We are with Claudia Cuseta, co-founder of Maxi Records. Were you born and raised in New York?
Claudia Cuseta: I'm from New York, yeah.
Did you always have music in the family?
CC: Well my father is a musician - a guitarist and a singer. His name is Mike Phillips. He did the whole Miami club circuit in the 1950's and he's basically a night club singer. He was with a couple of groups and when I was a kid, he toured Japan with his group The Three Sons. There was definitely music around the house but it was really more Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee… the show tunes kind of thing.
That's a big stretch from dance music. What did your mom do?
CC: My mom is actually an interior decorator. I came to the music industry through living in New York all my life and hanging out at clubs.
What clubs did you go to?
CC: Let's see… I used to go to Xenon and the Ice Palace. Tony Smith was the DJ at Xenon and at the Ice Palace, I'm not quite sure. It wasn't really a big DJ scene back then. It was more about going out and having fun. I [also went] to the Mudd Club, Danceteria, The Roxy and those kind of places. I went to the High School of Art & Design and I was going to go into fashion until I took a turn for music.
What flipped you?
CC: I guess the fact that music was more of an immediate love of mine. I thought that it was more accessible and a much more social industry. It was connected to something that I was doing… going out. My first job was at Tommy Boy. I worked there when [they] were also running Dance Music Report. It was kind of like the first dance industry trade magazine. That was around for several years and was edited by Stephanie Sheppard. This was when the office was very small and basically, I was a Receptionist/Girl Friday there.
That must have been exciting. What else did you do?
CC: Yeah, I guess you could say that. After that, I started working for SUTRA [RECORDS] and Sunnyview [Records]. They were the Fat Boys and they distributed Seaver. They were the whole group of labels up at the office of Morris Levy and Roulette Records there was the Sound of NY…Sunny View was a Miami label run by Henry Stone.
I started working at Profile [Records] between 1986 and 1989. That's where I got a chance to sign and work a lot of great artists. I signed Chanelle, Judy Torres and Kechia Jenkins. At that point I was also working a lot of hip-hop artists like Rob Base& EZ Rock, Special Ed, Run-DMC, Dana Dane, Sweet T… That's what Profile was primarily known for but they also put out dance music. When I left Profile in 1989, I started Maxi Records with my partner Kevin McCue in 1990.
Since then you've had many great projects and been quite successful. What were those early days like?
CC: The early days…the salad days. It was a lot of fun. Something that was very new and challenging. There was a lot to look forward to. I don't think that we knew what we were getting into and I don't even think we necessarily knew what we were doing. It was a hands-on experience and we did everything from start to finish - we signed the record, put it into production, then saw it through with promotion and sales.
It was a good time. It was 1990 and there were not a lot of house labels or pure dance labels around. There were the ones that started up in the eighties like Profile, Sleeping Bag, Emergency and Select, but they were much more geared towards hip hop because that was where the money was. There was this emerging music called 'house' and a handful of labels, Maxi being one of them, who were doing it at the time.
Considering the rosier economic picture of a career in rap, why did you choose house/dance music?
CC: Cause dance music is just the music that I love. If I was going to start a label, I had to do it with the music that spoke to me the most. That's definitely dance music. I don't even like to call it house music… it's just under the general description of dance. I love all different types of dance music.
Who was the first person you signed at Maxi?
CC: Our first artist was Dawn Martin and it was called "Can You Feel the Music?" It was produced by these guys from Jersey - Paul Scott and Hal Martin, Jr. It was a good, groovy vocal record out of Jersey. Our second record was a Pal Joey track called "Ping Pong" and he went under the name Espresso which was great! People still talk about that. Next, we picked up a record by Roger Sanchez…
Did these guys already have 'names' when they came to you or was it just about the quality of the music?
CC: These were the guys who were producing the music. They had known me from the other labels I worked at and it was a situation where we all understood the music. There weren't a lot of avenues for this music to be released and we developed our catalog that way. We put out a record by Cocodance; Danny Tenaglia was doing a lot of remixes for us back then, too.
What was your first major hit?
CC: I guess our first major hit was "Helpless" by Urbanized. It was Mood II Swing's first production, with an early Masters At Work remix. It was licensed very well, but I ultimately don't believe that the record reached it's full potential. [Still,] it was a hit in the sense that it was a well-received record in the community and it was a big club record in England.
Was the London scene as strong then as it is now?
CC: It was definitely strong but now there is such a history of dance music being pop music. When I was at Profile, the Chanelle record that I signed - "One Man", did well here in America but it was #5 Pop record in the UK. Kechia Jenkins' "I Need Somebody" was a well-received club record in America, but it was in the Top-Twenty Pop Charts in the UK.
How many records sold determined whether a record was successful at this time?
