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Tryin' Hard to Get Free, Via Rap on Your Own CD
By Warren St. John
Published: March 3, 2002
The New York Times

When Jason Wendell finds himself with a little extra cash -- not often these days -- he hops on the L train to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and heads to Dungeon Rock Studio* to pursue his ''double life.'' Mr. Wendell is recording an album.

 

Mr. Wendell, a 25-year-old East Village resident, is not necessarily the type of person you would expect to find in a recording studio. He has a full-time job teaching English literature to 12th graders. He is not signed to any label, not even an obscure one. His producer, the owner of Dungeon Rock*, A. J. Tissian, allows that Mr. Wendell ''is not a world-class singer'' and ''has no idea what he's going to do with this project when it's done.'' Despite these complications, Mr. Wendell, who as an artist goes simply by Wendell, has spent nearly a third of his $31,000 teaching salary on his compact disc.

 

''This is the only thing I've ever done that is financially very absurd,'' Mr. Wendell said. ''All of what I have goes to studio time. I'm living on microwave potatoes.''

 

Except perhaps for the part about the potatoes, he is in good company. Advances in recording-studio technology have made it possible for anyone with spare time, a few thousand dollars and a stage name to produce a professional-sounding CD. And to hear studio owners tell it, pretty much anyone is.

 

''It seems like everyone is doing it,'' said Steve Rosenthal, the owner of the Magic Shop, a SoHo studio. ''The threshold of talent for making a CD is very low.''

 

For lots of New Yorkers in their 20's and 30's, the vanity CD has become the cultural equivalent of the novel in the dresser drawer, a talisman against the workaday pressures to abandon one's creative dreams. For others, who more daringly walk the line between hope and delusion, self-financed CD's are lottery tickets -- the one thing that might deliver them pop-star status.

 

''American culture is centered around entertainment,'' said Sean Grant, a 28-year-old floor trader on the American Stock Exchange who recently completed a self-financed rap CD under his stage name, the Storm. ''Making a CD is one of the easiest ways to become a part of that.''

 

At a time when CD's have never been easier to make, the market is flooded with products: the major labels released more than 6,400 albums last year. Yet album sales declined 5 percent. For dreamers producing their own CD's, the odds of commercial success have rarely been longer. At a company Christmas party last year, Mr. Grant performed his tune ''Rock the Market,'' and fellow traders were so taken by the lyrics (''I buy and sell rappers like you every day/ Then I head to my club for a golf getaway'') that they snatched up 200 copies of his CD, edging the Storm's debut effort toward profitability.

 

''All I need to do to break even is sell 400 CD's,'' Mr. Grant said. ''I think I can do that over the course of my life.''

 

The engine for proliferation of self-financed CD's is the digital audio workstation, a generic term for hardware and software that enable consumers and studio owners with low budgets to replicate on personal computers the complex, multilayered mastering techniques of a professional recording studio.

 

The best known is Pro Tools. While a professional version can cost as much as $100,000, a simpler consumer version sells for around $1,000, plus the cost of a PC. To the basics, producers can add special-effects programs for little money. A program called Auto-Tune, which allows a producer to correct the pitch of a poorly sung note with a mouse click, costs $225.

 

While the technology is available to make a CD at home, most novices rent studio time and bring in an experienced producer. Mr. Wendell has found something of a guru in his producer, Mr. Tissian.

 

''When he has moments of nonbrilliance,'' Mr. Tissian said, ''I can say: 'Wendell, stop. You're going to hurt yourself.' ''

 

While garage bands of old sought gigs by shopping around simple -- some would say honest -- two- or four-track cassette recordings, slick, privately produced CD's can give a solo musician a full Boston Pops sound. According to Mr. Rosenthal, who is an owner of the Living Room, a Lower East Side club, many of the 30 to 40 amateur CD's submitted to his club each week ''are seriously multitracked with a full band and backup singers.''

 

''They got the whole thing happening,'' he said.

 

Getting the whole thing to happen still costs money. Cheap studios rent for $20 an hour, and high-end studios from $250 to $350 an hour. While expensive studios have glass sound booths and blinking Starship Enterprise-style mixing consoles, low-end studios are often in apartments or lofts and consist of little more than microphones, a PC and a cigarette-stained rug for soundproofing.

 

''Every time I go in it's a grand,'' said Steve Blumenkranz, a fabric salesman and aspiring country music singer-songwriter from Queens who uses the stage names Stevie Blue or Stevie Elvis, depending on his mood. Though he estimates he has spent $40,000 on recording studio fees over the last eight years, he has yet to get lucky. ''I need to get a break,'' he said.

