In 1975 there were reportedly 3 million record albums manufactured for sale in the United States. By 2004, that number hit 745 million. More than 10,000 CDs were released by hundreds of artists last year—that’s about 27 CDs per day. The recording industry has been in a boom cycle for the last 30 years, and now, every musician remotely related to the biz is expected to have a recording. As one engineer put it, “It is part of the dream. All musicians want that experience.”
Paul and Lyn Brier know all about that experience. And when they sell their studio, Virginia Arts Recording, they will close a chapter of Charlottesville’s music history. Where they once were the only game in town, now there are at least six recording studios offering their services.
Back in the 1970s the Briers were based in Washington, D.C., where Paul composed music for a PBS kids’ show, “Mulligan Stew.” Paul had been working on a reel-to-reel deck and had to watch the show while recording. All editing was done by hand. But with the advent of video tape, he realized that he could live and work wherever he wanted. Lyn’s family owned land in Louisa County, and on a visit there in 1975, they spotted a farmhouse that they liked. That year they took the plunge, and Paul built a recording studio out back. He was working on various television projects, and because he recorded all his work in-house, he started to hire local musicians to play his compositions, like Charlottesville Music owner Billy Brockman. When musicians realized what they had in their back yard, they began hiring Paul to make their own demos and albums. Virginia Arts was born, and in October 1986 they opened a new studio in Charlottesville, off of High Street.
The list of acts that have recorded at Virginia Arts is impressive and varied: Johnny Sportcoat and the Casuals, Charlie Pastorfield, who made two records there, and Terri Allard, who first recorded with the Briers at the tender age of 14. Before Dave Matthews Band, Carter Beauford was the house drummer.
A good musician himself, Paul was able to help out with writing and arrangements and play some of the parts himself. He made sure the guitars were in tune and the drummer was awake.
Recording rock bands was the tip of the iceberg for the Briers’ business. They also worked in duplication (if someone had a 78 rpm of their grandmother singing and didn’t have any way to listen to it, Paul would clean up the fidelity and transfer it to tape or CD) and live remote recording, including gigs for groups like The Oratorio Society and The Virginia Consort. And a big slice of their business came from a cappella groups.
Lyn calls Paul the East Coast’s a cappella engineer. Three years ago they scored a No. 1 collegiate a cappella best seller with a disc by UVA’s The Hullabahoos. (As Lyn explains, the eager harmonizing students “sell the stew out of them.”)
They also recorded nine LPs and CDs for Cathy Bollinger, a well-received children’s music writer, who, according to the Briers, has sold more copies of records than anyone locally besides Dave Matthews and John McCutcheon. Paul has also recorded books on tape, like John Grisham’s reading of his novel The Bleachers, which became a No. 1 best seller.
Since the Briers’ pioneering studio started 30 years ago, a range of recording businesses have set up shop in and around Charlottesville. Bobby Read has great ears, a nice room in his Batesville home, and he is an incredible musician. Rod Coles has the biggest recording room of all at his new Purvis Store studio, and he has worked with a number of Charlottesville’s hippest bands. Terry Martin has a certain rock sensibility that some bands seek to capture. Kevin McNoldy’s Crystalphonic Studio offers state-of-the-art gear, and his room really creates the experience of recording that many bands like. Whatever you want, whether it is price, atmosphere or chemistry with the engineer, it is here in town. [For a more complete list of local recording studios, see sidebar.]
The upswing in local recording studios likely ties into a realization made by musicians over the past 30 years that engineering and production are viable ways to make a living. Some of the engineers on the scene now, like Crystalphonic’s McNoldy and Espresso Studio’s Greg Howard, worked at the Briers’ studio.
Others went their own way. Nickeltown’s Jeff Romano says that his college rock band, the High Llamas, never made any money because they poured everything back into studio gear. He lined his studio walls with egg crates that he got from his job at the Rising Sun Bakery, and recorded on a Fostex 8-track reel-to-reel machine. Bobby Read began his Charlottesville studio in 1991, but he was recording long before that in D.C.
As recording technology became more sophisticated, and cheaper, it became the goal of rock bands and musical groups to make a document of their music. And it just keeps getting easier. The ever-improving technology of the digital age allows pretty much anyone with a good ear and technical skills to set up a studio in their basement. If you have a computer and the right software, all you need are some good microphones to start recording (and mics have gotten cheaper, too).
All of the above have led to the democratization of recording. Now it’s fairly easy and cheap to make demos and vanity projects with fidelity that rivals commercial recordings. Artists have much greater access to the recording process, unlike in the past where they needed a big, acoustically manipulated room and tremendous amounts of outboard gear to get the sounds they were looking for.
