Free Vanity

Rarely has revenge been served colder than the frozen shit sandwich the record industry has been served. Two decades after forcing the record-buying public into accepting the CD without once lowering its list price, people let it be known via iTunes that they just want the tracks they like, thanks. If they're even paying for them at all.

All this time, major record labels have been in passive denial over digital downloading. But now with their profit margin shrinking faster than the polar icecaps, they'd have been better served heeding marketing visionaries like Otto D'Agnolo, Valley record producer and owner of Chaton Recording Studio.

Three years ago, he wrote a book called The Music Industry is Burning Down — Thank God! In it, D'Agnolo foretold the current scenario and how the artist would cut record companies out of the equation completely. Now, he's putting his theories about the future of music distribution into practice with a metal band he's managing and producing called Vanity Tweak, fronted by 17-year-old singer Carly Gasbara, who adopted a name befitting a Bond villainess about a year ago.

But here's the weird part. In breaking this unknown act, D'Agnolo plans to give away more than half a million Vanity Tweak CDs without any thought to seeing a penny from sales of the music. Initially bundled into the 2007 "Tempe 12: Girls of the Pac 10" calendar, this three-track giveaway is just the opening salvo of a campaign that will make all Vanity Tweak tracks free, either bundled into sponsor-partnership swag bags or disseminated at any number of free concerts the group is doing. Is this any way to run a rock band anywhere but into the ground? And what's D'Agnolo's return on projected zero profits?

D'Agnolo grins like a guy who's obviously thought this over. He's not going to lose his studio if the 500,000 CDs don't reach their intended target. According to the Vanity Tweak official bio, the singer has a benefactor — a Buddhist cardiologist, Dr. Sudheer Gogte of Yuma, who says his sponsorship is "a small thing for one whose destiny is so clear." In truth, Gogte's investment is probably about what a record company might advance a new act, but the money goes straight to promotion rather than to lawyers. D'Agnolo's investment is all of his spare time — cowriting, co-management, producing, recording, and landing other sponsorship opportunities. During lunch at Gourmet House of Hong Kong, he muses that in today's music business, "Giving away music is becoming the price of doing business. Like Gourmet House gives away fortune cookies."

"When do you get the return on advertising?" he asks. "You never get it directly, [you] get it ultimately after you establish yourself as a brand. The CD [is] an advertising expense for merchandising and performing. That's the interface, like giving everybody the joystick so you can sell video games. We're about the artistry. At the same time, we're looking at all the different revenue streams that can be generated from the fans to the artist. I don't know an artist that makes his money through record sales."

In less turbulent times, like maybe the '90s, the unreleased Vanity Tweak debut CD wouldn't have been a hard sell to major labels. Fronted by a gutsy and photogenic young girl with an actual vocal range, angst-riddled lyrics, and heavy guitar, it would have been a perfect fit for MTV and classic rock-dominated radio. Hell, there's even a grunge cover of Derek and the Dominos' "Bell Bottom Blues" to cover all bases.

But these days, A&R men can lose their jobs signing a FedEx airbill. And they're still second-guessing what girls Carly's age want to hear and not giving it to them. Truth is, Carly was second-guessing what she should be singing until last year. At age 13, her mom brought her to Chaton for guidance. "I was singing jazz. A little off pitch, but [D'Agnolo] could tell I could sing," she says. "When I was 12. I was more into Christina Aguilera pop kind of stuff. So it's impossible to know who you are at 14."

She and D'Agnolo recorded several tracks in that vein and went as far as mastering them at Capitol before she decided she was sick of that sound. She moved toward Liz Phair fare, which she also ditched before arriving at the heavy metal gothic sound. Since the demographic for metal is college males, it was a shrewd move to get Vanity Tweak's name and music into the Tempe 12 calendar, which has a local circulation of 60,000.

The next step is breaking the band to a younger audience by staging free concerts at high school assemblies via a partnership with the Arizona Mental Health Association.

"I remember my favorite day in high school was when the Army came to my high school assembly with a rock band because they wanted to recruit us," D'Agnolo says. "I wouldn't have gone if they didn't bring the rock band. If you tell a kid to come to an assembly and talk about not killing yourself, he probably won't come. But bring in a band, give away a few CDs, and talk a little about mental health, [and] they'll come."

Since much of today's pop music seems to encourage self-absorption, co-dependency, and even suicidal behavior, it's fortunate that Vanity's songs fit the bill as far as reaching out to troubled teens.

"They were thrilled because she's expressing the anguish, but she's not saying, 'I have a mental problem,'" D'Agnolo says. "She's saying, 'These are the kinds of things you're going to come up against,' and offering them something they can relate to."

"The song I wrote about my uncle is about death, obviously," Vanity says. "He killed himself when I was young, so I wrote a song called 'The Day You Fell,' and it's about trying to deal with it and wanting answers and not being able to get them. And I gave a song about my brother, who was going through some tough times. Everyone has frustrations when you're growing up."

Was the AZ Mental Health Association ever concerned about the name Tweak resembling "tweek," the meth lab shorthand for killer speed?

"In the studio world, I've used that word for 30 years," D'Agnolo says. "We spell it right, they spell it wrong, and we're taking it back."

And, of course, no one's going to mistake this hard rock for Prince's first girl-group spin-off, Vanity 6. Which also comes up a lot less than you'd think. "I don't even know who that is," Vanity Tweak says. "Does she have a MySpace page?"

Sat., Feb. 7, 8 p.m., 2009
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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic