Tight security is one of the value-added services that commercial studios are able to offer. For Linkin Park's chart-toppingMeteora, North Hollywood's NRG Recording Services kicked it up more than a notch.
Piracy is serious business, and labels are getting very serious about plugging leaks. “When you have the cooperation of the band and management, you can protect [the music],” Warner Bros. Records' chairman Tom Whalley told the Los Angeles Times in a discussion of the Meteora security measures. “But it has to start from the time they hit the studio.”
NRG is already a security-conscious facility, equipped with a centralized, password-protected, fiber-optic SAN/Pro Tools system, to which only designated employees have access. There are also combination safes with electronic keypads in each control room for safe storage of CDs and DATs. But for the Linkin Park sessions, a number of new policies were instituted. Throughout the three-month project, only manager Kelly Garver, chief engineer Wade Norton and assistant engineer Sean “Fox” Phelps held keys to Studio A. Bypassing NRG's SAN, the band supplied its own network and passwords, along with private security guards who logged the names of everyone who entered their sessions. Rough-mix CDs were logged out for off-site listening, then returned and destroyed.
Outside NRG, extreme measures also prevailed. A guard accompanied the multitrack masters on their flight to New York, where final overdubs and mixing took place. Guards were also stationed at the New York studios, and each night, hard drives were turned over to a security service for safekeeping. Upon completion, final mixes were returned to L.A. personally by band manager Rob McDermott, who drove them from the airport straight to Warner Bros. in Burbank. There, under guard, on a computer disconnected from the Warner Bros. internal network, six watermarked and copy-protected CDs were made for senior promotion execs who reviewed them to decide the first song that would be released to radio. Those six CDs were then destroyed, with the pieces returned to Rochelle Staab, the Warner Bros. marketing exec in charge of overseeing Meteora's security.
No promotional discs were distributed, and the first single, “Somewhere I Belong,” was distributed to radio via satellite. Reviewers were required to visit the Warner offices, where, before listening, they were checked for recording devices. McDermott and members of Warner International, accompanied by a security guard, made a worldwide promo tour with a single copy of the album, which they played for selected listeners, leaving behind only samplers with five incomplete tracks. All in all, Warner Bros. asserts, only 10 album CDs — seven in the hands of the band — were in existence before Meteora went to manufacturing.
Okay, some of these tactics were probably just good theater, but the payoff for such extra diligence was twofold: It prevented the bulk of those pesky early Internet leaks that have drained sales and excitement from the official releases by such groups as Korn and Radiohead; and, with the music shrouded in secrecy, an enhanced buzz — among both industry and the public — was created.
“We have to remind people of how precious what we're working with here really is,” stressed Warner Bros.' Staab, in a conversation that only touched the surface of the intellectual-property issues facing artists today. “The bottom line is, it only takes one person to get it out there on the Internet — to the pirates — to ruin a marketing plan, to ruin all sorts of other things. That person is rarely the one that you actually gave the music to. It's the peripheral people, and when people are careless…I've heard all sorts of excuses, from, ‘It got lost in the mail,’ to ‘My secretary picked it up,’ to ‘I just didn't know.’ So now we don't take anything for granted.”
Musician/producer Pete Anderson's Little Dog Records label is now 10 years old. That's 70 in dog years, which is probably more what the last decade sometimes felt like as the company navigated the labyrinth of indie marketing and distribution. Now, Anderson (best known for his production and guitar work on Dwight Yoakam's albums) is putting his mubiz equivalent of a doctorate degree to work in new directions.
A guitar player with a passion for blues and Bakersfield-style country, Anderson paid his dues shopping acts back in the day before his Grammy™-winning, Platinum-selling success with Yoakam. To his surprise, a winning track record didn't change things all that much; post-Platinum, he still found himself shopping artists to unresponsive A&R execs. Little Dog was born out of the frustration Anderson — and his then-partner, producer/bassist Dusty Wakeman — experienced when they failed to get artists they believed in signed.
“When I first got into this business,” Anderson recalls, “I'd have meetings with A&R guys. They'd play me this horrible stuff by artists they wanted me to produce, and I'd think, ‘Well, obviously, this guy knows more than I do, because he's got that job and I don't.’
“But when I found myself back shopping again after a lot of success, I did about five of those meetings and — not to be arrogant, but — I decided that they really didn't know what they were doing. As a result, Dusty and I, with two other partners, started our own label.”
A long and expensive haul left Anderson the sole owner, and a series of distribution deals left him older and wiser, but with Little Dog's catalog safely returned. Three years ago, with his wife, respected engineer Sally Browder (Flaco Jimenez, The Plimsouls, Eliades Ochoa), he set up in Burbank at The Dogbone Studios — a small, Pro Tools-equipped facility — and started making more of the blues and country-rock records he loves and waited for the right time to release them.
“I learned that you can get upside-down really quick with distribution deals,” he says ruefully. “They'll press more than you'll ever need, and you'll never get a check because you're always paying back manufacturing. There's also a huge marketing responsibility. The marketing dollars that they want just to get it in the stores are more than you ever thought you were going to make.
“Now I know I just want my records in the right stores: the mom and pops, the mini chains, like Antone's and Waterloo in Austin; those places are community centers. The people behind the counter are musicians and music fans. They'll tell you where to find the best barbecue, the best band and what records are cool. Those are the stores I want to be in, and I only want to sell on consignment.”
Anderson has used his Dogbone studio for Yoakam's recordings. The first Little Dog release out of The Dogbone was A Country West of Nashville, a 2003 alt-country reprise of A Town South of Bakersfield 1 and 2, the '80s compilations from the Los Angeles cowpunk scene that featured such artists as Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, Rosie Flores and Yoakam. This time around, the geographic base was enlarged: West of Nashville includes cuts by unsigned artists from Seattle, Austin, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona and Arkansas, as well as L.A.
Set for a July release is 17 Jewels by East L.A.'s The Blazers, known for their rocking roots blend that integrates everything from blues, country and surf to norteño and cumbia. The hard-working Blazers, fronted by guitarist/singers Manuel Gonzalez and Ruben Guaderamma, play approximately 200 dates a year and fit the Little Dog master plan: relentless touring, a home-grown digital video, indie stores and a few friendly radio stations.
There's definitely a unique sound coming out of The Dogbone. Although the recording format is Pro Tools, everything goes to Tools through an analog 16-track Studer A800. “It's my analog effects box,” Anderson says with a laugh. “I've basically got a 64-track 2-inch Studer. We record different parts at different speeds and use that for color. Like, I might record bass and drums at 15 ips — or maybe cranked down as slow as it will go — and then record guitars and vocals at 30. That gives me that sludgy-thud thing in the drums, where the tape noise doesn't matter, while the cleaner stuff I pump in at 30.
“Our competition, especially with Dwight's records, has been the way they make records in Nashville,” he continues. “They make great records there: beautiful, sonically perfect. But we're a little more aggressive here, with a different landscape to our sound.” Anderson has some big plans for The Dogbone: He's currently retuning the studio and considering adding a mastering studio and duplication business, making the facility a one-stop shop for indie artists and labels. Look for a full-length interview with Anderson and engineer Browder in our “Recording Notes” section later this year.
And the L.A. Grapevine “Employee of the Month” award goes to: Ty Griffin of Alesis. Quality customer support is rare these days; we're all used to the “death hold,” endless voice mail and supercilious techs. I didn't expect much when our beloved Masterlink lost its operating system after a particularly vicious power outage, but Alesis and Griffin surprised me. I reached him immediately, he patiently walked me through down- and reloading, and all the while stayed straightforward and courteous. Thanks, Ty.
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