Did Streaming Kill The Recording Industry? (Or the MP3 Is The New Business Card)

First of all, the record business is not dead. It’s different. But hey, the world is different, thanks in part to the Internet. It may look burned to a crisp from the outside, but, like a toasted campfire marshmallow, there’s good stuff hidden just beneath the surface.

With respect to music and artistry, truly committed recording artists, i.e. those who have a sense of purpose more profound than making (or copping) a fashion statement, will continue to record and release great music, with or without financial reward. They cannot help it, because they are driven artists to the core. These artists are releasing some of the best music I’ve heard over the course of my 35 year career in the biz. I mix a lot of indie records these days, and I can sincerely say that I rarely have an intolerable day at work. Frankly, most days are exciting, fun and enjoyable. I can’t say the same about the years when my work was mostly for major labels.

So, if the overall quality of the music—at least that which crosses my desk—is higher, why are we concerned about the record business? Because many artists and composers are not being paid fairly for their work, which can eventually cause enough financial stress to incentivize creators to stop creating new art. Just this week Rob Chiarelli and I met with Robert Fink, the Chair of UCLA’s Music Industry program, and had an interesting discussion related to this. Rob recounted speaking at another university, where his audience was half middle-aged faculty and half 20-something students. When he asked how many people believed that consumption of recorded music should be free, 80% of the crowd raised their hands. Fink then rhetorically posed the question, “Should the musicians who perform on records be paid for their services?” We assume that any reasonable person would emphatically declare, “Of course!”

Needless to say, the math simply doesn’t add up. But there is indeed great new music from new artists waiting to be discovered, so music lovers will continue to have a steady flow of new content to consume, right?

Frankly, I don’t know. I hope so, but, given the free-for-all nature of the Internet, it is much more difficult to actually find and discover the “great” new recording artists.

A byproduct of the manifestation of the much heralded promise of a level playing field (on which every artist would have an equal shot at success) was the loss of many major label “curators” who actively sought and developed talent while sticking to acts who were in line with their own, often peculiar, personal tastes. Like them or not, A&R personnel served a vital function with respect to growing the record business. A&R folks during the glory days of AOR (Album Oriented Rock) signed acts who they actually liked and believed in, often based on intangibles like emotional resonance and…wait for it…hunches. For the most part, they stuck to what they knew and loved.

The more recent trend has been to sign acts based on quantifiable numeric milestones, which may include indie sales, streams, downloads and other tangibles that fit neatly onto a spreadsheet or P&L. Hit a magic number, get a record deal—regardless of your new label’s passion for your product…oops, I meant music. I suppose that attitude makes sense on one level, but it doesn’t account for the emotional factor. Think about it: a Steely Dan fan might not get Jay Z any more than a 30 Seconds To Mars fan would feel John Denver or Ethel Merman. Every new artist needs a champion at the label. I’ve seen A&R folks go to the mat for their beloved artists when poor sales numbers did not reflect the intangible emotional resonance that accompanied an act. On the other side of the coin, it would be tough to champion a band that was the equivalent of a disposable paper cup to a label where there is an imbalance of artistic v. bottom line concerns—especially if you don’t even relate to the band’s music!

For a new major label artist, the pressure is on to have an immediate hit. Indie artists, however, can take longer, even years, to score, provided the funding well doesn’t run dry. Circling back to the title of this article, both major and indie artists are getting the shaft with respect to payouts for streaming, but there is more to the story. Labels are making money, even if digital piracy is ubiquitous. Artists and writers? Let’s just say that they better love music enough to create it even if they don’t get paid to do so…because they probably won’t. Streaming, along with downloading and theft, has cut into the revenue formerly produced by physical (CD) sales. This is clearly bad news for indies on the rise because they need every penny they can get, right?

Here’s where you get to lambast me. As much as I personally want to get paid fairly for my intellectual property, I personally want people to stream my music.

The record business is the new Wild West, a semi charted frontier that will see new ventures open for business as each town along the trail to the promised land establishes itself. Opportunities will present themselves in response to the demands of the people. We artists may stubbornly believe that we’ll continue to earn a living based on our record sales, but the times are a-changin’. There are plenty of revenue streams in the record business, but for new indie artists and non marquee major label artists, royalties from streaming and sales of downloads simply will not keep the raft afloat.