Because of the switch, Lyn Brier says that the decision to retire was not a difficult one. But finding someone to step in and take care of their clients is a different matter. One of the leading contenders to take over the studio is Kevin Murphy, drummer for Earth To Andy and Tonic. Paul is enthusiastic about Murphy’s musical knowledge (he’s a graduate of East Tennessee State) and thinks that Murphy, who has logged extensive studio time, will bring in more up-to-date house technology. (Murphy wants to convert to ProTools.) If the three of them work out a deal, Murphy will begin engineering while Paul stays in town for a year to make the transition a smooth one, keeping the tracks unbroken.
Hear and now
Big retailers like Starbucks and Pottery Barn sell instantcool with their compilation CDs
By Jack Mingo
Remember back to the horrors of Christmas shopping. Imagine that you’ve been shanghaied and dragooned into the overcrowded aisle of an Old Navy store for a last-minute holiday gift. Happy holidays, Happy holidays sings Bing Crosby cheerily on the PA system, adding to your sense of Santa Claustrophobia.
But suddenly Bing’s voice goes all weird, overtaken with ’60s psychedelia and distorted by what sounds like a shortwave radio going out of tune. The song starts stuttering and echoing, before a thumping dance beat booms full-volume over old Bing.
“What the…hey, someone’s done a remix on der Bingle!” you say aloud, transfixed under a store speaker, where you quickly discover that it isn’t just Crosby, but Mel Torme and Mahalia Jackson, too. But instead of immediately fleeing the premises, you wander around the store absentmindedly, listening and shopping. A Louis Armstrong version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” accompanied by a little heavy-metal drummer boy? The Berlin Symphony molded into a rave-ready version of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”?
Suddenly it all makes sense.
Eventually you head to the checkout, your basket now mysteriously filled with impulse buys, only to discover another one lurking at the register: a CD packed with all the songs you’ve just absorbed.
How can you resist?
Spreading like a fungus
The in-store CD biz has spread and mutated like last year’s fruitcake, but it’s not just Christmas music. Retailers of all stripes hope you’ll like their ambient music so much that you’ll want to buy it for your own abode. For example, in addition to being a purveyor of tasteful household furnishings, Pottery Barn has essentially become a major record company, releasing 74 CDs under its Pottery Barn and Pottery Barn for Kids label, stuffed with such
big-shot artists as Norah Jones, Clem Snide, Joan Osborn, Los Straitjackets,
the Pretenders, Sixpence None the
Richer, Zero 7, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Patty LaBelle.
However, it’s not like Williams-Sonoma, Chevy’s, Cracker Barrel, or Banana Republic are signing new bands. Instead, they depend on Rock River Communications. For corporate clients wanting to add a little cool to their cache, Rock River has created more than 300 such compilations, with individual tracks discovered in the public domain or leased from traditional record labels. Pottery Barn may be the company’s marquee customer, but who else is in their Rolodex? We’re talking companies like Crabtree & Evelyn, Bank One, J. Crew, the Gap, Levi’s, Volkswagen, Cost Plus, Neiman Marcus, Millers Outpost, Restoration Hardware, Saks, and Jamba Juice. Not bad for a company with only a dozen employees in two small offices, split between the coasts.
The business and billing stuff is done mostly in the Vermont office; the creative, mostly confined to a small office on 19th Street in San Francisco. Holding court in an office overflowing with CDs, album artwork, musical posters, and other radio
stationesque ephemera, it’s thus not surprising that Jeff Daniel, Rock River’s boyish president, sees his work partly as an extension of what radio used to do.
“We want to turn people on to music,” Daniel says. “If you think about the customers of Pottery Barn or Banana Republic, they’re probably not hanging around record stores as much as they did when they were in college. With jobs and families, they can’t possibly keep up with the 30-35,000 new albums that come out every year. We want people to actually listen to our music as they shop, and maybe hear something new that they like. Are we doing this out of a pure aesthetic need to expose people to new music? No, not totally, but we don’t want to give them crap. There’s plenty of that around already.”
This is a notable reversal of past theories about music in retail stores. In the 1940s, Muzak pioneered what it called “ambient” or “environmental” music (most people prefer “elevator music”). Its researchers developed a theory that background music should be heard almost subliminally, not actually listened to. Thus, Muzak depends on arrangements that shun anything attention-seeking. Vocals? Out. Ditto anything the least bit shrill: violas are preferred over violins, French horns over trumpets, brush-played drums over crashing cymbals.
This ain’t that. “We don’t do ambient music,” Daniel says. “It’s a whole different art form. We don’t have focus groups, we do it by gut. Our ‘test marketing’ often involves talking to some of our friends’ kids. We do keep on top of all the trade magazines about what’s coming out, and we get these boxes of CDs from record companies that want us to use their stuff.”
Not that Rock River doesn’t do research. New clients are asked to send media packs and demographic studies. Additionally, Daniel and his co-workers have been known to loiter in clients’ stores to get a sense of the atmosphere and clientele.
