Pen & Pixel once was to graphic design what McDonald’s is to gastronomy : a mass-production company, instantly recognizable, not really focused on finesse but highly effective. And culturally relevant, too : during the 90’s, the agency immortalized the underground movements of southern rap and pushed to the extreme every glittering codes of modern hip-hop. Let’s go back to the Pen & Pixel legend with its founder, Shawn Brauch.
A: How did the company start ?
S: My brother and I were working for Rap-A-Lot Records in Houston, Texas. My brother was general manager of the label from the start, he had worked there for a number of years. Other than 2 Live Crew, Rap-A-Lot was was the first exposure that America had basically seen to gangsta style southern rap. I came to Rap-A-Lot in about 1991 to assist him directing music videos. My main purpose was story-boarding. My brother was more into business, I was more into graphics. Before that, I went to the Chicago Art Institute, I have one degree there and another one in Parsons School of Design in graphic communication.
A: What albums did you work on, over at Rap-A-Lot ?
S: Quite a few. One of the first albums was Prince Johnny C, and most of the Geto Boys albums.
A: Why did you choose to leave Rap-A-Lot and run your own business?
S: We had started using computer special effects on some of the album covers of that time. Willie D’s “I’m Going out like a soldier” was actually the first CD cover to use a high amount of photorealistic special effects. When that album came out, people started saying that they wanted that for their covers. So they would come to Rap-A-Lot, thinking that they would just get the artwork and nothing else, but Rap-A-Lot obviously said that was impossible. The demands for the work went up to the point where my brother and I said “Listen, that sounds like a good business venture, so let’s start and do our own thing“.
A: Was it an easy move at the time?
S: Yeah, we started out with 1 000 $ to buy computer equipment to seed the company. We worked out of our apartment, on the dining room table.
A : Both of you were hip-hop fans?
S : Oh, well, yeah. I mean, yeah, you could say that. It kinda grew on us but that the demand for the work was there, and we said “Well, let’s supply the service” as the demand gradually grew. That was really a business-oriented move.
A: Both of you grew up in Houston?
S: No, we actually grew up overseas. We lived in south-east Asia and Brazil most of our lives. I got in Houston in 1991 and left in 2003. My brother was there from 1989 all the way until, well, he just left recently.
A: So, as soon as you arrived in Houston, it was on, you were in the music business.
S: Yeah, instantly. The day I arrived, I went to a movie set and I started working on music videos.
A: What was your philosophy for Pen & Pixel?
S: Well, at the very, very beginning, I noticed that people had not really got a good understanding of Photoshop and what you could do with it. People were paying a huge amount of money to go and have themselves in front of a Bentley, and hire models, and rent jewelry, and go to a location… I also had a background in photography, and before Pen & Pixel, your photoshoot could be 15 to 20 000 $ just to get everything right. And there were still not the dimension, the bling-bling, that was limited on what you can do with it. So what I said is “Why do all that when we can actually do that at one-tenth of the price? We have everything: we have pictures of Rolls Royces, pictures of girls, pictures of diamonds, we have all this stuff, including their clothes!” If they didn’t want to buy clothes, all we can do is photograph the face, and we will have a body model, mimick up their bodies and we would put it in a place where you would never know the difference. And it worked. That formula worked very very well.
A: How did you get all those photos? You were making separate photo shoots?S: Absolutely. For example, if we had the chance to rent a Rolls Royce or go down to the Bentley dealership, we would shoot 250 pictures at one time, with no one on it, no one inside it. We would take that back to Pen & Pixel and cut it out very meticulously inside and outside, knowing that we would shoot a model and put that model in the Bentley driving it down the freeway. We knew exactly what the lighting situation was, we took all these notes on how everything was done. So when we shot the model or the rapper in the studio, the lighting and everything fell together absolutely perfectly.
A: Do you remember your first command at Pen & Pixel?
S: Yeah, one of the first covers that had incredible special effects, it’s a very rare one, and it was actually not for a hip-hop artist. It’s for a band called Kings Sweet. I have a copy of it and it’s very interesting: it was a hard rock band that wanted snakes and tigers and leopards in the photo. Obviously, these animals were too dangerous to do a photo shoot with. So we shot all the animals separately, except for the snakes. We shot it in the studio, put it all together. It’s one of the first covers to show super high special effects.