One partial solution is to identify and nurture SuperFans. From this subset of fans, you may (if you are lucky) find your own twelve apostles who will spread your gospel far and wide. In my case, I engage them with special content (like my blog or the master classes and seminars that I do in the Los Angeles area) to develop a genuine rapport. I also empower them by giving them mp3s to stream and or share, because the mp3 is my new business card.

A business card is designed to say, “Hey, check out me! Look what I can do for you!” They are to be given away, not sold. Try to imagine this conversation:

You: “Do you have a card?

Service provider: “Of course! Here you go…”

You: “Terrific! May I have another five for my friends?”

Service provider: “Sure! Thanks for spreading the word. That’ll be $5, please.”

You: [Crickets.]

The way I see it, the service provider just blew an opportunity. For a recording artist service provider, this would have been a big deal because it can be hard enough to get one person to listen to your music, let alone six! With so many options available to the listener, the artist must find a way to stand out from the background noise. In this case, there were six prospects (including you and potentially a coveted SuperFan) who were prequalified by you, because you already knew that their tastes in music intersected with this particular artist’s work. Plus you lend credibility to the referral by virtue of simply making the referral to your trusted friends.

The reality is that good new music almost immediately gets ripped and uploaded to YouTube the day it is released. Even Prince wasn’t able to control that reality. So my attitude is to focus on the opportunity rather than the injustice.

As an example, my 2015 album Marchesano is available via the usual delivery portals like iTunes, Bandcamp, and CD Baby. Bandcamp offers the option to unlock the limited number of free streams before the customer (read: potential fan) is required to either purchase the music or to listen to something else—which implies going someplace else. In the virtual marketplace, I never want to oust a customer from the shop–he/she places absolutely no burden on my resources. It’s not like I have my staff attending to this person, so I have nothing to lose. Let’s assume that this customer is in fact a cheap bastard who intends to stream my album a million times without ever paying for it. That’s great! I made the music for people to enjoy, plus El Cheapo may want to stream my music for friends (maybe even a future SuperFan) who are willing to support recording artists by buying their music and merchandise. I will never penalize anybody who wants my music to be part of the soundtrack to their lives.

Check this out: I have no control over iTunes’ pricing and presentation of Marchesano, but I can customize the presentation on Bandcamp. It has definitely and quantifiably made a positive difference. My artistic vision was to present the songs in the context of a concept album that chronicles a journey along a spiritual path. Therefore, I wanted to sell, or stream, the entire album. Bandcamp allowed me to refrain from selling individual songs, so I set the price at “$15 or more” for the entire thematically connected album. (iTunes forces the price to $0.99 per song, and, as a further insult, does not include the PDF booklet, which is integral to my vision of the artistic presentation.) My customers on Bandcamp pay “more” nearly 50% of the time. For some unknown reason, $22 is a popular price, and some folks have paid $50 for a download! I shit you not.

My personal, unique Bandcamp experience tells me that some music lovers are willing to support artists whose music resonates with them. Not everybody bases their purchasing decisions solely on price, so there is no real need to perpetuate the race to the bottom by fixing prices at roughly a buck per song while the cost of living continues to increase as wages stay the same for middle-class Americans.

The upshot of all this is that streaming is not inherently bad. It helps me develop a fan base at a grass roots level, and provides an easy way for new listeners to decide for themselves whether or not they want to take the next step, which can lead to any number of profit centers for me. Even if somebody steals an mp3, they will have the opportunity to purchase high definition wav files, a physical CD, licensing, my services as a producer/mixer/guitarist, or the fashionably questionable T-shirts I hope to foist on the world. Add to that humble list the revenue from live show ticket sales and merchandise for touring artists, whose fans want to take home a memento of a special evening shared with good friends and good music. Long story short, the record biz is a different beast than it was ten years ago, but there is plenty of opportunity for smart industrious types who see it for what it is, not for what it was.

As a parting thought, publisher/manager Jan Seedman offers some wisdom: “Musicians and those in the industry appreciate music fans who actually buy the music. This covers more than one area: 1) These fans don’t get enough credit for helping to support the music industry. They have become an elite group. 2) By acknowledging these fans, you are subtly sending a message to others that maybe non-paying fans should get on board and get off of “music welfare.” 3) It’s an opportunity to introduce the idea of Music Supporter/Fan Appreciation Day (or whatever you want to call it). Like Record Store Day, it’s an opportunity to acknowledge real music fans/supporters, even for one day. For MS/FAD, maybe suggest when a customer purchases music at full price on that day, he/she gets something else thrown in as a way of saying thanks.”

