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VALLEY WEEKEND

Self-Made CDs Boost Local Bands

Affordable equipment, low manufacturing costs and easy desktop publishing help groups aim for the big time.

September 12, 1996|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SoundPost Records in North Hollywood is a bare-bones operation. Its office--a spare bedroom--contains a computer, a printer, a fax machine, a large folding table and several filing cabinets. It has no bank account and its main assets--some 800 compact discs--are in boxes under the table in the dining room.

SoundPost CEO Ritt Henn has a deal with only one recording artist: himself.

The term "record label" may invoke the almighty Capitol Records tower, but far removed from any mega-corporation are thousands of micro-labels like SoundPost. And like Henn's operation, most have a simple goal: getting their music heard.

A confluence of factors--cheap recording equipment, the low cost of manufacturing CDs, the ease of desktop publishing--has swept up countless aspiring musicians and created a flood of self-produced CDs.

Few argue with the fact that there are more bands than ever, and nearly every band--if not every individual member--has its own label.

Henn's new CD, "It's Me!" is a perfect example of recording on the cheap. He used a friend's home studio in trade for playing bass with the friend's band. He designed the insert on his Macintosh. For a few thousand dollars he has a CD of high enough quality that Virgin Megastores have agreed to sell it on consignment.

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It's not the money, though, that got Henn into the CD biz; in fact he laughs out loud at the suggestion. It's the sense of accomplishment, he said, and a feeling of having completed those 15 songs so he can move onto the next batch. And he no longer has the excuse of, "Gee, if only I had a CD, I'd be that much further in my career."

Gary Hustwit, author of the how-to guide "Releasing an Independent Record," said that even if bands don't make money on their CDs, they aren't losing the money they used to on vinyl or cassette demos. Because CDs cost $1-$2 apiece to make and retail for $10-$15, bands can sell them at shows or stores and cover their recording costs--or earn money toward their next CD.

"Putting out a CD is the best thing a band can do for itself," he said. "It's [money] better spent than some hot new drum kit. There's so much that can happen. There are so many things that can get set in motion that you can't even comprehend."

The keystone of the bridge between musicians and their CDs is cheap recording equipment. Though prices on analog equipment have been falling since the early 1980s, the flash point came in the early '90s when cheap eight-track recorders hit the market, quickly followed in 1992 by a digital unit for less than $4,000. The prices have since dropped even lower.

With this equipment, bands can record their music for a fraction of the cost of renting a recording studio. The proliferation of home studios--some estimates are in the tens of thousands--has killed off some smaller commercial studios, said George Petersen, editor of Mix Magazine. Other studios are filling in the gaps by mixing and mastering tracks recorded in home studios.

The Silver Lake-based band Popdefect has been together since 1980, but just embarked on the home studio odyssey this year. The 16-track studio is a co-op with two other bands, and the plan is to rent it out to defray cost of the equipment, said singer and bassist Charlie Hutchinson. But the band has been producing its own recordings--including the 1995 CD "Live at Big Bear"--for years.

"Getting any music out 15 years ago was more difficult. People didn't have the do-it-yourself mentality then," said Hutchinson. "It was always some mystical process that only the major labels knew how to do. Now, we've figured it out for ourselves."

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The reigning queen of do-it-yourself is Ani DiFranco, who founded Righteous Babe Records in 1990 and remains its only act. As a result, she earns more money per record sold than any major-label recording artist. While a major label might have launched her into instant Hootie & the Blowfish orbit, she's content keeping complete artistic control.

"My problem with the guys who run the music industry is that their only priority is to make money. My priority is to make music," DiFranco told The Times in July. "The fact is they need artists more than artists need them."

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Few are as successful as DiFranco's Righteous Babe, but thousands of people have ponied up for business licenses and started their own label. Sales of Hustwit's book, "Releasing an Independent Record," reflect the growth: The first edition in 1991 sold a few hundred copies; now he's working on a sixth edition and has sold nearly 25,000 copies.

While independent record labels always have been part of the music business, Hustwit said, hundreds more have started--and thrived--in recent years because of the inflated price of CDs. Vinyl records cost almost as much to produce as CDs, but the retail cost was lower. Only the major labels, which could sell high volumes of vinyl records, could make it pay off.

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