Gary Benchley, Rock Star

Meet the Label

Are the acoustics to blame when some executive’s fancy stereo makes your demo sound like mush, or was it really mush in the first place? Can mush rule the world?

Schizopolis was supposed to meet Chris Neffly, founder of Original Syn records, in a bar downtown, so that we could discuss our future on his label. I wasn’t sure exactly what Chris did, but I knew it involved writing checks, checks that could turn Schizopolis from a side project to a real band on a real label with real tour support, in a real van that ran on real gas. Basically, he was Gepetto, and we were Pinocchio. I was nervous, but Scott advised me to play it cool.

“It could work,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, there’ll be something else.”

When we arrived at the bar, only our potential semi-manager Lou Tremolo was there, drinking a whiskey on the rocks.

“Change of plans,” said Lou, shaking our hands. “Chris wants us to come up to his apartment. It’s only a few blocks away.”

We left and marched over to Soho, a neighborhood I don’t know well. Scott, Jacob, and Katherine were impressed, though.

“Where did he get his money?” Jacob asked Lou.

“Internet,” Lou said, and shrugged. Sometimes I feel that I was born too late. Had I come along five years before, I could have started my own internet company and become a billionaire, or at least a millionaire. Then I could also have my own label.

Chris’s building looked sort of tired and rusty, so he couldn’t be that rich. He buzzed us in. We took the elevator up to his apartment, and when we got off I looked for a hallway of some kind, until I realized that the entire floor was a single apartment.

“Shoes off!” said a short man with carefully groomed shaggy hair and sideburns, a little on the fat side, calling from many yards away, near the windows. “Shoes off!” He had a high, kind of whiny voice.

We removed our shoes. I was conscious of a hole in my right sock revealing a longish toenail. I checked my bandmates, and Lou, but they had perfect socks. Katherine’s were blue with white stripes. We entered the living room—more like an atrium—stepping on to a huge, thick white carpet. It looked like Muppet skin.

“I love this carpet,” Scott said.

“That’s Donald,” said Chris. At first I thought he meant the carpet, and I wondered what that meant. Maybe the very wealthy named their furnishings. But Chris was talking about a tall, thin guy on the couch, about my age. We entered the atrium and went through the regular hand-shaking ritual.

“Busy day,” said Chris. He came over to shake our hands. We took seats on the low, angular set of sofas that wrapped around a huge aluminum coffee table. The table was stacked with fashion and music magazines with obscure names. Some of them had stickers where the price was in pounds.

“So what do they know?” Chris asked Lou. “Should I give my spiel?”

“Give your spiel,” said Lou.

“The most important fact about me,” said Chris, “is that I always wanted to play guitar. And if you went back to my bedroom, you’d find that there are six guitars there, many of them vintage, but then you might ask, ‘What does he do with these guitars?’ And the sad answer is nothing. They remain unplucked and unfingered.”

“I know how that feels,” said Katherine.

Lou shot her a warning glance, and Chris continued.

“The problem, and this is the second most important fact, is I have absolutely no talent for playing. Actually, I have no talent for practicing. This was a hard lesson to learn, but the world is filled with hard lessons. But I have other talents that are compelling. And earned through experience. One of them is management. And another is brand strategy and marketing. The other is listening.”

“I like to listen, too,” I said.

“Listening to music, to people, to ideas. And then acting on the listening.” His voice lowered and became serious. “Six months ago I got back from India, where I’d gone to replenish myself. And what I decided, what I realized mattered, was music. It’s what people use to identify themselves. It’s the most cohesive social force in the world. I’d seen how people reacted to Bollywood movies, how important the songs are. I wanted to bring that here. So I decided to do something I could do. Which is create synergy.”

“Does this mean you like Indian musicals?” Jacob asked.

“No, what I like is synergy. And you know, I’m a big fan of serendipity, and a friend of mine introduced me to Lou.” Lou began to say something, and Chris cut him off. “I said, Lou, I want to start a label. And what I want to do is break down the silos in the music industry. I want to work closely with management. I want to work closely with the bands. I want to get rid of the middlemen, and really take everything I learned from the internet, from the four different companies I founded, from my entire experience, and bring it to bear here, on an independent label. And I want to focus on independent music. Independent rock, electronica. Who cares what kind of music? Those boundaries are artificial. What matters is the word ‘independent.’”

“That’s the word,” I said.

