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Tommy Osuna - The Master Plan
By Matthew S. Robinson
(more articles from this author)
2001-04-25
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Tommy Osuna is a man with a vision.

In this world of one-hit wonders and day-to-day loyalty, Osuna has a long-term plan which could very well change the way music is produced, distributed, marketed and viewed, both by those who create it and those who consume it.

Simply put, Osuna wants to "get the unity together;" to combine the different aspects of the music business (e.g., writers, performers, managers, etc.) into centralized fronts which will be able to affect their less-organized counterparts and the industry as a whole with a combination of sheer mass and focused talent.

As a writer, composer, award-winning guitarist, manager, producer and publisher, Osuna has seen many sides of the music business. Now he wants to combine them into a single, concentrated corporation which will change the music business as a whole from the inside.

Born and raised in California, Osuna first got into music thanks to a schoolboy crush on a grade school music professor. Having tried the trumpet, piano and percussion, Osuna settled on the guitar and worked at it steadily. After high school, Osuna attended the Guitar Institute of Technology (a school which Osuna claims to be "very much like [the movie] 'Fame,' except without the dancing"), where he was repeatedly named "Guitarist of the Year."

Hoping to share what he had learned with others, Osuna toured briefly with Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell, then came east to the famed Berklee School of Music to study music education and the fledgling field of music therapy. As a dyslexic, Osuna dreamed of using his acquired passion for and knowledge of music as a means to instruct others not only about performance and practice but about life in general.

Figuring the best way to reach his desired ends was through financial support, Tommy left Berklee after three years and took over as publisher of Rhythm Music magazine, turning what had been an eight-page pamphlet into a world-renowned publication. During a trip to the Midem Music Conference in France, the successful publisher met ex-Wailer and ever-Reggae legend Earl "Chinna" Smith. Having played with the likes of Bob and Ziggy Marley, Jimmy Cliff and, most recently, Grammy-winner Lauryn Hill, Smith was intrigued with Osuna's multi-cultural stylings and invited Osuna to come back to Jamaica with him. There, Osuna met other greats such as Sly Dunbar, who had also played with David Bowie and The Rolling Stones. Though Osuna was often awe-struck by his new patrons, Smith and Dunbar were likewise astounded by Osuna's talents and especially by his abilities to incorporate hitherto unmarried styles, such as Arabic and Reggae

"They really flipped for the style," Tommy recalls. "They had never heard a 'Rock' guitar player that was able to play that way. So when I started to play the Arabic Reggae stuff, they started to do the Reggae stuff and we put it together. And it was something that they had never been able to do and I don't think that anyone has been able to put it together. The only other person I know is Jimmy Page, but he's never went into the Reggae versions or other versions -- except for "D'yer Mak'r" -- but that doesn't sound like much Reggae. It sounds great! But it's not Reggae."

Before allowing Osuna to return to the States, Dunbar and Smith made Tommy agree to record with them. Unfortunately, Osuna did not have an outlet through which to deliver on his part of the bargain.

Leaving Rhythm Music, Osuna teamed-up with world-traveling bassist/businessman Kyle Russell and formed OSBC entertainment (a name culled from the maiden names of the principle's mothers) in 1998. Together with the assistance of drummer/engineer Jay Fitzgibbons and keyboardist/production assistant Rider McCoy, Osuna has created a collaborative corporation which includes not only production, but education, management and many other vital parts of what makes the modern music industry work.

One thing OSBC does not have, though, is limits. Tired of the traditional systems of classification which he considers to be outdated and stultifying, Osuna bases his roster picks on talent and potential. Gathering together the best writers, performers and production staff he can, Tommy hopes to create a union (in the truest sense of the word) which will force the rest of the industry to look at itself and change to a new way of recording, distributing, marketing and perceiving the music of the world.

"Because everybody's trying to shoot for themselves [in today's market]," Osuna explains, "the possibility of them penetrating is a lot slimmer than if we got a lot of songs together - and then I put together the publishing deals and took these songs to record companies and say 'Look-purchase these.' Instead of trying to penetrate it all by themselves, [the unified artists] can penetrate it with a movement, with something that actually has more of a business commodity. Because I think major companies don't want to screw around with small potatoes."

