Of Love and Natalise

She dreams of being the next Janet Jackson, but she's just a Stanford grad who sings syrupy pop, looks absolutely fab, and makes local teens swoon.

Which, come to think of it, may be enough, for everyone involved.

Not endearing enough to hit the Billboard Hot 100, however.

"It's pretty discouraging the way the industry is going right now," says Tani T., blaming Internet file sharing and a weak economy for Forever Now's disappointing sales of fewer than 2,000 copies since its February 2003 release. Part of the reason it hasn't sold well -- if you ask me -- is because of all of those damn ballads. But she loves them.

"I like the slow ones. They lend themselves well to sentimentality," Natalise says. "Those are the songs I feel I can get the most emotion across."

"She's a sap," says Tani T. bluntly, and Natalise laughingly agrees. She's also forever optimistic. "People may say that I have lofty goals or whatever, but it's always worked out for me," she says.

But how likely is she to succeed, really? C. Michael Brae, who teaches record distribution and independent record company operations at San Francisco State University and has his own label, Hitman Records, says her success will be "based on how aggressive her internal managers are. Everything is based on performance, airplay, and sales. It's not about the music; it's all business. It's all controlled by the dollar."

I tell him about Natalise's parade of teeny-bopping fans, and her success getting her songs onto the radio. He's impressed, but says that it's not time to go knocking on Columbia Records' door, that more often than not the record companies will approach the artist, rather than the other way around.

And how does one get on the labels' radar? Brae says it's almost exclusively through two tracking systems: Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems (BDS) and Neilsen SoundScan, the primary bases for the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

BDS provides a computer-generated report monitoring how many spins a song has gotten on commercial stations. This is the "proof" of radio popularity that record companies want to see before investing their money in an artist. Unfortunately, yearly access to BDS reports cost tens of thousands of dollars, far too much for small labels like 888 Records to front. ("That's kind of tough," admits Tani T., although, he contends, he has friends within the radio industry who give him information on the amount that Bay Area stations play Natalise songs.) Without BDS numbers, says Brae, it is difficult to convince new radio stations to play Natalise's songs. This sets up a catch-22 scenario: She can't get noticed by the majors without being in heavy rotation, but she can't get into heavy rotation without the majors' money.

Likewise, SoundScan is the "proof" of album sales, providing data from the thousands of record stores, Web sites, and other music vendors in the U.S. and Canada. Achieving high SoundScan figures requires Natalise to have a distribution company that will get her album into as many stores as possible. No one will buy her CDs if they can't find them easily, and for the small 888 Records staff to go door-to-door to stores attempting to sell Natalise CDs on consignment would be ridiculous.

In this regard, Brae says, Natalise is off to a good start, having employed the services of San Rafael's City Hall Records. Independently owned, City Hall is growing quickly and distributes its wares all over the country.

And even if Natalise grabs a record company's attention, someone in that organization still has to be open to taking a risk. "Pop is the priciest genre to break," says Brae, noting that major-label releases must sell half a million units for their labels to break even. "They're very strict right now about signing an artist ... . There were 27,000 records released last year, and 90 percent of them failed."

At the end of the interview, after reciting his litany of bleak statistics, Brae asks me for Natalise's contact information. He is impressed with her level of homegrown support. "You've got my interest. This looks like a real product," he says.

At the crack of dawn on a Thursday in late May, Natalise is a guest on KYLD-FM, WiLD 94.9, the hip hop station that sometimes forays into dance and pop, to face the Stern-lite antics of the Doghouse morning show, which that day features Elvis, Hollywood, Show Biz, and White Menace. Her dues-paying around the Bay Area music scene has won her connections at the station, and her good looks certainly don't hurt. Her appearance follows on the heels of a funny, crass skit involving a character called the "Opera Guy," who phones a sporting-goods supply store inquiring about "something for my nuts to protect the crown jewels, in case I get hit in the huevos with a pitch. I don't want to become a soprano!"

Natalise is nervous about the show, which will serve to promote her upcoming benefit concert for arts programs at a local high school. She loosens up right away, though; comments like "God, you're a little cutie, and I don't mean that with any disrespect" don't require much in the way of response.

The politeness dam breaks when Elvis finds out she went to Stanford.


Natalise: I went there.

Elvis: Usually pretty girls, they're not too smart upstairs.

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