Despite Best Buy no longer selling CDs, and big-box stores like Target reducing their music inventory to a few small rows of releases, Chip Davis remains married to the physical product.
His Omaha recording-rehearsal studio is connected to a warehouse full of Fresh Aire and Mannheim Steamroller CDs and albums, ready to be shipped out. But if you want to listen to Mannheim Steamroller’s latest release, you’ll have to pick it up at the merch booth during one of their performances at the Orpheum Theater.
Davis has released his share of physical product in 2018. In addition to his latest CD, Exotic Spaces (again, currently only available at performances), he released a young adult book trilogy in October. Titled The Wolf and The Warlander, the story about a horse and a timber wolf was written as a collaboration between Davis and Mark Valenti (who has written for Disney, Nickelodeon, and the Hallmark Channel).
Releasing a book trilogy and a new CD in the span of a year would make a hugely productive calendar for most artists. But for Davis, it’s even more of an accomplishment, given that he was prepping for the holiday season for nearly half of the year.
In mid-August, Davis was at his studio, getting ready to welcome two different Mannheim Steamroller touring groups into his rehearsal room. The setup is old hat at this point: bring in the musicians, run through the set, and make tweaks where appropriate. Most of the musicians have been in the touring band for years and know the routine, Davis says. As a result, he avoids over-rehearsing the material.
“They’ve played this stuff so much, you don’t want to beat a dead horse,” Davis says.
On a hot August afternoon, Davis was in casual mode, wearing lime-green shorts and an Under Armor shirt. He walked through the process of choosing a setlist for each of the cities for this winter’s tour. Davis reviews the cities where Mannheim Steamroller will play, and then pulls up what has and has not been played in the past for those audiences.
“You have to have certain pieces in there, or the audience is going to mutiny,” Davis says. “But you have to have a certain amount of new.”
Davis won’t be in attendance for the majority of the touring Mannheim Steamroller shows. Instead, he’ll be at Universal Studios in Orlando, conducting the production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas with another Mannheim Steamroller band. This will be his 10th year conducting the production, which runs the week before Thanksgiving through Christmas.
“They’ll probably have me doing it until I drop dead on the podium,” Davis says with a laugh.
The success of the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums and tours has enabled Davis to pursue other sonic adventures. For Exotic Spaces, he set out to do a musical characterization of places that inspired him, like the pyramids and the Taj Mahal. For each of the tracks, he tried to use musical instruments native to each location. For one track, he used Naval-grade hydrophones to record a whale song off the coast of Oregon.
In terms of drawing inspiration from newer bands, Davis says he typically sticks to listening to the classical music radio station KVNO. He rarely listens to the radio at home, but in the car, he prefers to listen to Supertramp’s album Crime of the Century.
“It’s a fabulous album,” Davis says. “Their rhythm chops are so good.”
Though Davis may stick with the classics, he is a big fan of some of the musical software used by today’s electronic artists. Some of the tracks on Exotic Spaces were recorded with Pro Tools.
“The percussion sounds [in Pro Tools] are better than real. It’s dead clear,” Davis says.
Another benefit of Pro Tools is it gives artists the ability to create a virtual symphony. Records that used to demand a full recording studio can now be done on a laptop or tablet. Davis agrees that software like Pro Tools can enable a person to record a symphony, but software can only accomplish so much.
“The next thing to that is, ‘Do you know how to use a symphony?’” he says.
If Pro Tools can offer a somewhat inexpensive way to record, then sites like Bandcamp and Spotify represent how artists now use technology to get their work out to mass audiences. Mannheim Steamroller is available on Spotify and iTunes. But Davis says streaming sites are not a good medium for his music.
“One of the things that throws me for a loop is that this entire company has been devoted to creating the highest audio possible,” he says, “and when you get into streaming, you can’t really do that.”
However, Davis believes there’s still a place for the physical product.
“There are people who want it,” he says. “The problem is ‘How do you find them’ and ‘How do they find us?’”
Mannheim Steamroller Christmas by Chip Davis will offer two live performances at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha on Dec. 22-23. Visit mannheimsteamroller.com for more information.
This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.