Behind their music

by George Varga | May 16, 2001
Behind their music Starting your own record label isn`t so difficult, as many musicians, music-lovers and entrepreneurs know from experience.

But sustaining a label and building it into a success requires a challenging combination of skill and tenacity, luck and pluck, artistic vision and business know-how.

It also requires a willingness to experiment and take risks, and to remain undeterred by the mistakes that have caused dozens of local labels to fail in the past decade alone.

Enter Audiophoric, SweetTone and Wet Cat Records, three independent San Diego area record companies that are determined to beat the odds.

Each has a different emphasis, with Wet Cat focusing on hardcore rap, SweetTone on R&B and pop, and Audiophoric on jazz, folk and a new, cutting-edge recording technology it hopes will revolutionize the industry. Launched earlier this year, Audiophoric is in a tony La Jolla, Calif., neighborhood, and boasts a six-figure operating budget and a staff of eight. The Wet Cat and SweetTone labels - which were founded in 1997 and 1998, respectively - are essentially one-man operations, though their budgets and marketing approaches differ greatly.

Convinced that a grass-roots campaign is the best way to achieve the street credibility essential to so much underground rap and hip-hop, Wet Cat`s maverick owner regularly sells his label`s new compilation release, "The Wet Cat Family Album," from the back of his van at swap meets and other locales.

Meanwhile, SweetTone - whose owner is also its sole artist - hopes to make an international impact, even without the resources of the high-powered Audiophoric.

Yet for all their differences, these three labels share several traits. Most notable is their devotion to their music, as well as a desire for that music to reach a bigger audience.

SOUND REVOLUTION

Audiophoric Records may be just a few months old, but the future already appears bright for this innovative label.

Its first two album releases - one by jazz sax great Harold Land, the other by rising young pianist Pamela York - are already being distributed internationally and via its sleek Web site (www.audiophoric.com).

Both have been favorably reviewed in major U.S. newspapers and such major music magazines as Jazz Times, and the label is poised to sign more artists soon, including a singer-songwriter who participated in Lilith Fair. Also looming are recording projects with jazz sax star Charles McPherson, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and cellist Eugene Friesen.

But Audiophoric is also gaining acclaim for the new technology it has introduced to make its albums.

Dubbed the M-phoric recording system, it was created by Kent Fuqua, 46, Audiophoric`s director of research and development. The M-phoric system enables Audiophoric to record and master its CDs without the need for equalization, compression or noise reduction.

Using this technology, Audiophoric was able to cut both the Land and York albums (which Fuqua engineered) live in the studio without any overdubs, though overdubbing can be done using the M-phoric system. Both albums were also made with just one recording device - which Audiophoric calls "sound capture technology" - that the label believes may replace traditional microphones.

The result, as heard on the Land and York albums, is rich, three-dimensional sound that can make listeners feel as if they are experiencing the music live.

"In terms of the structure of our business, we`ve created two separate units - one for technology and one for the record label - and that works great, as they complement each other so well," said David Philips, Audiophoric`s founder and head.

An avocational trumpeter, Philips, 48, is also the founder of David Philips & Associates, a 10-year-old consulting firm for new technology start-up companies, that is also based in San Diego. Audiophoric`s headquarters and recording studio are both housed in his elegant home, which sits on a quiet, tree-lined street a few blocks from the ocean.

"I don`t even think any of my neighbors know we`re here," Philips said with a smile. "When we`re doing recording sessions, someone sits outside to make sure nobody walks up and rings the doorbell."

Philips decided to start Audiophoric after being impressed by Fuqua`s audio-technology breakthroughs, which Audiophoric plans to license internationally to recording studios and record companies.

The label was incorporated last May, with the rest of last year devoted to "planning and brainstorming." A staff was hired, and the label was officially launched in January at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Audiophoric`s vice president of A&R (artists and repertoire) and artist relations is Dan Atkinson, 40. He was the program director for the La Jolla Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, and continues to serve as the Athenaeum`s jazz program coordinator. Atkinson`s previous relationships with Land and York, both Athenaeum performance veterans, helped Audiophoric sign both artists.

"In addition to the technological side, we`ve also radically attacked the way artists are paid, by awarding them royalties from the very first CD we sell," Atkinson said.

"If it wasn`t for the artist," Philips added, "there wouldn`t be a recording."

Other staffers include Kendall Bard, 30, who previously did free-lance video production work for Jewel and Steve Poltz, and Margaret Marshall, 25, an opera singer who is Philips` assistant for communications and production.

"I mentioned the M-phoric system to Jewel, and she came over here and tried it out," Bard said. "She was very impressed."

