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The Men of la Mantra 

San Francisco's OM Records foretells the future of enhanced CDs

Wednesday, Jan 31 1996
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Can a tiny local company with one year under its belt and two pieces of product to its name reshape the face of the entire home-entertainment industry? The young founders of OM Records think it's a distinct possibility.

The latest wrinkle in the never-ending line of consumer audiovisual products is the so-called "enhanced CD," or "CD+," which combines two features -- the musical content of conventional compact discs and the graphic images of CD-ROMs -- on one piece of hard plastic. During the past year, most of the major record labels have made tentative forays into this new, as-yet-undefined market, but the idea has yet to catch on in a big way with the buying public.

By the end of 1996, OM Records claims it will have as many enhanced-CD (ECD) titles on the market as all of the majors combined. Like the Zen mantra from which they borrow their name, the staffers at OM are singularly focused; they're working like monks, sometimes as many as 100 hours a week to establish their product as the standard by which all other ECDs will be measured.

In recent months, musicians like the Rolling Stones, the Cranberries, Soundgarden, and Sarah McLachlan have issued ECD titles on their respective major labels. Thus far, reviewers have been almost uniformly disappointed: The CD-ROM tracks, critics say, offer little more than "glorified liner notes."

Guthrie Dolin, OM's creative director, says that his company is firmly committed to raising the quality of ECDs. In order to do that, he says, OM's primary concern has been with the music: "Once everything is said and done," Dolin says, "I think this is an audio project. You don't watch videos over and over."

Rather than clutter its ECDs with throwaway "unplugged" songs and outtakes, as the majors have, OM planned its first two releases like genre archives, giving depth to their attendant cultures with CD-ROM information much like a scrapbook would. Titled The Groove Active Collection and Spiritual High, the two collections provide intriguing cross-sections of a pair of happening styles -- acid jazz and world beat/ambient, respectively. Groove Active includes licensed tracks from the Roots, Brand New Heavies, and A Tribe Called Quest, as well as fresh cuts from Bay Area talent like DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, and Telefunken. Spiritual High features an atmospheric wash of textures suitable for armchair globe-trotting, recorded by club-music notables such as Future Sounds of London and African Head Charge.

OM is keeping its per-unit list price at $15.98, matching that of most current standard-issue CD releases. Dolin, 25, compares OM's CD-ROM tracks to the posters and other inserts that came with many records in the 1970s. "When I was collecting vinyl," he says, "I loved it when they gave me something. I remember a Cheech & Chong album that came with a giant rolling paper." The bonus CD-ROM track, he says, "is the giant rolling paper."

But there's more to it than that, of course. On Groove Active, viewers can access a pictorial history of jazz, an interview clip with Alphabet Soup, and a gallery of taggers' art, among other images. The Spiritual High collection features a striking photo album of shrines from around the world, as well as a video segment concerning the Free Tibet movement and information on topics of related interest such as holistic healing.

As enticing as these clips are, the OM staff envisions a cornucopia of possibilities, which they've barely begun to tap. Their next project, the skateboard-associated Go Big!, features a video section called "Eat Shit" that documents 25 minutes of nasty spills; in its "beta" test stage, Go Big! already appears to boast some computerized innovations that eclipse the work on OM's earlier releases.

On a recent weekday afternoon at OM's brick-walled office overlooking Second and Market streets, Christopher Smith, the company's 24-year-old founder and president, is standing by the elevator, a porkpie hat screwed to his head. "Look at the president, wearing a silly hat," OM Vice President Steve Gray hollers across the open space.

Indeed, OM's core staff wears a lot of hats. Though each employee has a loosely defined job description, they all serve variously as marketers and accountants, designers, producers, and videographers. In their free time, they're also musicians, concert promoters, DJs, and skateboarders. The staff's overwhelming youth (of 10 employees, no one but the publicist has seen the far side of 30) gives them a firm grasp of street trends, easily their most bankable commodity. Whereas the majors rely on a sort of trickle-up theory of popular culture, co-opting underground movements when they seem ready to explode, OM is run by a coalition of hipsters who don't need to be told what's hot.

"Our A&R," says Smith, "is the people who work here, people who have diverse tastes."

In L.A., Smith ran his own aircraft detailing company by day and promoted events for the local rave scene by night. Arriving in the Bay Area about three years ago, he studied at San Francisco State before landing a job with Pyramid Imaging, a computer-digitizing company based in SOMA. Still traveling in rave and trip-hop circles, Smith met Gray, 28, who had relocated his stable of small record labels from his native U.K. to San Francisco.

"I knew I didn't want to do CD-ROMs," Smith says. "That seemed like such a dead market." Instead, he and Gray decided to pursue "mixed-mode" CDs. The duo collaborated on a prototypical ECD they called Head Travel -- a compilation similar to Spiritual High -- and their subsequent business proposal sufficiently impressed Pyramid's president, Michael Shepherd, who became the principal investor in OM Records.

For this calendar year, OM plans to roll out 14 new releases, including Go Big!, an R&B roundup called Soul Motion, and a full-length album by Telefunken. "We don't leave the office very often," Smith says. "We do most of our hanging out here." Smith, Dolin, and 27-year-old Brandon Martinez handle the bulk of the company's production chores, holing up for hours at a time in their combination sound studio/computer workroom. "We'll be in here at 3 in the morning, laughing," says Martinez, "and we'll wonder, 'How could we be having this much fun?' "

VP Gray's primary role, meanwhile, is to promote the company's work -- and, by extension, to promote the ECD concept itself. "We were hoping the onus for that wouldn't fall on us," he sighs. "We were expecting the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] to put in a lot of money to promote the format, but they've been slow to do that."

Although sales of Groove Active and Spiritual High have been slight, Gray sees OM laying some all-important groundwork for what's to come. "PCs with CD-ROMs outsell TVs at this point," he points out. And response from artists, co-op advertisers, and retail buyers has been enthusiastic. "I want to see this develop into a whole new category of musical production," Smith says.

Given the rapid advance of technologies, might the enhanced CD be outdated almost as soon as it tackles the market? Dolin laughs: "It could be like a time capsule -- 'Oh, yeah, that enhanced thing. That was so '90s' -- like finding an old Kiss poster!

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James Sullivan

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