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Star Factory

Mark Graham

Caroline Dingwall has her game face on. Perched before the piano in a mirrored practice room, the 12-year-old's intent gaze hides her inexperience as a performer. She stretches her fingers gently across the keys, playing the opening notes to John Lennon's "Imagine." You'd be forgiven if you suppress a cringe: Bubbly pre-teens simply were not meant to sing about having no possessions, no need for greed or hunger and no religion too.

But amazingly, as Caroline churns through the plodding chords, the song comes to life. The yellow-blond girl closes her eyes while she sings and instinctively makes eye contact when emphasizing key phrases. She shakes her head slightly at the chorus. Watching her, you'd believe this little girl could tell you, in all seriousness, that you may say she's a dreamer, but she's not the only one.

Across the room, her vocal coach, Linda Septien, smiles approvingly. Caroline has successfully "sold" the song. It's a skill she's honed during more than a year and a half of intensive training at the Septien Vocal Studio in Addison, where she's learned the elements of commercial pop performance: using delicate vocal inflections and slipping in timed gestures to turn every song into a show.

Does Caroline think she'll make it big?

"Of course I do. There's no doubt," she says.

And mentor Linda Septien stands behind her product. She's spent the past six years developing a "master class" vocal performance and artist development program for kids like Caroline--an exclusive star factory where, each year, 15 kids ages 9 to 17 will learn to sing, dance, play instruments and perform anywhere that will have them. Placing these raw talents on her assembly line, Septien, a classically trained singer, molds and shapes them into marketable musical product. She claims 100 percent success in getting her master-class students signed to song-publishing contracts or development deals, and her young charges--such as 13-year-old Paige Velasquez--routinely blow away the competition in local talent showcases.

"If you had somebody all day long telling you how to be onstage," says Septien, in her Louisiana-infused accent, "how to sing, how to songwrite...you'd be pretty good too." Reclining in front of tens of thousands of dollars worth of vocal recording equipment in her Addison studio, she laughs a little. "You'd be pretty dumb if you weren't."

Septien will tell you, in fact, that anyone can make it in music. All it takes is a million dollars. And she ought to know. She spent years grooming Jessica Simpson for stardom, teaching her voice lessons and corraling investors to fund her promotion. After Ryan Cabrera trained in her program, Septien sent him to Jessica's father and manager, Joe Simpson, who turned him into an overnight success. Septien's program is geared toward commercial success any way you can get it, no apologies offered. Her students value Septien for her honesty, her acknowledgment that music is a business; they're here to make it big, not toil for years in basement bands.

She's comfortable talking about the flaws of former students Ashlee and Jessica Simpson. Ashlee, she says, "can't sing." And Jessica, she adds, shouldn't have gone for the sexy look to sell more records. Septien also acknowledges that parents need a significant amount of money to keep their kids in her master class, which can cost up to $1,500 a month.

More than anything else, though, Linda Septien speaks bluntly about the fact that each student is a product to be sold in the increasingly commercial market of the music industry.

"If they have talent, if they do have a product to sell...then they become merchandise," she says.

That merchandise is packaged for sale according to formula--and the good news for her students, Septien says, is that she's cracked it. From the basics of style for singing rock, pop and R&B to the right photos and endless live performances at festivals, fairs and venues like the Hard Rock Café, Septien's "complete turn-key operation" offers anyone with enough funding and dedication all the essentials to launch a career.

Master-class students spend hours each week with Septien, perfecting their future pop persona. At the end of their program, they'll face 24 judges in a showcase at Maximedia Studios in North Dallas. Most of them will perform original songs, live, with a backing band or on their own instruments.

By that time--if they follow just a few simple rules--they'll be on their way to the prestigious world of E! True Hollywood Story, tabloid covers and, hope of all hopes, a reality television show to seal the deal.


Rule No. 1: Don't be old, fat or missing a limb.

Christina Aguilera didn't become a pop star and then become a total babe; she was able to become a pop star because she was a total babe. If that's kind of obvious, it does put an important qualification on Septien's million-dollar assertion.

