Selling at Mary

Heading north on I-95 toward her home in Fort Lauderdale, Mary Karlzen takes a sip from a bottle of Miller Lite and returns it to the cup-holder hanging from her dashboard. It's well after three o'clock on a recent Sunday morning, and Karlzen has just finished headlining a show at Tobacco Road. "Ma-ry! Ma-ry!" the crowd yelled when she was done. Lost in thought, she stares at the road.

"I definitely believe in reincarnation," she says. "And I think we get smarter and smarter with each life. I think our souls learn. You know how you meet some people who seem so dumb, so naive? And you just think, 'Man, you must be on your first life.'"

Karlzen, age 32, has wised up in the past few years. In 1993 she signed a contract with Atlantic Records, one of the biggest labels in the music industry. She felt as if she had finally broken the tape at the end of a grueling marathon of near-misses, mild successes, and total failures. Now she was about to live out every musician's dream: to write songs, play music, make records, and get paid for it.

Things didn't quite work out that way. As one former label executive notes, "The easy part is getting signed. When you get signed, that's when the real work begins."

While at Atlantic, Karlzen recorded her major-label debut and toured for several months to support it. The album earned widespread critical acclaim and sold respectably. But in the end corporate politics, economic realities, and the ever-changing music market outweighed Karlzen's talent. After two years she was dropped by the label. No other record company wanted to touch her.

"Commitment to long-term artist development" is a common catch phrase among presidents and CEOs of major labels. In fact, such commitment is very rare. Industry insiders say it takes approximately one million dollars to successfully break a new band these days. As many as 25,000 albums are released each year, and an estimated 85 percent fail to make a profit.

Given the vicissitudes of public taste, major labels tend to take short-term gambles on new bands that may or may not score a hit. The alternative -- investing time and money to develop a few promising but unproven artists -- is simply too costly. Karlzen found that out the hard way.

"Man," she says, one hand on the steering wheel. "I am gonna be so smart in my next life."

By 1993 "women in rock" were beginning to capture the imagination of the public and the music industry. Melissa Etheridge and Mary Chapin Carpenter won Grammys that year, and Polly Jean Harvey and Liz Phair were at the forefront of the alternative scene. "Chick rockers" were much in demand by artists and repertoire executives known as "A&R"), the people responsible for finding, signing, and developing new artists.

Karlzen seemed to fit the mold: a five-foot-four blonde who drives a Jeep Cherokee. With her small features, fair skin, boyish haircut, and little-girl voice, she comes across not unlike Juliana Hatfield, a former indie favorite who also wound up signed to Atlantic. Karlzen grew up in northeast Illinois (in Palatine, not far from Chicago), where her parents owned a small grocery store and her grandmother owned a farm; as a teen, she moved with her family to South Florida. To this day her favorite outfit is a pair of overalls. She's generally quiet and sometimes shy around strangers, but never timid. Karlzen exudes an edgy confidence, as if she might be packing a weapon.

"Her bad days are really bad, and her good days are really good," explains Mark Scandariato, Karlzen's onetime boyfriend and current guitarist. "Her persona is so strong that it just carries over to everyone. I remember that from touring: When Mary's having a bad day, the whole van is quiet. When Mary's happy, the whole van is partying."

Karlzen's mood was good in the early Nineties. She persevered as a singer-songwriter even though her first band, the all-female Broward quartet Vesper Sparrow, had broken up after five years. Through her manager Rich Ulloa (owner of the local Y&T Records label, and the man who helped orchestrate a major-label deal for another of his clients, the country-rock band the Mavericks), she caught the ear of Jennifer Stark, a young A&R executive working in Atlantic's New York City offices.

Late in 1993 Ulloa convinced Stark to fly down to watch Karlzen perform at Miami Beach's now-defunct Stephen Talkhouse. At the time, Karlzen's music mixed equal parts country, folk, and roots rock. "What drew me to Mary," Stark recalls, "is that I thought she had a really interesting hybrid of American music. There are a lot of other artists who are doing that now, but at the time there weren't. In a lot of ways she was ahead of her time."

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Rafer Guzman