A: You had to rent the animals to a zoo ?
S: Yeah, we had an animal trainer who brought the animal separately. For hip-hop, one of the first covers who put Pen & Pixel on the map was 8-Ball & MJG’s “Comin’ Out Hard”. That’s the one where they’re sitting on the pool table with a Viper, reflecting in that huge eightball with Tony Draper in the back [EN : this is actually the “On Top of the World” album]. When I conceived and executed that cover, I knew it was gonna make a tremendous difference. And it did.
A: Do you feel like the cover played a role in the album success ? It’s now considered a hip-hop classic.
S: Oh yeah, absolutely – I mean, don’t get me wrong : from Suave House, Tony Draper, 8-Ball & MJG, these guys were very, very good. The quality of the production from Tony Draper was absolutely amazing. I mean, he didn’t skip on any penny. He spent the money the right places. He knew about marketing, he knew about promotion. He was actually a precursor, in the sense of marketing things, of Master P. He was one of the first guys to say “Hey, let’s put other albums inside this album, let’s advertise upcoming releases“. He was actually the first one to do that.
A: Master P came in the picture way after this album?
S: Oh yeah, way after that album. We were still working out the apartment. My brother and I worked there for three years. In fact, we had so many people working in the apartment that my brother and I couldn’t sleep there anymore because we had consumed the whole apartment. So we had to get our own. [laughs]
A: I don’t know if it’s a legend or not, but I read that you met Master P because he took umbrage of one of your covers…
S: That’s correct. In fact, I am working so much that I don’t sleep, I’m a insomniac. I can work for 72 hours, straight, no problem. My brother also does not sleep, so this was one of the catalysts that made Pen & Pixel so successful because our competition obviously had to sleep. My brother and I would work for three weeks straight and turned out 1450 album covers [laughs]. It was crazy. We had a method that was so efficient, people just could not believe that we could get that many albums in that short period of time. Don’t get me wrong: we would set up templates. These covers did not have big special effects. We had several types of clients, and one of them was a mass producer of mass records, where basically, you and your cousin are going to sing a song, you send in a picture, the titles of the song, we put the picture on the cover, we lay in all the tracks, and then we put that in a template, and we send it off to a mass-printering company, eighty or ninety of the album covers at one time. That type of work was a good portion of Pen & Pixel early business.
A: What was the proportion of hip-hop commands at the time?
S: At the very beginning, it was about 50/50. We would do latin bands, Christian bands, rock n’roll bands, but hip-hop is what really started paying the bills.
A: Especially with No Limit and Cash Money Millionaires…
S: Cash Money, you bet. There were four big players: Cash Money which was number one client, No Limit was number 2. A lot of people think No Limit was number 1 but it was actually number 2. There was Big Boy Records out of New Orleans and there was Suave House.
A: I never heard of Big Boy Records…
S: We did so much work for them. They were direct competition to Cash Money Millionaires, and they just sort of evaporated off the ground but we were doing covers for them like crazy. Beautiful stuffs. They had the Ghetto Twins which was two females, at one time they had a couple of the people that were on Cash Money Records: Mystikal was actually one the first people on Big Boy Records and he transferred over to No Limit. There was a couple of others: Black Menace was one of their clients, it was a very very good hip-hop band. And Partners in Crime, too.
A: Do you remember the first time you met Master P?
S: Yes. First time I met Master P, we actually got a phone call. This was when Pen & Pixel was doing very very well. We had two 5000 foot facilities in Houston, with 28 or 29 people working with us. Our head sales person got a phone call and said Master P was on the line. I was so busy, I knew of Master P but I didn’t take him seriously because he was getting most of his artwork done by another company in California and his artwork was not that good. I was like “Oh, Master P” and then she came in and said “He’s pissed off“. I was like “OK… I don’t even know this man and he’s pissed off, what happened?“. Well, we did not notice, but and artist by the name of Tre-8 came in to Pen & Pixel a couple of months ago and said “Listen, I want an specific album cover: I want you to show an ice cream truck, I want the ice cream truck to be exploding, blowing apart, and I want the guys to be falling out dying.” And we were like “Okayyy… That’s fine. That’s great“.
