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Sound Strategies

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In 2001, record producer Craig Schumacher and Tape Op magazine founder Larry Crane created the alternative recording-industry conference TapeOpCon after appearing together on a panel at Austin's South by Southwest festival (SxSW). TapeOpCon's focus was the art of making records, from the technical to the theoretical, with both panel discussions and hands-on workshops, and its intended audience was recording enthusiasts, from top producers to home-studio gearheads. After six years in New Orleans (with a post-Katrina break in Tucson, Ariz., Schumacher's hometown), Crane decided to focus exclusively on the magazine. Schumacher opted to continue with the conference, choosing a new name, the Pot Luck Audio Conference, or PotLuckCon ('because everybody brings something to the table"), but maintaining a strong commitment to New Orleans, with more than 32 workshops augmenting three days of panels.

'We're not just coming to use the hospitality, party on Bourbon Street and "see-ya-later,'" he says. "We want to grow in New Orleans, and stay in New Orleans."

This year's conference is sponsored by Louisiana Economic Development, the state agency charged with supporting and attracting new business initiatives, and will feature five major panels, two of which will focus specifically on the South's contributions to the recording industry's history and its future. One discussion is dedicated to the "New Orleans sound," a two-hour moderated conversation between J&R Studios legend Cosimo Matassa, A.F.O. Records founder Harold Battiste, master arranger and "Creole Beethoven" Wardell Quezergue, Piety Street Studios owner Mark Bingham and Grammy-winning producer and longtime Rounder Records label executive Scott Billington.

Schumacher joined forces with Reid Wick, a Gulf Coast representative for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, to put together the convention's newest segment, which he calls "an event within the event." It's "Urban Edge," four hours and two panels on Saturday that will focus entirely on hip-hop production. It represents a bit of a leap for the event, which had previously focused on Tape Op's predominantly white, indie-rocker readership (which includes Schumacher himself).

'Just because I make records for [the indie-rock labels] Anti and Merge doesn't mean I can't share information [with hip-hop and dance music producers]," Schumacher says, pointing out that the nuts and bolts of good recording have much in common regardless of genre. Working with samples, drum machines and the ever-present vocoder may be different than, say, miking a mandolin for a Calexico recording, but plenty of skills do translate. And as anyone who buys home-burned rap CDs at the flea market can attest to (or anyone who has listened to Lil Wayne's prolific output of Internet-only singles over the last year), home recording is huge in the urban music scene.

The two "Urban Edge" panels bring together a Memphis-heavy group of artists and engineers. The first panel, on hip-hop in filmmaking, includes rapper and producer Al Kapone and music supervisor Scott Bomar, who both worked on the soundtrack for the 2005 film Hustle and Flow, plus Memphis-based mixing engineer Slicse Tee and moderator Jon Hornyak, the senior executive director of NARAS' Memphis chapter. (There is no New Orleans chapter.) The second panel gathers a group of Grammy Award-winning urban music producers with a collective resumé that includes Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz, Beyoncé, Ludacris and Aretha Franklin. New Orleans producer Raj Smoove, best known for his work with Cash Money Records, also appears.

PotLuckCon has already gained the respect of the recording-equipment giant Universal Audio, which is sponsoring the conference and unveiling two new products at the event " a move that Schumacher says is "kind of shaking up the industry," as new equipment is usually debuted on a prescribed calendar at certain longstanding trade shows and conferences.

Schumacher is a mile-a-minute talker with contagious enthusiasm and an earnest unpretentiousness that seems completely genuine, even goofy. (A compendium of quotes overheard among presenters at TapeOpCon 2006 still posted on the Web site include gems like "One of the best recording techniques I know is to say, "I meant to do that.'") He puts quotes around the word "industry" when he describes the people who twiddle the knobs and position the microphones in the rooms where songs get committed to tape (or these days, digital files).

'The producer's job is somewhere between an artist and a janitor," he says. "It's not the glamour profession that Hollywood would have you believe." Indeed, recording technology and the musical distribution platform have changed radically over the seven years since the first TapeOpCon, from the increase in inexpensive home recording equipment to the possible demise of the CD itself.

'I know budgets for labels are being cut, CD sales are dropping, gas costs are going up but you need to tour to support a record," Schumacher adds. "It filters down to everybody who's running recording studios. Some really big studios are closing. And there are so many ways to get your recordings out now." With the decline of the record store and the rise of digital music purchasing, Schumacher wonders, will people continue to own tangible objects like CDs as vehicles for music? And with the growing use of Web sites like MySpace.com to promote bands, programs like Apple's GarageBand to record and edit, and SnoCap (www.snocap.com) or iTunes (www.itunes.com) to distribute, how long will the label/studio model stay viable?

'The power is kind of in the hands of the people again," he said. "At a lot of conferences, you see a lot of hand-rubbing and "What do we do?'" At PotLuckCon, he says, he hopes the question will be an enthusiastic "How do we adapt?"

As for growing and staying in New Orleans, PotLuckCon has already committed to dates in the city for its next conference in June 2009, and Schumacher says his big hope is that PotLuckCon will eventually do for New Orleans what SXSW has done for Austin.

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