Routes Music rewind, Phoenix: Border patrol, dust storms and a new look on downloading music

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Routes Music is a documentary film acting as a roving music census, taking in the true musical passions (and disgusts) of the American people. We’re traveling all across the country, stopping along the way to interview local bands, take footage of live performances and chat with anyone and everyone. Learn more about the documentary here; check out all previous entries here.

The Routes Music crew had heard the news reports of a dust storm as we approached Phoenix. A cold front was creating high winds could conjure up the desert. But not until we stepped out of the car in Tempe did we see what the newscasters meant.

From the west, a faint haze grew darker and darker. The dust storm was roaring across the desert like a scene out of The Mummy.

But the desert sands weren’t the only thing in disarray: Phil and Terrence had problems of their own.

The night previous, they had driven 16 hours through the ever-changing terrain of Texas and New Mexico. At one point, border patrol stopped the van to check for illegal immigrants. (“Really?” Phil still comments whenever this is brought up.  “I could maybe understand if we were headed to Mexico, but in the middle of this country?”).

Around 3 a.m., an exhausted Phil pulled into a New Mexico rest stop to grab a quick nap. It was 40 degrees outside when he reclined in the driver seat. Less than two hours later, the temperature had dropped to 27 degrees. Phil awoke to his teeth chattering and the Routes Music crew moved on, leaving New Mexico just as the sun peeked over the mountains.

But now, in Phoenix, there were issues beyond a lack of sleep

Terrence and Philip were having technical problems. Terrence’s MacBook stopped reading his Sony HD camera files, and Phil’s computer did not have the compatible Sony editing program. After spending half the afternoon at an Apple Store in Chandler, they figured out there were compatibility issues between the devices.

Then there was the small matter of where to sleep. Previously supportive Routes Music friends suddenly lost their phones; at one apartment we visited, a note was taped to the door informing visitors that the abode had been raided for illegal immigrants. All that would be fine, but after the previous night’s episode, we weren’t keen on sleeping in the car.

But despite our trails and tribulations, the Routes Music crew was undeterred. The computer problems would have to wait until tomorrow and as the dust storm passed, we received a call from our friends Paul and Nigel, who graciously let us sleep on their floor. (Thanks guys!)

The next day, Nigel directed us to Tall Cat Productions, a studio based out of a Phoenix suburb. The desert hadn't given up on us yet!

Much like newspapers, the music industry is in steady decline. But it’s not because people are listening to less music; on the contrary, people may be listening more music than ever. The problem lies in large companies too slow or hesitant to change up their business models. So, the key for the music economy to survive is to come up with innovative ways to bring in the music lover (and his or her dollar).

Tall Cat Productions may possess one of those new models.

First a little background:

Phoenix residents H.B. Abels, David Torres and Tom Whiting started Tall Cat Productions nine years ago “out of a need to do our own music.” For years, the musicians recorded out of a house in Phoenix as the band Beyond the Now, but the problems of making music in a rental pushed them to scrape up some cash and find another space to call their own.

The search ended at an old instrument retail store in a Glendale strip mall. With the help of friends and interns from the Conservatory of Recording Arts, the trio built the studio from the floor to the ceiling, soldering to the last wire.

“The worst part is when all the trucks with all the drywall showed up at the backdoor,” recalls Abels, sitting in the studio’s control room with Torres and Whiting.

“There’s a right way and a wrong way,” adds Torres, “and then what we did.”

After construction, Tall Cat quickly gathered a family of artists ranging from alt-rockers and heavy metal maestros to hip-hop and Latin artists. But a studio is always looking for another way to tap into the market.

"We all are musicians by trade and want to do something in the music industry to keep making music," says Torres, swiveling on a chair. "That's our daily grind is to see how else we can pull in some income."

So in April 2008, after recording some tracks at the studio, Brad Thomas had a conversation with the Tall Cat producers.

“What was supposed to be a five minute conversation became a four hour conversation in the hallway,” he recalls.

Thomas offered to create an all-in-one service for musicians. In addition to recording at Tall Cat, each band would get a website where they could post music, offer merchandise and sell tickets.

“Basically, using music as bait to get them to buy merchandise and buy tickets," he says. "The more people that hear your song on their iPod, the better it is for you."

With the decline of album sales and the changing nature of the music industry, Tall Cat sees this as a new model.

“This will create a whole new industry,” Thomas says.

Abels leans back in his seat.

“David Bowie said he had to become a better business man to become a better artist.”

Watch below for more Tall Cat ruminations on the local scene, business-oriented musicians and using music in video games:

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