Simultaneously Blown Away, Humbled and Inspired

I do not remember exactly how I met David Baerwald. He was one half of the duo David + David, whose sole album yielded the hit “Welcome to the Boomtown.” Even though the 1986 release went Platinum, I did not pay much attention to it at the time because my bandwidth was full with my obsession for Peter Gabriel’s So, Crowded House’s eponymous debut (featuring “Don’t Dream It’s Over“), and Nik Kershaw’s Radio Musicola. Nonetheless, seven years later, David, whose album Triage had just been released, was sitting across from me, jamming on the sofa in my living room. I was mesmerized by the gorgeous Knopfler-esque riffs he coaxed from my Taylor 812c acoustic guitar, even though his performance was punctuated by the sound of flying lawnmowers—which were in reality propeller driven small planes on approach vectors, just about to land across the street at Clover Field, aka Santa Monica Municipal Airport.

David generously offered to network with me, probably because I had recently cowritten a couple songs with John Lang, who wrote the #1 hits “Kyrie” and “Broken Wings” for his cousin’s band, Mr. Mister. Lang, a brilliant lyricist who was understandably tough to impress, admired Baerwald’s lyrics and his singing. A few sprinkles of Lang’s credibility landed on me by association—plus I had recently produced my first major label hit for Irving Azoff’s fledgling Giant (Warner) Records—so the door of opportunity to the Big Leagues was flung wide open for the first time in my young career. This was terrific…until David asked me to play guitar.

Wait, what? If I’m a pro, that’s a chance to shine, right? Yes, but it’s also a sure-fire way to blow the all-important first impression if your chops are rusty. In 1993 I was infrequently playing guitar, and when I did pick up the instrument, I played ensemble parts that worked in the the context of a recording, but made no sense without the support of a full band arrangement. As an example, try to imagine how the guitar parts from “Broken Wings” (during the third verse at 3:14) or Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way” would sound without the bass line to define the song’s harmonic structure, or without the drums to let you know where the downbeat is. My point is that “earcandy” parts (which were pretty much all that I played at the time) were simply unable to tell the story of a song by themselves. And they certainly would not impress my guest of honor, Mr. Baerwald, without a point of reference to show him how nicely and precisely they would fit into an arrangement.

So I instead decided to show David a complex solo acoustic guitar piece that I began composing the day before. The melody was hauntingly beautiful, and the jazzy chords were of the “expensive” variety whose pedigree might be from the epic Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaboration, Porgy and Bess. The bass line was simple enough, but the sound in my head required the listener to hear all three layers of harmonic content: melody, chords and bass. Therefore, I had to play all three at the same time, on one guitar…and I couldn’t do it. To describe the attempted recital as a “train wreck” would be far too kind. David, who by contrast is a real player’s player, let me off easy, stating that he understood where I was going with the tune, and he wished me luck in developing it.

Despite the fact that I blew it, David invited me to his loft behind Hal’s Restaurant (Cafe?) on Abbot Kinney in Venice, just a short walk from the infamous Radio Tokyo Studios where I became a recording engineer back in, coincidentally, 1986. David’s loft was super cool, with a vibe that begged you to get the creative juices flowing. Downstairs was home to a fully equipped recording studio, while upstairs housed various artifacts that may or may not have been related to certain CIA exploits that may or may not have involved David’s father, a political scientist.