 

"You like pretty people onstage that work perfectly," she says. "That's the sad part about our industry."

Any kind of physical oddity will kill a career before it ever gets off the ground. It's hard enough to get people to appreciate a new singer without having to battle issues about appearance--particularly if the issue is one that isn't going to change, like having a missing limb. One girl, in fact, who auditioned for Septien's classes had only one arm--something that will prevent her from achieving national success. "Her voice is incredible," Septien says. "But the likelihood of her getting a deal is zero, probably. Truth is, unfortunately, she would become more about her one arm than her music. It would overshadow."

Record companies might sign the girl to a regional deal if they see the potential for a strong local following.

"That does work," Septien says. "Sad? Yeah. But it's the truth."

Even if you're fortunate enough to have all limbs intact, it's important to be slim and toned, with few exceptions. The only hope for overweight artists, Septien says, is black gospel, where it's a basic requirement. Jesus may love you no matter what you look like, but Septien says gospel fans put their faith in persons of size.

"The only [overweight girls] that are allowed are in black gospel," she says. All others are required to maintain a healthy body weight through exercise and diet. Otherwise, she says, "You're probably not going to be disciplined to do what it takes [to be a pop star]."

Easy to say for a 52-year-old woman who has a body Britney Spears would kill for today, let alone 25 years from now. But even Septien falls victim to the industry standards for appearance, noting on more than one occasion that she could stand to lose 10 pounds, though from where, exactly, it is hard to tell. But looking good is part of her job. When the Dallas Observer asked to photograph Septien for this article, her assistant, in dutiful public relations mode, initially demanded to review our pictures before they were published. Careers, the assistant said, depend on her image.

Conforming to an established norm is a vital part of getting the public behind an artist. "Perception, in our industry, is everything," Septien says.

The scrutiny of tabloid magazines and the unforgiving 10 pounds added by the camera are a constant threat, but 15-year-old Annie Dingwall has little to worry about. With the long body of a ballerina and an airy, haunting voice, Annie has a pretty, sweet smile accented by delicate features and fluttery eyes. She even writes her own music.

As she sits down at the practice-room piano, tossing long strands of blond hair behind her shoulder, Annie is a shining example of what three years of serious training and natural talent can produce. Her original song is called "Fade," and if she didn't briefly break character when feeling out a few unfamiliar chords, anyone would think Annie was reliving three minutes of intense emotional loss. She sings with a sense of earnestness that would capture scores of her female peers as fans, convinced that they, too, are as heartbroken and alone as Annie was when the song was composed. But as much as her audience will want to feel alongside her, they will also want to look like her.

At 12 years old, Annie's sister, Caroline, has an entirely different vibe. Built for Broadway, the "Imagine" singer exudes a distinct air of performance at all times. Far from mirroring her older sister's lanky grace, Caroline has a shorter, thicker figure suited more for basketball--she's a member of her school's team--than ballet. But it's obvious she's taken every word Septien has told her about presentation to heart, and nowhere is that more apparent than in her publicity photos.

In front of the camera, Caroline shines. Her smile, somehow captured at just the right moment every time, is wide and easy. Dressed in a thigh-length tank top and jeans, Caroline leaps, stretches and extends her body in all directions. Forget the fact that she's shorter and rounder than her older sister; she seems to be saying she's too cute to care. Annie's photos, on the other hand, are artistic but lack Caroline's vivaciousness. A born performer, Caroline sings her songs the way she poses for pictures.

What Caroline did with "Imagine," Septien says later, is the key to her commercial method: selling the song and learning to sell it young. Septien won't take first-time master-class kids in the final stages of puberty. It's important that when the kids finally do break into the mainstream, they're not too old for their target demographic.

 

If the kids start at 9 or 10, then, "At 16 we start pushing them to get their style together, and we start marketing them to labels." And they'd better have their image nailed down, because it's a hard sell after that point. "They have to develop an audience just like Coke or Pepsi or cigarettes or anything," Septien says. "You develop an audience at a young age, no matter if it's a good or bad product, so young kids can grasp that and say, 'Hey, I like Guess jeans.' You put it in their heads. It's just brainwashing."


