The setting inside Aaron Fishbein’s Miami Design District recording studio evokes a musical Back to the Future: A 1957 Fender Stratocaster guitar hangs on the wall; nearby are platinum-record awards certifying Fishbein’s playing and production on multimillion-selling releases from Enrique Iglesias, Beyoncé and Trick Daddy; vintage amplifiers sit wired into a state-of-the-art mixing board and Apple computer. Fishbein himself imbues all this equipment with human qualities, gushing over a particularly beloved 1960s Bang & Olufsen microphone the way other men would reminisce about an old girlfriend: “It’s just gorgeous as a drum overhead,” he purrs. “It makes cymbals sound velvety.”
But it isn’t only Fishbein’s studio— playfully dubbed “The Franchise”—that fuses past and present in surreal ways. The entire music industry itself seems to be pivoting backward in time even as it evolves technologically, increasingly echoing the model of the early 1960s.
While iPods may dazzle with their storage capabilities—a world of music in the palm of your hand—the actual sound of compressed MP3 files reverses decades of advancements in stereo fidelity, leaving the listener with an aural experience akin to AM radio. Likewise, after years of battling skeptics who dismiss pop music in toto as nothing more than disposable teen-oriented bubblegum, the industry has reverted to a singles-dominated affair. As in the old Brill Building days, interchangeable singers once again vie for the attention of songwriters (or American Idol judges).
Fishbein has had a front-row seat for this industry devolution, arriving in Miami Beach from Cincinnati in 1989 as a 19-year-old musician, lured by high-school friends who’d been given scholarships to the then-nascent New World School of the Arts college program. Back in Ohio he’d been playing the French horn, earning admission to several conservatories, and was on track for a tuxedo-clad career in a symphony. Yet, “I had some revelation that I didn’t want to play French-horn parts on 150-year-old music for the rest of my life,” he recalls. He’d been interning in a local recording studio, honing his guitar skills and soaking up Cincinnati’s funk-and-R&B scene.
Have guitar, will travel: Rent on South Beach was $500 a month and the live music gigs were plentiful, even eclipsing the nightclub scene. “Michael Capponi would be rolling around on his skateboard, handing out fliers for his roving Avenue A party,” Fishbein recalls. “We’d all still end up at the Deuce at 3 AM.”
He spent the ’90s in various rock and reggae bands, performing at Jamaica’s fabled Sunsplash festival with Le Coup, opening for the Who with his group, Big, always on the verge but never quite transcending hometown-hero status. In 1999 he moved behind the scenes, playing on Enrique Iglesias’ first English-language album. That record would go on to sell 10 million copies, turning Fishbein into one of Miami’s most in-demand session players, hired to help craft songs by pop acts like Pink and NellyFurtado, and hard-edged rappers such as Lil’ Kim and Method Man—each with their own way of working.
“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