CC: Back in the early days, a successful club record sold about ten or twenty thousand [copies].
Today it's much lower… a record is considered good at five thousand copies sold, right?
CC: I think it's actually much lower! There is a lot more competition.
How difficult was it to get business done with contracts etc.?
CC: We took care of our business early on. You just had to.
What are some of your favorite projects or producers in your Maxi catalog?
CC: All the Danny Tenaglia stuff we did was great. The Big Muff album was definitely one of my favorites because it was very different. I got Itaal [Shur's] demo through Michael Joseph who was one of our employees, and he was just shopping it as a four-cut EP. I really liked all the cuts and I asked if he could do a little bit more [to fill] an album and it just evolved from there. I thought we had something really cool even before my "Funny Valentine" came into the picture. He did a gig on Valentine's Day in 1998, and for the show, he put together a version of "My Funny Valentine." The first time I heard it the band was doing it live. After I heard it live, I said we definitely have to put this on the album - it's great. I'm ultimately very glad that we did. That was a great and very well licensed project.
Our biggest record at Maxi was "Funk Dat" by Sagat - it was a pop record here in America. That was really fun because here we were, this little record company with like six people and we had this record called "Funk Dat" that just started steam rolling at radio. It ultimately charted in the forties on the Pop chart in America and it was all stuff that we did in house - we didn't sell it to a major. It was one of those projects that we kept taking to radio and finally Hot 97 started playing it, but they didn't think it would be a big record for them. In three months and throughout the end of 1994, it was the biggest record on their station. It was a Top-5 request for months. Other stations saw that and said what is that record that New York radio is banging called "Funk Dat"? They had to see what this is record is.
It became this huge novelty hit and the video was great too. MTV called us up and said, "Hey, is there a video to this?" I was like 'yeah! It'll be ready in a week.' In that week, we got friends of ours who were stylists and video producers together and shot it on the coldest day of the year. It was a good concept and was a very, very cool video. All our friends were in it. After we brought it to MTV… a day later, it was added. That kind of stuff doesn't happen very often.
No… and when it did happen, what did it mean for Maxi as a label?
CC: We could begin to really stake a claim at being a "real" record label - which we were throughout our eight-year run at Maxi. It was fun and it's definitely something I would recommend for anyone that has a passion for it. After a while though, I felt like I really wanted to downsize and just concentrate on the promotion.
Talk about 'promotions' as a job title, what does that mean?
CC: Well, it means that after a record is signed and pressed, you have to send it out to somebody. You have to make sure it gets into the right hands [of] DJs, press people, the right radio people and retailers. Make sure they know about the record so it can sell. A lot of it is about the relationships, but it's also about the music that you're pushing. I think I have always been known as a music person. I love the music before I am pushing a priority. People know what you're giving them and will heed your recommendation when you hand them a record.
Is there ever a case in that scenario where you work something that you don't feel all the way through?
CC: Yeah, there were. I think that the cream always rises to the top. The ones that everybody loves and the stuff that's really good will ultimately get the most play. I was lucky enough to work for really good independent labels and they put out great stuff - whatever it was hip hop, dance or R&B.
What else in your catalog?
CC: Most of the catalog is singles but we've put out a lot of compilations, too. [DJ] Disciple has mixed a CD for us… so have Danny Tenaglia, Tedd Patterson, and Danny Krivit. Then there's the Big Muff album [Music From the Aural Exciter], the Big Muff Remix album and the Sagat album. One of the first compilations that we did was un-mixed. It was just a [representation of] Maxi's classics and a compilation of our records so far.
When did you start producing your Miami parties and hook up with Kim and Maurice [said as Morris] Bernstein?
CC: My first party was eight years ago, when Maxi threw one at the Century Beach Club. It was so much fun, we did it again. The next time we did it with Masters At Work and Marques Wyatt who DJd at all the early parties as well. Then the third year, Kim (Benjamin of Kimco) got involved and it was a Maxi/Yoshitoshi Party because Deep Dish were spinning with Marcus. I met Maurice through my friend Kim and in the fourth year, we had an opportunity to bring it to the Raleigh [Hotel on 18th & Collins Ave]. That's when Giant Step came on board and it became the Maxi/Kimco/Giant Step Sunset Soiree. We were happily surprised at how things really took off. Our line-up for the past four years has included people like Pete Heller, Gilles Peterson, Julius Papp and Disciple… we even had Daft Punk play one year. It's been a lot of fun.
This year, we are pretty much changing everything about the party. It's going to be on Saturday. It was the Sunday Sunset Soiree for four years and now it's something else. I just think that you need to change.
What's the value of doing parties in Miami at all with so much going on?