Rule No. 2: Pick a genre, any genre.

Early one Saturday morning, 10-year-old Maddie Smith is waiting in the studio lobby for Septien's son to arrive to teach her songwriting. To pass the time and, of course, to perform for a few potential fans, Maddie takes out her guitar and rests it on a knee peeking out from underneath a pair of factory-torn jeans. A mature, velvety voice floats out of her throat as she performs singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers' tune "The Captain." The lyrics aren't exactly "Oops, I did it again."

Well, I don't have as many friends because I'm not as pretty as I was;

I've kicked myself at times because I've lied,

So I will have to learn to stand my ground.

"My head just doesn't like candy pop," Maddie says later. "I don't like Britney Spears at all." With white-blond hair and striking blue eyes, Maddie would be an easy fit in the world of bubblegum and boys, but both she and Septien say she was meant for more alternative work. "We put her into rock from the very beginning," Septien says. "You know young what style they like."

Once a student's individual musical persona is established, they spend hours learning scales and vocal licks in that style only. Pop, for example, leans heavily on pure notes, while rock uses breathier tones. She teaches her students correct vocal techniques but always prompts them to sing any note that comes out of their mouths in the style they've chosen.

Septien herself got a late start in commercial music performance. She says she had years of instruction as an opera singer, performing with the New Orleans Symphony, where she got her start, and in Italy. In 1984, pregnant with her first child, the son of Dallas Cowboys kicker Rafael Septien--whom she later divorced--she found herself in Nashville, recording her first commercial demo. It was a gospel record to sell when she went on church tours with classical groups. She was sure her voice would blow her producers away.

"It was totally a terribly humbling experience," she says of her first few minutes in the studio. "I walked in...and sang the first line of this song, and the two producers just had this horrible look on their face. I kept thinking, 'Oh my gosh, they're in shock. I'm great.'"

But they told her she had "absolutely zero feeling. I'm thinking, 'Wow, you have to sell a song too.' I literally walked out and said I'm going to go find out how, darn it."

Septien "wrote copious notes" on how Bono and other rock stars conveyed feeling. After another stint on a classical tour, Septien decided she couldn't manage her young son and the touring life on her own. She decided to settle down and teach lessons, streamlining her techniques. Eventually that resulted in the master class she operates today. As a teenager, Jessica Simpson was one of the first kids to go through the master class.

"It wasn't what it is now," says Septien, who built up a repertoire of industry people in her quest to learn how to deprogram her classical education, establishing a name for herself as a commercial pop instructor. When Joe Simpson needed someone to help him break his little girl into the pop world, Linda Septien was there.

"Linda's like my second mom," Jessica told The Dallas Morning News in 2000. Said Joe Simpson, in the same piece, "Jessica's early voice was a lot lower. Linda helped her expand her range to six octaves...Linda helped Jessica craft her own voice."

There's more to a successful pop act than good vocals and good looks, though. If you want to be a shining star in the master class, Septien insists you do a lot more than just show up for private voice lessons one or two hours a week. And, since you're probably not old enough to drive or else you won't be at prime selling age once your record deal goes through, you'd better find a dedicated parent or two.

 


Rule No. 3: Don't be an orphan.

Deborah Dingwall, the chatty, outgoing mom of Annie and Caroline, has driven 800 miles this week, carting her kids around with the incredible energy of a woman who has nothing else on her mind but making sure her offspring get exactly what they want. Right now, that means 20 or 30 hours of extracurricular activities a week.

Weekdays, Annie has to be carried from the Dingwall home in Plano to Oak Cliff, where she attends Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts. Then, Caroline must be dropped off back at her private school in the northern suburbs. After that, it's a juggling act between basketball practices, dance classes and flying up and down the Tollway to Addison Circle and the Septien Vocal Studio. Somewhere in there, Dingwall's teenage son has to be dealt with. But despite a few reservations about her kids' ride on the fast track to fame, Dingwall is dedicated to helping them along the way.

