Facing the music
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."
In fact, Crystal Clear has seen so many almost-finished albums that require only a final master--to give a recording what Paulos calls the "punch and glisten" that make a CD sound bright and immediate--that they've built a room onto their facility solely for that purpose.
"There's still a big difference between a pro studio sound and what you can do at home," Paulos says. "But where you spend a lot of money for a finite amount of time in the pro studio, at home you can take all the time you damn well please."
Indeed, in the late '70s, anybody with a four-track deck was regarded as a budding Brian Eno--or a technician at the very least. Now, it seems that almost everybody has at least an eight-track deck, and many folks boast garages or guest bedrooms with 16- or 32-track capabilities.
"There are three parts to making an album," Paulos explains. "Recording it, manufacturing and distributing it, and promoting it. You really can't distribute an album yourself, but the more of the other two parts you can do, the more likely an album will be profitable. The more sophisticated artists get, in terms of making their albums themselves, the more acts labels will be able to put out, because each label will be able to devote a smaller investment to each product. However, all that smaller portion will go to promotions--to working the record--because they won't have to spend in order to make the recording in their studio. Ultimately, labels will be able to have more artists and do more for them."
"More and more," Dennard says, "unless they're trying to reach a much larger audience, bands are getting to where they don't necessarily need record labels as anything but marketing entities, but the labels still end up with their name on the finished product."
Dennard also points out that the national and international environments are changing--growing leaner. "I was reading that last year there were something like 17,000 albums released," he says. "Only a tiny portion of those made any money. The average sales for a rock album was something like 15,000 units, which for us is cause to break out the cheap champagne. For the majors, however, that level doesn't even begin to pay the bills, but the majors have Michael Jacksons and LeAnn Rimeses and Led Zeppelin catalogs that can carry them through tons and tons of misses."
For smaller labels such as steve and Dragon Street, albums coming to them almost ready to press provide the answer to the music environment's increasingly narrow margins of error. "We'll still have contracts; we'll still have bands that we do a lot for," Paulos promises, "but there won't be as many. More frequently they'll just be licensed--or simply invested in--and hopefully, as a result, we'll be able to put out more music. I think that before we got into long-term contracts and paying for everything [at steve], we probably were both more successful and more profitable. We'll still get bands that are good but just can't make an album that they can deliver to you; however, we can enter into partnerships, like with a Rainmaker, a One Ton, or a Last Beat--people we already do manufacturing for."
Rather than cause for moaning and groaning about the sorry state of the music business, Dennard sees the changing situation at Crystal Clear as the next stage.
Jack Ingram agrees. "I don't think it's a sign of anything falling apart," he says, noting that Dennard still has his Dragon Street Records and that Crystal Clear's streamlined profile should benefit both the label and the local scene. "Nobody's gonna care about my music more than me, and nobody wants to lose money on something that's not so certain. I think it's gonna help Sam [Paulos] do even more good, put out even more music, 'cause he'll be working with people who care enough to come up with something worthwhile in the first place."
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Street Beat appreciates your e-mail tips, info and advice at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.
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