Facing the music

Local music exec's departure is a sign of better things than you might at first think

After almost four years of steering promising local bands through the straits and around the shoals of outrageous music-biz fortune, David Dennard--director of Crystal Clear's steve records label and president-for-life of his own Dragon Street Records--has quit his CC post and gone to work in Dallas as the graphics manager for Hutton Communications, a wireless and cellular systems distributor.

Normally, a shift of this sort represents the worst kind of sea-change for any creative scene--a major player packing it in and returning to the salt mines, the better to provide for his family. What other conclusions can be drawn other than that the business environment for local music is less than vital?

Truth be told, quite a few, and most of them can be seen as pointing to a promising trend in local music: the assumption of more responsibility by local artists for the production of their own music.

Actually Dennard--who came aboard steve in 1994 to run the then-new label for Crystal Clear owner Sam Paulos--had been monitoring an ever-narrowing window of economic opportunity for approximately two years with Paulos.

"The first year, you're starting up," Dennard explains by phone from his new office. "You have a lot of initial costs, but eventually we got to the point where we were saying that we'd give it another year and if things weren't better, we should probably sit down and rethink how we make records. With the increasing difficulty in getting meaningful radio airplay [two major taste-shapers--KDGE (94.5 FM) and KTXQ (102.1 FM)--have recently changed their formats, downplaying their once-major roles in spotlighting local talent] and increased touring and live-music expense, we found that we weren't able to compete with the major labels in the marketplace."

"The decision had two aspects," Paulos says in an earlier, separate interview. "First of all, David--with a wife and two kids--needed to make more money. Second, we were reviewing how profitable the label had been and discovered that financing multi-album deals--deals that involved putting $20,000 to $30,000 into an act and their album, then promoting and developing them--just wasn't paying off.

"In the last two or three years," Paulos says, "anybody putting out records has had to realize how bad sales are for everybody, and how much of a gamble it is. You can put out 10 records, and maybe one will make money for you. You just hope it's not your 10th release that does it, because you might not make it that far. Between recording and mastering an album, designing the art, initial manufacturing, staff costs, and outside promotions, you can easily spend around $24,000. In the end, you can have a great band and not even know it."

Both men found the expense of recording albums to be the cost item that could most easily be minimized. Crystal Clear is a rather large, confusing entity that has four primary facets: Crystal Clear Sound Recording Studio, which records and masters albums; Crystal Clear Sound Audio Manufacturing, which manufactures albums; Crystal Clear Sound Distribution, which gets albums to retail outlets; and steve, which is a local record label. Crystal Clear Sound has released albums by the likes of Ronnie Dawson, the Dixie Chicks, and Gene Summers; steve has release albums by the Soup, Buck Jones, and Centro-Matic Band. Dragon Street was Dennard's baby all the way, although his position as steve's boss put him in a good position to bid on anything steve passed on. "The best way to think of Crystal Clear is four independent companies, all of which I happen to own," Paulos explains, noting that if steve used CC Sound's facilities, they were billed--just as if the two weren't joined by a common owner. Paulos estimates that approximately 0.8 percent of CC's manufacturing end was devoted to his own acts.

The majority of Crystal Clear Sound's releases provided a model that looked better and better in light of steve's flagging revenues: already-completed works that the company merely licensed for distribution. "We really just provided the manufacturing," Paulos says, "without having to fund the whole process."

The appeal of that model was bolstered by the fact that Paulos and Dennard were seeing more and more competently put-together albums from potential customers, a trend already noted in the blues community by Dallas Observer writer Tim Schuller ["I made this!" October 23].

"It's a change in technology," Dennard claims. "A lot of things that people have been talking about in theory are coming to pass. People are making their own records, and they're coming out quite good."

Jack Ingram agrees. Both Dennard and Paulos mention Ingram--along with Jackopierce--as one of the first acts that showed up at their door with an album (in Ingram's case, his self-titled debut) already in hand. "It's so easy to make a record now," says the country artist, who got his start down in Deep Ellum playing at Adair's. "With an ADAT [Alesis Digital Audio Tape, an 8-track version of the popular 2-track medium] deck, you can hook it up to your computer and hey--there's your mixing board. You can make a good-sounding record in your living room if you, or someone you know, knows what buttons to push. It's hard work, but if you can borrow the [ADAT] deck, you can produce a tape for next to nothing with your friends."

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