Soundboard to Heaven
The one-story building on Alabama that houses Justice Records isn't much to look at -- a dull brick structure that shares parking space with its equally nondescript next-door twin. Inside the modish lobby, framed examples of the 31 disks, mostly jazz, that the independent label has released in its five-year existence hang on the walls.
The L-shaped office of Justice president Randall Jamail is equally spartan -- by flashy music biz standards, anyway. There's a broad wood desk filling one branch, and a conference table fronted by an impressive stereo rack crammed into the other. A baby-blue Jackson electric guitar leans in a corner. The sole concession to indulgence hangs on the walls: 13 signed and numbered lithographs from a 1964 limited-edition Alice in Wonderland set by Salvador Dali.
"The whole record company experience has been like that for me," says Jamail, who learned a bit about dramatic gestures from his pre-Justice days in Houston's high-profile legal eagle Jamail family. "Through the looking glass."
Jamail's short, strange trip has produced music both memorable and forgettable, but what may turn out to be his most important discovery doesn't involve music at all -- rather, a small, nearly ignored space that sits at the beginning of every compact disk made. What to do with that space, and how to get to it, make up an invention Jamail is calling the Justice Soundboard. And if what Jamail claims about the Soundboard is even half true, he and his 30-person staff may have found a gold mine sitting right under the nose of the Phillips corporation, the inventor and owner of CD technology.
"It happened at that table right there," says Jamail, pointing to the conference nook. Justice Records had just recorded American icon and longtime Jamail buddy Willie Nelson, who was between labels. The question Jamail asked his staff was, how could this fact be promoted?
"Here we had this American hero on our label, albeit for a brief moment in time, and there had to be a way to get Willie to speak out on issues that were gonna come up," says Jamail. "Why was Willie Nelson, who had never recorded for an independent label, doing this? I wanted Willie to explain it."
The notion of including a hidden track was raised, but quickly shot down because of its intrusion on the music. What Jamail wanted was a message from Nelson that would play only if specifically accessed by a listener. Jamail passed the problem along to Justice executive vice president and chief of operations David Thompson, whose research led him to the discovery of what's called a pre-gap, a space just before the first of two digital "pillars" that mark where the music on a CD begins and ends. The main use of the pre-gap had been to hold the instructions that tell a CD player how to do a random shuffle or play a specially entered program sequence. But it turned out the pre-gap could do a lot more than that. It could be engineered to any desired length, and it could be recorded in such a way that a listener never heard it unless he went looking for it with the rewind button.
Jamail asked PMDC, a Phillips subsidiary, to run some test pressings. Sure enough, the idea worked. It was Thompson who suggested to a skeptical Jamail that it might be worthwhile to look into patenting the Soundboard. When he did, says Jamail, he found that Soundboard use of the pre-gap was indeed patentable and that nobody -- not even Phillips -- had thought to patent it.
"All of this technology already existed," says Jamail. "The door existed. We stuck a doorknob on it." Now he's expecting a crowd of people to walk on through.
The Soundboard has so far found only a single application, on Nelson's Moonlight Becomes You. But Jamail thinks it could eventually change both the way CDs are manufactured and the way they're used. Potential applications seem limitless: everything from simple messages from artist to audience (a concept Jamail rather grandly refers to as "breaking through the fourth wall") to interviews to audio liner notes to product previews to outright advertising and corporate sponsorship of recordings. A natural client for the Soundboard would seem to be the anthology and re-issue market.
"As products get smaller and smaller, and there's less room for printed material, big labels are constantly looking for ways to repackage their products," says Jamail. "They want to re-sell Jimi Hendrix again." An anthology with a Justice Soundboard set of vocal liner notes added could be the excuse.
The ugly end of the stick is the specter of Coca-Cola's buying ad space on, or even becoming co-producer of, the next Garth Brooks blockbuster. "It's probably gonna happen with the upper-tier 5 percent of artists," says Jamail. "Labels are always nervous when they're laying out a million five up front, and if you have this partner in the project, to allay some of that risk, obviously those relationships are gonna be formed. It's gonna be used well and it's gonna be used poorly."
But Jamail -- as befits a man who stands to make half (along with co-inventor Thompson) of whatever profits the Soundboard might generate -- isn't too worried about the ugly end of the stick. For one thing, he believes that most artists will use the better side of the technology. And for another, only a listener who goes looking for the Soundboard will ever hear it.
Although Jamail won't formally announce the Soundboard technology until a New York media blitz in late March, he's already fielding inquiries from interested labels. Austin's Antone's Records has agreed to lease the technology for use on an upcoming CD by recent signees Dangerous Toys, who will probably be heard talking about the release.
Jamail plans to license the technology for a percentage of the profits from records on which it's used, so if the technology finds wide application, he and Thompson could find themselves with their fingers in a whole mess of pies. "We think it's going to be big. Patents last "for 17 years, and I think," Jamail says with a grin, "that we will have exploited every bit of what we're gonna get in that period."
Jamail is already talking with Sony's hardware division about the possibility of test-marketing CD players with a designated Justice Soundboard button to play the message. Just how Phillips feels about having a potentially blockbuster technology sneaked out from under its nose isn't clear. Jamail says he has yet to hear from the conglomerate. "I wouldn't really think that they would say anything at this point," says Jamail. "The company's so big that what one division's doing doesn't necessarily affect another one."
A vice-president of sales at PMDC who handles the plant's Justice account had plenty of nice things to say about Justice as a label with a bright future. But he declined to comment on the Soundboard or the patent application. Is he even aware that Justice has filed for patent protection? "Yes," he says, "I am aware of that. That's one of the reasons I'm unable to talk about it."
As simple as the proceedings have been so far, Jamail's not expecting the tracks to remain greased for long. "When we announce it in March, I fully expect Sony and Phillips to raise challenges," he says, "but I've taken steps in advance of that to anticipate what their challenges are going to be."
And it's not just patent challenges that are expected to chop the water. Jamail has already confronted one major label interested in using the technology, but not interested in leasing it from Jamail.
"Their position is that we don't have a patent on it yet, and they don't think it's patentable," he says. To which Jamail's lawyerly response was: "Look, if you wanna take that risk, that's fine. But the day the patent issues, you automatically become an infringer, and what that means is that you sold it to record stores, who in turn sold it to consumers. If I'm really pissed off I'll sue your account base. I'll sue you in Texas, probably sue you in the middle of August, and we'll have fun.
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