That means trying to match the music to the store’s image and its clients’ tastes. For the Gap, that can mean Missy and Madonna; for Old Navy, En Vogue, Moby and the Bucketheads; for Banana Republic, the Jazzfatnastees, Greyboy, and Marvin Gaye.
“We have a challenge, since a CD has to convince the consumer to pick it up and look at it,” Daniel explains. “That means having artwork and an album name that will signal that this is a cohesive entity. You can’t have a mix that’s too eclectic, because they’ll wonder, ‘What is this? Is this a world CD, a Latin CD, an electronic CD, or what?’ On the other hand, you don’t want it completely predictable either. You want them to recognize enough of the titles or artists on the album that they’re willing to take a leap of faith on the ones they don’t know. Eventually, they learn that they can trust us to know the sorts of things they’ll want to hear.”
Rock River’s biggest success story: the 74-CD Pottery Barn empire. “Consumers come back and say, “I’ve got five or 10 of these, and they’re all great—I’m willing to take a chance on another one,’” Daniel says. That’s given us the chance to branch out into slightly different genres and hopefully push people’s boundaries a bit.”
Of course, Rock River doesn’t monopolize this industry: Starbucks, for example, creates its own mixes, often “Artist’s Choice” discs featuring 14 tunes handpicked by, say, Norah Jones. In 1999, the coffee giant bought Hear Music, a catalog store in Cambridge, Massachusetts with only two retail stores, including one in Berkeley, California. Once it became a wholly owned subsidiary, Hear largely became an in-house conduit for this coffee-bar music, providing soothing tunes to enjoy over a grande half-caf soy latte.
But even with a coffee juggernaut in the biz, Rock River has carved out a comfort-
able niche. The sound of vintage jazz seeps down the hallway from the office of David
Hargis, director of account management and moonlighting radio DJ. Although Rock River has put out compilations like Pottery Barn’s Dirty Martini (featuring original jazz recordings unsullied by modern hands), Hargis today is reviewing candidates for Bing-bothering remix artists aspiring to scratch, loop, beat, and mash the old into something new. It’s a challenge. “Generally, I’m looking for a hook,” David says. “Good sound, too, because a lot of this stuff is poorly recorded. And recognizability of the song, I’ve been struggling with that, too.”
Rock River’s clients like remix compilations because they bridge a gap between retro and current sounds. The company has generated 153 remixes of Christmas songs, and has since branched out to experimenting with doing the same with Latin and jazz. “We give the source track to remixers we like,” David explains. “And they come back with kind of a scratchpad of ideas, and we say, ‘This idea is really great, this idea isn’t, throw it out and go here.’ They’re so talented, and so many are dying to work for companies like us, because their records aren’t selling so well and, since it’s not really live music, they can’t make money from going on a tour and selling t-shirts. So they’re psyched to make money sitting at home and say, ‘I did a remix on Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole.’”
Of course, clients sometimes balk at the final results. A printed-out e-mail from an anonymous client hangs on Daniel’s door, fussing about “inappropriate” lyrics in seemingly-harmless classic rock songs that Rock River compiled, like All you did was wreck my bed/In the morning kick me in the head from “Maggie May,” I never understood a single word he said but I helped him drink his wine from “Joy to the World,” and the good ol’ boys drinking whiskey and rye of “American Pie.”
“Some of the clients just love our choices from the start,” shrugs Daniel, “and some want to play DJ and put their imprint on it, so they can say to their friends, ‘I produced this CD.’ There are times when we’ll strongly recommend against some sequence, and tell them why, but ultimately, the client always has the final say. The hardest thing sometimes is to step back and let that baby go.”
But there’s still one more step, and it’s a big one: obtaining rights to the songs. “It can be a long process,” Daniel admits. “David has to do a lot of research to make sure we’re dealing with the one true legitimate owner, because there are a lot of old jazz and Christmas songs claimed by two
or three different companies. We don’t want to get in the middle of that battle, so in that case, we don’t touch the song.”
There is a loophole for older recordings, though. “In the old days, bands would do live broadcasts on radio,” David says. “Under the copyright laws back then,
recordings of those broadcasts didn’t legally belong to a record company. Since many of those recordings are nearly identical to the versions on record, we can get around some of the ownership difficulties.”
Living artists can be troublesome as well. For example, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews and R.E.M. refuse any requests to appear on any noncharity compilations. “James Taylor has long had a ‘do not license’ order, but then he went and recorded an entire Christmas album for Hallmark,” Daniel notes. “Go figure.” On the other hand, some artists are eager to please, especially if exposure and cash is involved. “Madonna, it comes down to quantity for her,” Daniel says. “Moby really likes to get his stuff out there. He’s a good businessman—he’s made much more income from compilations and ads than he has selling albums.”
And for that he has disoriented but intrigued Pottery Barn shoppers to thank.