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Welcome to the Machine

Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

Nik Frost is just inches away from the ever-elusive record deal that can make him a household name and maybe provide him with a house on the beach. Though he’s currently in the catbird seat fielding offers from competing record companies, this affair didn’t happen overnight. Frost and his suitors are courting now, but there was a lot of behind-the-scenes participation by other people that helped bring this Hollywood dog-and-pony show to its present stage. As you will see, the word participation plays a rather large role in this story.

The best shot an artist has at making it is to convince a benefactor, or a series of them, that he’s worth investing in, and, hopefully, they can then enter into what is known as a development deal. The different kinds of deals vary widely, and whether they’re initiated by a producer, A&R man, manager or label, they can often lead to long, happy, secure careers, or miserable, contentious relationships that waste years in litigation. Some deals are done on napkins, some are done on legal paper, while others might be written in blood; whatever the case, it’s about an individual party’s agreement to help finance the evolution of an artist in the hope that he/she will be the new sensation.

According to Glenn Davis of Nik Frost’s legal team, Myman Abell Fineman Greenspan & Light, development deals can be as simple as they sound in concept, but when put on paper can be extremely lengthy documents. “These are the types of deals,” he says, “where you can sit in a class for three hours, read textbooks for five, and you still might not understand all the information.”

The everyday music consumer might not have a clue about what “points” or “recovering costs” are, and, as in the motion-picture industry, there’s a lot of legal jargon, but here’s a basic outline of the most common deals:

 

The Producer or A&R

Whether it’s an agreement made with a producer or an A&R rep, the function of a development deal remains the same: The goal is to put the artist in the studio, produce a demo that’s slick enough to present to a record company, and then make sure that the artist is ready to “showcase” his wares for solicited label people. This process might require a lot of time and money, as an artist may need a rehearsal space, equipment, studio time and, in many cases, little items like cell phones. If the producer has a studio, great; otherwise that has to be paid for, and these costs will all add up and be recouped when the artist is successfully “shopped” to a label.

The A&R (Artists & Repertoire) rep works for a label, and there are non-label freelancers who work in a similar capacity, which is to bring artists and labels together. No matter who laid out the cash, there are myriad ways that the producer receives what are known as “recovering costs.” There are producer royalties (for demo tracks that end up on the finished product), shares of advances (from the label) and an “override royalty” (sharing the royalties for an album or two). The producer would also “participate” (get a cut) as the overseer of the recording, and receive additional moneys per track. The freelance rep is often paid additional fees by the record company just for hooking it all up.

 

The Label

Though it’s more common with the boy-band phenomenon, there are instances when a label will bankroll the entire project, from soup to nuts. “There are labels out there who will put an artist in the studio on a handshake, just to have the first opportunity,” says Davis, “but there are others who will require what they call ‘matching rights.’ What this means is that, if the label puts you in the studio and finances your demo, only for you to be courted by another label, they have the right to match whatever deal you could get just to keep you in-house.”

While having a label believe in you from the start sounds wonderful, there are cases where the music machine is like a bad episode of Fantasy Island, leaving the artist begging to go home, only he can’t go home because touring is an essential way to earn back some of the money he’s in for. There is also that horrible situation where the artist believes he’s getting “paid,” only to figure out that three square meals and a little per-diem money isn’t shit when (as Kool Keith warned) “you got your manager’s name on your credit card” and ends up coming home not only with less than he would have earned working at 7-Eleven but in even more debt, which raises the stakes and puts more pressure on the next album. For all intents and purposes, the label becomes The Man, and you become its bitch.

 

MEET NIK FROST:

How the industry handles you as an artist might be determined by how you have used the industry. Nik Frost didn’t wait for a Svengali of Lou Pearlman proportions to manipulate his good looks and strong voice and throw him in boy-band school; he was out creating his own markets with cutting-edge artists the world over. Shying away from typical pop music and foot-sleeping “alterna-rock,” the L.A.-born singer/multi-instrumentalist fled to Europe and immediately found work with producer Malcolm McLaren, and signed his own deal with the president of Warner Bros. Europe. Under this agreement, Frost was free to work with McLaren in his electronic hip-hop project ON. He went on to collaborate in several other electronic projects, ranging from trip-hop to electro and drum ’n’ bass. Frost’s growing résumé included vocal and instrumental work with Ninja Tune’s Wagon Christ and Coldcut, and singing on highly successful projects with Sly & Robbie, Air Liquide and Reis$$dorf Force.

But Frost wasn’t happy enough just crooning on other people’s tracks, and he wasn’t ready to give up his Great Rock Hope; so, after having learned how to be a studio wiz in the electronic sphere, he returned to the States and gave rock & roll another chance. It was about a year and half ago that his then-manager, John Zagata, hooked Frost up with renowned producer Keith Forsey (Billy Idol, Nina Hagen, Psychedelic Furs). Aside from shelves of awards and a surfboard appropriately named “Rebel Yell,” Forsey has a great eye for talent, and decided to take on the Frost project himself.

