Saturday, June 02, 2001

There are Stars in Those Demos

Elias Arts received hundreds of demos every year –by mail and messenger.

When I first started the demos were audio cassettes. Later they were DATS. By the time I left no one was using cassettes anymore and everything arrived in CD form or VHS.

Engineers who wanted a job in the studios sent some of the demos in. Session musicians, singers and aspiring composers sent in the rest.

Early on, Exec Producer Ray Foote had identified in me a discerning ear for talent; and so it was my task to review each new box of unsolicited material.

At first I was honored that my bosses thought me competent enough, even discriminating enough, to sift through this catalog of work, never mind allow me to make recommendations on it. However, no sooner had I begun the task then I had the sick and sudden realization that very probably –at record labels worldwide– the fates of thousands of talented musicians and bands were in the hands of a few inexperienced gnats like myself.

That said, I really loved listening to demos, so much so that rather than hand the task over to interns and assistants that followed me, I held on to that responsibility until I left the company several years later (having by then risen through the ranks to Senior Producer). I still love discovering a new talent.

The combined responsibility of production duty and talent scout wasn't much unlike an Artists & Repertoire role (A&R) at a record company. But finding talent for a music house is perhaps a little different that its entertainment counterpart because one's selections always had to have talented. Sorry, if that offends anyone, but the truth is, people become music stars for all sorts of reasons, some of them not having to do with musical talent. Since we weren't in the business of trying to get clients to work with us because we were beautiful or had great moves, the only thing left was to be the best in the world at identifying musical solutions to creative problems, and capable of executing their successful resolution.

A producer can’t always claim a writing credit, but there is nevertheless some personal reward in recommending a singer, a musician, an engineer, sampled sounds, adding to an arrangement, or contributing any other component that sells a track and sends the client back to the agency with an enthusiastic smile. Of course, sometimes one's contributions are in fact compositional in nature, but that's not always the case, and it wasn't the primary focus of my job, which I defined as inspiring other people to do their best.

At any rate, on the very first day of reviewing demos, I listened to maybe thirty or forty cassettes in all. There was one that struck me above and beyond all the others, and both Ray and Alex agreed with my assessment. Six months later Jonathan Elias hired Fritz Doddy, a Hungarian American Rocker from New Jersey who had the Prince-like capacity to play nearly any instrument he picked up in his hands.

I wasn't yet high enough up the ladder to command 'signing power', but after anytime we needed to find a specialized, world class talent, my Ray always entrusted me with the job of locating and securing the right person for a specific job.

Once you get a knack for it, you begin gathering the sort of skill set that allows you to see talent in the most unlikely places. It's always fun hearing someone's potential –knowing you've identified someone with an amazing gift– and that perhaps the whole world has overlooked.

Fritz Doddy had a great ear. Long before the advent of Auto-Tune he was a master of 'fixing' singers. I remember how he'd roll an entire vocal performance off 2” tape; dice it apart into individual words and syllables; then sample each phoneme into a Synclavier and re-pitch them –one by one– up or down with a pitch wheel. Then he'd sew the newly tuned performance back together again; and –presto! (hours and hours later)– lay a perfect vocal back to tape.

No doubt, that's as close to handmade as recording gets, and it's not easy work. But Fritz's results were so seamless that upon playback it made some people who really had no business singing, think that they were in fact great singers.

Later, Fritz would go on to win a CLIO for scoring a ‘Got Milk’ TV commercial famous at the time for featuring the Trix cereal Rabbit.

No comments: