By Ashley Zimmerman
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In the radio business, it's known as the New Adult Contemporary format, or NAC, though more descriptive terms might be "smooth jazz," "New Age," "easy listening," or simply "background music." Or as one L.A. Times writer described it, "instrumental wallpaper."
Its most famous practitioners are the pianists Jim Brickman (who performs Friday at Bailey Concert Hall in Davie), John Tesh, and Yanni -- and, of course, the saxophonist Kenny G. They get about as much critical respect as commercial jingle writers -- Brickman was one before he embarked on his solo career -- but they're some of the best-selling artists in the music business. Last week Brickman, Yanni, and Kenny G each had a release in the top 50 of Billboard's album chart.
In the Fort Lauderdale area, the smooth-jazz station Love 94 (WLVE-FM) boasts the highest number of listeners age 35 and older. Its mellow, mostly instrumental music is the aural equivalent of Chianti: light, relaxing, and goes good with anything. But two local artists, Tommy Nehls and Sha Shaty, have found that breaking into the easy listening market is no easy task.
There are probably more labels, managers, and booking agents for smooth-jazz artists than for rock bands. But smooth jazz also tends to take fewer chances on unknown talent. Jim Brickman seemed instinctively to know this when, sometime in the early Nineties, he quit the jingle-writing business, produced a CD of his instrumental piano tunes, and began driving around the U.S. visiting radio stations and offering them copies.
"I think it was one of the first times these radio stations had had somebody visit them," recalls Brickman, speaking by phone from Toledo, Ohio, a stop on his national tour. "In Adult Contemporary radio, Whitney Houston doesn't stop by the radio station too often. Elton John, Rod Stewart, Phil Collins -- they're big artists. It wasn't the same as country music, where there's a ton of up-and-comers all the time."
Brickman's gambit worked. "I think the personal connection was the thing that helped me get my record deal," he says. "I went to the label and said, 'All these stations are playing my record -- why don't you give me a deal?'" The label, Windham Hill, agreed, and in 1994 Brickman's song "Rocket to the Moon" (from his debut, No Words) became the first solo instrumental recording to break into the top 40 of Billboard's singles chart.
Brickman is no stranger to the business side of music. Before becoming a solo artist he founded Brickman Arrangement, for which he wrote perhaps his best-known works: tunes for Purina Puppy Chow, AT&T, Flintstones Vitamins ("ten million strong... and growing"), and General Electric ("We bring good things to life"). In his new career, Brickman runs a tight ship, retaining control of his publicity, booking, and touring. He downplays his popularity to avoid overexposure and makes it a policy after concerts to chat with fans in the lobby.
At least one colleague has told him he obsesses over his career. "The motivation behind that is for people to hear my music," he explains. "Everything that drives me from a business standpoint is driven from an interest in my career. Record companies are bottom-line companies, whether they're selling widgets or CDs. Love 'em to death, but that's the way they are. What I'm getting at is, no matter how much I love my music, if it wasn't for the CDs and the radio, I wouldn't get to do what I do. It's a 24-hour-a-day focus. And the music part is the dessert, the benefit, the treat."
For Tommy Nehls, a Fort Lauderdale musician and composer, Brickman's career could serve as a model. Nehls recently pressed 1000 copies of his self-produced CD Palm Tree Way, which he's been hawking everywhere from Love 94 to the Nature Company to Publix supermarkets. A college station in Gainesville has agreed to air one of its tracks, and the Publix on Davie Boulevard near 35th Avenue agreed to sell copies of the ten-song CD on consignment. But several boxes full of Palm Tree Way are still sitting near the front door in Nehls' house.
"I don't want to write something that's musically acclaimed," Nehls says. "I want to write something that will make me some money. I also want to write something that will make people react, that will make people go, 'That makes me feel sad, or happy, or sticks in my mind.'"
Like Brickman, Nehls has written his share of commercial music. Basketball fans may recognize one of Nehls' upbeat compositions as the Miami Heat's theme music, which ran as part of the team's TV advertisements for a number of years. Nehls has also written tunes for Singer, Burdines, and Disney World.
Around 1993 Nehls had the idea to put out a solo CD called Tradewinds. He took a demo to an agent, who purchased it for use as background music for various TV productions -- what Nehls calls "functional needle-drop music." The Tradewinds CD cover sports the following description of its contents: "Luscious evocation of the exotic rhythms, sounds, landscapes, and atmospheres of the tropics for fashion, travel, panoramas, seascapes, and adventure." It features tracks such as "Spice Island," "Balmy Shores," and "Gold Coast."