Reel-to-Reel Requiem

In a digital world, recording studios have become technological dinosaurs

So you want to be a rock and roll star? Forget the line about tight pants. "Buy a van," advises Paul Maroon, guitarist with the New York-based act the Walkmen. Once your record company has stopped footing the bill for swanky hotels and lavish dinners, once the magazine editors stop calling, it's that van which will keep you going from gig to gig. "When all the money's gone -- after the lawyer, the manager, and the accountant -- that van is going to be the only thing you have left," Maroon continues. This is more than just speculation on his part.

Standing on the tiki-torched patio of Wynwood's shabby chic I/O nightclub, Maroon was reflecting on the strange odyssey of his career in rock, a path that speaks to the spectacular crash and burn of not only his previous group, Jonathan Fire Eater, but of the music business itself.

In the mid-Nineties Maroon found himself engulfed in the record-company feeding frenzy that followed Nirvana's astonishing success. An old-fashioned bidding war ensued over Jonathan Fire Eater, even though their haircuts may have been more distinctive than their organ-driven raveups. The frenzy included the group being splashed across a New York Times Magazine fashion shoot and ended with Dreamworks landing them for $1.1 million -- a signing bonus of $250,000, another $250,000 to record their debut album, $300,000 for the followup, and $350,000 for what would surely be the group's eagerly awaited third release. Add in potential royalties and merchandising, and Maroon's salad days would certainly seem to have arrived.

Through all this, sales seemed to be the least of the band's concerns. As self-styled bohemians crafting an "underground" sound, Jonathan Fire Eater spent as much time worrying about overexposure and their hipster credibility as in creating songs that would justify their seven-figure deal.

The band's 1997 debut did make music history -- as one of Dreamworks' biggest flops, selling little more than 6000 copies. Moreover "we weren't making any money on the road," Maroon chuckles ruefully, "because nobody liked us." Squabbling with each other, and with a heroin-addicted singer in and out of rehab (another unfortunate hallmark of the post-Nirvana downtown New York rock scene), Maroon and his bandmates parted company for day jobs or chagrined returns to college, walking away from their stab at immortality with about $15,000 each.

Postmillennium and on the cusp of their thirties, the core of Jonathan Fire Eater recruited a new singer, Hamilton Leithauser, and reconstituted itself as the Walkmen, piling back into that road-tested van for cross-country tours. "We've learned to be a lot more bitter," Maroon quips of this new group's self-produced first album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone and last year's Bows and Arrows. However wizened, the experience has made for eminently more memorable music, with shimmery guitar lines and carnivalesque piano work rubbing up against Leithauser's cracked laments.

Yet while the familiar cultural buzz may have subsequently returned to Maroon's life (the Walkmen's music has been featured everywhere from Fox-TV's teen smash The O.C. to a Saturn car commercial), the largess of the music business is now long gone when it comes to rock outfits. Internet downloads, massive sales slippages, and industrywide layoffs are the new talking points.

During his first round of Jonathan Fire Eater courtship, Maroon recalled an Elektra Records executive extending all manner of promises, even gushing that "he'd walk across the Gobi Desert to see us play." Come 2003, though, both the flattery and the total recording budget -- $50,000 -- were a bit more realistic. "A guy from Warner Bros. said he'd fly across the desert in first class to see us play, stay overnight in a nice hotel, and then fly back to LA." It was enough to clinch the deal. "We appreciated the honesty," Maroon laughs.

But it isn't just up-and-coming rockers who are receiving a dose of tough love now. The era when established stars could regularly camp out inside topnotch studios is officially over. That change was dramatically brought home with last week's announcement that legendary New York recording studio the Hit Factory would be closing the doors on its sprawling 100,000-square-foot building and consolidating itself into North Miami's Criteria studio -- which it had bought in 1999. The reason, announced owner Janice Germano, was pure economics.

Back in 1975, Stevie Wonder spent nine straight months working on his Songs in the Key of Life at the Hit Factory, burning through thousands of dollars in studio time every day as he endlessly tweaked away at his album. Today Wonder -- like the bulk of the music world, from thugged-out rappers to barely legal pop balladeers -- ensconce themselves in home studios, often hitting a top-line facility only for the final stages of mixing and mastering. And when they do arrive for that pricey session, Germano noted, they prefer to do it in a "destination" locale like Miami.

With digital technology having become both sonically sophisticated and relatively affordable, there's simply no reason to rack up astronomical bills any longer. Accordingly, for budget-conscious record companies, home studios aren't just convenient, they're essential. Even two-inch reel-to-reel tape -- that aesthetic mainstay of old-school analog recording -- is now extinct, with its sole remaining manufacturer having filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month.

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