By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
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By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
"All I know," says Tom O'Keefe, "is that this is the first time in nine years I've been interviewed." After starting Neurodisc Records with his business partner John Wai in 1992, O'Keefe has realized his dream of a full-time, behind-the-scenes, music-business job. But since the Sunrise-based company is nearly invisible against the local landscape, O'Keefe's low profile isn't surprising.
"Don't look for our records in local stores," advises Wai. "We actually focus more on international releases."
Neurodisc's predilection for electronica makes South Florida an ideal setting. Our humble region makes for a fertile ground zero for releases with titles like Trance Stimuli, Bass Killaz, and Acid Flash-Breaks. But Wai and O'Keefe market these albums to the influential club kids in Europe and New York, not just South Beach, making the Florida location just a happy coincidence.
"It just seems like we're in the right place by default," says O'Keefe. "It wasn't like we planned on it."
Almost a decade ago, the two high-school buddies decided to pool their resources -- about $20,000 -- and start Neurodisc. With a homegrown techno act, Spin Cycle, as the label's leadoff hitter, the two found themselves perfectly positioned as the dance-music renaissance took South Beach and the surrounding environs by storm. "We saw kids riding around in cars going BOOM BOOM BOOM," remembers Wai. "We saw a genre that was developing."
Thus began a steady stream of titles like Strictly for da Bassheadsand Bass Smackdown: Ultimate Bass Challenge Volume Four, as Neurodisc grabbed a chunk of the booty booty. By the time techno music broke big with the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy in 1996, Neurodisc had started to branch out, exploring other tendrils of the dance genre and beginning a lucrative distribution pact with Priority Records, one of the biggest hip-hop labels in the land.
At the same time, Neurodisc began a continuing flirtation with trance, acid, breakbeat, and even the New-Age genre -- though the label's definition of New-Age includes plenty of throbbing drum-machine workouts. "It's not like John Tesh or Yanni," Wai points out. "It's what they call "chill-out music.'"
Today O'Keefe and Wai are managing several projects, including overseeing the compilation of a new "soft-trance" offering called Electronic Chillage, a dance single called "Fly High" by the group Housepunk, and a trance remake of Pat Benatar's "We Belong" by local singer Jules. The compilation projects, which involve Neurodisc licensing material from other (generally European) labels, keep the duo occupied as co-executive producers.
"We try to make sure the tracks on there are quality tracks," Wai says. "It's not just, "Let's put together trance records we can sell.' We mine the catalogs of overseas labels to get their best stuff." This practice saves club-music collectors a chunk of change. "Those kids typically pay between $30 and $40 for an import. We license the package and position it at a frontline price, which is a lot cheaper than an import."
Neurodisc also saves production and recording costs by simply picking and choosing completed tracks to sell in the States. "Do we have to buy studio time for every record?" asks Wai. "No. Sometimes we have producers come in with a finished record all ready to go."
Neurodisc's product line boasts a uniformity and perfectly-tailored-to-the-market graphic sense that gives it a look of the big leagues. "We can't look like an independent," Wai stresses. "We have to look like a major."
O'Keefe cites that attention to detail as part of the business acumen he and Wai have developed over the past decade together. Though the two arrived at their jobs through a mutual love of music, Neurodisc's principals quickly learned that what stoked their emotions may not necessarily move enough units. Just two years after they started the company, the pair decided to branch out with a rock label, Pound Records, which signed up local legends the Holy Terrors.
"On a personal level, I loved those guys," O'Keefe relates. "But we couldn't sell it. Bringing that to the public was a much bigger task than we imagined. We were all brought down to earth."
The experience taught O'Keefe to put the bottom line first, a lesson that has paid off. Coming off Neurodisc's best two years in terms of sales, the company's estimated worth, he reports, is somewhere between $3.5 and $10 million. After studying successful independent labels around the world, he came to this realization: "It wasn't rocket science. There's an economic side you have to address in spite of the fact that you want to be in it for purely artistic purposes."
That doesn't mean that Neurodisc doesn't actively seek upstart acts. One of the label's most recent signees is a guitar-tempered synth outfit from Manchester, England. The rough demo sent in by Venice 13 was interesting enough for Wai and O'Keefe to take a chance on developing the band, which just issued its first album, Spiked, on Neurodisc.
"We listen to every demo we get," Wai insists, "because you never know. There could be one little needle in that haystack. Ninety-eight percent of the time, the demo is very poor quality. Venice 13 wasn't done well. But after I slapped it on in the car and passed it around, we knew there was something there."
Though O'Keefe says he's first and foremost a guitarist with a rock background, he manages to find satisfaction in Neurodisc's stable of electronica steeds. His conversation reveals a dedicated, disciplined, no-nonsense businessman, yet there's still a passion bubbling beneath the surface that fuels his frenzy.
"When a producer calls and asks, "What are you guys looking for?' I always hate that," he says. "Because what we need is the guy who's making music because he has to. Not because he wants to cook something to order for me. I want the guy who'd be doing this anyway."