Jan 1, 2003 12:00 PM, by Maureen Droney
ARTISTdirect Records, spawned as a cutting-edge Internet company, has morphed into an ambitious and innovative bricks-and-mortar business, as well. Some industry heavy hitters have come onboard at AdR; working out of the company's Miracle Mile offices, along with ARTISTdirect founder Marc Geiger, are Ted Field, co-founder of Interscope Records, respected A&R man Tony Berg (Virgin, Geffen) and Mary Hogan, former senior director of A&R administration for Virgin Records L.A. After a tour of the company's offices and its new recording studio, I sat down for chats with Berg and Geiger to get the scoop.
“What's going on here? I wish there was a simple response to that,” laughs Berg, who garners some of his unique A&R viewpoint from his skill as a musician and producer. “ARTISTdirect began as an Internet-oriented company, and many people still have that perception of it. But what it is now, first and foremost, is Ted Fields' independent record company, distributed by BMG. Ted's previous experience in starting Interscope clearly signals what the ambitions are for this label: a varied roster that's on the cutting-edge side of what's commercial. That's Ted's orientation, and I think his signings and hirings manifest that. The mission here is to find young artists who speak with an original point of view and get them out to a broad audience.”
Besides the main ARTIST-direct label, whose roster already includes Badly Drawn Boy, Custom, Poverty and Mellowdrone, there are two additional imprints under the company's umbrella, iMUSIC and Ineffable. “iMUSIC is a different contract model,” Berg explains. “It's more of a joint venture between the company and the artists, where projects can be done as a ‘one-off.’ On iMUSIC, we have John Doe, Berlin, Tre Hardson from the Pharcyde — obviously, it's another very diverse roster. With Ineffable, I've been given the opportunity to start my own imprint. Ineffable's contract model closely resembles iMUSIC's, but there's an added plus in that we're building a co-op situation: Each artist on Ineffable participates in the profits of everyone's records, with the goal of building camaraderie and a community of musicians.”
“iMUSIC's philosophy is dictated by criteria that includes sales, track history, touring ability and strength of brand, rather than by any specific music identity,” adds Geiger. “It's A&R agnostic. It's a platform that includes distribution, marketing and a little bit of finance for established acts who know they can sell a certain amount of records.”
ARTISTdirect's studio, dubbed Spot, as in “my dog Spot,” is on a floor above the offices with its own separate entrance, and is available to outside clients. It's outfitted with a Frank Dimedio-modified API console that started life at Wally Heider Studios and for the past few years was owned by producer Tom Rothrock, who used it on projects for Beck and Elliot Smith.
Originally built as a soundstage for E Television, the studio features a good-sized live room, complete with stage and backdrops, and, according to Berg, has “accidentally” excellent acoustics. The TV lighting grid and fixtures remain, so the facility can double as a video-shooting stage. It's already been the site of numerous fan conferences (interview, fan call-in and performance sessions) for such acts as Metallica, Cher, No Doubt and Incubus.
“The ultimate goal,” states Berg, “is to have a recording studio conducive to both audio and visuals. I'm more interested in combining old and new technologies than I am in building a state-of-the-art studio. What attracts me is the combination of vintage mics, API mic pre's and Pro Tools|HD. I like the coloration and character of vintage gear mixed with the relative neutrality of digital.
“However, it's not about having the perfect U47 or the perfect 1176. It's all down to talent and taste and what you do with what you've got. That said,” Berg adds with a laugh, “it is nice to have that right 47 or 1176, or whatever. We've got a lot of good equipment. But mainly, the ARTISTdirect studio is just a good creative environment, with the advantage that it's still equipped for filming.”
Geiger, whose diverse background includes stints as a concert promoter, talent agent, record company exec, computer geek and, of course, Internet pioneer, obviously brings a wealth of knowledge about online issues to the business. The ARTISTdirect Internet site (www.artistdirectrecords.com), which he started six years ago, was envisioned as a direct link between artists and consumers. The site continues to operate as its own entity, promoting and selling music and music merchandise. “Actually, since everyone else went out of business, our traffic is up 45 percent,” says Geiger, “But it's a promotional site, a music-information resource.
