Elm City Music hits the charts
Locally-based label goes national
By Hank Hoffman
Michael Caplan is pumped. Sitting in the control room of Horizon Recording Studio with studio owner — and Elm City Music record label partner — Vic Steffens the day after the release of their label’s first record, Adrenaline Mob’s Omertà, Caplan tracks its sales progress on his iPhone.
“It’s the number 33 album on iTunes. We were born March 13, 2012. Trans World sold 110. They’re predicting 333. We’ll be on the charts next week — we’ll probably end up going in the Top 100,” Caplan says to Steffens.
Caplan returned to New Haven after 30 years living in New York, most of that time working in A&R, or artists and repertoire, for Sony. In that capacity, Caplan signed major acts like Living Colour, Allman Brothers Band, Tower of Power, the Hasidic reggae rapper Matisyahu, and Chicano power-rock trio Los Lonely Boys. His work in the record business began when he was 16 and got a job at Cutler’s Records, Tapes & Compact Discs in New Haven.
“I met Vic when I first started working in New York. I purposely sought him out because I thought one day I might want to come home and would tie in with the biggest and best studio in Connecticut,” says Caplan. “My son went off to college so I felt the time was right.”
With Caplan’s track record of having discovered and developed artists that have sold in excess of 30 million records, Elm City Music secured a deal with EMI, home of The Beatles. Along with distributing Elm City Music releases, EMI agreed to become a contributing financial partner, putting up money to sign and market acts.
According to Caplan, their deal with EMI “makes us the first nationally distributed Connecticut label ever.”
Their first signing was Adrenaline Mob, a heavy metal supergroup comprised of former members of Avenged Sevenfold, Symphony X, Disturbed, and Dream Theater.
The label plans to offer a wide range of music. In the pipeline are records by a Brooklyn hip-hop group and, according to Caplan, an L.A.-based rock band “with a principal me and Vic think could be the next Freddie Mercury.” Caplan adds that they would “love to make Connecticut acts part of our thing.”
I ask Caplan what he looks for in a potential signing.
“For me, it’s always about the singer and the song. It comes down to melody. Sometimes people — Vic is not guilty of this — but people who engage in the craft of making records get too caught up in the importance of the mechanics of it,” Caplan says.
Caplan offers an example from his experience as an A&R man back in the early 1990s when Nirvana’s explosive success upended the music business. He recalls the manager of Living Colour — a black rock band led by guitarist Vernon Reid that Caplan had discovered — attributing Nirvana’s success to the kick drum sound achieved by recording engineer Andy Wallace.
“He said, ‘That kick drum sound is so seductive,’ when it had nothing to do with it at all! It was a cultural revolution,” Caplan recalls with a chuckle.
“I believe a record should be as well made as possible but at the end of the day it’s about the singer and the song,” says Caplan.
“When we looked at this band Adrenaline Mob — our first band — they were members of other bands that had notoriety so they already had a base. It’s good if you can find artists that already have a head start,” says Caplan.
Steffens says that while having a band whose members are known quantities is a plus, Adrenaline Mob will succeed on the strength of frontman Russell Allen — “he’s one of the best singers in that market out there” — and their songs. Their debut album, Omertà, “has at least four really great singles,” Steffens says.
As I talk with Steffens, Caplan checks his iPhone for sales updates.
“Know how many iTunes albums we sold yesterday? 1,066 albums — they’re projecting 2,300 for the week. Dude, we may hit 7,000!” A few minutes later, he has more news: “Best Buy, first day — 526!” Then, “Now Best Buy’s taking it national to all 350 stores!”
“I feel Connecticut — and New Haven in particular — contributed to me being in music. There is a distinctive sound,” Caplan says.
Connecticut, according to Caplan, has an affinity for “a lot of southern rock, progressive rock, Chicago and horn bands, Tower of Power.” Caplan was a big fan of Tower of Power when he worked at Cutler’s and got to work with the band years later at Sony.
“When Tower of Power albums came out the first week they would chart Top 200 in San Francisco and
Oakland where they’re from and in Hartford/New Haven,” says Caplan.
“There are two separate things we’re dealing with: Elm City Music and Vic’s studio Horizon. The reason we’re together is I think there are going to be a lot of crossed paths here. If we find something great locally, which we do want to do, we’ll develop it here in the studio,” Caplan says.
The music business has changed in the last 20 years. Steffens refers to it as the “democratization of the record business.” Digital technology has put professional recording tools within reach of everyday musicians.
Steffens notes, “There used to be a wall you would hit but couldn’t cross unless you had big money” to finance sessions in nationally known studios. “But now you can cross that line if you have talent.”
The Adrenaline Mob record, for example, was mostly recorded in guitarist Mike Orlando’s basement.
Social media has revolutionized the marketing end of the business.
Caplan notes, “It costs less to get 600,000 people on Facebook” than to get six radio stations to play a record.”
“We’ll be using both old and new where appropriate. One of the great things about Adrenaline Mob is that drummer Mike Portnoy has 600,000 Facebook friends. It’s great to be able to direct-market to those people,” says Caplan.
For heavy metal bands like Adrenaline Mob, he adds, radio is still important and Elm City Music plans to push that avenue, also.
“Be nimble and do whatever is necessary to get your message out,” Caplan says. “And don’t balk at the changing of the times.”