30 People to Watch – New Orleans Magazine

Diana Thornton - one of New Orleans' 30 "People to Watch"
Diana Thornton - one of New Orleans' 30 "People to Watch"

What happens once a musician is finished recording songs in the studio? In New Orleans, it’s usually a visit to Diana Thornton at Crescent Music Services on Crete Street.

Thornton and her graphics team work with some of the city’s best-known musicians, including Ellis Marsalis and Kermit Ruffins, helping them to design and produce their CDs for maximum consumer appeal.

“Packaging is the face of the CD,” says Thornton, a graphic artist and digital designer. “It is the visual presentation of the music and is often the very first impression someone has of your music.”

Thornton first came to New Orleans in 1989 to be with her great-uncle, jazz archivist Bill Russell. Although she didn’t plan to stay (she has a master’s degree in underwater archaeology), Thornton says she was captivated by the city’s music scene – and decided to make New Orleans her home.

“I enjoy helping make people’s dreams come true by guiding the process of CD production,” she says. “There’s a lot of competition out there on the shelves, so we try to create a certain intrigue with our designs.”

[Note: I received this magazine in the mail the day before I evacuated for Katrina. I left it on the counter and drove away with my critters. It was still there when I returned over a month later. Unfortunately, being one of New Orleans’ 30 people to watch in the post-katrina New Orleans didn’t mean much anymore. But I’m still around and still helping New Orleans musicians and am proud to have been recognized.]

Business struck a chord with special mix of musical services

CityBusiness article by Brett Clanton, Staff Writer

Every day, Diana Thornton’s humble home office in Metairie welcomes young musicians big on dreams but short on cash. Some of them come with freshly recorded studio albums in hand, ready for Thornton to design an eye-catching cover or with hopes she can find a manufacturer for their CDs; others just bring their questions. She sees them all.

In 1997, Thornton, then a struggling freelance graphic designer, and partner Parker Dinkins, an independent sound engineer with his own CD remastering business, formed Crescent Music Services LLP. The idea was to save young musicians the headache of navigating the far-flung music industry by consolidating several typically freelanced services under one roof. The new business could provide an artist with a CD cover, promotional posters and fliers; find a printer for glossy CD booklets; digitally buff the imperfections from a ragged studio recording and locate a manufacturer to press 1,000 CDs at a time – all at a discounted rate.

Business took off immediately, says Thornton. Though she won’t discuss numbers, Thornton says gross sales in 1998 doubled her first year’s total and doubled again in the following year. Last year, she says sales rose by 30%. The rapid growth encouraged her to make a go of it on her own, and in 1999, Thornton dissolved the legal partnership with Dinkins and kept the Crescent name for herself. Thornton says she still considers Dinkins’ Master Digital remastering business an affiliate.

With 20 years experience as a graphic designer, Thornton says designing album covers is her greatest strength. But it’s the other services in the company name that allow her to make a living in the music industry. It’s the combined package that filled what she calls “the huge gaping hole in the Louisiana music industry.”

She didn’t want aspiring musicians to have the same experience she did when making her own CD: the shopping for printers and manufacturers, the fumbling around, the mistakes, the expense that comes from inexperience. There had to be a better way, she thought.

Today, Thornton’s client list includes Rebirth Brass Band, Ellis Marsalis and jam band Iris May Tango, standouts among a much longer list of unestablished local artists with perhaps only a single demo CD to their credit. For the lesser known, she feels a special affinity. A songwriter herself, Thornton says she’s uniquely qualified to advise up-and-coming musicians because “I’ve sat in my client’s seat. I’ve been on both sides of it.”

In 1999, Thornton won Offbeat Magazine’s Best of the Beat Award for an album cover she designed for local singer-songwriter Beth Patterson. But her crowning achievement may be landing the business of Basin Street Records owner Mark Samuels. Basin Street’s catalog features hot-selling trumpeters Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield and Latin jazz band Los Hombres Calientes. Thorton’s designs on these artists’ CD covers, now recognizable all over town, have increased Crescent’s exposure, and Basin’s strong sales have improved Thornton’s standing with her subcontractors.

After working with a graphic designer in Houston on an early project, Samuels says it’s “super great” to have someone local to work with, especially when he needs to turn around a project fast.

