Last week the Pixies kicked off their latest tour with a four-show, two-night stand in Portland, playing sets loaded with B sides, rarities, and deep album cuts they hadn't performed live in more than a decade. It was a bootlegger's dream, and Jake Walker and Eric Welsh were there to record every minute. In December the two men teamed up with Chicago multimedia firm Coudal Partners to form a concert-CD company called the Show, and the first client they landed was the Pixies. Clear Channel and eMusicLive, among others, are already selling discs burned on the spot to concertgoers, but the Show aims to reshape the business by forgoing instant customer gratification in favor of better-sounding recordings.
Walker and Welsh had already worked together at DiscLive, which Walker helped found in Boston in 2003. Despite some legal saber rattling from Clear Channel, which had introduced its Instant Live program at several Boston clubs that year and claimed to own a patent on "instant burning" technology, DiscLive grew rapidly. The company brought in music-industry veterans Rich Isaacson and Sami Valkonen as executives, solicited capital from investors, and moved to New York. Though Walker stayed on as an employee until late 2004, he sold his stake in DiscLive in April, about the same time the company contracted with the Pixies to document their reunion tour--recordings that Walker supervised and Welsh helped engineer.
Walker had become friendly with the band, its crew, and its management, so when he left DiscLive the company had to struggle to maintain those relationships. The Pixies were growing increasingly dissatisfied with the way the recordings were turning out. "Some of it was delivery issues, some of it was sound-quality issues," says Walker. The band ultimately asked DiscLive to stop recording concerts at the end of November.
Walker and Welsh caught the Pixies in Lowell, Massachusetts, on December 1, and inspiration struck. "We were sitting there watching the concert, and we realized that we could put something together pretty quickly to fill the gap and record the last 13 or 14 shows," says Walker. "But something that would be different from what we'd done before."
As soon as Walker got home that night he called Jim Coudal, owner of Coudal Partners, whom he'd worked with on an aborted project while at DiscLive. Formed in 1993, Coudal's creative firm has done everything from marketing the White Sox ("Good guys wear black") to developing specialized CD packaging like the Super Jewel Case. Walker and Welsh had agreed to form the Show with Coudal Partners within days. "I get a call from Jake on a Thursday night," says Coudal, "and by Monday morning--after a long weekend of no sleep--we had it all put together." Walker and Welsh hit the road with the Pixies on December 6 and recorded the last 12 shows of the 2004 east-coast tour.
Instead of burning and selling CDs at each venue, the Show sells tickets marked with alphanumeric codes that are used to order the discs online. This allows the company time to make a CD with better sound quality than the typical instant concert disc.
Clear Channel's Instant Live and similar setups usually record the house mix directly from the sound board, sometimes augmented by a couple room mikes or the efforts of an engineer. But the house mix is tailored to the acoustics of the venue. "And as you go into bigger venues, what the sound board is producing for the room is a much different thing than what you'd want to hear in your headphones or personal stereo," says Walker. These companies can only mix or master their recordings on the fly, and have so little time to prepare the discs that they're often sold with generic covers and lack track listings.
By contrast, the Show records the sound board's output with a Pro Tools setup, which preserves the independence of the different channels so they can be mixed and mastered later at Welsh's Chillhouse studio in Boston. The Show also uses the same manufacturing process employed for retail CDs, which has advantages over even the best high-speed CD-burning technology. "On top of that we do custom design and packaging, and we include a set list and photos," says Coudal. "So it's a much different--and, we like to think, better--product than what most people are selling."
This business model denies concertgoers the pleasure of leaving the venue with a recording of the show, but sales don't seem to have suffered. In March and April the Show made discs of 13 European concerts for its second client, Dead Can Dance, and sold out a 500-copy pressing of every one; only a handful remain from the 12 shows the company recorded on the previous Pixies tour, and those discs were pressed in runs of 1,000 or more. "We're not a record company. We're trying to sell these individual things," says Coudal. "We feel that the limited nature of them makes them attractive. We saw that with DCD. The Paris show was the first to sell out, and as soon as it did, business really picked up because people thought they might not be able to get the disc they wanted."
The Show maintains a Web site, theshowlive.com, but to sell the CDs it's used pixiesdiscs.com and dcddiscs.com. "It's not about our brand," says Coudal. "It's about trying to bring the band and the customers together."
The Show's prospects are good enough that Walker moved to Chicago in May to work more closely with Coudal Partners. Welsh will stay in Boston to maintain Chillhouse as the Show's mixing and mastering center. Of course right now they're on the road with the Pixies, and will be until the current North American tour wraps up in Boston on June 15. They also plan to be in Chicago to record the Pixies' Lollapalooza date on July 23, then accompany the group to Europe in August.
Coudal says the Show is trying to make tour-recording arrangements with "several bands of a similar size," but he won't say who while the negotiations are under way. He has high hopes for the company's future. "I think it's a cool thing to be able to get the disc at the concert, but I don't think it's the cool thing," he says. "The novelty of that technology overshadowed the actual product for a long time."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen Voss, Jim Newberry.