CC: I think it keeps your company name out there and Maxi has always been known for throwing parties. We've just been lucky enough to lock on to some very exclusive places. Throughout the early part of the label, we would throw
parties here in the city and we regularly threw parties down in Miami before the WMC blew up at places like Warsaw, or Woody's. Just to show you how different the Winter Music Conference is these days, now it's all about corporate sponsorship and working on your party for months.
I remember one time we went down there and were staying in a really funky hotel called the Lhama Drag. It was run by these gay guys who liked us. We were like, 'Hey, let's just throw a last minute party.' It was myself, Kevin my partner, Bill Brown from ASCAP and we basically spread the word and it was a big hoo. We had a couple hundred people in the lobby of the hotel and they got dressed up in wacky costumes to come to the party. I think the vibe of Maxi has always been kind of tongue in cheek… and very fun. Our parties have always been a combination of wacky downtown club culture mixed with the industry, gay/straight, you know - everything. I think that people enjoy that vibe. They know that something crazy, or kooky or silly is going to go on and it's not your typical thing. It was something that I invited Kim and Maurice to do because we were friends and I respect what they do.
How was it for you and Kim to be ladies in this seemingly male-dominated field of dance music? Did you go to college?
CC: No. I think we've helped each other out and have watched each other's businesses grow and transform [while being] very supportive of each other. I started out in the industry when I was very young, at like nineteen. I guess when you are 19, who takes you seriously? I think it was the fortitude that I had to stick with the music industry. I went through a succession of really good independent labels that are not like major labels. At an independent you get to see everything that goes on. When I started my own label, I had a good grasp on what everybody did and what it took to make records. I think that was a big help. I've always worked for independent labels and for the last twelve years, I've worked for myself. Have I come up against any obstacles as far as being a woman? No, I don't think so. At the core of it, if you love the music and you know what you're doing, then you have the best chance to succeed. I didn't think it was necessary to have a male partner… that's just how it worked out.
So if it's not about sexism, then what obstacles have you faced and overcome to succeed?
CC: I guess the biggest drawback was we started our company with very little money. It was a situation where we had to be patient and watch things grow. We had to be careful every step of the way, and be very cautious about what we were doing. [We also had to] keep our overhead low and have faith that this was what we wanted to do and would see our company grow.
Do you write or perform music yourself?
CC: No I don't. I am not a musical person. I don't play an instrument and if you heard my voice, I think you'd know why I'm not a performer. (laughs)
Is your catalog still in demand since closing the label?
CC: I still definitely license the material out for compilations and in the last couple of years, I've really tried to heavily work the catalog to film, advertising and television.
We hear so much about the Moby's and Paul Oakenfold's having success with this kind of placement… how has it been for you?
CC: Well, it's the high-profile things you're gonna know about but the Maxi catalog has been used in movies like Blackmail and LOVING JEZEBEL. "Helpless with You" is the theme-song to JEFFREY and "Funk Dat" was used in a Polygram movie. I have also gotten stuff on television in shows like Snoops with Gina Gershon (that was a David E. Kelly show, now cancelled) and also on Felicity.
Is it hard to get this placement? How can labels get their music heard?
CC: It's all about relationships. If you know the music supervisor then it's really kind of just networking in those areas. It's always good to know people who make movies and who are trying to place music in ads and stuff like that. Having a catalog is like having real estate… there's always a chance that it is going to be used.
Now it's on to Maxi Promotion… what are you responsible for doing now?
CC: I have always had Maxi Promotion throughout Maxi Records and basically, I do dance promotion for other labels. I work dance records for them on the Billboard Club Play chart and to my national DJ list… to mix shows… to dance press and to dance retail. The same system that I always put Maxi records through. I decided to concentrate on this in '98.
Who are some of your clients and projects and what do you do for them?
CC: I work very closely with Virgin, Astralwerks, Network and 6 Degrees. Different labels require different degrees of coverage. Some labels only want me to work the Billboard Dance Chart, while others want a whole servicing because they don't have their own dance department. Some labels want me to mail out the records, others want to receive labels from me… it's a very customized campaign.
What can you say about the perception that the Billboard chart is not honest?
CC: It's certainly a chart that can be manipulated but it's not an underground club chart. It's probably the most visible dance music chart in America because it's in the biggest trade magazine, Billboard. It's a sampling of clubs around the country so the panel is made up all kinds of DJs including underground, alternative, mainstream and R&B. The records that can 'cross-over' and be played by all of these DJs, they are the records that systematically make it up the charts. That's why I think it seems like the most watered-down chart because you have to please all these different kinds of DJs.
That's where you get the word cross-over - it has to appeal to many different formats. You get a record that works for an underground guy, a pop guy, a circuit DJ and an R&B DJ, then that's going to be a 'pop' club record. I really do try and take projects I like and I think that the repertoire that I work is really left of center. I've been fortunate to work on all the Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk material and with artists like Kelis, Bebel Gilberto, and MJ Cole.