A: It was business as usual for you…
S: Sure, exactly. The only thing that we wouldn’t show is a pregnant woman getting shot, which we had a request for. Don’t ask, it’s very sick. We did have limits at Pen & Pixel, but this was within our limits so we were like “OK, fine!“. We went out, found an ice cream truck, shoot 300 pictures of the truck from every angle, get our special effects, blew it up and had the passengers falling out dying. We put it out, I can’t remember the name, but it was something like “Kill the Ice Cream Man” or “Ice Cream Man 187”, something like that. Anyhow. Obviously, the ice cream man represented Master P. He was pissed off and we had no clue! So he came in, he was like “I wanna talk to you” but the minute he walked in the door, he knew that was a totally different ball game. He knew that we were some small, ricky-ticky tiny little operation working out a garage. But when he saw the gold and platinum albums, the work that was being done, the studio, the printing press, the people working… He was like “Wait a minute, I’m having problems with my graphics, how about you do some graphics for me?“. We said “OK!“. We started doing work for Master P and he turned out to be a very very good client. Good guy.
A: What year was it?
S: Goodness, what year was that ? I would say that it was probably late 1998 or early 1999. The apex of Pen & Pixel success was the year 1999 to 2001. September 11th really hurt us, but during those three years, we were doing absolutely insane, maybe 6M$ in business a year. During that time, we were doing about twelve to sixteen hundred covers a year, and they were high-special effects covers. That was none of the small stuffs anymore. Everything going in there was 1500 to 4000/6000$ each cover.
A: Were you still working with underground artists?
S: Oh yeah, absolutely. We had 6000 clients.
A: What was the craziest request you ever had for a cover art?
S: Well, we had some crazy requests that we didn’t execute. Like I said, this one guy came up and he wanted, for some reason… I think this was Clown Possee, if I’m not mistaken. They wanted someone shooting a pregnant woman from the front with a shotgun, and they wanted to be able to see the baby, the foetus, flying out the back of her. I was like “…No.” [laughs] Bye bye, thank you. I would just absolutely refuse to do that type of stuffs. There’s no reason, I mean, there’s absolutely no reason for that type of artwork whatsoever. In fact, when we started Pen & Pixel, many of the artists wanted a great deal of violence for their covers. And I must said that, I believe that my company worked very very diligently to make sure that we turned violence into bling-bling. Instead of chilling people and showing bullets hitting people and blasting people out of the way, we were like “Hey man! How about we put you next to a Bentley or a Ferrari, we put some hoes on the side, show you with a 50 000 $ rollie, a big-ass necklace, your big house in the back, how about all that?” They were like “Yeah yeah yeah, OK then, un-ungh, that were it go, yeah!“. I’m like “Allright, fine. Beautiful.”
A: It was a win-win situation for both the company and the artist…
S: Correct. Exactly. And then it just started topping itself, so you would put out a album with, let’s say, one Bentley, one Ferrari, three pitbulls and two hoes… Well, the next guy comes up, he’s like “I want six hoes, five Bentleys !” and you can see how it just exploded into the over-the-topness that occurred.
A: Cash Money Millionaires’ BG is considered as the inventor of the word “bling-bling”, which has become one of the keyword of the hip-hop dictionary. Is the bling-bling a Pen & Pixel creation?
S: The bling-bling actually happened over the phone. It happened between B.G. and myself. We were talking one of his next upcoming album, I can’t even remember which one it was, but he had seen some diamond incrusted types that we had done on a Master P piece. He was getting frustrated, trying to explain how we wanted the stuff to shine. He was like “this little things“. I used to call it star blast, and I was like “this bling“. He was like “Yeah ! Bling-bling!” He said it, I said it. He never thought it would take off anywhere. And he’s like “Yeah, do the bling-bling thing man, hook it up, nahmsayin’ ?“. I was like “Allright, allright, I got the handle!” From there, every single time we put the diamonds and the starblast, it was considered “bling-bling” and that just became a huge term.
