Entrepreneur has designs on music

Tuesday, March 21, 2006 Newark Star Ledger

CD designer helps `put a face' on artists' recordings

Sunday, March 12, 2006 The TImes of Trenton


"My 100th CD cover. How cool is that?" asks Kathy Ridl, beaming with excitement.

It was just a year ago that she made the difficult choice to give up her full-time office manager job to go solo in her own business, creating covers for CDs. The latest client to contact her -- baritone saxophonist Denis DiBlasio -- was also her first customer a few years back.

With fewer and fewer big record companies producing fewer and fewer discs, prominent and fledgling musicians alike have turned to pressing and selling their CDs independently.

That's not necessarily good for musicians, since they have to be more self-reliant, but it has created a growing niche market for Ridl, a musician in her own right and the wife of Jim Ridl, a pianist in the top tiers of jazz.

How Kathy Ridl came to be a CD designer-packager can be traced to her roots and how the musician and graphic artist met her husband.

Her parents, Helen Kemp and the late John Kemp, were professors at the Westminster College of Music in Princeton Borough and nationally known authorities in church choral music. Kathy, a violist and bassist, and her siblings were classically trained and performed together frequently. She went to several colleges before settling in at the University of Colorado at Denver, where she also began playing the bass in jazz groups.

Ridl met her husband in a theory class at UCD, then went on to graduate with a bachelor of science degree in composition scoring and arranging. It was after graduation and marriage that the Ridls moved back to New Jersey, where there would be greater opportunities for Jim to pursue his career.

Kathy, in time, enrolled in animation and computer graphics classes at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor.

"Ironically, part of the course was to design a record album," said Kathy Ridl, who lives in Hamilton Township. "It was so cool to do that. Looking back, it felt so comfortable."

She continued to produce music programs and posters as favors for friends and family.

"One day Denis called and asked if I could do a CD cover. I did and from there I would get calls from musicians like, 'I saw what you did for Denis. Could you do something like that for me?' From then on, it was word of mouth and the whirlwind started."

Most of her 100 cover projects have been for Delaware Valley and New York jazz artists, including internationally prominent musicians such as Pat Martino.

Other projects were for churches, children's choirs, blues artists, classical musicians and rock bands.
"I have a Web site, but business comes from word of mouth. Believe me, it gets around. A blues band from the South called and we did the whole thing over the Internet. Once we make a contact, it doesn't surprise me now if the word spreads," Ridl said.

She has done covers for groups as far away as Michigan, California and Colorado.

She admits it is demanding to design for the limited space of a CD cover, especially compared with the ample surface that was available on the old long-playing (LP) records. And no two projects are alike.

"The important thing is that each cover is a major event for the performers. For some, it will be a lifetime event and so you feel you must make the design relate to the performer's concept," Ridl said. "Most of them are paying for the recording session and the CD design out of their own pockets. As a musician, I'm very aware of what goes into that whole effort and what it means to the musicians."

The process, from the artist's side, includes developing a musical concept for a recording, writing and arranging the music, hiring musicians, finding an appropriate studio, recording the music, commissioning a cover design, having the recording delivered to the disc manufacturer and finding some way to sell the product. Each step can be daunting to most neophytes.

"Some clients know exactly what they want from concept to colors. Others have no idea and so I talk to them, using my intuitive skills, and eventually I'm able to come up with something they like," Ridl said.

She continued, "One of my favorite moments is when a client sees a draft with a title and artwork. It's amazing what happens. It puts a face on their music. You have a memory of all the steps in doing the recording, and now it has a visual that is associated with it. It's real and tangible.

"Some people have cried, some laugh, but most get pretty excited when they first see it. This is not something they were taught to do in music school."

Ridl's business stands in contrast to mid-sized and large firms that offer a complete production service. Those firms assign an account executive as the point person, and all communications -- from polishing the audio to cover designs -- must be channeled through that person. There is little or no contact with technicians or graphic artists where nuance is critical in bringing a recording to completion.

Some customers arrive at Ridl's studio with only old snapshots, along with lists of song titles and musicians.
"When the project is complete, I give them one envelope that contains everything they need to hand it over to a record manufacturer who will press the recording and provide the printing for the cover and inserts," Ridl said.
If needed, she can recommend CD manufacturers, from those who produce thousands in a run to others who will do as few as 50.

As for her fee, the simplest cover runs about $300 but up to $1,500 for a "really complex package." Most are in the $400 to $500 range.

"But whatever I do, I don't want my work to cost more than the recording," she said. "I'm a member of the music community and so I want my work to be a good product and be affordable. I love music of all genres and this path in my career brings all of my talents to fruition."