All of those artists were really hot last year… how much of that has to do with your efforts?
CC: I help get their music exposed and I think it's part of the full-campaign the label does on these artists.
Many NY-based independent labels don't seem to do this type of promotion, how will they grow if they can't afford to do what you do?
CC: They need to look at it on a case-by-case basis. If they are working on an artist and money is always an issue - and it is for a lot of these labels that put out underground dance music, working it through the traditional channels is really not for them. For them it probably is the most cost-effective and best way to just release a record and see who buys it. Hand it out to a few key people. [This] keeps a nice underground feel and maintains the credibility of what they are doing. If the music is good, then people will start to come around to what they are doing.
Do you want to see this music enjoy a greater share of the mainstream buying dollar or would you rather it stay underground?
CC: I would rather hear good music on the radio. There's always going to be an underground. If the music that we love were to become over-ground and too popularized, there is always going to be some wacky form of music that someone is going to be into that's going to be underground. But, I think there's room in this country for them to allow some of the more substantial music to be played alongside the more real pop stuff. I think people want to hear this stuff but radio stations are big money propositions, and they are just going to play the safest material they can find.
Do you still go out after all these years?
CC: Yeah I still do… I go out when I want to hear specific DJs. I still think Body & Soul is great, Giant Step events are great. I love checking out bands and I just went to hear Vikter Duplaix at Joe's Pub. It's difficult… I don't find that the energy in New York is all that amazing, people just don't come out.
What do you think the reason for that is?
CC: I don't really know. I don't really think there's a proper club environment for something fantastic to happen. I think that's mainly it. I think the city of New York has made it very difficult to do stuff and it hinders a lot of people from trying things. It's fun to go hear a great DJ play, but if you can't dance, that's not fun!
Spoken like a true dancer!
CC: That's why I really like the grand-daddy events like Body & Soul and Giant Step. They are still the best things to go to. Centro-Fly is fun when you want to go check out a specific DJ, but the drinks are expensive and the attitude is…
CC: It really is… I mean the whole bottle-service thing and you can't sit down unless you order a $200 bottle of vodka. I mean come on, give me a break. I know clubs want to make money but I think that's why Centro-Fly is feeling it, is because people want to feel at home and feel good when they go out. I think this whole chi-chi attitude is so over. With the economy being the way that it is and the things that happened on September 11th, people want to feel like they are in a warm environment when they go out. They want to feel good about it. They don't want to feel picked over to get in and once they get in, they have to act like they're a player. I think we really do need a realer, cozier club experience and that's been the problem with emerging styles of music. They haven't been able to develop here because there aren't venues for it to happen in. People are cautious about where they are spending their money.
What would you say to someone who is considering starting their own label?
CC: Don't do it! Go to law school! I'm just kidding. Don't quit your day job! I think it starts with a true appreciation and love for the music. Cause when you start, you have to have your own, solid opinions about the type of music you want to put out. If you don't have that, then let's hope you have big investors behind you and you can waste their money. That's what it comes down to; everybody that has started their own labels, they feel the need to project what they want into the market. That's why the music is much truer.
Do you have any favorite labels at the moment?
CC: I'm really bad with that… Nuphonic and Compost are great. I like K7!, Astralwerks and Network have been putting out some great stuff.
Not too many labels that you've grown up with in there…
CC: Ibadan is good and King Street is still pumping out great music. They have really stayed true to what they believe in. Six Degrees puts out some really great stuff as well. I also really love Emperor Norton Records because they are one of the closest things to a Maxi esthetic that I've seen in a long time… they just put out wacky, wacky music. I mean Felix the Housecat, Senior Coconut… Tron. I like all the Philly stuff… like Scuba and King Britt, Vikter Duplaix… Jill Scott is one of my favorite artists to emerge in a long time. All that stuff is just great music. Actually, you just want to obliterate the pop music and have more of this stuff alongside it.
In five years what do you want to do?
CC: I really have no idea what's next, I don't know. It's taken me this far, so I have no idea what's next.
Well thanks for your time and continued success!
With music and fashion in her chic genes courtesy of a singing father and designer mother, it makes sense that promotion maven Claudia Cuseta's fine taste would be keeping her in high style decades into her long, successful career. From her start at the front desk of TOMMY BOY, to powerhouse rap label PROFILE as an A&R rep, to her own successful imprint MAXI RECORDS and Promotion, Claudia has always put good music first and earned a reliable reputation for knowing / promoting only the hottest artists and projects around. Which in turn has earned her a diverse roster of groundbreaking talent, whose deep cache of hits are intrinsically woven into the tapestry of the late century sonic scene and nestled safely in her archive. In true underground style, she did it her way but has had quite a lot of fun in the process by not taking herself to seriously. Jump in…