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Jewish World Review June 21, 2002 /11 Tamuz 5762

Dave Shiflett

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Consumer Reports

Harmonic Convergence: Shunned by suits, traditionalists join self-recording revolution -- These are not the best days for cultural gatekeepers. The Internet's alternative media buzzes beyond the reach of mainstream editors; the promise of electronic book publishing takes aim at the Literary Lords; and the suits who run the music industry contend not only with file-swappers but find themselves ignored by a growing number of artists who have concluded they simply don't need record companies any more.

That's not all for the good. Plenty of sonic dreck gets recorded and distributed. Yet the self-recording industry is an increasingly respectable alternative for musicians shut out of established studios for reasons that have nothing to do with talent, or lack thereof. A female vocalist over 30, for example, has little chance of landing a contract, no matter how well she sings. But she can record her own disk for a relative song, distribute it worldwide, and get reviewed by mainstream publications. That is good for musicians on the cutting edge, and traditionalists as well.


I've seen this phenomenon first hand. The story began a few years back when I wandered beneath a big walnut tree at the fabled Graves Mountain Bluegrass Festival near Syria, Virginia. Suddenly, I heard a beautiful voice — and, almost immediately, another sound as well: Kerching! Nothing wrong with that. I'm a capitalist, and this songbird clearly deserved a wider audience. A true harmonic convergence.

The singer, Kathleen Thomas, seemed a perfect candidate for Nashville. Her voice stops traffic and she has a compelling personal story — she's fought off cancer three times, worked as a volunteer firefighter and was a community-college librarian. She's also the mother of four. What more could Nashville want?

Well, perhaps a good song. Luckily, I had earlier met Jackson Leap, a former collaborator with the late Harlan Howard ("I Fall to Pieces," "Tiger by the Tail"), with whom I cowrote a tune called "The Rules of Goodbye." Its publishers, music giant Zomba, insist the song is top-five material. Kathleen and I rounded up an unemployed bass player, Joe DeJarnette, and included "Rules" on a six-song demo CD. Off I went to Nashville to visit the legendary Fred Foster, who has produced Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, and most of the hits for the late Roy Orbison. One could almost taste the celebratory Pabst Blue Ribbons.

That being an election year, Mr. Foster and I started off talking politics. He had broken a lifetime policy of not working for a political candidate in order to assist George W. Bush ("We know Al Gore down here," he said, "and we know that many shouldn't be president"). Then we turned to music. Would he be interested in listening to a terrific singer? He had one question: "How old is she?" Around 42. "Nobody in this town will talk to a new woman singer over 30," he glumly reported. These are the days of music videos, and while Nashville may bill itself as a champion of family values, especially motherhood, a middle-aged woman doesn't cut it. "Mama tried," Merle Haggard once sang, but these days she'd better try somewhere other than Music City.


In times past we might have spent the rest of our days scratching out gigs on the Econo Lodge lounge circuit, but instead we set up Joe's MacIntosh computer and some microphones in my den, plugged in the latest recording software, and in fairly short order knocked out a 13-song disk of acoustic folk, alternative country, and jazz. Kathleen came up with a name — Floor Creak — in honor of the board that squeaked under our beer sherpa's steady foot. We chose Atlanta Music Group to press the disks. The first 1,000 cost around $1,400, after which the prices drops to around 90 cents per unit. For our distributor we chose CDBaby, who for a $35 created a website and ships each unit for $4.

And so we found ourselves in the stream of commerce, right alongside Dolly, Willie, Waylon and, as it turns out, a whole lot of other people. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, there were around 40,000 known CD releases last year alone. Jim Horan, an executive at Rounder Records, was encouraging about the quality of our disk but pointed out that about 95 percent of CDs sell less than 1,000 copies. "The problem is getting noticed," he said. "The Internet is a massive marketplace."

Suddenly, the pile of CDs in the garage started resembling a mountain — tall, and perhaps permanent. But Mr. Horan did have some good news. Mainstream music critics will listen to self-produced CDs, as opposed to literary critics, who will rarely if ever read a self-published book. This may be partly due to the widespread belief that the record industry habitually overlooks worthy artists. "The $14 billion recording industry, struggling through its first sales slump in a decade, faces challenges on several fronts," USA Today recently chirped, "not the least of which is a tarnished image in the eyes and ears of fans who feel ripped off by greedy, tone-deaf bean counters." Mr. Horan added that that listening to a CD doesn't take nearly as long as reading a book.

Radio is also open to self-recorded music — at least at a certain level. While mega-chains such as Clear Channel are out of the picture, a backlash among smaller stations, including those on the AM band, has made room for locally produced material. European radio, meanwhile, is highly receptive; stations in the Netherlands and Germany asked for copies of our disk the week it became available. Then there are regular Americans, such as Dana Adler of Philadelphia, who sent her review via e-mail: "I have never been so instantly stunned by a real audio clip. What a voice!" She even offered to get us gigs.

Well, why not? That may be the surest way for independents to at least recoup their losses. New York Press writer John Strausbaugh reports that a band who signs with an established label might sell 200,000 copies of an album yet end up owing the label money to cover recording costs. Better off is the entrepreneur who hawks his self-produced CD on the road and "goes back to his motel every night with cash in his pocket."

Going on the road at a certain age should also provide some uniquely entertaining moments. My recent diagnosis of sleep apnea means I hit the rack each night hooked up to a CPAP machine (an air pump connected to a face mask) which may convince any would-be groupies they had stumbled into the Intensive Care Unit. Their shrieks may prove priceless — and could qualify them to sing backup on our sequel CD. As for the matter of "Kerching!" is must be acknowledged that there is no greater reward than pursuing a dream. Kerching is ever a joyful noise, even if it's on your own dime.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from central Va. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, Dave Shiflett