A: Do you know how the French President is nicknamed?
S: No, what is he called ?
A: The Bling-Bling President.
S: [bursts into laugh] Why is that ?! Because he has a lot of jewelry?
A: He’s always showing off his watch, or his girl… As soon as we was elected, he went straight to a big boat and what’s crazy is, that word which comes straight from southern hip-hop is all now all over the place in the French media…
S: [still laughing] Awww no! It’s the irony of it all, isn’t it? You gotta love it. [more laughs] Is hip-hop big in France?
A: It’s a big market, yeah. And for the past years, people are really into southern rap while everybody was stuck in New York before. But it changed with the TI’s and Lil Wayne’s…
S: Excellent, very good ! I think that southern rap is more complex. It’s a little bit more fun. It’s a better dance mix. I think it’s better produced, in my opinion… I remember Lil Wayne, I did his first photo shoot, and first album cover, when he was just a little boy. This was just funnier than hell. He was 14. He came in, he was just that little shy guy, already really really thin, and he had these sort of dreads. He didn’t know what the hell was doing! [laughs] It was just amazing to see the transformation that he made, coming out and picking it to where he is now. I’m glad that he did it, he’s certainly very hard-working and he deserves it so… Very good.
A: Pen & Pixel could have made some crazy stuffs for the cover of “Tha Carter III”…
S: Oh, of course ! The last cover I did for Lil Wayne was “Lights out”. In fact, the last cover I did for Pen & Pixel was “Birdman”.
A: In your opinion, why did they stop ordering you covers? It feels like they were trying to go further than the southern market…
S: I’m not really sure. The only decrease in business that we saw was after 9/11. Then everything started to slow down from there. I think that, by the time, we had already reached the pinnacle of bling-bling, people wanted and needed a change. It had already been done, and people knew at that time – especially hip-hoppers – that if it’s not real, it’s not real. There were a lot of people out there that thought the Pen & Pixel covers were there precursors to success. So, they come in, let’s say they have 20 000 to 30 000 dollars to spend, they look at Master P’s stuffs all over the wall, they see the gold and platinum albums, they’re like “Well, if I spent this here, then I’m going to be like that“. I kept explaining, I was like “Listen, it’s not just a cover, it’s the mode of promotions, the management, it’s how you spend your money, it’s the record label which you sign up with, it’s the quality, it’s your follow-up album, it’s all of these things.” We would give them tons of advices: money management, travel expenses, stage set-up, a whole network that we would handle. If they took it, wonderful. If they didn’t, then they’d be spending 15 000 dollars getting album covers, posters, and some CD’s, and they’d go nowhere.
A: In a way, that huge demand for bling-bling caused the downfall of the company…
S: I think so. I think eventually, it did. I think it was played-out, people wanted to see something new and different. In the later years of Pen & Pixel, especially around 2000-2001, we started changing the style, it was much more a movie poster look instead of the bling-bling thing. Juvenile’s “Project English” the Mack 10 album, “Lights Out” too are prime examples of that.
A: Are you aware that with these visuals, you clearly fascinated a whole generation of rap listeners? I remember the first time I ever read The Source, the first thing that blew my mind was the 4-page Cash Money ads. It was out of this world. Did you feel that back then?
S : No, but what I was really trying to do with Pen & Pixel, was relived that same experience that I had as a youth when I would take out a record and put it on the record player : you look at the album cover and you read through it. When you’re reading through an album cover, you become immersed. Listening to the music, it brings you closer to the artist and gives you a sense of what they were really about. It puts you in a fantasy world when you’re looking at it. I wanted to be able to do that with the CD covers. I wanted to people to pick it up, and look at the Pen & Pixel CD cover very closely, look at all the details, read the lyrics, and look deeply into that artist work, more deeply than he can just project with his voice. If I did that, that’s fantastic. I enjoyed that so much that when I was a kid, I wanted to do that for the kids these days.