David played me recordings of a new, as yet unreleased, project that he was “playing around with” on Tuesday nights with his friends Bill Bottrell, David Ricketts, Dan Schwartz, Brian MacLeod and Kevin Gilbert. They were writing songs with a background vocalist who did some work with Michael Jackson. As David was humbly asking me what I thought of the songs, I was amazed by the work! The recording technique was exemplary, with sonic detail and clarity so crisply defined that I could close my eyes and see the spaces between the instrumentalists! The players were all spot-on, but the virtuosity never overshadowed the organic soul of the songs, which told stories ranging from leaving Las Vegas to having fun on Santa Monica Boulevard, three short miles away from where we sat listening. And that singer! She had a compelling delivery that brought the words to life. I was simultaneously blown away by the sound, humbled by the virtuosity and inspired to elevate my game. I already had a Top 5 MTV hit with Too Much Joy’s cover of LL Cool J’s “That’s A Lie!” and I made some seminal SubPop records for Hole, L7 and Reverend Horton Heat, plus I was having one of my flavor-of-the-month moments in the A&R community, but my records couldn’t hold a candle to David’s side project. His recordings were marvelous and impressive on so many different levels, but remarkably they remained free of pretense. They sounded timeless, they sounded easy, and they sounded live. At that moment, I became determined to become a lifelong student of the craft of making honest records that would serve the songs, not the ephemeral trends.

Sometime thereafter, I drove onto the lot at A&M Records for a meeting with A&R VP Teresa Ensenat to pitch Brian Charles’ Boston based, Beatles-inspired band, Sidewalk Gallery. I recall three things from the meeting:

1) The pitch was successful, so Brian and I would soon be recording at the historic studio where we would eventually meet Crowded House and Rusty Anderson, who would turn me on to Matchless guitar amps long before hitting the road with Paul McCartney.

2) There were several guitar cases in Teresa’s office stenciled withe the name of Steve Earle. I pointed as if to ask, “What’s the story behind them?” Teresa volunteered, “I was married to Satan.” I changed the subject to the gorgeous SoCal weather.

3) I asked Teresa about the giant painting on the side of the recording studio. The fresh faced new artist, Sheryl Crow, was a priority for the label, and I should listen and let Theresa know my thoughts. She handed me a promo copy of Tuesday Night Music Club, which I spun in the car on my way to my session. I instantly recognized the euphonic gloriousness that mesmerized me at David Baerwald’s loft. “Leaving Las Vegas”, “Run Baby Run” and “All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun” were so memorable that I was able to sing along with the catchy hooks weeks after initially hearing them. I was happy to know that David was likely to enjoy another well deserved hit.

Less than two years later, I was head of A&R and staff Producer at Jac Holzman’s Warner Music Discovery label, which was on the front line of the WEA distribution hierarchy. Jac, who was Time Warner’s CTO if I recall correctly, had autonomy with respect to signing and prioritizing artists. He did not have to go through layers of middlemen like subsidiary labels did. For example, Madonna’s imprint Maverick had to answer to Reprise, who in turn had to answer to Warner Bros. As one moved higher up the totem pole, each entity took a slice of revenue and creative control of its subsidiaries, who sometimes had to fight hard to sign acts they loved. Because Jac was on equal footing with WEA’s big three (effectively big four, or anecdotally WEAD, at the time) I had the freedom and support to sign quality talent in whom I believed. At SXSW (South By Southwest) festival, I walked into a nearly empty club on Austin’s Sixth Street to hang out with a couple guys I met earlier in the day, mastering engineer Dave McNair and entertainment attorney Wofford Denius.

In that empty room, over the course of 45 minutes, my mind was once again blown, I was artistically humbled, and I was creatively inspired. A tall handsome lad, clad in gas station attendant coveralls, work boots and a Fender bass, sang his ass off while fronting a crack band of pros who were equally comfortable performing tender ballads or bombastic, odd time signature, Prog Rock opuses. His gorgeous ballad “Tea For One” was a heart-wrenching story of a shy guy who finally gets the courage to ask out the object of his desire a day too late, to find her in the embrace of a new lover. Another song, “Certifiable #1 Smash”, was appropriately titled because it indeed sounded like one during that live performance. I introduced myself to the artist, Kevin Gilbert, and offered him and his manager a record deal on the spot. Kevin handed me a CD of Thud, which I promptly marked with a Sharpie to indicate the three potential hits. My wife and I cherish that CD 22 years later for its excellent artistry, as well as the fact that it is a memento given to me shortly before Kevin tragically died far too young.

It wasn’t until I returned to Los Angeles that I connected the dots and realized that Kevin was already an accomplished musical force of nature. He was the vocalist of Toy Matinee, whose two hits “Last Plane Out” and “The Ballad Of Jenny Ledge” always compelled me to crank up the volume whenever I heard them being spun (physical LPs and CDs, unlike mp3s, actually spun under a turnable stylus or CD laser back in the day) on FM radio. Further, he was also an integral part of David’s mind blowing Tuesday Night Music Club project!