"If that's what you want, let's find a way to do it," Dingwall says she told her kids when they expressed an interest in music. Annie started out in group lessons with other teachers at the studio before being invited to audition for the master class. The program isn't for the casual user; kids spend hours each week in acting, songwriting and instrumentation lessons as well as voice. If they have other interests, as Annie does with 12 hours a week of ballet classes or Caroline with after-school athletics, those things get squeezed in the spaces in between.

Supervising the squeezing is Dingwall, who could probably list the driver's seat of her Suburban as a secondary address. Her extroverted personality has the potential to make her the managerial type of mom suited to the role of the dreaded stage parent. During Caroline's practice run on "Imagine," the 12-year-old kept pluralizing "sky," and like an echo, her mom would anxiously correct her in a whisper. Throughout Annie's lesson, Dingwall constantly buzzed in with a fact or two about her oldest daughter's schedule or inclination toward the maudlin. But there's a fine line between involved and controlling, and Dingwall's daughters make a good case for being motivated all on their own.

"I am planning on winning Grammys," Annie says over tea and ice cream at an Addison coffee shop. "I want to win as soon as possible."

Caroline would rather make her fortune on Broadway. With her brash personality, she might be better suited to it, openly admitting with a broad smile that she "kind of like[s] attention."

Ironically, a conversation about fame and dedication dissolves into a joint effort at the Macarena by both sisters. It's a goofy, innocent act, but it brings to mind something Deborah Dingwall said a couple of weeks earlier: "This whole thing scares me." It's not like all those Behind the Music episodes are great PR for the music industry. There is real pain involved.

Even Maddie Smith, for all her 10-year-old energy and enthusiasm, knows firsthand what professional burnout feels like. Sitting at the same table in the same coffee shop where the Dingwalls talked about their dreams a few days before, she has a rare moment of seriousness.

"One time I was so busy I just cried in bed," she says. She rambles about the time when she was performing with the Dallas Opera: "Practice was over at 11 on school nights, and it took us an hour to get home, so we didn't get home until like midnight."

Maddie's mom, Kimberly Smith, shifts uncomfortably in her chair. She is constantly trying to keep a close watch on her daughter's unpredictable mouth, murmuring quiet, frustrated repetitions of Maddie's name before she can get a word in.

"She was just overwhelmed," Smith says. "We realized we had to restructure some things." The pretty, demure redhead seems a little frazzled by her daughter's constant, unpredictable energy, as well as her raw talent. "I don't know where she gets it," Smith says. "She probably knew 100 nursery rhymes by the time she was 2."

Maddie signed up at the studio at age 7 and moved quickly from group classes to the master program. While the program is "a lot of money" at $60 to $85 an hour, Smith says, it's worth it.

"She makes the choices," Smith says of Maddie. "If I had to hound her to practice, we wouldn't be doing it."

"If I didn't want to be famous," Maddie says, "I wouldn't be taking [lessons] here." But she also aspires to maybe be a lawyer or a forensic detective, just "not the kind that does the body parts, just fingerprints."

 

But even if moms and dads--and when it comes to carting kids around, it's mostly moms--can afford $1,000 or more in lessons each month, there's bigger money at stake when it comes to doing what Septien calls "popping" an artist: catapulting them from regional successes like performing at football games to establishing a spot on the CD racks at Best Buy. If Annie and Caroline Dingwall want to achieve the fame they dream of, they're going to need a lot more money than most families have stashed away for a rainy day.


Rule No. 4: Convince someone to give you a million dollars. Every year. For as long as it takes.

The magic number of $1 million isn't up for negotiation when it comes to advising her students whether to accept a record deal. Record companies have to be willing to "put a seven-figure digit to it," Septien says. Without a million, "they're not going to make it" in the mainstream pop world. Septien defines making it as finding a record label "sold enough to put enough money into that artist."