“Everything I predicted 10 years ago, and shaped in the original incarnation of ARTISTdirect, is, in a macro sense, totally right,” he continues. “In any kind of business or micro sense, it's completely up the creek. The current bottom line is that it's impossible to build a business in an illegal market, no matter how huge the consumer demand. It's like sex and drugs: You can buy all of the ancillaries to do them, but you can't buy the product. There's a huge consumer demand for digital music. You can buy iPODs, burners, blanks — you name it. But with everything — from artists' rights to advertising to doing efficient transactions — you're trying to do business with two hands behind your back while standing on quicksand. In my opinion, it's impossible for anybody, at this point, to be successful [making money solely on the Internet], no matter how much traffic they have. At ARTISTdirect, we're not casting around for how to make that work. We've made one big jump: to do what we want to do with a new business model.”
It's hard to keep up with musician/producer John Fields. Since he transplanted to L.A. from that bastion of bands known as Minneapolis, Fields has been juggling a plethora of projects. From producing albums for Switchfoot and Bleu, to co-producing an album for Andrew W.K., to mixing tracks for new acts such as Mackenzie B.C. and Lillix, to recording and mixing for Puffy Amiyumi in Japan with producer Andy Sturmer and playing live with a variety of side projects, it's been pretty much nonstop. I caught up with him at his home studio, in a guitar-filled, 1920s-vintage Hollywood cottage, the day after he'd returned from Minneapolis, where he was recording tracks for an upcoming Mandy Moore album.
If there's a common denominator in Fields' work, it's his band orientation; a player's point of view underscores all of his productions. “I like playing live, I like jamming, all that stuff,” he says. “I'm a band guy, not a computer guy — well, actually, I am a geeky computer guy also. My roles change depending on the project. But I'm definitely not just a gearhead. I'm not a ‘four days for drum sounds’ kind of guy. I'm into productivity, working fast and making sure, each day, that everyone feels like we're moving forward. Since I come from the background of never having any money for projects, I've always felt on the band's side when it comes to making budget decisions. Rather than, ‘Let's stay at a five-star hotel,’ I'm like, ‘Why don't you guys sleep at my house, save the money and then we'll be able to get a string quartet.’ I'm working with bigger budgets now, but I still feel that way about what's important.”
In keeping with that, Fields juggles a diverse roster of recording environments, from Pro Tools in the basement of neighbor Matt Mahaffey (of the band Self) to trading digital files with long-distance collaborators like drummer Jordan Zadorozny, based four hours north of Montreal. “He's got a high-speed Internet connection,” Fields explains, “so I send him an MP3 of the song and give him some direction. He lays down a drum track and sends it back to me as an MP3. Once I agree that it's great, he sends me the multitracks at 33 megs. It takes an hour or two, but it's full-fi, full-level, as good as if he gave me a CD of it.
“A lot of the people I work with are friends who are all on an Internet server where we each have a drop box. I'll have people in New York City play guitar solos and send them to me. I like that method: letting people work at home in their own environment. This afternoon, I needed a tambourine track. My friend Dorian is doing it right now; he'll e-mail it over when he's finished. I still love working with bands live in the studio; for me, either way is cool.”
Vocals are often done at the cottage. Fields favors an Audio-Technica 4060 tube mic with API, Avalon or Neve preamps, along with a Distressor for compression. Other gear includes a '70s Sansui home-stereo spring reverb and an Ibanez analog delay, “made in about 1980. It's definitely part of my sound. I print vocals through it for slappy, regenerative kinds of things, then print it back to Pro Tools.”
Other favorites: The “Richard Dodd trick” — a Dolby 361 with Cat 22 cards for vocal processing: “A little on lead vocal,” and a MicroKorg with built-in Vocoder and “Burger King” mic. You get the feeling Fields would be bored if his life didn't include so many different kinds of projects. “It's true,” he admits. “I can't stand doing all of the same kind of work. Album projects are awesome, but they can take months. Sometimes, it's nice to do a couple of songs in a week.”
Not much chance of being bored. Fields is off to Australia to work with Delta Goodrem, then on to Japan for more cuts with Sturmer and Puffy — the “super-hipster Tokyo ladies.” Then there are those frequent trips back to Minneapolis. “It was great to live there,” he says. “The talent base of musicians is unbelievable. What's great about Minneapolis is that there are lots of good musicians just playing, not thinking about making it. If you're a bass player, you can get a gig every night. Not every band in Minneapolis is great, but the fact that they are out doing it is great. They're not getting shut down by people saying, ‘You're no good, your lead singer is too fat,’ those kind of comments. And they're making records on their own. It's like a dose of reality to go there. But I feel really positive about being in L.A. Right now, I'm living in Hollywood and loving it.”
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