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Meet Kurt Deutsch, the Man Behind the Cast Recordings of Book of Mormon, and Bring It On

The Record Label Owner/Producer Talks Cast Recordings, Contracts, and Crowd-funding.

By New York City

Kurt Deutsch is not a left-brain, right-brain kind of guy. Instead, both sides of his brain operate simultaneously, with creative thoughts substantiated by business ones and vice versa. As the co-founder of Sh-K-Boom and Ghostlight Records, Deutsch's job is to balance working with composers, musicians, and sound engineers when record producing, and navigating recording contracts when landing a new artist or cast album. TheaterMania sat down with Deutsch to get a handle on his yin and yang.

Kurt Deutsch
Kurt Deutsch
(© David Gordon)

What led you to start your own record label?

The reason we started the company was for our community. It started with an idea that Sherie [Rene Scott, Deutsch's wife and Sh-K-Boom's co-founder] had to express herself on an album. And then, because she had worked with all of these amazing artists like Adam Pascal in Rent and Alice Ripley and Michael McElroy in Tommy, we thought, 'wouldn't it be amazing to create a record label that was like a United Artists for the Broadway community?' It was about the Broadway artists…the wealth of talent and artistry in this community is incredible. They do everything from jazz to soul to R&B--they're consummate musicians. [But] they get pigeonholed only in showtunes, when there's so much more they can do. In the beginning it was really about this group of people who had a desire to express themselves beyond Broadway; it was about bridging the gap between rock-and-roll and theater. We started the company with some solo records, to try to reach that audience and build a community of fans and artists that would respond to their music. And, we could do that through the Internet, which wasn't around prior to that.

Who was there to advocate for these niche artists before Sh-K-Boom existed? What was the industry structure like?

When Sherie was doing Aida, somebody had given her a recording contract and I thought [the contract] was kind of a ridiculous thing. These contracts were made…when Broadway was the popular music of the day. Producers never thought that they would actually have to pay for the albums. It was always going to be the label, so they let them do it. In this day and age, it's not just the actors, it's the stage managers, it's the orchestrators; everybody gets a piece. When you have an album, a Broadway album, that costs $300,000, just to break even, [it] has to sell 75-80,000 units. You have to run for years before you sell that amount of albums. [Sherie] never would have made any money from it.

At what point did the original cast recordings come into play?

The cast albums started when Sherie was doing The Last Five Years. What I found out was that the same contract they gave to Sherie is the same contract that labels would give to shows. So, shows never made any money off their cast albums. I can't believe shows spend a million dollars or five or 10 or 12 million dollars and they would actually give away an asset that could be very lucrative to them.

At that time, there was only a handful of major labels that were still doing Broadway and they were really only interested in cast albums that were giant, big hits. My feeling was these [cast] albums are number one about preservation, documenting history. And also, the longtail version of this is that there is money to be made from these records, if you build a catalog big enough, there's substantial money to be made.

With The Last Five Years, it was a small enough show where I said, to the producers, ‘Why don't we invest in this [album] together and we'll make some money?' We started with a business model that was about sharing in the cost of the album together and us making money together. We still use that model today.

Recently, you produced the cast recording of the Off-Broadway musical Now. Here. This., which turned to Kickstarter to raise funds for the album's creation. Where do you think fan-funded albums fit into the landscape of musical theater history?

I think that in a lot of ways, it is the future. You can't rely on a label to pay for it; you can't rely on producers to pay for it. Because people can listen to [the recordings] on YouTube or Spotify, or steal them, the group of people who actually pay for the albums is getting smaller. And the cost of the albums are not getting smaller. In fact, they're getting bigger.

The fan-funded model allows people to play a bigger role. It's kind of like the non-for-profit model. Not-for-profits give money to Lincoln Center and theater all the time not expecting anything back. There are a lot of angels out there who are willing to help support the artists.

The fan-funded model also allows you to pre-sell records [and] to kind of bypass the piracy, to a certain degree. [Fans/backers] feel that they're invested in [the album], not only that, they're less likely to steal it, they're also saying, ‘I personally helped this. I'm gonna help spread the word, because I feel part of it.' It's like in [title of show], feeling "part of it all." Helping these artists realize their dream, that goes a long way.

With a show like Now. Here. This. or Queen of the Mist, Michael John LaChiusa's musical, the album itself is not about making money off that album, it's about preserving musical theater history. And nobody will license a show without listening to the music first. I think everyone should consider the album a marketing tool for their job. The goal should not be, ‘I want to make money off the album.' The goal should be, ‘I want to make the album, so that I can make money off the show and have a job.'

Speaking of jobs, can you take me into your role in the production of a cast album?

If I'm executive producing an album, I'm much more on the outside, helping oversee, big picture-wise. If I'm producing or co-producing, I work very closely with the creators, trying to understand what they want the record to be. If we had a time capsule, and we dug this little treasure up, and we never ever got to see the show, what do you want those people to listen to?

We come up with the recording script, and, because a lot of time the songs have dialogue that goes through it, [we ask], ‘Do we want dialogue on this record? Do we not want dialogue on this record?' That's a lot of the biggest conversations that we have. It ultimately is the artists' representation of what they want. Then try to think about, sonically…Do you want it to sound like a big Broadway album? Do you want it to sound like a rock-and-roll album? From there, [we] work with the orchestrators and the [show's] director.

How specific are the directors?

I rely on the director a lot because he has shorthand with all the actors. Like Walter Bobbie. I love being in the studio with Walter Bobbie because he gets it. We can communicate to each other, and he'll be able to talk to the actor. A lot of times [it's also] the composer, or the musical supervisor, or the music director. Alex Lacamoire, for example, I did In the Heights and Bring it On with him {and] he has everything in his head and is able to communicate with the actors and musicians.

Start to finish, take us through a typical recording day.

A lot of our time is spent figuring out a recording schedule, so that almost every minute of the day we know how we're gonna record, where people are gonna be singing, what booth, and what microphone they're gonna be singing at so the musicians can walk in and know exactly where they're sitting, and what order we're doing it in. From there, we just kind of go through the day.

A lot of times we track the band before we bring the singers in, and then we'll bring the singers in, doing it live. Sometimes we'll track the entire album first, so we have just the orchestra tracks, then we'll mix the orchestra tracks, bring the soloists in, and then bring the ensemble in and lay [them] in. That's a more ideal way of doing it then doing it live, because you can actually focus on each part, as opposed to hoping you get it all.

It also really depends on the show. If you have a more rock-based show, or where the tempos are constant, you can track everything. If you have a show that goes in and out of tempo or that the ballads are relying on the piano players, you have to have the singer guide it.

Are there any cast albums that stand out in being different or challenging in the way you approached recording them?

Hair was challenging. Everybody sings in almost every song. Our solution was to do it as if it's a live show and do it in order. It ended up turning out great.

Bright Lights Big City [was hard] because it was the idea of creating a concept album for a failed show, but it has, I think, one of the great scores. We really re-thought the show and worked on it like we were making a new musical, and made the record with an amazing cast. Because of that recording, the show was licensed by R &H and is living a bit of a life.

What do you hope the listener experiences from the cast recordings?

The great thing about cast albums is, in an ideal world, they tell a story. The listener gets to experience this story. [It] can be an emotional experience that moves or entertains them, makes them laugh or cry. We try to get honest and great performances to document [the show] experience, and preserve it as best we can.

Tags: Kurt Deutschsh-k-boom RecordsGhostlight Records


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