The CD Solution

Unsigned bands keep their local connections even as they spread their commercial wings

One of the pleasures of following the local music scene is the direct line of communication between performer and audience. An example: You buy a recorded work by a local artist or band. A) You think it's great, or B) you think it sucks. Either way, you get to tell them in person at their next show, causing them to A) shower you with an almost embarrassing outpouring of slavering gratitude (and, if you play your cards right, a free beer or two), or B) they abandon all hope and forsake their musical aspirations in a fit of despair (unless they're Rat Bastard, in which case they will shower you with an almost embarrassing outpouring of slavering gratitude, and then ask you to buy them a beer).

Just try that with Smashing Pumpkins or Plant/Page. Or even our big-hearted collective neighbor Gloria Estefan.

For the two scenarios to play themselves out, of course, you need to purchase the recorded work in the first place. While South Florida bands have a long, proud tradition of recording activity dating back to the 1960s, the emergence (and eventual dominance) of compact discs over the past decade has made it increasingly more difficult for local acts to compete for the attention of consumers. For better or worse, the CD format itself confers a certain air of legitimacy and quality.

Lower CD manufacturing costs and increased technical proficiency by the bands themselves -- not to mention the growing artistic maturity of a scene that has seen several artists sign major-label deals during the past year -- have made compact discs a realistic option for local musicians. They're responding in a big way.

Local unsigned acts accounted for at least 25 CD releases in the past year, many of them with production values and packaging equal to anything put out by national labels. That's nearly double the number of CDs released locally in 1993, says Glenn Richards, who hosted a local-music show on WSHE from 1990 to 1993 and now cohosts WVUM's Locals Only.

With about 1000 being the average number of actual discs pressed per release, South Florida's acts have contributed perhaps 25,000 units of the nearly 500 million shipped last year in total. A drop in the bucket to be sure.

But what local unsigned acts lack in numbers, they more than make up for in heart. Among the CD releases this year are efforts by such notables as Nil Lara, For Squirrels, the Holy Terrors, Raw B Jae and the Liquid Funk, Vandal, Sixo, Milk Can, Rooster Head, and Cell 63. Several more local CDs are slated for release early next year, including long-anticipated efforts by the Goods and Diane Ward.

Much of the increased output can be attributed to lower manufacturing costs. At AstralTech Americas in Boca Raton, where Florida-based bands compose roughly ten percent of the customer base, the per-unit cost fluctuates between $1.10 and $1.35, according to company president Michael Ostroff. That's about one-third less than it cost to press the Mavericks's debut CD in 1991, notes Rich Ulloa, who founded Y&T Music just to release the Mavs's music.

Cassettes are still cheaper to manufacture (generally costing about half as much per unit as CDs, depending on the length) and vinyl still has a substantial following among indie acts and their fans. Then there's folks such as Magda Hiller, who's last release nothing but... is available on cassette only, because she doesn't own a CD player.

But CDs are catching on with bands for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their inherent sales potential. When Halo released Picasso Trigger Is Dead as a cassette last year, front man Oscar Herrera says people balked. "Everybody kept saying, 'When are you going to put the CD out?'" he recalls. The band's newest offering, Cult of the Birdman, was released in June...on CD only.

In addition to public demand, Herrera says he factored in the importance of making a good impression on radio station programmers and the A&R reps at labels. "No matter what, a cassette never looks as professional as a CD," he notes. "[The new CD] comes across as a calling card. You know, 'This band is serious, because this looks serious and sounds serious.'"

Drive Choir is taking a slightly different promotional tack with its new CD 11 on 7. In keeping with their garage ethos, the band eschewed the traditional jewel box, packaging their deliberately low-fi CD as if it were a seven-inch vinyl single, complete with the plastic sleeve and photocopied cover art. "We send them out to the upper magazines like Spin, but also the independent 'zines that are three or four pages long," says the band's Bill Munoz. "We try anything, really." Their primary goal in this regard is better distribution through a regional or national deal.

Rich Ulloa knows firsthand the promotional value of CDs. Since founding Y&T Records he has released four CDs by three different acts -- the Mavericks, Mary Karlzen, and For Squirrels. The first of those acts is now riding high on the national country charts with its second release for MCA. Karlzen's first CD for Atlantic Records is set for release early next year and looks to get plenty of label support. Rumors are rampant that For Squirrels is on the verge of a major-label signing.

When Ulloa took on management of For Squirrels earlier this year, his first move was to repackage the band's existing full-length CD, Baypath Rd, as a six-song compact disc. The CD was promptly mailed off to college radio stations around the country. "It was strictly a promotional tool to get the word out about this band on a national level," Ulloa says. Of the CD format in general, he notes, "You'll probably get reviewed more, get written about more, and you'll definitely have more radio stations playing you."

The quantitative increase of local CD releases is matched by a dramatic improvement in the quality of local recordings, as well (even though, as Glenn Richards notes, lower CD manufacturing costs have led to a few bands releasing substandard work on compact disc). "But by and large, most things that are coming out on CD are pretty well thought out, pretty well presented," he says.

Richards attributes the improvement to experience. When his local music show on WSHE began in 1990, Richards says, "I think there were less bands that were technically proficient in the studio than there are now, and I think it's kind of increased every year. I noticed a definite increase in studio technique, that there was a whole bunch of bands who were just average, and a few that were above average, and even fewer that were exceptional. And then, as each year went by, bands that had made second and third recordings got better and better and better."

Richards points to Cell 63, which not long ago released Once Upon a Drunk..., its second CD in as many years. "The packaging is really good, and it's approached from more, like, with an album in mind," he says. "I think that's something a lot of bands have done. They've changed their reference from, 'We're going to release a demo on CD' to 'We're going to record an album.' I think that has changed everything."

Jim Camacho of the Goods says his band's recording experience (which includes a home-studio-made cassette, a five-song vinyl EP, the 1992 CD/cassette release Five Steps To Getting Signed, and the new CD Mint, set for release in January) has been invaluable. "We've learned a lot over the past four years since we've been making tapes and stuff."

Camacho recalls an episode from the Mint sessions at the famed Criteria studios in North Miami, when the guitar parts for "I'm Not Average" weren't miked properly and had to be re-recorded. "So just with that kind of perspective, when we go back in the studio next time, we'll save a lot of time because we'll know exactly what kind of guitars to use to make the sound fullest. Although our songs switch around from style to style, we're beginning to hone in on our sound."

Though South Florida's commercial radio stations continue to turn a deaf ear and success is measured in terms of hundreds of units sold, the rewards are worth it, says Jim Wurster of Black Janet, whose Love Thirsty (released on both CD and cassette) won the Jammy Award for best independent release in 1993, and who released a solo project on CD a few weeks ago. "I love going in the studio, taking those songs in there and building them up, seeing what comes out," says Wurster. "It's a great feeling of accomplishment. It's not easy to get done.

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