 

For some, it's not a question of getting lucky, but of being unlucky. Michal Friedman, a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter whose stage name is Michal the Girl, was walking to her temp job in Lower Manhattan last year when she was hit by debris from a collapsing scaffold. She promptly spent the $4,000 settlement from the scaffolding company on studio time.

 

For others, the hard part isn't finding money to get into a studio but finding enough to get out. With limitless special effects at their disposal, and the possibility of countless takes, some find it hard to stop working -- and spending. Mr. Wendell, for example, was unhappy with the sound of the drums on his CD. The remix cost him $3,000.

 

''It's like owning a boat or a dilapidated house,'' said Gregory Rogers, the owner of Rolling Ball Studios in Chelsea. ''You keep putting money in, but it's never finished.''

 

The beneficiaries of all this spending are studio owners. The recession and slowdown in travel to New York after Sept. 11 left many owners tending empty recording booths; for some, independent projects have been the difference between closing or staying in business.

 

''Since Sept. 11, I have not gotten one phone call from L.A., London or Japan about studio time,'' said Mr. Rosenthal of the Magic Shop. ''That used to be 40 percent of my business.'' Before the attacks, he estimated, independently produced projects made up 20 percent of his business. ''Now it's closer to 35,'' he said.

 

Will Schillinger, the owner of Pilot Recording Studios in Chelsea, said that while it was ''sheer torture'' to listen to some would-be artists, ''the ones who come in and spend thousands on mediocre music, my feeling is, if they have the money to burn, more power to them.''

 

Once musicians completed their CD's, they face perhaps the toughest challenge of all: figuring out what to do with them. The answer is not obvious.

 

Most major record labels won't open packages of unsolicited CD's, for fear that doing so would invite lawsuits from amateurs who think they hear a familiar melodic phrase in Garth Brooks's latest hit. Touring musicians can build support for CD's by selling them at shows.

 

But musicians with day jobs have fewer choices. They can post their songs on Web sites like Mp3.com and hope the surfing public discovers them. A Portland, Ore., site called Cdbaby.com sells CD's of independent artists exclusively. Once they have CD's, many artists post their own promotional Web sites. But Tom Kenny, the editor of Mix magazine, which covers the recording business, said: ''Getting noticed on the Internet is as difficult as getting noticed by a major label. It's a crowded, crowded market.''

 

Mostly, self-produced musicians are forced to redefine success. They make do with smaller audiences and record sales in the hundreds rather than the hundreds of thousands.

 

Rachael Weitzman, 29, a daughter of the shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, estimates she has spent $100,000 making four albums under the name Rachael Sage. She defines success as ''making the music I love, and communicating my music to other people.'' She added: ''None of that precludes or describes major label success.''

 

For a few absolutists, a deal with a major label is the only measure of success. These are the chronic optimists. After all, what is a vanity CD but a self-produced CD that hasn't been discovered -- yet?

 

Reached at home one recent evening, Mr. Blumenkranz -- the salesman who performs as Stevie Blue -- had just hung up with a Nashville producer who hadn't liked his CD. ''He was anti-everything,'' Mr. Blumenkranz said. ''He 100 percent dissed me.''

 

It wasn't the first time. Mr. Blumenkranz is so accustomed to rejection that he has developed a mantra for getting over it quickly.

 

''For a few minutes I feel sad,'' he said. ''Then I remember that I'm Stevie Blue. There's nothing stopping me. I have something to offer the world. I come out and shake my leg. And every time I do it people go nuts. And I'm writing these love songs that will break any girl's heart.''

 

Photos: SEEKING STARDOM -- Above, Sean Grant, a rapper whose stage name is the Storm, at work as a floor trader at the American Stock Exchange. Left, Rachael Weitzman, whose stage name is Rachael Sage, has spent $100,000 making four albums. (Left, Richard L. Harbus for The New York Times; right, Librado Romero/The New York Times); DAY JOB -- Steve Blumenkranz (Stevie Blue), fabric salesman and singer-songwriter. (Ting-Li Wang/The New York Times)(pg. 6); BELTING IT OUT -- Jason Wendell, a teacher, has spent nearly a third of his $31,000 salary producing his own compact disc. (Alan Chin for The New York Times)(pg. 1)

 

* historically, the studio's intermediate name, now called The Wave Lab, NYC

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