“But you look at independent rock, and there are too many dependencies. It’s the opposite of independent. The band is dependent on the manager, the manager is dependent on the goodwill of labels and venues, everyone has to deal with booking agents, and so instead of creating something unified, you build something that’s shattered, in fragments.”

I saw that Donald was moving his hands behind a laptop, probably checking email.

“There are too many layers, too many voices unheard,” Chris said. “There are mute inglorious Miltons out there. Mute inglorious Hendrixes, and Lou Reeds. Like a phone. They’re out there calling, but we have them on mute.” He paused, waiting for the laugh. Scott chuckled in a friendly way. “We have to press that button and get them off mute. So, with help from Lou, and also from Donald, but using my own investment capital, I created Original Syn. Which—you’ve noticed the spelling? That stands for synergy. Because that is what I’m looking for. I want to get the synergy model in a moment, but let me tell you why it’s so important. It’s because the mute inglorious aspect, which we just discussed, presents a unique business problem. Because in order to glorify the mute, what do we need to do?”

“Learn sign language?” I said.

“A good guess, and a funny answer, and I appreciate humor. But what we need to do is allow ourselves to understand the marketplace, to see it as a breathing entity, and to leverage the knowledge of other disciplines. We need to get rid of the dependencies. And we need to think seriously about branding. Now, you do not need to think seriously about branding. All right. In truth, I have not heard your demo.”

That was a little disappointing.

“But Lou feels that you are a good addition to Original Syn, and that carries weight around here, and Donald, you’ve heard it.”

“I’ve heard it.”

“What did you think? And excuse me,” he said to us, “but one of the most important variables in the Original Syn equation is openness. Which is why I said that I have not listened to your demo, and why I am asking Donald to present his opinion in front of the group.”

Donald, who had been staring into space, shifted in his seat, and looked over at us. “It’s fine,” he said.

“Another opinion that carries weight,” said Chris. “You can’t run a business like a democracy, but you can run it like a benevolent dictatorship, which is what I am doing, aim to do, once we’ve gotten the papers back from the lawyers.” He laughed to himself, and shook his head. “God help you if you want to incorporate a business in New York.”

“I’ve heard it’s hard,” said Scott. “Actually, regarding branding, I work for a brand consultancy—”

“Hard does not do it justice,” Chris said. “But what I do is carefully weight the analysis of those people who are my partners—not official partners, but this is a partnership organization, and also a learning organization, an organization with a strong knowledge base that comes out of varied experience. So it is a de-facto partnership.”

“Do you want to listen to the demo?” asked Lou.

“I do,” said Chris. “But before we do, I want to tell you about my synergy model. Because when I listen to the demo, that’s how I’ll be thinking about it.”

“Go for it,” said Jacob.

“Excellent,” said Chris. “So, this is something that I’ve lost a lot of sleep about. Are you ready?”

“I’m deeply ready,” I said.

“There are three kinds of synergy that are relevant to bands today,” said Chris, holding up three fingers. “One, there’s the synergy between the music and the performers. By which I mean, the way that the performers are able to really represent their music. You have no idea how many demos I get that sound great, but when you see who did it, it’s two pasty white guys with laptops.”

“We’re against that,” said Katherine.

“Right. The second form of synergy is what I call pop-culture synergy. That is, when a band is able to really get the Zeitgeist, and has a clear Weltanschauung that fits in with what’s going on out there today.”

“We’ve got Weltanschauung,” I said. “No doubt.”

“The key word is gestalt,” he said. “The gestalt is what matters.”

“Gestalt,” I said. “Definitely.”

Scott looked at me, shaking his head slightly.

“Now the third is what I call media synergy. Which means that, OK, we’re sending things out to radio, but we’re also distributing songs on peer-to-peer networks. We’ve got a website with a message board. We’ve got the visuals, the clothes, everything, we make that totally consistent. And I think you see that with Slake. Whose new album, by the way, is going to be fantastic.”

“I couldn’t agree more with that,” said Scott. “You need to use every channel.”

“So that’s what we do,” he said. “We make sure that the brand is totally consistent, that there’s a real gestalt. The look of the band, and the stage presence, and the website all work together, and people have a complete cognitive portrait of the group. And that cognitive portrait is what sells the music. God, I wish I had this in PowerPoint. Donald, we’re going to do a PowerPoint.”

“It’s done,” said Donald.

“Where is it?”

“It’s on your computer.”

