Friday, August 06, 2004

When ‘Close’ Is More Than Close Enough

Biting off more than I could chew. I sat down yesterday evening to prepare for my next substantial series of blog entries, centered on the two women in my lifetime whom I have called “Mom.” I realized I wasn’t quite ready to write it. The two inch-thick book on the family history of my maternal Grandfather and his progeny has extensive information on all twelve of the family’s children. The chapter on my Mother is even more substantial than I had remembered it being, so I really want to take some time to read through it so that I'll be prepared to write as complete a tribute to her as possible. I will try to get it all written this weekend, but not today. I apologize for the change in plans, but I probably should have thought it through first.

Instead I have another subject I will touch upon briefly which Aimee had requested I speak about several weeks ago — my career in the record biz. But first, a little more-recent background...

Playing A Different Tune
I’m a corporate Web Designer now and I love what I do. I was the first person I knew to jump aboard the Internet bandwagon back in 1994 with my first dial-up Unix-based ISP account. At that point it was just a matter of flailing away in the darkness — literally. There was no such thing as a GUI World Wide Web. Everything was text/syntax-based on a black screen.

Telnet, Usenet, Gopher, FTP — tenants of the Internet that the common user now has little or no concept of, these were the original Internet tools with which information was moved and harvested. They were a wonderful curiosity to me when I first got started, as I stumbled in with no prior knowledge beyond hearing the term ‘Internet’ a few times on TeeVee.

This was long before mass-consumer ISP accounts were even offered. AOL was still a proprietary ‘bulletin board’ type service. The Internet was still primarily the domain of academia and government. I had no clue how to do anything. I learned by trial and error. It was as frustrating as it was wondrous.

Back then the thing that distinguished the Web as such a wonderful new frontier was the advent of hyperlinks that you could click with your mouse and magically jump to another web page. Keep in mind though that you were still looking at white or sometimes green text on a black screen; it was still quite primitive by today’s standards.

Then along came the first graphical web browsers.

The first one I ever saw was a browser called Chello. It was the first browser developed exclusively for the Windows operating system. I remember just being floored by the difference between GUI and the UNIX text screens I’d grown used to. It was so exciting and different to see brilliant text and graphics, all composed together like a brochure on my monitor.

Later, Mosaic and Netscape were released. When Internet Explorer appeared on the scene it wasn't even owned by Microsoft yet.

But with this new means of displaying information, almost immediately I knew my life — and my vocation — were forever changed.

I saw the handwriting on the wall. I saw that this new graphics-rich World Wide Web was the future of my profession as a graphic designer, and knew that I needed to get in on the ground floor.

There’s much more from those early days of my Internet experience that I’d like to talk about eventually, but that’s not really what my story is about today.

As a prelude, I wanted to explain what lead me to the point of deciding to take my career in the direction I still pursue today; a much different one from that which I had assumed would be my lifelong focus.

I came to Nashville believing I would always work in the record business, but it obviously wasn’t meant to be. And while it may seem as though I’m sorta pining for the old days, I’m really not; the music industry has changed, and it’s many more times as difficult to make a decent living doing what I used to do now than it was 20 years ago. I consider myself lucky to have been involved at the place in time that I was.

There are indeed a lot of things I miss about the business. What I don’t miss is the pressure, the all-nighters, and the politics that were always a trade-off for the ‘privilege’ of working in such a prestigious medium.

The time in my life that I devoted to that earliest of my professional pursuits is a point of great pride; it doesn’t define me in any way, but it was one of the many things I now feel humbled to have been a part of. It was hard work but was also a helluva lot of fun.

Working in ‘The Business’
Up until 1995, I had exclusively worked as a commercial illustrator and graphic designer, with the bulk of my career being devoted to the record industry. In California I worked first as a freelance Production Artist for a well-known Art Director in the Jazz music packaging world, and later as in-house Art Director for her brother-in-law’s small, but highly significant Jazz and Adult Contemporary record label in Burbank, CA.

In 1992, I moved my family to Nashville for the expressed purpose of enjoying a better environment for them, while also being able to continue my then-current career path.

I assumed that the career move be a lateral one. However the music business — as is the case in a lot of industries — is dominated by the good ol’ boy network. It has nothing to do with Nashville in particular; it’s that way anywhere you go in the record biz. And that reality isn’t necessarily the work of some nefarious, underhanded parochial force; it’s really a matter of necessity.

The record business is a tight-deadline, gotta-get-it-done-right-the-first-time endeavor. It’s an industry that doesn’t take a lot of chances on outsiders that it doesn’t know it can trust implicitly. You really of have to pay your dues and/or know someone in the business to get a shot. I had done both in California; working for four years basically as an apprentice before receiving my opportunity to go full-time with the record company.

