The Next Big Thing

A middle-aged couple with a million dollars and a big dream: To make St. Louis a pop-music hub

The song was built from scratch in this tiny studio, the size of a (carpeted, air-conditioned and comfortable) one-car garage. Twenty years ago state-of-the-art bedroom studios produced subpar results. But advances in technology have leveled the playing field, driving many a multimillion-dollar studio out of business. Here, with enough practice and a good ear, Steve T can produce music that's as sonically impressive as material that emanates from a studio ten times this size.

When Todd Butterfield found Steve T, the latter was living in a rundown north-county apartment with a handful of friends and not much money, making beats on a dinky computer and rapping about his life. ("I represent the mighty, mighty north side," the 22-year-old artist sings on one of his solo works. "I'm from the place what the niggaz call Murderville/North side, the dark side, where the brains get spilled.")

"I'm listening to a bunch of tracks by a bunch of nobodies and I couldn't believe how good they were," Butterfield recalls. "The stuff they were doing was crazy." He promptly signed Steve T and a couple of his roommates to 7Fourteen, which was then located in a Maryland Heights condo.

In-house producer Steve T, representing the mighty, mighty north side (Murderville).
Jennifer Silverberg
In-house producer Steve T, representing the mighty, mighty north side (Murderville).
Alan Melina found his way into the picture for many a watershed moment during the late-20th-century evolution of pop and rock. Now he wants to help 7Fourteen bring St. Louis its very own Brill Building.
kevin scanlon
Alan Melina found his way into the picture for many a watershed moment during the late-20th-century evolution of pop and rock. Now he wants to help 7Fourteen bring St. Louis its very own Brill Building.

On paper, Butterfield admits, the business plan seemed cracked. "It was a stupid venture: Take a bunch of eighteen- and nineteen-year-old kids and try to make them pop stars with a few Miss Illinois contacts."

But Butterfield likes to gamble. Growing up in rural Quincy, Illinois, he began buying stock when he was fifteen. While still in college, he snagged a top finish in a national contest in which budding brokers created a million-dollar investment portfolio. After attending Northern Illinois University, he moved to Chicago in 1984 and got a job working for a firm that traded on the Chicago Board of Trade. He met his future wife on the Amtrak from Quincy to Chicago; they married four years later and built a home on seven acres of land Karrie's parents owned outside of Quincy in Payson, a ten-minute drive across the Mississippi from Hannibal, Missouri.

Butterfield signed on with the local Smith Barney branch, where he continued his winning streak. In his spare time, he spent his evenings at either the pool hall or the racetrack. (He says he named 7Fourteen for his lucky number; it once won him a big trifecta payout at the track, he says, and by chance — or design? — he finds that he tends to glance at clocks at exactly 7:14.) In 1997 he founded his own company, Butterfield Capital Advisors, which he, Karrie and Karrie's mother, Jean Howell, continue to run out of their Payson home. Karrie, meanwhile, had invested her time in a then-languishing Miss Quincy pageant in 1990 and by 1994 was on the board of Miss Illinois, where she worked with and advised three future Miss Americas.

She says the pageant and music worlds share a few traits: "Not so much as the music is concerned," she qualifies, "as it is the networking and marketing parts of it — the ability to really get out there and meet people and to be able to tell people what your goals and aspirations are — hope that they listen to you, and hope that they want to work with you."

Perhaps not coincidentally, that assessment dovetails with Alan Melina's view of Carla Carter. "It's not just talent," Melina says of 7Fourteen's marquee songwriter. "It's talent, personality and popularity. I want my writers to be pop queens. I want them to be popular with their peers, because it makes my job easier.

"Part of my job is pitching songs and getting a lot of rejection," Melina adds. "And another part is raining on her parade."

Which is what has brought Carla and Steve T, along with Alisha Rene', 7Fourteen's baby-doll diva, together to face up to the shortcomings of the hook for "Tender." (In addition to those three and Lil Roge, 7Fourteen's current roster includes a gospel artist, Praiz'; a female rapper, Lunee B.; and a crunk trio, Da Banggaz314.)

"Mute that, but don't erase it," Carla commands. ("She always was a director," laughs Joyce McCowan, Carla's mother. "She loved to direct her brothers and sisters and any of the other kids when she got into a group. She tries to control everything.")

Steve T highlights a vocal-track sound wave on the screen and clicks a button. "Now move that line back a bar," Carter suggests. Over the course of the next two hours, the trio re-imagine the hook.

Advances in recording technology have made it possible for companies like 7Fourteen to supply prospective takers with intricately produced demos, a far cry from the bare-bones tapes old-schoolers like Alan Melina used to use. If Carter's melody doesn't work in one section of a song, she simply has Steve T cut-and-paste it elsewhere. If a line needs emphasis, Rene' adds another layer of sound in the vocal booth and Steve T stacks the harmonies until it sounds like the Alisha Rene' Choir. When they're finished, the song is transformed.

Songwriter Andy Goldmark, who has written hits for Jennifer Paige, Michael Bolton and Peter Cetera and just finished co-writing a song called "Giddy Up (Sheriff's Back in Town)" with Carter, says it's reached the point where the industry-standard software, Pro Tools, has itself become a musical instrument. "Just as the keyboard was something you'd play as you're writing a song, now you're constructing songs out of bits and pieces of other songs, and other stereotypes, and other beats and sound," Goldmark explains. "What this has done, particularly in hip-hop and R&B, is really broaden the horizon of what records sound like and what they can hold, and how much that information can change within a song. And it happens so quickly and with so much information at your disposal."

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