“We’ll look at it later. But does the synergy model work? I think when you look at Slake, you can see this working,” said Chris. “We took Slake, a band that very few people knew, and we’ve got them in the studio, we’ve committed. But we’re also looking at how to tell the Slake story. And what is the Slake story? It’s about ecstasy. Colin is an ecstatic singer. And we’re going to manage the Slake tour, and work with partners to distribute the Slake CD. And that means more profits for Slake, and a better bottom line for us. And so we make that the gist of everything related to Slake. We gist-relate.”

He looked around, wild eyed, having lost the thread. I was still trying to figure out what “gist-relate” meant.

“So let’s listen to the demo,” he said, after an uncomfortable moment. Donald produced the demo from a bag on the floor and handed it to Chris.

“Hot off the presses, right?” said Chris. He padded across the room to a black monolith that I assumed was a stereo. It had about three dials, and a few VU meters. Chris inserted the CD into one of its chambers, and returned to the couch.

“Is there anything I should know?” he asked.

“Well, it’s still rough around the edges,” said Scott.

“Rough is fine,” said Chris. He fiddled with a book-sized slab of the same material that made up the stereo; it appeared to be the remote. The remote cast a weird green glow up onto Chris’s face, making him look like a mad scientist. “Here we go.”

I’d gone to a party a month ago, with friends of Para’s, and met a transsexual man who, from across the room, looked gorgeous. He was wearing a pantsuit. But when I got up close, I could see the stubble on his face, the muscles, and the Adam’s apple. Listening to ourselves on that stereo was like that; what had sounded great was now naked and exposed. My voice sounded like a chorus of toads.

But Chris was not as horrified. He skipped around the tracks, giving each one 10 seconds, then going back to “Hoyt-Schemerhorn.” “This one,” he said. “What is it? There’s something missing.”

“No electric,” I said.

“Oh, that’s amazing,” he said. “That’s the absence that makes it fascinating.” He paused the song. “There’s a parable in Taoism, where they point out how a vase is defined by its emptiness.” He waited for someone to say something.

“That’s exactly what we were going for,” said Jacob.

“Oh,” Chris said. “That’s perfect. You don’t mind me saying so, but that’s the dissonance that makes the cognitive portrait so much more rich.”

“We don’t mind you saying so,” said Katherine.

He skipped around some more, nodding. “There’s a lot in here,” he said. “A lot of thoughts, a lot of work.”

“That’s very true,” said Scott.

Chris pressed a switch and the entire stereo went dim, all the lights shining at half-brightness. The silence was as loud as the music. “All right,” he said. “Let me think about it.”

That was all he had for us, so we said goodbye and left with Lou.

“Chris liked it,” Lou said. “He’s just totally tied up with Slake right now.”

“Who is Donald?” asked Scott. “I wasn’t able to get that.”

“That guy is interesting,” said Lou. “Really skilled keyboard player. He’s been gigging since he was maybe 13. So the sense I get is, he’s dropping out of performing, trying to move over to the label side. But he’s totally serious. He’s all work.”

“He seemed that way,” Scott said. “No wasted words.”

“Right,” said Lou. “He creeps me out, honestly.”

“So what happens now?” I asked.

“Just hang out, all right?” said Lou, shrugging. “Whatever you want.”

“So you think it went OK?” asked Jacob.

“Yeah,” said Lou. He had his cell phone in his hand, and was obviously waiting to use it, so we left him, and made our way up to Broadway-Lafayette.

“I have no idea what the synergy model means to Schizopolis,” said Katherine.

“I know,” said Jacob, “but it seems like he’s interested. I talked to my friend Bob, in Toadpond,” said Jacob. “They got signed six months ago.”

“Oh, I know Toadpond,” said Scott.

“Anyway,” Jacob, said, “He said to go with it, see where it leads.”

“Had he heard of Lou?” I asked.

“No,” said Jacob. “But there are like a million managers. For your first album, you just have to take what you’re given. Besides, they’re working with Slake. That has to be good.”

“We just need to get started. Then we can worry about the second album.”

“Well, we need to finish this one first,” said Scott. “It sounded a little raw on that stereo.”

I was glad to know that I was not the only one to be mortified when I heard our sound through those trillion-dollar speakers.

“I think Lou is just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks,” said Jacob. “He said this thing with Original Syn is really new. So if we’re part of that, that’s great. We’re in on the ground floor.”

“God, that name,” said Katherine. “Original Synergy. Puke.”

“Yeah, but I think the impulse is right,” said Scott. “You want to bring all those threads together, and see if you can realize some economy from doing so. It’s not stupid.”

“Definitely not stupid,” I said, heart heavy with hope. “I think it can only help us.”