their numerous future record companies declaring insolvency, thus making the maintenance of accurate accounting suspect at the best of times).

This current reissue of Black Noise, lovingly re-mastered by Peter Moore (Cowboy Junkies) and distributed by Conveyor Canada on compact disc and digitally, is additionally significant for its bonus material: two live recordings and longer versions of “Phasors On Stun” and “Black Noise,” recorded at the defunct Larry’s Hideaway on Toronto’s Carlton Street a mere two weeks before the CBC sessions, are included here to offer a glimpse of the true depth of FM’s experimental nature.  (The 180 gram vinyl version will be true to the original album release and not include the extra tracks).

“We had this jam sense,” recalls Martin Deller. “There was this wonderful element of improvisation. In classical music, you have something called the coda, which is a section added to the end of a piece where the soloist who is featured gets to riff on the themes of the composer’s music.  FM would do this in the middle, so ‘Black Noise’ features this internal coda, if you will, where we go into the spacy section. That was a very appealing piece for all of us, and it was really apparent at this time.”

Because vinyl was limited to approximately 25 minutes a side back in the 1970s, Whiting was forced to condense some of FM’s arrangements.

“’Phasors’ used to have a five-minute spacy introduction with percussion and Nash making whispering sounds into a microphone,” Deller recalls.

“On ‘Black Noise,’ Nash is manipulating the drum machine, and we were still in the process of working out the arrangement.”

Adds Hawkins, “These two extra versions really offers people an insight into the real roots of the band: 10-to-15-minute explorations in real time with real inspiration. And these releases are dedicated to Nash, who passed away in May 2014, and whose spirit is definitely captured in these recordings.”

Still energetic, animated and passionate; still wonderfully cosmic and freshly imaginative for those who enjoy open frontiers and great music, the magical Black Noise remains a thoughtful gateway of – and to – the imagination, and the notion that the future has yet to be written.

I thought it was pretty cool music,” says Martin Deller. “It was experimental music people would like because it had a melody. It was refreshing, it was rock and it had a jazzy element as well, which I think you can really hear on Black Noise, between the classical and the synth.”

For Cameron Hawkins, Black Noise symbolizes a call to action.

“To me, what it represents is the truth of a theorem: if you want to do something, do it. To me, Black Noise is something that is bigger than all of us who participated in the record. There’s always a benefit to creating.”

 

.

Nick Krewen

The Career Commencement Challenge

 

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

July 2005

 

Billy Gilman is back from recess.

Professionally derailed by the trials of puberty for the past three years, the Rhode Island country singing sensation is hoping for a new lease on life with his recently released album Everything And More.

Billy Gilman during his “One Voice” days

But Gilman, who stormed onto the Billboard country charts at the age of 11 as the genre’s youngest recording artist with the double platinum album One Voice in 2000, finds a new challenge awaiting him at 17: the transition from child to adult music star.

“I loved having no worries as a kid. Now I have a lot of worries, ” he laughs. “Now I get nervous a lot more. Before, when I put out a record it was, like, ‘Oh, I’m excited. I’ve got nothing to lose.’

“Now I’ve had a career for six or seven years and the nerves and reality are coming into play. That little-child innocence isn’t there anymore.”

 

A very young Aaron Carter

Aaron Carter can relate. After selling over four million records of his cherubic pop, the 17-year-old younger brother of The Backstreet Boys’ Nick Carter also finds himself at an important crossroads. As he records his sixth album, he’s faced with the task of choosing a sound that will appeal to more mature audiences without alienating his established fan base.

“It’s really tough,” says Carter, who has a role in the upcoming 20th Century film Supercross. “Eventually your fans grow up and don’t want to listen to cheesy music anymore. Some of them lean towards more rap music, some of them lean towards more Ryan Cabrera-styled music — it’s really just about finding the middle, but also being comfortable.

“Right now, I’m just trying to find and figure out the style of music I really want to do, which is a little bit of R&B and a bit of soft rock. I want to stay along the lines of some of the stuff I’ve done, but also move on.”

 

The conversion to long-term artistic credibility isn’t insurmountable, but it is difficult. As Reebee Garofalo, Ed.D Clinical Psychology and Public Practice and Community and Media Technology professor at Harvard University observes, most young acts find their public introduction targeted at an equally youthful audience, with trained professionals controlling and manipulating the creative aspects of their vocations.

As performers develop, their tastes change.

“In the early stage of teen poppers’ careers, you’ve got the old school Tin Pan Alley division of labor with professional A&R people matching singers with professional songwriters to come up with material,” notes Garofalo, author of Rockin’ Out: Popular Music In The U.S.A.

