“Ice Cube came into the studio,” Fishbein recalls. “He wrote his lyrics on the spot and killed the vocals on two tracks in one day. It was amazing! Then you have other artists who come in with big crews of people. They’re partying, and that’s part of their whole process.” With the record company footing the extensive bill, of course. “They’re all eating, going out to clubs, coming back and getting one song done over three days.”

Or at least the rappers were operating on that loose schedule. In the past few years, cash-strapped labels have become far less indulgent. Ice Cube, that poster child of hip-hop efficiency, tellingly derives most of his present income from his hit movies—not his CDs. Meanwhile, Miami’s aspiring pop diva Brooke Hogan, despite her own VH1 television show, was unable to stir major-label interest in her debut album. Not that corporate muscle would have necessarily boosted her album’s sales in this online era. “The main attraction of a label used to be its distribution channels,” Fishbein says. “Record-pressing plants, a fleet of trucks, retail stores and good shelf space in those stores—it’s all meaningless now. Even radio airplay doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore. A viral video can do what radio once did.

Of course, you could always take a cue from Fishbein’s own life. With major labels tightening their belts, he has been using the downtime between well-paid session work to focus on his own studio productions, shepherding local acts he’s personally excited about who could otherwise never afford to make a professional-sounding recording: Lee Williams and his soul outfit, the Square Egg; avant-dance act Afrobeta; and Gil Bitton, formerly the singer for the metal band Endo, now transformed into a louche Leonard Cohen, his soaring voice complemented by haunting strings and a lithe shuffle.

“When someone’s paying a lot of money, you’ll do anything. But if it’s primarily about your own enjoyment, you start thinking very differently,” he says. Farewell, Auto-Tune! “You don’t want to take somebody who’s untalented and use your skills to make them sound good,” Fishbein says with a chuckle. “At some point the economy is going to turn around, and people are going to figure out this music-business thing.” In the meantime? He’s having fun.

BOTTOM IMAGE: Fishbein with songwriter and TV personality Kandi Burruss

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