The Angels' Share

It's only a CD-R with a self-adhesive label and computer-generated inserts, but it's what the major record labels are really scared of.

No, I'm not talking about downloaded MP3s of the latest pop hits, or pirated music stolen by offshore crooks and manufactured in the tens of millions. It's an "instant record," recorded in an afternoon at a professional studio and released a week later by the artist him- or herself. It will never qualify as platinum—or even gold—and it scares the pants off the major labels. But if truly is the future, then the majors aren't needed.

This all started at the gym. I kept running into Andy Gravish, a professional jazz trumpeter, in the sauna or steam room. We'd idly talk about where he was playing, music we liked, and mutual friends. On September 24, he told me he'd just recorded a disc; one week later, he handed me a CD.

Now, that's what you call an instant record! I took the disc home, brewed a pot of coffee, cued the first track, and very nearly did a classic coffee-spewing double take. New York/Rome Hook-Up is good. Actually, it's great. It sounds liquid, relaxed, and precise, and the playing is extraordinary. It's not "almost as good" as a major-label release. It's better.

I'm not saying that just anyone could have pulled this off. Andy's a working musician who has been playing professionally since he was 12. And the disc wasn't recorded in a project studio, but at Jim Clouse's Park West Studios (bandol@aol.com), which offers a full range of facilities, including leak-proof isolation chambers and a panoply of microphone choices.

There's a reason New York/Rome Hook-Up sounds so good: It features great players and was recorded with care by an engineer who is committed to excellence. (Clouse: "I don't record with any compression—or even a limiter. I don't like squishing anything unless a rock group says, 'We want the vocalist to sound like a little gnat.' ") The band recorded the entire disc in about five hours, Clouse and Gravish spent about three hours mastering the final product, and it was in my hands within a week of the time the group walked into the studio.

For $10 plus S&H, you can have one too.

That's what has the major labels running scared. Ten bucks doesn't leave any money for the middlemen—no agents, no label executives, no record stores, no promoters—but Andy reckons he can reach people who like his music and still make a couple of ducats on the deal.

"I've had friends asking me when I would do a record for years," he told me. "But I don't have a lot of spare cash, and I'd look at them hustling to get on labels so they could release records that would get them booked into clubs with a $15 cover charge, and I'd think, I'm already playing in those places. Why go broke to boot?"

Technology has changed the cost of admission to the record business. It doesn't take hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up a studio that produces great-sounding recordings any more. You don't need a record label fronting you a six-figure advance to record.

In the October 13, 2003 installment of his "This Media Life" column in New York magazine, Michael Wolfe argues that the biggest threat to the record labels and movie industry is the change that has occurred in the distribution chain: "Movie studios and music companies achieved their wealth and monopoly because they offered a more efficient distribution system." Peer-to-peer sharing, he argues, puts big media in the same position as Detroit, the schmata business, or the steel industry—it's not lack of consumer loyalty that's killing them, "simply, somebody else is doing [the] job cheaper and better."

Up to a point, I agree. The Internet has certainly made distribution universal, even affordable. And yes, there is the whole downloading thing. But that's not the whole story.

It's not just changes in distribution or digital shoplifting that have altered the landscape. The big change is the lowered cost of the means of production—which can have a huge impact on the purity of intent. Andy Gravish made a superior-sounding disc of tuneful, elegant jazz because that was his only agenda, and because he could afford the services of Park West Studios, which is capable of producing a master that is technologically indistinguishable from the product of a million-dollar studio.

It's not that Sony isn't capable of doing that—it can, if it wants to. But Sony can't make money on it—not in the quantities Andy will sell. Because of that, Sony couldn't afford that simplicity of intent—it would have to consider the commercial implications, and that would mean that Andy would have to produce a very different disc. Or, more likely, not produce one at all.

Because the big boys must generate immense sales numbers, they tend to play to the lowest common denominator. Individual musicians now have the means to release the records they want and get them directly to the people who want them—which means the musicians can create recordings of music they are passionate about, rather than records they hope won't offend anyone. I know which type of music I want to hear—and support.

If it cost everyone what it costs a major record label to produce a disc, it wouldn't be possible for a cappella men's chorus Cantus to release Deep River (Cantus CTS-1203), or Analogue Productions' Chad Kassem to produce his Acoustic Sounds recordings, or any number of independent labels to essay any projects. In that sense, I think this new paradigm of music distribution and production completely adheres to the high-end ethos: Remove the conventional commercial considerations and what's left is the angels' share.

That may be really scary for big music, but it's great news for all of us music lovers.



Footnote: Wes Phillips, a frequent contributor to Stereophile, writes about stereo and home theater at onhifi.com and onhometheater.com.
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