By the time I met Kevin Gilbert, I had learned from my earlier experiences with David Baerwald. I learned that no matter how talented I already was, or who I was destined to become, there was always somebody more accomplished or talented. That knowledge allowed me to be realistic about how I might best serve, and integrate with, top-shelf artists and projects. The life lessons for me were to be open to awesomeness and serendipity, and to appropriately behave in environments conducive to success. In hindsight, the Gilbert working relationship got off on the right foot because I offered to serve in such a way that I could confidently deliver the goods at the highest level. By contrast, I ultimately never worked with Baerwald because I showed him my weak link instead of my true strength. It’s cool, though, because that’s how you learn—and in my case the lessons stuck.

There Is Plenty Of Room At The Top: Transcending The Rat Race With Ronan Chris Murphy

Hunter S. Thompson purportedly stated, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

One aspect of the negative side is the constant struggle for position and power. As we were coming up in the biz, many of us believed that we could not take a breather because, if we were to even briefly take a foot off the gas pedal, someone else would slither into the gap, possibly taking our place. Fourteen to sixteen hour work days were common. At times it felt like we were all throwing elbows to cram our way into an overpacked bus on a perilous mountain road to success.

As the years passed and my discography blossomed, I no longer felt the stifling pressure of being packed in a tin of sardines.  The air became more clear as I climbed the hill, and I could finally see clear skies and vast horizons. There was room to spread my wings, and my veteran colleagues were actually friendly and supportive, in stark contrast to the treacherous thugs, thieves and liars crammed at the base of the climb.

During the 1990s and early 2000s there seemed to be plenty of work for accomplished record producers and engineers in Los Angeles. Records and demos were being recorded at commercial facilities, tape was being manufactured, pro audio rentals were booming, money was flowing, and an entire industry was thriving. Even if you spent three days a week on the phone or in meetings to hustle two days of paid work in the studio, you could live fairly well.

By 2008 the money belts had severely tightened, thanks to both internal and external factors. Music fans felt like they were getting shafted by major labels who released 12 song albums that contained one or two singles padded with ten tracks of filler. Relative to alternative choices of how to spend $16.98, an LP CD no longer seemed like such a good value. Piracy also contributed to the demise of the record business, as did the collapse of Wall Street, which incidentally cost me one of my indie labels, Fresh Baked Music LLC.

Freelance producers and engineers, along with recording studio managers, took extreme measures to get jobs in the pipeline. Fees took a nosedive as supply abruptly ballooned inversely to the declining demand for services. Fewer major label albums were being made, and recording funds shrunk. I clearly recall Interscope A&R man Tony Ferguson and I chatting over lunch about how new rock bands might get an $80,000 recording fund instead of the formerly  commonplace $250,000…or sometimes $400,000 if the deal was competitive (i.e. a bidding war). Even superstar artists who might be worthy of a $1,000,000 recording fund were feeling the pinch by getting $250,000.

Needless to say, the neo pros at the bottom of the totem pole were getting squeezed out of the game. Meanwhile, the veterans were scrambling to reduce their cost of doing business and to get as many gigs as possible, including those that would have previously been too small to consider. Some guys went as far as saying just about anything (i.e. lying) to get a gig, unscrupulously damaging the careers of others along the way. Even though it is wrong, it is no surprise that desperate people become ruthless and conniving if that is what it takes to put food on the table. Therefore, it was quite refreshing whenever I saw potential rivals band together to create a rising tide that would cause all boats to float higher.

My friend Ronan Chris Murphy personifies this enlightened attitude of working with each other instead of against one another. Although his discography boasts such luminaries as King Crimson, Tony Levin and Ulver, Ronan has always remained indie friendly with respect to accessibility and flexible pricing. He shares his knowledge generously via his Recording Boot Camp workshops. He also created one of the first audio blogs and he enthusiastically hosts occasional recording expos that bring together top producers and engineers with aspiring pros looking to acquire knowledge and expand their networks.