However, once I arrived in Music City, I learned the hard way that sometimes you have to prove yourself more than once.

Although I had received many favorable reviews around Nashville, showing my portfolio of previous work in California, I soon learned just how tough an in-house Art Director position similar to the one I had just left was to come by.

Although I was able to get enough freelance work to make a living upon arriving in Music City, my previous two years in-house experience sorta spoiled me on the idea of actually getting a paycheck every week. I began to entertain the thought that perhaps it was time to look for something different.

Had the Web not thrown itself in front of me as it did in 1995, I may have worked through and stayed in the music industry, but looking back, I’m secure in the belief that I made the proper move for me and my family.

Nevertheless, the decade I spent chasing my dream career will be a period in my life that I’ll always cherish.

My Other 15 Minutes
Apart from family considerations, there are two areas in my life that contain what I would consider my proudest moments; my “15 minutes of fame,” if you will. One is my regional and national success in Gymnastics in high school and college. The other is my career in the record business.

Certainly the proudest moments of that 10-year career were produced by my involvement in two Grammy-winning albums, in two different capacities.

Naturally, the holy grail for anyone involved in the design of music packaging is to win a Grammy. Yes, there is a Best Album Design category. And no, unfortunately, I never won one, although the design of the two projects in question were ones I’m particularly proud of. However, the next best thing is to winning a Grammy for the package design, is to at least be involved with a project that wins one for the music itself. As I’m sure you can imagine, playing any role in the creation of something so prestigious as a Grammy Award-winning album, is a heady experience indeed.

The first one was the 1987 MCA Master Series release by Larry Carlton, Discovery. This was my first major freelance project working with Caitlin, the art director who would become such an influential figure in my music industry career. It’s a great album if you enjoy contemporary Jazz, and was particularly well-received at the time, due to the place C-Jazz held in the hierarchy of pop music in the late-80s-early-90s.

Larry Carlton remains today as one of the masters of the genre. This is perhaps his finest album, and probably his most commercially successful as well. It was an arduous project, involving an investment of hours that I wouldn’t even begin to try to estimate. The album won one Grammy (Best Pop Instrumental Performance) and was nominated for another (Best Jazz Fusion Performance).

Gettin’ Dizzy
Four years later, while working at the record company, my involvement with the second Grammy winner of my career was far more significant.

The label had its own stable of artists, but released the majority of its product via re-issue license agreements with small-ish, foreign record labels. One of those was a German label called Enja.

Specializing in ‘straight-ahead’ or modern traditional Jazz, Enja was, quite literally, a ‘Mom & Pop’ operation. The president of the label was a man who produced, signed and promoted classic Jazz performers from all over the world. His wife designed the packaging. Let’s just say, the husband was a lot better at his job than the wife was, IMO.

We had exclusive distribution rights to Enja titles in the U.S. Most of the artists were talented yet under-promoted. Sales were less-than-stellar for most of them. However every so often we’d stick in our thumb into the Enja pie and pull out a real plumb. Such was the case in 1991 with a previously European-only-released live album recorded in London by legendary Jazz trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie.

This was a project the record company really believed they could make an impact with. It was a great album, and Dizzy, although quite elderly, was still a top figure in the genre of traditional Jazz.

The original album artwork was typically unexciting. So we decided to take the time and money to completely re-do the package design. The result was a clean design that was well received throughout the industry, as was the music.

Dizzy Gillespie and the United Nation Orchestra’s, Live at the Royal Festival Hall won the 1991 Grammy Award for ‘Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance.’

I designed a companion promotional poster featuring the cover artwork which I had the great pleasure of having Dizzy himself sign. It was then and continues to be one of my most prized possessions. I actually have a second, non-personalized copy that he also signed that I’ve considered putting up on eBay someday, just to see how much it might bring.

We Don’t Need No Stinking Cigars!
It was a crazy, high-pressure business, but I had a great time. It was a period in my life when I felt much more significant, professionally, than perhaps I do now. However, all things considered, it’s easy now to view the experience through rose-colored specs, dismissing the long hours and relatively low pay of working for an independent label. It was hardly fun and games, but more than worth the experience. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. It was my dream job, and for a time, my dream came true. Not everyone can say that.

Do I ever think about how far I could have gone if I’d stayed in the business? Sure; who doesn’t think about what might have been? However, I don’t choose to see my experience as ‘close, but no cigar.’ What I got out of it was all the satisfaction I needed — then or now.

I may not have exactly hit ‘the big time,’ but it was big enough for me.

Sometimes ‘close’ is more than close enough.


I will have at least the first two parts of "Word to my Mothers" up this weekend. Have a great one everybody...
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