Though OSBC may itself be "small potatoes" at this point, Osuna is confident in his staff and in the talent he has chosen to work with. After releasing his own multi-cultural guitar album Third Stream, Osuna's first production project was the Boston Music Award-winning group Dub Station. While Dub Station was winning rave reviews from all over the country, Osuna met singer/songwriter Phil Pemberton at a local Blues jam. After reworking some of Pemberton's original material to make it more suitable for Phil's wide-ranging voice, the two recorded Dreamers, a new album which has been well-received throughout the area and which is soon to be followed-up by Pemberton's sophomore release on Mystic 7, the recording arm of OSBC. In addition to Pemberton's next album, 1999 promises new albums from Chinna and Sly, as well as Pop artist Jim Fini, Ska performer Ned Richardson and an R&B artist so hot she goes only by the name "Roz." Though these may not be household names now, the year is still young, as is Osuna and OSBC.

"I haven't done a lot," says the Midas-touched Osuna "but everything I've touched so far has risen to another level."

While Osuna is looking to take OSBC as a whole to "another level," he is not looking to expand only for expansion's sake. "With people like Phil and Roz and all these other people that are writing music in all these different directions," Tommy reasons, "it can be just four or five people working there -- like Motown -- and then you have the back-up band. You write the songs during the day. You get them produced. I produce them, push them out to radio, then boom! There you go!"

Not satisfied with sheer numbers, Osuna promises to do all he can to find "good songs." However, he appears to define "good" in a new, perhaps even revolutionary way.

"The key," Osuna explains, "is I know how to create that sound. So if I can get these people, I can put them through MY funnel- through MY vision and put them together towards a common goal. If we come up with so much music, there's only so much room on the airwaves that, if you come up with a percentage of it, people are going to start gravitating towards it and it will start making a lot of money."

And where will this money go to? Fortunately, despite the many complex steps he has had to take along the way, Osuna has not lost sight of his original goal; to create a music-based educational center for children who, like Tommy, face obstacles to learning. While such a claim may lead to puppy dog "aww"s, Osuna is quite serious about this venture, and has already enlisted the services of a number of "heavy cats" -- leading doctors and specialists in music therapy -- to join his faculty when the time comes.

"If I can penetrate the music industry and make money at it," Osuna explains, "my hope is to open up a school for learning disabled children. A music school that integrates music with literature and how to teach everyday life situations through music instead of how to problem-solve with just literature and other things. I'd like to teach all the problem-solving skills through music. Because music and literature are almost exactly the same. A good musician is the same as a good writer. They silence properly. They use good grammar. It's all basically the same. It's just two different languages."

While he works on financing his larger aspiration, Osuna is already pursuing his dreams through educating and edifying the music world one member at a time.

"If somebody comes through the door and they're at a certain level musically, I'll give them guitar lessons. I'll enhance their talent. I might even cut a record for them through OSBC. So basically, I'm like a musical director at my music firm."

In addition to the OSBC roster, Osuna is also working with unsigned performers who, without outside assistance, might never be heard. A regular at The Cantab Lounge in Cambridge's Central Square, Osuna has had the opportunity to meet and perform with some of the area's greatest Blues men. Tommy recently gathered a firm dozen of these local legends at the OSBC studios the first of what he hopes to be a series of one-of-a-kind recordings tracking music from all points of the compass and all walks of life.

"There's a lot of local people that have just never made it," Osuna explains. "They could be respected in [their particular genre], but they just frankly have never made it. There's a lot of artists there that have a lot of talent but they don't do anything about it. So I got [who I thought to be] the best players around to come in and focus on just having fun. Not about any specific marketing. Just about making music for the fact of making music. And my vision is that, in the end result, I'd like to be able to do that on a daily basis- Take big concepts like that - the American Indian industry, the Latino industry - heavy people that have just never made it, and just start making compilations."

Combining the roles of ethnomusicologist and generous patron, Osuna hopes to "produce these particular idioms and bring the young and new up-and-coming crowd along with the old generation that really hasn't made it, but they're very seasoned. I'd try to bridge that gap and put them both together."

Despite his devout love of "Classic" Rock, Osuna is too clairvoyant and shrewd a businessman to let the coming changes in the music industry pass him by.

"I know that in the year 2000 or the year 2010 it's going to be World music-influenced. Rock is growing stale. I love Rock," claims Osuna (who credits the likes of Page, Beck and Santana as influences), "but the fact of the matter is that, unless it's infused with different World elements, it's going to run stale. So, you're getting so many different people coming in from Mexico and Europe that want a piece of their heritage, but they don't want it exactly. So what you'll be able to do is you'll be able to do Rock like Zeppelin did with Arabic influence, and then boom- you have this new idiom. So, you're getting all these cross-cultural bands together. And that's what I'm globally hoping to do is to bring all different styles of music -- whether it's straight Pop to African guitar players to belly dancing to Flamenco -- and bring it to a musical front."

