Soul and Inspiration

So you wanna be a rock and roll star. You can already see yourself up there trading licks with wailing Eddie Van Halen. Or maybe you consider yourself a silver-tongued rapper -- ready, willing, and able to slam some grooves with Puff Daddy. Or perhaps even as an up-and-coming jazz genius, capable of exchanging solos with one of the Marsalis brothers. Bottom line: You want two commas in your bank balance and you want to score them doing little more than hosting one never-ending party, replete with limos, front and center seats at the Grammys, and more beautiful hangers-on than Pro Player has beer vendors.

To put it bluntly, you want to get rich and famous playing music. Yeah, don't we all. Face it: You're more likely to find an alligator in your toilet tonight. Of course, Madonna could show up at your next club gig and sign you on the spot. If such visions don't rev your engine, insert your own fantasy here.

What are the odds of anyone really making it in the music biz? Staggeringly high. And yet year after year millions of determined dumb shits keep bashing their heads against the wall. Think about all the money to be made off these fools. The Fender Musical Instrument Company, for instance, sells 1000 guitars per day, 365 days per year. Suckers.

But if you're really determined, there are a few things you can do to better your odds, if only slightly. Pretty much all of them involve education of some sort, be it strictly musical or strictly business. Knowledge is power, it's been said, and musicians in this part of the country happen to have a bounteous supply of mind-expanding opportunities available to them through the University of Miami's music program. UM has a track record of turning out stars, including artists as diverse as Jon Secada, Pat Metheny, members of matchbox 20, and country singer Lari White, among others.

Not all careers take flight after the final bars of "Pomp and Circumstance" have been played, however. Consider the plight of Britt Prentice, a soulful, subtly jazzy singer who co-wrote with Secada while the pop star was completing his master's thesis at the home of the Hurricanes. Today Secada enjoys all the privileges of being a bona fide celebrity. Prentice, on the other hand, is still waiting on his lucky star. Not waiting idly, mind you. He keeps plenty busy fronting a top-dollar cover band, promoting his classy self-financed and self-produced debut CD Unchained Soul, and arranging regular publicity-generating gigs singing the national anthem in front of tens of thousands of sports fans in places like the Miami Arena, where he opened a Heat game in early February. Fine, you say, but why read on? Because what Prentice has discovered about the music industry is damned interesting.

First let's get a few things straight about Britt Prentice. He is a baby-faced 31-year-old who has been singing most of his life. He spent two years immersed in jazz and classical vocal training at UM in the mid-Eighties. His music falls easily among the contempo pop stylings of Keith Sweat, Babyface, and Boyz II Men, and he writes all of his own material. Cue up any of the ten tracks on Unchained Soul, recorded in 1995 at ESR Studios in Rockville, Maryland, and Prentice's melodious singing will suck you in. Brief falsetto flirtations mixed with earthy growls -- and the haunting saxophone playing of guest David "Juice" Wright -- on "Love Is a Mutual Thing" showcase an expansive vocal range. Prentice provides his own background vocals (with occasional assistance from singer, keyboardist, and drum programmer Elan, his main musical associate) to great effect on gentle tracks such as "Hug Me Baby" and the sadly romantic "Thru the Motions." And the a cappella "Slammin' Anthem" provides a new and inspired performance of our nation's most patriotic song.

To be sure, Prentice's songwriting and production skills are topnotch, his vocals undeniably professional. Most major-label debuts suffer by comparison. So what's taking so long for him to land a big-time record deal and flood the airwaves with his sexy-smooth melodies?

Well, for one, he's a white man singing R&B, a musical genre dominated by black artists. It's been a considerable stumbling block. In his quest for musical acceptance Prentice has run into both a lack of imagination on the part of record label executives and outright discrimination from club owners.

"I've basically been turned down for gigs because of that," he recounts during a phone conversation from his home in Bethesda, Maryland -- just outside Washington, D.C. -- where he grew up and where he returned after he graduated from UM. "Where it was a black R&B/jazz club and when they found out I was white, they wouldn't book me. And then our country as a whole -- the record industry -- seems to have this segregation mentality, where if you're black you've got to sing black, and if you're white you've got to sing white."

Musical ability and good songwriting, he claims, are more important than skin tone on the international market. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the contacts to secure a European deal or, for that matter, any other foreign deal. And then there are family values -- as in, what's the value of your particular family? Not all the stories about which-star-is-related-to-which-record-exec make it to the general public. From inside the industry, however, there is much to be learned about the relative viscosities of blood and water.

"Another thing it's taught me," Prentice says of the business, "and I catch myself every time I start to feel bitter or resentful about it, is that I'd say 90 percent -- maybe even more than 90 percent -- of making it in music or in acting or any other performing art is who you know, or what family you were born into. That's really kind of unfortunate. It's amazing to me how much nepotism there really is."

And let's not forget payola. Yes, it's illegal, and no, it never went away. It's just done with smoke and mirrors these days. Record promoters can't hand over envelopes stuffed with cash (or other valuable incentives) to radio station music directors or popular on-air personalities without risking jail time. But they can help lure listeners and, in turn, advertisers to favored radio stations by arranging free concerts featuring artists whose usual per-show fee exceeds that of the average American's annual salary. Money still changes hands, and DJs still hype records till it hurts. And hit songs still require deep pockets.

"I've pursued a lot of radio, and the cloaked payola there is all-encompassing," Prentice contends. "I've had at least half a dozen music directors say they loved my stuff, but they couldn't play it. They either gave me a bogus reason, like it wasn't in their format -- but it was R&B/pop [and they were R&B/pop formatted] -- or they gave me a sincere reason, that they just can't play anything from someone who's out on his own. They've got to have it from a major indie or from a major label."

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, though, or at least a warm glow. Prentice makes at least part of his income -- he hasn't pulled the plug on his nondescript day job -- singing advertising jingles and through his working band Elite. Ever optimistic about the future, he notes that he's turned down some unsuitable indie offers and has had some recent interest -- and requests for more material -- from several respected names in the business. Good thing. It's going to take the support of some serious players to pull off what he has in mind.

"My overall goals are really to be one of the major recording artists coming into the millennium," he says without a hint of irony. "I feel like I've been blessed with a unique talent and I feel a certain obligation to do what I'm doing. If somebody's going to sign me as a pop artist, they're going to want to make their money from me, so I understand that game, too. I've got to give the record company their worth. Maybe a couple of platinum albums, write some great music. And then once I've made their dough and people appreciate me as an artist, then I can start evolving and doing other things. It would just be an evolution of maybe five to ten years down the line, where I have the latitude to do stuff that is really challenging to me as an artist."

As if the whole learning curve hasn't been challenging enough. In 1986 Prentice left the University of Miami to get, as he calls it, "in-the-field training." While he quickly credits former UM mentors such as faculty members Larry Lapin, Rachel Lebon, and Nobleza Pilar with giving him the tools to succeed, he's probably learned just as much at the steely doors of that other institution of higher learning. And Prentice is gonna keep on knocking. Hard.

Britt Prentice is scheduled to sing the national anthem at a Miami Heat home game next season. For information on his Unchained Soul CD, call Phoenix Records at 800-494-0659.

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