Ronan and I organically evolved into fans and champions of each other. We have shared techniques and advice, we have recommended each other for jobs, and we modestly promote each other s special events on social media. While you, the reader, may perceive us as rivals, we think of each other as support. We are not worried about losing clients to one another. We have our own unique sense of aesthetics, so it is unlikely that an artist would pit one of us against the other.  Instead of competing against each other, we focus on the positive, specifically rising the tide so that we rise with it. After all, there is plenty of room at the top

As a special treat, I was able to interview Ronan for this blog post. Enjoy the read! And if your star is rising in the record biz, remember to make friends instead of enemies, and to build bridges instead of walls.

MJ: Tell me about your enlightened way of thinking. Why are you so generous with, and supportive of, colleagues like me, who might appear to be rivals to an outsider?

RCM: Ha! I am not sure I get to call myself enlightened, despite the Buddha belly, but I have been around long enough to know that being a good member of a community is better than trying to go it alone.  I think you and I virtually met years ago on the Gearslutz forum and we sort of bonded because we both had a really similar disposition of trying to share knowledge in a way that cut through the BS and approached advice from a practical real world perspective. Once we got to know each other in the real world we found that we had common approaches to music and work ethics and mostly that we could trust the ethics and the quality of each others work. As pros, we would love to do every project, but some of them might not be right for me that might be right for you, or one of us is too busy at a certain point. We are able refer gigs to each other and we even have clients that hire both of us at different times.

I guess the take away from all of this for people starting out is that you want to be competitive with other producers and engineers, but you also want to be supportive and not adversarial.  My biggest gig this year was a referral from some one that I am technically a direct competitor with. He was offered the gig, but had some important family commitments at the time, so he recommended me because he knew I could do good work and that I would treat the client well. Right now I am working in Iceland and had to turn down a gig, but referred it to another engineer. It was actually some work that did not really have the budget for some one at our level, so I passed it to a younger engineer whose work I really trust.

You and I both do a lot of educational outreach, and there is nothing but good that comes from people learning from both of us. It is funny, you have been doing these cool events with our friend Rob Chiarelli (Will Smith, Christina Aguilera, P!nk). Rob and I both lecture every year at something called the Taxi Road Rally. He and I seem to have polar opinions on a few concepts and people will come up to me confused that I said something enthusiastically and Rob said the opposite enthusiastically, and they expect that to be some kind of drama. I always just tell them that that Rob is a bad ass mixer!! Go back to your studio and try both our ideas and see which one gets you the sounds you want or fits into your workflow better.

MJ: That is truly great advice. Rob and I did another event just last night with Jared Stansill at Pro Audio LA, and were laughing out loud because we answered a series of questions from opposite workflow perspectives! We were concerned that we would totally confuse the audience, who fortunately shared our amusement. The crowd was mostly pros, so they understood that there are many roads that lead to the same destination. You, Rob and I share the philosophy that education must train students to think analytically so that they are better equipped to make confident artistic decisions. Apropos of that…

Your powerful Recording Boot Camp workshops (even the ones in the beautiful rustic Italian villa!) are much more affordable than folks generally assume, probably due to the perception created by another well known mixing retreat that happens at a beautiful estate in France. Your Boot Camps provide a lot of value and they are empowering for anybody who wants to record themselves or others in the comfort of their own space, without the pressure of a ticking clock at an expensive commercial studio. Please briefly tell my readers why they might consider attending and where to find out more than this space allows.

RCM: Thanks. Yeah, I started one of the fist one week recording programs, and I have always tried to keep the rates really affordable. The truth is that my company can make fair money while keeping the prices down and I want to keep the classes small enough that students can get personalized attention. Most boot camps have a maximum of 4-6 students and we are cheaper than many options that allow 15-25 students into a class. I do not see any reason to make it harder or a lesser experience for the students if I am already making decent money.

But all that aside, the course I developed is all about mastering fundamentals at a deep level and the classic techniques that the great producers and engineers have been using for decades. We spend an entire day on compression because it is such a massively important creative tool that can do so much more than most people think.  Some less experienced people do not realize that if you master a pretty small set of core concepts, you can move between jazz, pop, metal, country, etc with ease. It is all the same concepts applied differently. When I started the program back in 2003 I thought most of the students would be home recordists, but it is far more than that. I get a cool mix of hobbyists and pros and even some producers with major label credits.

