By Melissa Fossum
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By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
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Oh, foolish, foolish record industry! You could've saved yourself once — maybe twice over — if only you had you listened to forward-thinkers like Otto D'Agnolo.
In 2005, the producer/owner of Chaton Recording Studios wrote a slim volume, The Music Business Is Burning Down, Thank God, in which he foreshadowed with Nostradamus-like accuracy the continued downward spiral of CD sales and major-label artists reclaiming their master recordings, cutting the labels out of the revenue stream completely, and their need to find cross-marketing platforms to give away music. Any of this sounding familiar to you? Every chicken-heart policy that you, the recording industry, instituted to maintain your greedy status quo has come home to roost. Even vinyl, that format you thought was left for dead in the '90s with the advent of the now-cratering compact disc, had an increase of 14 percent in 2010. Nice work, pally!
Though the calamity might have its roots in corporate avarice, the brave new world we're stuck with now is everybody's problem. The artist has to promote and record his music with no money, while labels make less money gambling on full-length albums and take fewer chances on new talent. The professional recording studios' troubles fall directly in between the two.
For reasons rooted in both altruism and self-preservation, D'Agnolo has devised a different business model that potentially can benefit all three participants: www.therecordingartist.com, a website and performance-based reality show that he soft-launched in July, one that slowly is building support locally.
The premise? Every Wednesday, from 7 to 10 p.m., a different band is invited to the studio to record one song, with the entire session streamed live on the Internet. The resulting song is then mixed the next day in a two-hour session and given away free to monthly subscribers of www.therecordingartist.com. The artist walks away with a free, professionally recorded master that they can give away or sell on iTunes in exchange for allowing TRA to give the song away to the show's subscribers.
Who makes money from this and how? Let's follow the money down its revenue stream. D'Agnolo, sitting at a 110 input Otari Series 54 recording console few home recorders could afford, says, "In this model, the fan gets free music after paying for access to webcast recording sessions [currently, the monthly subscription is about the price of a double latte, $5.99]. The studio makes money directly from the fan base and then pays the band (or label) to come into the studio and record. This model promotes the survival of large-format professional recording studios that look and sound good on camera. It also promotes talented performers over untalented 'made in the studio' bands because these sessions are live on-line." D'Agnolo even has plans to open up the show to other big recording studios in the Valley, should this webcast catch on.
What about the poor, poor major labels, you ask?
"The answer for the label," says D'Agnolo, "is to quit selling records and start selling something people will buy [merch, tickets, memberships] and give them the music free."
It's a method that artists already are employing on their own, without labels' help. As Billy Bragg told The Observer last year, "I've recently recorded half a dozen new songs — and I gave them away on my website. Meanwhile, I've got six different types of T-shirt that I sell for about £20 [each] when you add in postage. I have to say I sometimes wonder what business I'm in."
Thus far, Sugahbeat, Jenny Jarnagin, The Regretting Man, Brian Chartrand, The Black Moods, The Sahnas Brothers, Jadi Norris, and yours truly (you can see a video documenting my session on New Times' music blog, Up on the Sun) have been willing participants.
Some bands, like Sugahbeat, have figured out even more cross-promotional juju. Not only did Fox 10 News cover the session, but local businesses Tee Pee Tap Room and Arcadia Tavern catered the event.
"Otto mentioned that when the cameras focused on what the band was snacking on, the interaction with the online audience always spiked," says singer Katherine Reckling, who co-founded Sugahbeat with her husband, Mark.
Factoring in eats, a newscaster, additional horns, and percussion overdubs, Katherine was left with roughly 15 minutes to nail down an acceptable vocal track. Enter nail-biting drama, the kind of thing that reality television shows — perennially popular, by the way — thrive on.
"I hadn't been concerned about the cameras until that," says Reckling. "I made mistakes on a couple parts [during] the first two tries and started to get a panicky feeling about the timeline. I didn't like where the camera guy was — it was distracting, so I finally asked him to move. Then I heard Otto say we had tons of time left — a whole four minutes! That's when it struck me that it was humorous, fun, and live. So I told myself, 'This is it. Go for it, sister.'" Adding to the sports-like atmosphere of the session, D'Agnolo and the whole band charged into the studio for hugs and huddles once she finished with time left on the clock.
The live aspect of this proposition coaxes more of a performance from musicians thanperhaps the tranquil atmosphere of a recording studio usually allows. Jenny Jarnagin, who has recorded numerous album projects already at Chaton Studios with D'Agnolo producing, suddenly had to deal with that new reality that people would be watching and video would be recorded.
"I no longer had the mindset of 'Oh, well, we can take as many passes as I want to get it right.' Sucking was not an option," she says. "I had planned on recording a cute little quasi-mellow song. Then I watched the other acts and decided that I'd better write something more biting and exciting. That was the birth of [a new song] 'I Tossed the Keys to Your Heart.'"
Many of The Recording Artist's initial sessions featured singer-songwriters and jazz-oriented ensembles. Tempe power trio The Black Moods were the first hard-rock band to do the show, and that change in musical dynamic led to more reality than usual.
It was high-tension stuff: There was singer Joshua Michael Kennedy's near spit take after sipping a drink he assured the home audience was iced tea. There was the F-bomb that tested D'Agnolo's "mute" button reflexes in the crowded control room. There was the extended entourage of people in the studio that every rock band seems to command. And there was Kennedy's constant good-natured ribbing of drummer Chico Diaz, all contributing to a looser-than-loose atmosphere that still yielded a tight-sounding radio-friendly track "Sick in Bed," a song the Moods have been kicking around for a few years.
"The main difference in approach," Kennedy says, "is that we didn't do as many takes as you normally would. If it was done different, yeah, we would have just taken more time with it. It's definitely more of a live performance recording than an album cut, which I like a lot. We've never done it that way, really."
D'Agnolo didn't create this show to combat the rise of home studios — that's never going away, he says. But it does give people, even bands like Sugahbeat and The Black Moods, who have home-recording facilities, a reminder of what working with a professional brings to a project. Even for the musicians involved, it can sometimes be difficult to hear the same song for three hours straight without wanting to kill someone. The professional can hear that song new every time — and has the ear to tell you what listeners are going to be looking for.
Members of bluesy rock band The Regretting Man — despite a name that might suggest unavoidable disappointment and self-criticism — wouldn't change much about their time at TRA.
"Maybe I got a little carried away in the dancing bit while cutting lead vocals," vocalist Jenny Jarnagin laughs.