A: Please, tell me the story of the Big Bear, “Doin’ Thangs” cover…
S: [laughs] It’s amazing that Big Bear has got so much publicity off that cover. I guess because it’s so bizarre, you know?
A: It is.
S: [laughs] The interesting thing about that cover is, ever single one of the bears on the cover is actually the artist. He body-modelled all of the poses. That’s actually his body and for his hands, we ordered a bear hand from a movie shop down in Hollywood. So the hand is actually a real bear hand. So he’s got the glove on and he’s got his Versace robe and we put some hair on his chest, but he has no bear hand. We did that in the computer later on. We sat him at this table that we had, basically a plastic table. We shot him separately, there were like six shots. The main shot was his hand holding a glass cup. The glass and his hand are separate shots. All the props – the fishs, the nuts, the berries on the plates – they were all separate. Those are real live items we had purchased. All of that stuffs. And of course, we had a background of a cave from a photograph, put that in and it took the text to make it look like it’s made out of honey. Expensive cover [laughs].
A: When you were working on those covers at the office, sometimes you had to laugh…
S: Oh, we would laugh, we would print it out and show the rest of the staff and they were just like “Aw man“. But the main thing was sitting down with Big Bear cause that’s his personality: he’s a big guy. Like 6’4, 350 pounds. And the guy is the coolest, sweetest guy you’ve ever met. I mean, the personality of the album cover reflects his personality. We sat down, we conceived it together, “How about this? How about that?“. He was like “Yeah yeah that’s great, let’s do it !“. So… it happened [laughs].
A: I saw this documentary from british comedian Louis Theroux that made its way around the Internet, coming to the company to make his album cover, remember that?
S: Yeah, I remember.
A: And there is this bit where you show him all the covers, and there is this very violent background for some people involved. We you scared sometimes?
S: No. There was actually only one incident that ever occurred, and this was the very beginning of Pen & Pixel. This was when we were working out our apartment. This gentleman had come in, he had ordered a 2000$ cover, he put the 2000$ down. We completed the cover and then he came back three days later and was like “I need my money back“. We were like “You need your money back ’cause the cover is not good?“. he was like “No no no, I need my money back for personal reasons“. We were like “Well, we have already done the cover, we can’t do that“. And he got very upset. He opened his briefcase, he had his 9 millimetre sitting there. I suggested it was time for him to leave. He left and died three days after that. [silence] A lot of people in Europe don’t quite understand how bad it is out here. But you cannot believe how these people will kill each other. You cannot fathom it. Over a pair of shoes. If they want the shoes, the walk up to you, “I need those shoes“, you’re like “Screw you”, BAM!, you’re dead. Then they take the shoes out of your dead body, and they walk away.
A: Did you have a moral conflict at some point ? In a way, you were selling violent aesthetics, and the other side, there was this reality you just talked about. As a human being and a businessman, how did you handle that?
S: Well, when I first got into Rap-A-Lot, obviously I had come from back east, I was working for an advertise LLC in New York. Hip-hop was just brand new, and I didn’t understand when these guys were singing about killing and drive-bys, I didn’t think it was real. It was so hard to comprehend. And then, we I got a little deeper into it, maybe about a year into it, I realized “Oh my God, these people are really killing themselves.” So, what I tried to do, when I realized that I was accentuating and glamorizing the violence, that’s when I made a major shift, and said “Hey, instead of showing you killing so and so, how about we make you look bling-bling! Let’s do this, let’s do that, let’s put some hoes!“. As soon as I found out that there was a problem, and people were really doing it, I made a major paradigm shifts in Pen & Pixel’s direction. You’ll see throughout the rest of the covers that we tried to cut the violence way way down.
A: You were the general manager of the company ?
S: I was the creative director, and vice president. My brother was general manager.
A: Do you have a personal favourite among all the Pen & Pixel covers?