People that want to learn more can check out http://www.recordingbootcamp.com/ and contact me through that site.

MJ: Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring recordists trying to catch a break, or for veterans who want to remain relevant in a constantly changing industry?

RCM: I think the biggest piece of advice I could give would be the same for both of those. In the end, this is a people business, and that is the case now more than ever. Especially these days when every other house has a studio in it, people no longer find a “studio” to book. People search out a guy or gal that they trust to do a good job taking care of their music. So, as much as we all love getting a new pre-amp or software updates, those are not the things that really get us clients…although they help us do better work once we have the clients. Having a connection with people is what gets clients. Get tapped into your local live music scene, or local houses of worship, or online communities. Anything you can do to get people to know and to trust you. Even though I do not get out to live shows as much as I would like these days, I have always been really active via online forums, Recording Boot Camp, Ronan’s Recording Show, Facebook, and by going to conferences and other events whenever I can. In an industry that is in decline my business is still fairly solid. I have friends that have bigger credits that I have, and in truth are probably more talented than I am, whose careers have completely died. I feel it is because they did not actively work to stay involved in the communities where jobs come from these days.

MJ: Thanks for taking part in this blog post, Ronan!

RCM: My pleasure. It is always a blast to do anything with you!

At The End Of The Day, Musicians Are Entertainers

Trailer Radio 1

Even John Lennon knew that The Beatles had to be entertainers—the point was made early when the very green Beatles were ordered to Mach Schau! Mach Schau! by a Hamburg club-owner in their early days on the Reeperbahn. From making motion pictures to prancing around in tights, the most beloved and emotionally resonant rock band in history did what needed to be done to entertain the fans, who in turn supported the band with fierce loyalty and devotion.

Nearly 20 years ago Dan Rothchild introduced me to virtuoso guitarist David Michael Weiss. Dave at the time fronted SlackJaw (aka SlackJaw Blues Band), who, despite their prodigious musical talent, remained unsigned. All the requisite elements were in place: good songs, serious chops, tight band and commanding vocals. So why weren’t they signed? Probably because they relied exclusively on the music. As far as I know, David and his crew didn’t spend their time mugging for the camera while dressed like Peter Pan or Robin Hood. Surely some photos would have surfaced by now.

Because I dug both the music and the human being, I signed David to my production company, Alternator Records, and planned to include him in a joint venture label deal with RCA Records.  Everything was in place for a successful career to launch–until the RCA brass killed the deal, presumably as a byproduct of an impending corporate reorganization.  Whatever the reason, Slackjaw Dave was again without a clear roadmap to domination of the Top 40 charts.

So he moved to New York, armed with a Telecaster and an early Matchless DC30 with the fabled green transformer. Interesting factoid: I bought that amp from Greg Lake of ELP before playing it on A.J. Croce’s Transit and New Radicals’ Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed, Too, and eventually sold it to David because he made it sound much better than I ever could! But that’s another story for another time.

Fifteen years later Dave resurfaced in my life. He had cracked the musician-as-entertainer code by seamlessly blending smoking hot chops with redneck comedy lyrics and an over-the-top, politically insensitive persona known as Travis Whitelaw. He hooked up with producer and co-writer Joel Shelton to compose and record the album Sexarkana!, which was well received by fans and critics alike and garnered tremendous airplay on XM-Sirius (the only airplay obtainable in light of those pesky FCC regulations for the very “blue” material). The downside, if there was one, was that Travis was so over-the-top and one-dimensional that the joke could easily become old…or convincing. Apropos of that, Dave told me, “Funny and true story: the first time I met Shannon was at a Travis gig where she COMPLETELY bought the shtick and thought I was an actual potty-mouthed redneck. She loved it. I was very proud of the fact that I had fooled a genuine Southerner with my Travis routine.”

Rather than running the risk of overstaying his welcome by allowing the persona to overshadow the person, Travis asked David to re-emerge and assume guitar, vocal and co-writer duties in a super-tight country-rock outfit called Trailer Radio, led by West Virginia spitfire and bona-fide coal miner’s daughter Shannon Brown. Trading the id-driven redneck satire for a clever urban hillbilly shtick, the new band provides a platform for David to showcase his 6-string badassery within the context of an American subculture rich in tradition, tall tales, and culinary delights (boll weevils for dinner?!) as far from Manhattan’s dirty water dogs and thin crust pizza as is imaginable.