Though, in the past, fringe publications like Osuna's Rhythm Music were the only places for people to learn about non-Western (read "non-American") artists and styles, Osuna is pleasantly noticing a change in the global perspective.

"Now," Osuna notes, "'Ethnic' is the cool thing, whereas before it wasn't."

Unfortunately, Osuna realizes that the change will not be without difficulties.

"Frank Zappa said that his main issue with his music was the possibility of getting it. He was bummed-out that his distribution company wouldn't let somebody have the chance to buy it. Whether somebody wanted to buy it was up to them, but his problem was that, when you come to certain types of music, sometimes nobody can even get it! So my issue is how do you get people together and unify this movement to try and get out exotic and eclectic music and Pop and Blues?"

Stylistically, Osuna has one answer. "I'm using the Pop element as a way to puncture the market to then bring all these other musics along with it, but I'm writing Pop in a way that's not cheesy. It still has some hair on it!"

In the larger sense, Osuna also has ideas regarding how to most effectively market the new expanded catalog of "World" music. As opposed to companies such as Putamayo Records, which Osuna claims "take the tradition from the tradition" by leading non-Western musicians to "cross over" to more familiar and acceptable Western (i.e., American) styles, Tommy's idea is "to take the musicians from here and make them cross-over to there;" to take the "Americanized" styles back to where the music comes from.

As America has no musical "tradition" of its own (even Jazz was imported, and through very unpleasant means), Osuna does not see why it has the right to determine how the world should perceive music, especially its own! While he has no problem with the term "World Music," Osuna feels that it should include what it truly implies, as opposed to only those parts of the world that UMG does not control.

"In America," Tommy explains, "they're saying 'World' as opposed to American Pop. 'World' means 'Ethnic' nowadays- 'Third World.' To me- I think the coined phrase 'World Music' should include everyone because it's the music of the world.

Though Osuna thinks that his combination of Spanish, Native American and Italian heritage, along with partner Richardson's global education (which came from being a diplomat's son) will be a great advantage in the coming global music industry, he realizes that many new difficulties will arise from the unlimited expansion of the market. For example, how would record stores be classified and subdivided and how (more importantly to many in the industry) would precious shelf space be allotted?

"I think it should just be ran alphabetically. Not in different styles. Not where it's from. Just alphabetically by artist's name."

When asked what a consumer would do if they did not know the name of the artist or style they were looking for, Osuna smiles assuredly.

"That's the whole idea!" he claims. "Because if you don't know the artist's name- if you run through the 'B's' and you find out that you may have a 'B' here that you've never seen before, you may find that you can maybe use that 'B' and listen to that 'B.' Think of all the music you would find out about while you look!"

While this process may not be the solution, Osuna posits it to be as good as any other.

"If you change the way people think," he reasons, "it's going to be a little difficult, but there's problems with every specific way of doing this. There's going to be holes. But what's best for the music is if it all becomes under the 'World' market and I think if it is really run alphabetically."

Not only would Osuna's proposal allow for new marketing classification, but it would also have much greater benefits as well.

"That's what music's all about! Because you'd actually have to think and I think that, in America, what people don't want to have to do any more is think. It would be a process and it would be hard, but the fact of the matter is that you'd get rid of the classifications just by alphabetizing people. And then people might want to come up with funky names, just so they could have less people in that area - you know, like 'Z's' or 'Q's'." It would happen!"

In addition to making consumers think for themselves, Osuna's plan would also allow artists to do the same.

"This is about music for music. This way when somebody writes music, they write. They don't write with a specific agenda except to write."

And once the system was introduced, wouldn't certain songs rise to popularity in the same way as they do today within each category?

"Yes, the highest-selling records would rise," Osuna admits. "But they could be anything. That's the whole idea again!"

As a result, the "prejudice" surrounding 'World Music' would be eradicated and artists would be known as artists, instead of as members of a genre or cogs in a marketing machine.

"When you call something a specific area and somebody doesn't want to believe in it," Osuna concludes, "you have to understand the artist. You have to know who the artist is. That's how it's driven so people can publicize their artists. If you want to publicize them in a certain style, that's fine! But then everybody can have an equal chance."

Considering the additional issues which might not be so shakable, such as which artists would end-up with the most support and therefore the most space in the newly alphabetized bins, etc., Osuna demurs somewhat, but still appears to be quite dedicated to his cause, or at least to its general concept.

