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PAPERBOY: Slow-Jamming The Alt-Weeklies

paperboyartthumbnail.jpgBY DAVE ALLEN Like time, news waits for no man. Keeping up with the funny papers has always been an all-day job, even in the pre-Internets era. These days, however, it’s a two-man job. That’s right, these days you need someone to do your reading for you, or risk falling hopelessly behind and, as a result, increasing your chances of dying lonely and somewhat bitter. That’s why every week PAPERBOY does your alt-weekly reading for you. We pore over those time-consuming cover stories and give you the takeaway, suss out the cover art, warn you off the ink-wasters and steer you towards the gooey center. Why? Because we love you!

ON THE COVER

CP: 24 hours at SugarHouse sounds, to me, like a fate worse than death. Walking past the Harrah’s casino last month in New Orleans, my first thought: “who would come here, with an exciting, vibrant city on every side?” Second thought: “there are no windows! It’s like a mausoleum.” I haven’t swung by SugarHouse, but the early reports have been more car dealership than resting-site-for-the-dead. Thanks to a thorough report from Pat Rapa, Holly Otterbein and Isaiah Thompson, I don’t have to even set foot near the place. Funny that we don’t know who, of the three bylined writers, contributed what, but that contributes to an omniscient-seeming report.

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12:00 p.m. The Kitchen Kapers Giveaway begins, kicking off a flurry of free coffee makers, blenders, toaster ovens and the like. Someone will get lucky once every hour until 8 p.m., when a patron finally scores the grand prize: a refrigerator. To qualify, you must have your SugarHouse Rush Rewards card inserted into a machine, and you must be an “active” player, meaning you’ve been gambling once every minute. “What did they win?” asks a woman at the bar, unable to hear the announcement.

“I don’t know,” responds a middle-aged man, not looking up from his virtual poker game. “A woodchuck? A chipmunk? A decomposed body from the Delaware? Whatever it is, it’ll make ‘em happy.”

1:18 p.m. A man with a Chicago Bulls hat saddles up to a video blackjack machine. He’s lost $1,300 today, and has already left SugarHouse once to get more money. Why doesn’t he call it quits? “‘Cause I’m a gambler,” he says. “Win or lose, right Ma?” The lady he’s talking to nods, saying nothing. “Since the casino opened,” he adds, “I’m down $8,500.”

2:08 p.m. A young, smiley couple sit down at the virtual blackjack machine. The woman has never been in a casino before. “What’s ‘BJ’ stand for?” she asks, smirking.

“It means when you win, you get a BJ from her,” he says, pointing to the animated dealer. She plays, while he instructs — in the same suave/kind/demeaning manner that men teach women how to play pool. She learns what “double down” and “split” mean, and when to hit and when to stand. She’s cautious at first, making clear she thinks this whole gambling thing is nuts. But she’s up $100, after betting just $40. Someone next to her gets blackjack. “Hey, I deserve a BJ!” she says. Then, suddenly, she’s down. She freaks out, and slumps over. “This is giving me an aneurism!” But she keeps going. “I’ll stop once I hit $100.” She continues to lose.

“It’s called gambling. You win some, you lose some,” he tells her. “How do you expect to win with an attitude like that? Besides, you came here to lose. You said you’d lose $40, and then leave.”

2:26 p.m. The Yardley Commons Independent Senior Living van is parked outside. In 2006, Gov. Ed Rendell famously remarked, “These are people who lead very gray lives. … They pull that slot machine, and with each pull they think they have a chance to win. It’s unbelievable what brightness and cheer it brings to older Pennsylvanians. Unbelievable.” He later apologized.

Odd how it jerks us, however, briefly from the casino to Center City, where “a lone woman — early middle-aged, in a leather jacket with a large Obama pin high on the lapel — puts her cigarette out in a concrete planter on 12th Street near Market,” but otherwise, it’s a very sharply observed piece.

PW: Big-names bands play at the Electric Factory, and around the corner, hidden in plain sight, they record at the Studio. Michael Alan Goldberg looks at the legendary recording spot, its place in Phily’s musical history, and its future following its sale to young-gun Solomon Silber.

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The changing of the guard at The Studio is symbolic of the transitional period happening within the Philadelphia recording industry—indeed, the national recording industry as a whole—as studios try to weather the forces that have beat it down over the past decade. Thanks to greed and excess, combined with a massive increase in music piracy, the major labels have collapsed, taking with them the fat paychecks that were the lifeblood of most large studios. Meanwhile, the recession and the painfully slow recovery has driven artists small and big to buy recording gear—which continues to get better and cheaper by the day—and craft albums on their own, rather than spend hundreds or sometimes thousands a day in a “proper” studio.

The level of attrition has been high. Many of Philadelphia’s big-name facilities—Studio 4, Indre, Kajem, even the legendary Sigma Sound for a while (more on that later)—have closed up shop, their owners either giving up in the face of adversity or stubbornly holding onto the old ways of doing things and being forced out of business. Other places, like The Studio, have somehow managed to hang on through these brutal times, but they, too, are feeling the squeeze and finally undergoing the process of changing their business models in order to survive. But in the midst of that gloom-and-doom, there is a surprising amount of optimism among studio owners, and there are even some new studio ventures sprouting up around town. Though their approaches vary, some of the major players in Philly’s recording industry who spoke with PW appear bullish about the future of their business. And many think Philadelphia can enjoy a renaissance akin to the golden age of the late ’60s and ’70s, when big artists came to the city from far and wide to make their albums and tap into some of that Philly music magic.

To say that Larry Gold is a key figure in that magical music history is a vast understatement. A Kensington-born cello prodigy who studied at the Curtis Institute and was arranging his own scores and performing concerts around town before he was a teenager, Gold eventually linked up with nascent Philly songwriting team Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and joined their house band, MFSB. At engineer Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound (which opened in 1968), Gold played on virtually every big Gamble & Huff-penned hit recorded by the O’Jays, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, McFadden & Whitehead, Dusty Springfield and countless others.

In the ’80s and ’90s, after Gamble & Huff’s Philly Soul hit-making factory faded away, Gold became a cellist and arranger for hire, mentored local artists (including DJ Jazzy Jeff), and dove into production work at Sigma and Kajem, working with Boyz II Men, Freddie Jackson and others. In the mid ’90s, determining there wasn’t a truly great-sounding recording facility in Philadelphia, Gold gathered up his savings and took the plunge into The Studio. “I felt confident I could build a room that could sound really good,” he says. “In those days this space was dirt cheap. This part of town was a wreck.”

Outside of Gold’s lofty space, the piece provides a solid overview of the recording industry in Philly, the money it takes to keep it going, and the artists who still depend on it so much even as the recording industry continues to – how shall I put it? – circle the drain. Soul, as a genre, might not be the soul of Philadelphia any longer, but music as a whole is still at its heart. It’s clear studios are going to have make their goals look more like those of musicians, many of whom don’t expect to get rich.

INSIDE THE BOOK

CP: All abuzz about Barbuzzo. Hungry for good press. Big Blowfish in a small pond. A B for “Harry Potter”? Someone didn’t get into Gryffindor.

PW: First sign you should see upon entering Philly: Vacancy. Unfortunately, you’ll soon have to pay five bucks to come here at all. Two killer reviews of one place in the same week? Good luck getting reservations. Rappin’ about Robitussin.

WINNER: I’ll have to fall back on my old biases here: I love music, I hate gambling. Despite a smart, clever effort by CP, PW takes it this week with their recording-industry wrap-up.

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