While Septien helps her master-class students get exposure to big-name labels, she never takes a cut of their signing deal or anything beyond the basic rates for lessons. "We have never, ever taken a percentage off them," she says. One of Septien's main activities is securing investors for her students, something she did for Jessica Simpson.

"One of our investors funded her for five years to make it work for her," Septien says. She's talking about sports mogul Tom Hicks, who still funds some of Septien's professional students. Septien, who already had a degree in music, says she went back to school at SMU to take courses in finance so she could better understand the business side of the music industry.

There's just no shortage of expenses. There are the basics of 12-song album construction, from studio time and photography to production and engineering but also tours and advertising. With thousands of talented artists competing for the public's attention, the kid with the biggest pocketbook behind him usually wins, Septien says. There's no guarantee that one year will do the trick, however. Most of the time, it takes a lot longer. But with enough money, she says, it will eventually work.

"The truth is, you could be a star if they put $2 million worth of advertising into you and put you on television every day," Septien says. "If you think about it, you don't even have to have talent."

Even when she comes across a kid with genuine talent, Septien says, it can take $100,000 just to get them to a major deal. That's where her in-house label and development comes in. When she feels like she's got a good thing going with a student, she'll sign them for herself. "We don't have that [money]," Septien says. "I have to get it." Luckily, she adds, "People like the music industry.

"You tell investors, 'Hey, you're going to lose all your money. It's not a good business. You won't like the artist after a while, because they'll get cocky. She may never make it. Now do you still want to do it?'" The answer, Septien says, is frequently "yes," despite an incredibly low overall success rate for artists starting out in the industry. She says 80 percent of people who try never make it big.

"It's a sexy business...but the main thing is, you're probably going to lose everything." At this point in her spiel, the investors are "kind of laughing," Septien says. "Would you be better in the stock market? Absolutely," she tells them. "And they still do it."

Septien views her success in signing her kids to record labels with a certain degree of nonchalance, given the overall odds of making it. "The truth is...that's not really a feather in anyone's cap," she says. "If you know the formula, you can do it."

Once the funding is secured, it's relatively easy to come up with a professional-sounding recording. Right now, Septien has kept four of her master-class students, including her 21-year-old son Remington, on her in-house label. Thanks to investor funding, endorsement deals and her own expertise, Remington appears to be on the brink of fame. He's being marketed with former Guess model Erik Neff as part of the world's first "hunk rock star" duo.

Septien brings up Remington's tracks on the computer housed in her studio. Three flat-screen monitors display an array of Pro Tools audio editing and production software. She clicks the play button, and a wall of heavily produced sound permeates the room. Every guitar--and it sounds like there are several--is perfectly tuned, along with Remington's powerful, multitracked rock vocals. Septien, and just about every other recording artist in mainstream music, uses "plug-ins" that filter and mold the recorded voice into a smooth, slick product. It's a trick her students are well aware of, including Maddie Smith, who says that "I could be the worst singer in the world, and Linda could make me sound good." There are allowances for pitch in addition to myriad extras that can make a voice sound like it was recorded in different environments, from hallways to bathrooms.

 

"These are all things that make Ashlee Simpson sound perfect," Septien yells over the music. "All that stuff. It's for the voice to create a style that when you hear it, you go, 'That's Erik Neff's voice.'"

Erik and Remington have spent years together creating their own individual and combined identities. In the next few weeks, they'll be traveling to New York City to perform for A&R representatives and filming raw footage for a reality television pilot Linda hopes will air on MTV. "We had a great idea, and we wanted to try it with these two great hunk rock stars," she says. They all hope the reality show will be a major factor in breaking the two musicians. After all, reality television has been proven to make marginal stars household names.

"It's a Nick-and-Jessica-type thing," says Remington, whose sound is typical mainstream rock in the vein of Nickelback or Three Doors Down. His look is boyish and cute, with a hint of his father's Latin ancestry. Erik's voice, on the other hand, has more of an alternative feel that takes hints from the repertoire of Gwen Stefani's husband and former Bush frontman (and fellow pretty boy) Gavin Rossdale.