“We started cutting some material, and we realized we needed money to finance the whole thing,” Forsey recalls. “I was working with a financier on another project and entertained getting money for Nik, but I began talking to myself and said, ‘If you really believe in this, why don’t you finance it?’” And, after drawing up an agreement (which neither Frost nor Forsey has yet gotten around to signing), an initial investment of 40 grand turned to 80 grand; it was a huge chunk for anyone, especially when there were no guarantees that Forsey would see a return on his investment. Luckily, Forsey has his own studio, so he could allocate the funds wisely. When his budget doubled, he and Frost sat down again and loosely renegotiated so that Forsey would receive a little more in publishing. “Not too much, where we feel like it’s rape and pillage,” he insists, “but just enough so I felt like I was getting some return for my money and that I’m participating in the project.”

Going beyond the role of fund-raiser and producer, Forsey became a mentor to Frost, recognizing in him what he saw in the other superstars he produced. “Most of the artists that I’ve worked with have super identities,” he says. “Nikki has a strong character, and for me what’s driving the whole project is that I believe he’ll be as big as those people.” Forsey advised Frost to find his own voice, and, rather than drawing on outside material, Frost came into the studio with originals that his producer could tweak and contribute to.

For better or worse, Forsey became so close to Frost â that his mentor’s role almost transformed him into a co-artist, and he decided to take a step back. He also foresaw the need for more funds, so he and Zagata called on management/A&R consultant Ken Blaustein, who set up an acoustic showcase to hype Frost to a few more labels. Another A&R man, Sean-E, and producer Fred Maher were also invited as consultants; Blaustein, Sean-E and Maher offered their services free of charge. By the time Frost’s showcase set was over, his career would shift into the next phase; he had a big label interested in entering negotiations, an A&R team willing to cough up some more money, and a powerhouse producer willing to offer some more studio time on spec.

Blaustein had already been a Nik Frost fan and, in an industry that gives away promotional CDs like candy, had actually bought Frost’s CD online. Says Blaustein, “I’ve been watching him write and develop, and when I saw him reach his stride where his music represented where he needed to be as an artist, I started reaching out to people who could help him in the marketplace.” Sean-E is three for three with his last deals, getting Human Lab and Flying Tigers signed to Atlantic, and co-shopping Otep to Capitol with Xen Lang.

Wanting another success with Frost, the whole team discussed possible changes in approach. “I heard the hooks,” Sean-E says, “but I heard it in a different way; to me, a lot of the stuff sounded real dance-y, almost like remixes before the real song.” Maher (producer of Lou Reed’s New York and other chart hits) agreed, as did Frost, to stripping the tracks down in favor of a live-band sound. Maher brought Frost into his Standard Electrical Recorders studio to add that grit the selections required.

Sean-E coins Frost’s style as “huge, gigantic rock,” for people who listen to rock every day and want to hear “big, giant fucking hooks!” But he insists that he’s not taking the electronica out of Mr. Frost. “I don’t want to change what Nik is about as an artist, but I want his songs to be represented better, and I didn’t want it to be restricted to the world of electronica.”

But how does Frost feel about the more “radio-friendly” approach? “If I’m writing these big inspirational songs about the human condition,” he says, “and I’m not fulfilling the vision of what’s inside me because I’m sitting on Pro Tools all day, then it’s up to me to give my vision over to them and say, ‘Listen to this, what do you think?’” Frost made the important decision to be a conduit of his vision rather than the sole controller of it.

The results are proving liberating for Frost, because he is now allowed to think and feel as an artist, instead of endlessly hunching over a computer digitally chopping up guitar and drum parts. But he hasn’t lost the techno bug; Frost is still collaborating on other, exclusively electronic projects, the most recent of which had him singing on some of superstar DJ/producer Paul Oakenfold’s tracks. “I grew up a club kid, and I’ll always work in that genre, but for my own project, I’m learning to step back from an artistic vision that’s bigger than me.”

Ultimately, the difference between Nik Frost and Lou Pearlman dreck is that Nik Frost knows what he wants and comes correct with the complete package; he’s an artist who can merge techno-pop and modern rock, and is capable of supplying a record company with the chords, the voice and the image. He won’t change for anybody unless he feels it’s what he wants to do. “Nikki’s a hardheaded kind of guy,” says Forsey. “When I have things in my head that I want him to do, he’ll listen, but he’ll go balls-to-the-wall his way, and we have to give him that freedom.”

At the end of the day, Frost and Co. will all have worked hard at selling him as an artist to a label, and will negotiate with his lawyer, Jeff Light, over how to wrap up the deal. And while some development deals equate “participation” with a GoodFellas–like vibe (“Fuck you, pay me!”), Forsey insists that the arrangement they worked out is “artist-driven,” a pact that encourages the artist’s ability to create and participate in his own success.

“When the time comes,” says Sean E., “we’ll all sit down and go with what makes everybody feel cool. I’ve never had a situation where people aren’t high-fiving and hugging at the end of a meeting.”


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