S: People ask me that often and I think one cover that says Pen & Pixel probably beyond anything else, and I don’t really know if they really publicized this one, is 2 Live Crew. It’s probably the most absolutely over-the-top Pen & Pixel there is. I have a version here with me: 2 Live Crew came to us during Pen & Pixel bling-bling stage and they were like “Listen, we want something that is absolutely beyond anyone out“. So we shot a Rolls Royce, we extended it by about eight meters, we put a swimming pool on the back of the Rolls Royce, a bunch of women swimming in front of a red carpet with a bunch of people taking photographs, cash flying all over the floor, security… It was probably 150 different layers in Photoshop.
A: You never wanted to go national, testing the New York market?
S: We actually tried to push for California. We kept away from New York because there was a lot of conflicts between southern rap artists and New York rap artists. But we did well with the South, including Tennessee, Atlanta, Houston Dallas, Corpus Christi, places like that. But we pushed for California. In fact, we were right on the verge of actually signing a deal with a company out of San Francisco. But, at the very end, we did some investigation and decided that would not be the best thing to do because of security issues. It was a printing company and we were going to handle all of the graphics, and they would handle all printing. That would have been a great move, but security in Oakland was not something that we had control over like we did in Houston.
A: So you were doing all the stuffs in-house, including the print?
S: Oh yeah, we had our complete printing facility. We had 10 000 square feet. You would walk in the door, we would sit down and talk about your marketing plan. We had a recording studio, a video and television studio. We actually had our own TV show. It was called “Pen & Pixel Television”. What we do is very similar to a local MTV-type show. We bring in artists, show the videos, interview them, go out to clubs, the whole thing. It was twice a week. Our video department would put out videos as well.
A: So you stayed in Houston all the time ? Basically, the rappers were always coming at you?
S: Yes, the rappers would come to us. I would fly out to L.A. and New Orleans for Cash Money and No Limit. Other than that, they were always flying out to us. And we took care of them very very quickly. We took care of their hotel reservation, their air flight if they needed that, their limousine service, their security service. We would pick them up at the airport, everything, no problem.
A: Pen & Pixel has always been laughed at by a lot of people. There is always this feeling where you don’t know if you have to love a cover or hate it…
A: …I guess you heard a lot of critics at the heights of Pen & Pixel’s success. What would you reply to a graphic designer saying your work “sucks” ?
S: Well, number one, to each his own. A lot of people believe a Pen & Pixel artwork is really hacky, or that Pen & Pixel sucks. But you have to remember: it’s a business. That was more important than anything else. A lot of people don’t really realize, and I keep professing it: Pen & Pixel was a business. We produced exactly what our clients asked us to do, unless it was something outlandishly bad that we would not to it. And we produced it at the best quality that we could, working with what he had. For example, a true story : we have a client that’s in jail. He wants to come out with a brand new album cover. How do you get a picture of him in jail? Impossible. So somebody shoots him on a cell phone, when visiting him. Now we have this tiny picture, and now the guy wants to make this into a billboard. We have to do all kind of work to make that happen. There were a lot of things that we had very little to work with and we tried do the best we can. On the other hand, with the top hand work, the No Limit or Cash Money’s work, when we shot the pictures, if you take a look at some of those albums covers, then you’ll find out the details, I’m talking about 30 to 40 hours of work. An absolute devotion and dedication to make the best there are. It’s just like the 50-60’s, when psychedelic artwork came out, it set up a genre that everybody would think of as “the psychedelic 60’s”, right ? Well, in the 90’s, you have the “bling-bling 90’s”. And that’s what Pen & Pixel did : it set up a definitive look for artwork that defined that area.
A: Is it the thing you are the most proud of?
S: I think so, absolutely.
A: What are you doing right now?
S: Right after Pen & Pixels close the doors, I actually retire for about a year and half. [laughs] I took some time off and went out to the Virgin Islands. I’m a scuba diving instructor, that’s what I love doing. That’s always been a passion. I’ve dove since I was in Thailand, I dove all around the world. I’ve been diving for… Jesus, thirty years. I went down to the Virgin Islands, I became a scuba instructor for about a year, and I decided to come back up to the States. My parents live here, in Oregon, I came back up here and I set up two companies.
A: Is it Smart Face Media and Rapid Design Concept?