"The reason why [Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey's reality show, Newlyweds] worked is because they were always butting heads," Remington says. Their contrasting dynamic is more than apparent in the guys' joint vocal lesson. Tall and muscular, Erik and Remington dwarf their petite teacher in her familiar place at the piano. They're working on harmonizing their scales, but there's just something about it they both find funny at the moment, and laughter is keeping them from completing their sets.

"Stop looking at me!" Remington says, shoving his partner to the side. Erik's retort: "You stop looking at me!"

Linda orders the two to look each other in the eye while singing. After a couple of false starts, they manage it. It would be, admittedly, the kind of reality-show moment that MTV's female teenage audience would find hilariously entertaining.

Remington's confidence in their product is unwavering.

"We're going the easiest commercial way," he says. "The only thing that keeps us from getting anywhere is God himself."

But Remington believes in his mom's reputation and knowledge of what works in the industry: the hard sell.


Rule No. 5: Whore yourself out. In a nice way.

There are only four major record labels left in the modern era of media conglomeration--Universal, Sony BMG, EMI and Warner Music Group--and untold numbers of musician hopefuls clamoring for their attention. As such, the big four have become the equivalent of very picky johns, cruising a never-ending strip of artists desperate to get into their deep pockets. Musicians have to make a lasting first impression if they're going to get a big label to pick them up. In order to ensure that her kids do that, Septien ships them off to "retreats," going as far as Los Angeles, where they meet music and film industry people who teach them how to act, how to look, how to get heard and who to be when bigwigs and media types come calling.

"We try to make them nice," says Septien, laughing. "We kind of brainwash them. First of all, appreciate the person on the other side. Gosh, are we all just nothing because we're not onstage?" She tries to focus them on a "Hugh Grant" persona where they "laugh everything off."

Later, there are lessons in appearance. "As they learn, then we go into the style of clothing." The key, Septien says, is not to overdress. She has a "no froufrou, no sequin, no lace" rule for pop singers, and rock acts "have to look like they've come off the streets."

Later, during a lock-in on the weekend of their final showcase performance, each student takes several hours each day to rehearse their songs with the live band they'll play with at the showcase. Some kids just need to hone their timing, but others will be playing instruments and have to know how to follow the musicians. Most of the kids will be performing original tunes. Before the show, Septien says, she "[wires] their brains so that everybody out there does not matter. You start singing for you and God."

 

Ultimately, though, the students in the master class are in it to make a living. "Too many talented people play in smoky bars," Erik says. "People more talented than we are. We're learning the business side of music."

In her marketing plan for the guys, Septien mentions endorsement deals with companies like Samsung and Erik's former employer, Guess. There's no overriding indie sensibility here; she plans on breaking these two guys in a big way.

"[Musicians'] bodies are commodities. I'm selling my body." She pauses. "In a healthy way."

Selling an image is just as important as having a phenomenal piece of recorded music to vend. Ashlee Simpson is a fine example. Early on, she asked Septien what kind of music she should sing. Her reply: "Very alternative stuff. She doesn't have the voice that Jessica does. But she's very entertaining."

Once each student's image and act are refined to tip-top form, the showcase is, as Annie Dingwall says, "like a final exam." After months, and in some cases, years, of training, they'll get onstage and have two songs to sell to the audience. Two songs to sum up everything they've learned about pitch, style, performance, entertaining, presentation...the list goes on and on.

This year, Septien's master-class students will walk onstage at the expansive black-box performance space at Maximedia Studios and look out at an audience of friends and, to some degree, enemies. Judges can be blunt, Septien says, and if a kid doesn't do well, they need to take into account what was said and fix it next year, if they can--and if their parents have the money.

"Judges either slice them apart or tell them they're great," Septien says. This year, she says, "it may not happen," but "these [kids] are all going to be artists." If they're not, well, Linda Septien just isn't doing her job.


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