While Thornton limits her clients to New Orleans musicians, she has found it difficult to have the same commitment to local printers and CD manufacturers – the printers because they’re too expensive and the CD manufacturers because the few local outfits doing it can’t produce the quantity and quality she desires, she says.

Artists often seek her out because of her relationship with Sony Disc Manufacturing in Terre Haute, Ind., which packages and presses 1,000 CDs at a time “that look national,” she says. A CD’s cover and packaging are the first impression a buyer gets of an artist and deserve the best quality available, she says, and so far, she’s only found that outside New Orleans.

A typical package from Crescent Music – including cover design and printing of four panels of art inside and outside the CD cover, shipping and 1,000 wrapped CDs – runs about $2,400. While there are cheaper packages, such as Santa Monica, Calif.-based Rainbo Records and Cassettes’ $1,249 deal with the same services included, Thornton says no one in New Orleans provides the same quality and hands-on consultation. Anthony DelRosario, owner of local rock record label Turducken Recordings, says he’s used a CD manufacturer in New York to press his label’s CDs and plans to work with another in Portland, Ore. for an upcoming release.

“I would look into Crescent Music Services and compare prices,” says DelRosario.

But for graphic design and digital remastering, DelRosario believes New Orleans can’t compete with what he finds out of state.

George Buck would beg to differ. Buck’s GHB Jazz Foundation, with nine record labels, one of which claims clarinetist Pete Fountain, produces one CD a week on average, he says. With the exception of the CD manufacturing, which he does with JVC Disc America in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Buck finds local craftsmen to digitally remaster and design the foundation’s CDs.

For 10 years, Buck has worked exclusively with Wendel Printing in eastern New Orleans and has found them to be inexpensive and highly qualified. But, he says, his needs are always basic, rarely requiring more than a simple photograph on the CD cover or a spare CD booklet — all of which he leaves in the printer’s hands.

For a young artist, needing guidance, a service like Crescent “would be very helpful,” says Buck. “The more people doing it the better.”

01/08/2001 – Vol. 23 – Issue 28 – Page 8

Mastering the Art of Musical Image

Biz New Orleans

A professional graphic designer, Thornton had long been interested in music, but it wasn’t until she came to New Orleans in 1989 that she started dabbling in singing and songwriting. When she went to record a CD, she discovered there was no one in the area to really help her through the process.

Working with a local mastering engineer, the person responsible for “polishing” a recording for production before it goes to the factory, Thornton launched Crescent City Music Services in 1997. Her company provides musicians with a place to develop the look of their CD.

Once artists have recorded an album and had it mastered, they bring the master along with any artwork they want included to Thornton. In her Faubourg St. John studio, Thornton, 41, compiles the graphics for the CD insert. The insert goes off to an out-of-town printer, and the CD master goes to Sony Records. In a short time the artists’ CDs come back, shrink-wrapped and ready to sell.

The factory manufacturing process begins at 1,000 CDs. But for those who want anywhere from five to 500 copies, Thornton also does in-house duplication and can turn around an order in a matter of days. That comes in handy for artists who want a recently recorded CD available to audiences at Jazz Fest or other events.

“I wanted to provide a local place where someone can sit down and make their CD happen,” she says. “There are a lot of out-of-state companies that do what I do, but on one else here. And trying to do graphic design long-distance is a nightmare.”

Thornton says in a city with such a rich musical culture, her business is filling a vacuum. “As soon as I created the company, people came knocking.” She says sales doubled between her first and third year in business and have generally increased since.

One area of the company Thornton wants to grow is corporate sales. A growing number of companies, universities and other organizations are providing CDs of presentations and data to large audiences, and they often need the product fast.

From her vantage point working with a number of prominent area musicians along with those just starting out, Thornton says the city’s music industry is getting better, though it still has a long way to go. “The Mayor’s office is actively trying to bring musicians together, but we need more attention –  musicians are still struggling,” she says.

Still she wouldn’t have started her business in any other city. “The door’s here are very open, you can talk to anyone and people will try to help you. You don’t find that in other places.”

One problem Thornton mentions is a state sales tax on her product that out-0fo-state companies don’t have to contend with. She says is not right that artists get charged taxes first on the production of their CDs than then again when they sell them. She says the tax also puts her at a competitive disadvantage with peer companies elsewhere.

— By A.J. Mistretta

Published in
Biz New Orleans
June, 2005