S: It started Rapid Design Concept and I sold that company. Then I started Smart Face Media Management which I own now. I’ve also set up another company in a building that I have, which is called Creative Ressource Management.
A: What’s the difference between what you do now and during the Pen & Pixel era?
S: Actually now, I’m doing much more corporate-type work. I manage more people that I do work for myself. I’m sort like a contractor of work. If you come to me and say “I need my magazine to be laid out and I have no idea how to start this“, I would sit down with you and say “OK, how many pages? How many photographs? Who’s your photographer? Who’s your printer?“. I will find out all that stuff for you, no problem what your deadline or your budget is. You’d have the whole thing to me, and I will put the whole thing together for you. I will get the layout people, the photographers, the printing. I will get all together for you and I then will take a piece off the very top. That’s basically how my company works.
A: Do you sometimes miss the good ol’days of crazy visuals?
S: Oh, sure ! I mean, I still do that when request come my way. I just finished a cover for Disney last year. It’s a book cover, very banky, called “Damn, it feels good to be a banker”. That was Pen & Pixel look, bling-bling look all the way [laughs].
A: Do rappers still come at you for covers?
S: I haven’t had that many because I think I sort of disappeared, you know. People don’t know how to get in touch with me and, of course, they go to the another company, quote-unquote, “Penandpixel.com” which is not Pen & Pixel. I talk to that guy, he seems to be a OK guy, but it’s not Pen & Pixel.
A: Did he steal the name and ran with it? What happened?
S: Well, that was weird because, when Pen & Pixel shut its doors, we sold the remnants to a studio called AKA Studios. We sold everything, for pennies on the dollars. We just wanted out, “it’s time to leave, it’s time to go“. We sold them the domain name as well, but it seems like they let the domain name sleep and laps, the second company came in and bought it.
A: I sent them an e-mail for this interview, thinking they were the real Pen & Pixel…
S: Yeah, what did they say ?
A: They didn’t reply.
S: [laughs] You know they’re not the real ones! It’s too bad, because if they really worked hard at it, they might be able to pull that up, but, you know… it’s a different company. Very very small. I think it’s one guy out of a basement.
A: Have you heard of that kid who made this blog dedicated to the Pen & Pixel covers?
S: Yeah, it’s Skyrock Seven One Three ? That was pretty impressive! [laughs] It’s very very difficult to get that many covers of Pen & Pixel. I was amazed.
A: Do you still have a trace of every cover you made?
S: I have every cover I made. Every albums.
A: How many are there?
S: 19 000. That’s a pretty huge collection. It’s on CD format and it takes up about two cases. They’re way about 160 kilos. [laughs] I’m in the process right now trying to actually put them on to a 3-terabyte storage facility.
A: I read that Pen & Pixel suffered during the Napster era of the Internet. How do you look now at the music business now?
S: Well, there’s no doubt about it, Napster was a key ingredient in wiping out the music promotion business. What happened was : I was on the Grammy board for about four years, working with RIAA and one of the function I had there was, not only, as one the craft conveners but also an advocate to try to stop downloading or at least make it licensed in some way. It was just an absolute battle. What we saw at Pen & Pixel as a direct result of downloading, and this is very clear illustration of exactly what happens when you stop paying people for creating, and this can be transcended, not only in the music industry, but any art form: the movie industry, even the poetry department… When you remove the basic reward for creating, in artwork of any kind, the artwork will no longer be created. This is what we saw in Pen & Pixel. The rap industry is very very money motivated. People don’t really rap because they have a passion for rapping, it’s a very unique music experience. They rap because there’s a monetary reward at the end of it, unlike any other type of music. You are a guitar player, you play the guitar because you love to. If you’re a rapper, you rap because you want fame and fortune, period. So we saw the producers, the men behind the money of these artists, take a look at all the money that they had invested into the rapper, into the the promotion, the music video, the touring, everything. They would hear the music on the radio, they would hear it in every car that went by, in the elevators. But when the record sales came in, they would have sold 3000 copies. They’d be like “That’s impossible!“. Well, everybody had downloaded it, and not pay for it. Those music producers turned to us and said “We’re never doing this again”. And it was over.