Fuqua nodded and beamed. "At the very least," he said, "we hope to educate audiophiles and recording studios that there is a better way. I hope we can reset standards and be the technology of the future. I started in this field when I was a kid, and I`m not done yet."

Philips and his staff have been promoting Audiophoric at high-profile audio and music-industry events around the country. They also plan to promote the company`s M-phoric system for film and computer use.

"The way I created this company, and the way it`s being run, are in some ways more like a technology start-up company. And that`s one of the reasons I think we`ve been so successful, so fast," Philips said.

"We`ve been in business for barely four months, and already have revenues and investors. We`ve done all this for just a few hundred thousand dollars, and we`re looking for the next round of investors. We`re doing fine, and are very confident we can move forward.

"And," he added with a grin, "we`re having an enormous amount of fun."

KEEPING IT REAL

Some of the nation`s biggest record labels spend lots of time and money to reach the young music fan in the street. That task is easier - and a lot less expensive - for Wet Cat, which takes its music directly to the streets.

"I make most of my sales out of the back of my 1985 Dodge van," said Wet Cat founder/owner/talent scout Nemo Larry, 29.

"I have two CD Walkmans, with two headphones each, so people can come over and check the album out. And if they like it, they get it."

On a normal business day, Nemo (as he is professionally known) will park his van at a local swap meet or in front of a high school. They are the ideal settings for the industrious Cleveland native to sell copies of his self-produced "Family Album," which was released April 1.

"Paydays are the best time; I`ve sold 30 copies on a payday," Nemo said.

Designed to showcase fresh, young talent (and modestly subtitled: "No. 1 Underground Rap Album"), "Family Album" features songs by a half-dozen hip-hop acts. They include Spook Lute, Shoney Bo, Jack Dee and a promising rap duo, Young Blaze, which features Daniel "`Lil" Brown, 14, and Lamont "Quiji" Madyun, 15. The duo has drawn comparisons to top-selling rap group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.

"Nemo originated Young Blaze," said Brown, a ninth-grade student. "He showed us that it`s about more than just rapping, and he made us sound tighter."

Madyun, also a ninth-grader, agreed.

"Nemo helped us through some rough times, and he put up the money for our studio time. He`s our manager, and he`s really showed us what the rap game is about."

Young Blaze will be featured more prominently on the second volume of "Wet Cat Family Album," which is due out June 29. The Wet Cat label was created - initially under a sexually suggestive name - by Nemo in 1997, when he was a member of the local rap trio XES.

The group`s debut release, the self-titled CD single "XES," earned local air play on San Diego radio station Jammin` Z90 and attracted attention for its novel packaging, which included a condom. The single was followed by the 1999 compilation album "XES (pronounced as SEX)," which also featured such local hip-hop acts as NHB, SBM and members of local rap favorites, Aztec Tribe.

For "Family Album," Nemo, who now prefers producing to performing, cultivated a new crop of local rappers in their teens and early 20s. He believes their lack of professional experience is an asset.

"I wanted them to have a street edge, and I wanted people who were younger and more hungry," said Nemo, who came to California in 1994 after a four-year stint in the Army. "The younger they are, the better, because more (young) people can relate to them. My understanding was that no rap artist from San Diego had broke, in a major way, except for Jayo Felony. So I thought it was a good opportunity."

Nemo plans to use his soon-to-be-relaunched Web site (www.wetcatcompany.go.cc) to make a broader impact. He credits some of his entrepreneurial acumen to the various community college business courses he took in the mid-`90s.

"My schooling helped me be more organized, but I`m learning most of it as I go along," said Nemo, who has an 8-year-old daughter.

He began promoting the "Family Album" by distributing several hundred free, four-song sampler CDs at local high schools. He has sold about 200 copies of the album`s initial pressing of 1,000, and his unique contracts with the album`s performers require them to hawk copies as well.

"The contract is a commitment that they`ll come out and sell the CDs, and that they`ll give me the chance to take the record label to another level," Nemo explained.

"Without them (the album`s artists), there is no me. And after we sell another 50 copies, I`ll break even. It don`t take much," he said of "Family Album," which sells for $10 "or less, depending on what people can pay."

The album`s explicit lyrics have prevented it from receiving any commercial radio airplay, but that doesn`t bother Nemo.

"I don`t think it`s a bad thing," he said. "Because once you get on the street and get a buzz going, radio will come to us."

Perhaps.

"At this time we`re not playing anything from the `Wet Cat` album," said Dale Soliven, radio station Z90`s music director and assistant program director.

"But all Nemo has to do is give us a cleaned-up radio version, and I think he is working on that. He`s very talented and has a great ear for talent. I think he has a great future in the hip-hop business."