Reebee Garofolo photo by Joe Mabel

“As they mature, their music becomes a more personal statement and that dictates a much different division of labor, with them taking on more of that creative function.”

Compounding matters is the young artist’s image, often sculpted to exploit their budding sexuality. If their image overshadows the music, Garofalo says the chances of post pin-up career survival are slim.

“If there’s no substance behind the image, when that image is no longer appropriate, they’re going to disappear.”

Image still plays a crucial role even if the music does have legs beyond a teen audience, finds Anastasia Goodstein, founder and publisher of Ypulse: Media For The Next Generation, a blog about Generation Y for media and marketing professionals.

“It’s really a question of how far you can go before you cross the line and alienate your audience,” notes Goodstein, also manager of Viewer Created Content at Current TV, the new Al Gore-financed television channel for 18-34 year olds launching August 1.

“If your audience is mostly young people, especially if it’s girls and tweens, then I think you walk a really fine line with how far you can go.

Anastasia Goodstein

“Someone like Hilary Duff or even Mandy Moore, when she was doing music, seemed to keep that in check. But for Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, going from somewhat innocent to full-on sexual adult outside of their performances, in their personal lives, in the tabloids and the gossip blogs, it does damage them a little bit. It alienates a lot of the people who may have been buying their actual music.”

Goodstein says young stars searching for a mature audience should find the right producer.

“If you can come back with something kind of good, as Justin Timberlake did — he broke out and took it to the next level, making very smart choices about his solo effort,” says Goodstein.

“Finding really good producers will help you make the transition.”

She also suggests that teen music idols avoid any behavior that would make good tabloid fodder.

“A lot of people would say any publicity is good publicity, but for some of these former teen stars, anything that has to do with being arrested, hitting somebody or partying a little too much and making an ass of yourself – I don’t think that stuff looks good or does anything but alienate their younger core audience.”

Then there’s always the danger, Goodstein warns, of falling into the trap of multi-hyphenated talent.

“It always seems like everybody wants to be that triple threat – do movies, TV and everything else,” Goodstein explains. “Very few people can successfully do it, and maybe the risk of that is doing it really poorly. So that temptation to spread yourself a little thin and try to be the triple threat and the star versus the music star might be a pitfall for some people.”

Self-contained artists – those who write, record and perform their own music – tend to weather the adjustment better, says Isaac Hanson, guitarist with the Tulsa sibling trio Hanson. When the band debuted in 1997, Isaac, Taylor and Zac — 16, 13 and 11 at the time — hit pay dirt with its debut album Middle Of Nowhere, selling more than four million copies.

Hanson then…
Hanson…now

Now running its own 3CG Records label, Isaac Hanson says the trio is currently in a rebuilding process, selling over 150,000 copies of its 2004 album Underneath, scoring a U.K. Top 10 hit with “Penny & Me” and continuing to sell out soft-seater venues wherever they tour.

“I don’t feel like the barriers are insurmountable because the foundation that we have musically is the only thing that ever mattered,” Hanson states. “We are in a better position than ever because we’re dealing with a growing fan base.”

Hanson says that for most adolescent recording artists, a backlash may inevitable considering the cyclical nature of pop music.

“When you reach a critical mass, that backlash happens. It’s always a challenge. Whether you’re U2, Maroon 5, Hanson or anybody else, it’s about continually moving forward. That’s difficult no matter who you are.”

Aaron Carter, whose older brother’s Backstreet Boys found themselves back near the top of the Billboard Top 200 charts recently after a four-year absence, remains undeterred.

“My ultimate goal is to just make my fans happy and sing good music for them, because eventually I’m not going to be that young, cute-looking kid,” he explains. “And I don’t want to be looked at like that anymore. I don’t want to be referred to as that and just being in the pop star magazines.

“The main thing is being careful and watching where you’re stepping, because eventually there are going to be some holes that you’re going to step in, and getting out is my problem.”

Billy Gilman is also optimistic. He feels that his time away from the spotlight will bolster interest in his current album.

“The advantage is that people are wondering what I’m sounding like, ” says Gilman. “There’s a lot of intrigue now.”

But he’s all too aware that public taste can change on a dime.

“You can’t see what tomorrow is going to bring,” notes Gilman. “Your stock can fade as quickly as you came, so you live each day in the moment.”

 

Cooking Up New Themes

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

August 2005

 

Ate any good music lately?

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.

Bill Wharton, the Sauce Boss
Bill Wharton, the Sauce Boss

“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.”

Spontaneous Internetvention

Internet Weaves Web Of Spontaneity

 Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.com

September 2005

 

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.

Nathan Meckel
Pam Reswick

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.”

Patrick Shevelin (forefront) with Daddy X

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.”