"It would have to be a whole new system," he explains. "Not that this system is going to be perfect. I don't know if it's a solution, but I know that it gives more chance for more people to get in. That's really the issue- How do you get yourself into the music store or into the market? How can you? That's the real issue. All I know is that this gives it more. Is it the 'right' way? Maybe not necessarily, but I think it's a better way than it is now."

As he is wise enough to see how to "improve" the music industry, Osuna is also wise enough to know that he cannot do it alone.

"I think that when people put armies together," he muses, only slightly metaphorically, "they put these up-front troops to go in and kill themselves and get destroyed before the generals come in. So my idea is that I'm trying to create this project which will have all these different types of people to go on the front lines. And if you have an army, it's just a fact that, if your army is bigger than someone else's army, you will humble them. It works out that way. And then with intelligence back there putting the pawns in the right places discreetly, you can be even more powerful! So within this situation, it's the same thing. You get together heavy amounts of artists that are very, very intelligent and that produce really good music. This is our army!"

Instead of separate, nationalized battalions, however, Tommy is looking for a united global force.

"I want to bring in Boston, New York- I want to bring in all over the world. I want people to know about this. There's a lot of people trying to do this on their own and the fact of the matter is that they're not going to be able to. There's going to be a lot of people that aren't going to be able to- not because they aren't using this system but just because the fact of the matter is one person with a commodity, it's not as good as a thousand people with the same commodity put in one particular situation that one businessman can purchase."

Ever the forward-thinker, Osuna already has a system devised to reward his most loyal "troops."

"Whoever comes into the situation and whoever I want as my core of people who are willing to give up a lot of their rights right now, I'm definitely going to give them better benefits to try to hire them to sit and write music all day. For instance, if we get a song to where somebody wants it and wants to pay $100,000 for it, and the writer takes $50,000 and I take $50,000, I could give half of that to someone like Phil and say 'You know what? I want you for this year and next year to write songs,' even though his song didn't 'do it.' And it might not just be him. It might be five other people that we can hire because the amount of money could have been $200,000 to buy a song outright."

Such a reward system, Tommy hopes, will reap and produce its own rewards.

"Basically," Osuna explains, "we want to get enough money to then hire these groups writers to then produce more music on a continuous basis in this particular style."

Though OSBC may have the makings and the plausible plans for one, Osuna also has a way to avoid a self-promulgating 'hit factory.'

"If everyone goes just for 'hits,'" Tommy reasons, "then we can help finance all the other writers" (i.e., those who write for the sake of creating "good" music, as is Tommy's wish).

And that's not to say the "hits" are all bad!

"I'm going to do Pop," Tommy notes, "but the Pop stuff I put in is going to be good- It's going to have that sound. I'm not going to put out Pop that sounds like shit. I'm going to put out Pop because it has some sack and it's going to be different from the R&B-Pop stuff that comes out nowadays. So frankly, anything that comes out of my office is going to be at a very high level. And I don't really care whether it's the Pop stuff, whether it's the African stuff, whether it's the Indian stuff- it doesn't really matter."

As becomes evident from talking to Tommy, he is not one to be narrow-minded in any element of his business. In the same way as OSBC umbrellas a publishing company (World Rhythm), a recording company (7 Mystic) and even booking (Upbeat Productions), he is looking to create a company that others will perceive as a whole as well. Therefore, whether it results in Pop, World or some completely new and "other" type of musical production (which would not be a surprise, coming from Osuna), OSBC is a multi-faced, multi-faceted, multi-tasking entity which its creator hopes will be seen and considered as a whole as well as by the creations of its parts.

"Whatever hits," Osuna explains, "I want people paying attention to the company. That way, they'll come looking for other things, thinking 'Hey- this Tommy guy works with good people. Let's see what else he has!'"

At present, Osuna is banking on 'known entities' such as Chinna and Sly. However, he is also hoping that his uncanny 'Midas touch' continues to serve him as he searches for tomorrow's legends.

One of Osuna's greatest "finds" is poet Patricia Smith, who has agreed to a live tour and recording project with Osuna and Pemberton. Osuna is also looking to theater as another possible branch of the OSBC tree.

"We haven't sank our teeth into anything yet," he explains, "but one of the guys -- Ned Richardson, who is producing for us -- a large part of his background is in theater. So that would be a global step to put this together as an entertainment firm as a whole."

At what will come of all this?

"The school idea is definitely going to happen."

For more information on OSBC and its may projects and services, contact Tommy at (781) 641 2945.


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