With or without radio support, Nemo is cautiously aiming for bigger things.

"My plan is to use this album as a vehicle to get people in other cities excited, and then I want to get a (national) distributor," he said. "I don`t want to do that now, because we don`t have the fan base yet. We`re coming from the bottom up. I`ll always be doing this; I don`t need to make a million dollars. I`ll be here, and - eventually - something will happen."

ONE-MAN BAND

When Chaz Wesley moved to San Diego from New York in 1987, he had two major inspirations.

"One was the weather," the 42-year-old music veteran recalled with a laugh. "The other was to be a pioneer, and to start getting the music industry happening in an area where there was not a lot of stuff happening."

A singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Wesley brought with him a wealth of experience.

The Newark, N.J., native was barely in his teens in 1971 when he signed his first recording and music-publishing contract in New York. The next year saw him contribute songs to an album by the reunited vocal group the Shirelles; record an album as part of the band the Family Circle, which featured his three brothers and one sister; and sing the concluding falsetto part on the Top 40 hit "O-h-h Child" by the pop-soul group Five Stairsteps, whose lineup included several of his cousins.

Wesley subsequently became a co-manager for Strawberry Records, where he worked with Gary U.S. Bonds and ex-James Brown bandleader Bobby Byrd. In 1979, he and one of his cousins, former Five Stairsteps` leader Clarence Burke Jr., scored a national hit with "All Night Thing," which they recorded for Mango Records as the Invisible Man Band. The next year, Wesley founded his first record label, Sun Valley, in Phoenix, where he also took various college business courses.

His 1987 assessment of the San Diego music scene was sadly accurate, at least for R&B. San Diego`s only major homegrown R&B act of note, singer Chante Moore, had to move to Los Angeles to get a major-label record deal, and opportunities here were scarce.

But like Wet Cat honcho Nemo, Wesley saw the lack of musical action here for his chosen idiom as a potential advantage, not a detriment. And he was eager to fill the void.

In 1991, Wesley founded Opulence Records, which that year released the album "Gettin` Ready for Love" by the R&B vocal duo Chaz & Trina. It was briefly distributed nationally, but Wesley lacked sufficient funds to take the album to the next level.

He spent the next seven years performing solo dates in area clubs and casinos. He also had a day job as a patient-care-assistance nurse, where he met his fiancee, fellow nurse Caroline Cronin, in 1998.

"Music and nursing are very similar," he said. "You have to be very personable in both, and I believe that with music, you`re also giving care to people."

Also in 1998, Wesley started SweetTone Records and released his impressive solo album, "The Best From This Man," which showcased his supple voice and accomplished songwriting skills.

The album, which cost $45,000 to produce, was well-received, selling out its pressing of 1,000 copies (at $12 each). But he was again stymied by a lack of the promotional funding needed to make a national impact.

Wesley is now completing work on a revamped version of the album, which will feature six new songs. It`s due out at the end of this month, under the title "Between Us," and will be followed by live local shows with his new eight-piece band and the June launching of his Web site (www.sweettonemusic.com). This time he is determined to be heard by a wider audience.

In January, Wesley attended the MIDEM conference in France, Europe`s largest annual music-industry confab, where he made contacts to distribute his new album abroad. He has also teamed with the Long beach-based Loggins Promotions, which is headed by the brother of pop star Kenny Loggins. And he has inked a song-publishing deal with Westwood Music Group, a New Jersey company that is pitching his songs to film and television producers.

"I love Chaz`s work," said Vic Kapley, Westwood`s president.

"His music is smooth, soulful and sexy, like Smokey Robinson`s. Right now Chaz`s song `The Best From This Man` is being considered for use on the TV shows `General Hospital` and `Soul Food.` And we`re doing a 15-CD library for network TV that will include two of Chaz`s songs.

"His funds are not that great, so he`s doing a lot of stuff on a shoestring budget. But he`s hoping to get investors and take it to the next level. And, as far as film and TV placement for his songs, I`m sure it`s going to happen."

Wesley is also optimistic. He is completing graphic-design courses, which he hopes will help him set up a multimedia division for SweetTone.

"The easiest thing about being an artist and a record company is, I know the business end," Wesley said.

"I know that it`s 90 percent business and 10 percent music. The most difficult part is not having enough capital, because I have other artists, including a multicultural female hip-hop group called I`Feenya, that I want to produce and open up the door for in San Diego.

"I`d like to get some investors, and take things to a full-fledged level. Either way, I will piecemeal it together from the bottom to work up to the top. Because it doesn`t matter how good you are. If you don`t have the promotion and marketing skills, all the musical talent in the world doesn`t mean anything."

(C)Copley News Service

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Author: George Varga

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