Where Travis Whitelaw’s entertainment value is rooted in shock, Trailer Radio’s appeal is in its humanity. The protagonists of TR’s songs are regular folks who find themselves in uncomfortable yet plausible situations. It’s easy to love Trailer Radio’s lead singer, Shannon Brown, when she sings in “Tar Beach” of a rooftop Manhattan summer “staycation” cobbled together from modest resources: “We don’t need no Disney cruise, we can climb up on the roof, drop a lawnchair and a cooler on Tar Beach.” She knows her lane, and she knows how to work it.

Same goes for the completely confused fellow, courtesy of Dave’s spirited vocal delivery, living in the doghouse in [My Heart Is On] “The Bottom Of Her Boots.” You can’t help but feel compassion for the guy as he announces, “Holy crap, she’s flipped her lid, I don’t know just what I did, my recliner’s gone, remote’s been hid, my clothes are on the lawn.” Poor guy…his woman crushed his heart, painted his man cave pink and pawned his shotgun along with her wedding ring. But impossibly he seems radiant in his acquiescence to his fate. There’s a price to be paid for every good story, and Dave’s character revels in the narrative, which makes the ride a fun one for the rest of us.

I’m pretty sure that Trailer Radio’s current success is based on much more than blazing riffs and catchy songs. This band is not afraid of holing up in the woodshed. Their sophomore effort, Country Girls Ain’t Cheap, is clearly the result of a well oiled machine that fine tuned its tightly crafted, hook-laden songs both in private and on countless merciless New York stages. Like the Fab Four, TR understands that folks like to be entertained.

If there’s a life lesson in today’s blog post for recording artists and producers, I suppose it would be to practice one’s entertainment skills as much as one’s artistry. When we make folks feel good about themselves, they reward us with their continued presence in our lives and businesses. Have fun, open up, and live fearlessly! 

Keith Emerson’s Suicide & Artists’ High Need For Approval

 

ELP’s Keith Emerson, Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess and producer Keith Wechsler

 

Keith Emerson, virtuoso keyboardist of ELP, is no longer with us. It blows my mind to think that he believed suicide was his best option.

Because I am thankfully not prone to depression, I cannot comprehend the idea that not seeing tomorrow’s sunrise would be a better option than waking up to explore the vast horizon of endless possibilities potential in each and every day. Then again, I love a good mystery, so God forbid I were to get sucked into a daytime soap opera. Or to get started on Breaking Bad, because I would almost certainly binge-watch the entire series if it is truly as good as I am told.

I simply cannot wait to find out what happens next. Good or bad, it almost doesn’t matter. I suppose that’s because I find serendipity in tests and difficulties. I believe that they are the equivalent of the fire through which a sword must pass before it is ready for battle. When I broke ten bones in a state championship bicycle race in 2004, my friends were more bummed out than I was. They focused on what I could no longer do for the next two months: race. I, on the other hand, focused on the adventure of spicing up my life with some variety. I bought power tools so that I could make furniture during the 14 extra hours I would have every week. I ticked some long postponed projects off my To Do list. I hired other guitarists to do my recording sessions, and I learned a bunch of new chops in the process. I had a great time, even if I happened to be in pain. A few weeks later, I was back in the saddle again, invigorated by fresh perspective and new life experiences that raised my game both in the studio and at the races. What initially appeared to be devastating, eventually proved to be a blessing.

My dear friend and mentor, Keith Wechsler, worked closely with Keith Emerson as his producer. They became good friends. KW told me a few years ago that Emerson developed a physical ailment that severely handicapped his hands and his ability to perform. Rather than retiring, Emerson figured out how to make two or three fingers do the work of five. He played great, despite his misfortune. Given what I knew, I assumed that he adapted, so I was surprised to hear of his suicide. I guess he identified more with what he did physically than who he was as a spiritual being. Apparently if he couldn’t play piano like a madman or entertain his fans with wicked chops, life wasn’t worth living.

That concept is noteworthy because many artists have a very high need for approval from their fans and peers. Without approval (in the form of recognition, critical acclaim, financial success, etc.), artists often feel like their artistry lacks merit. In the record business, artists without recording contracts often feel like frauds because they do not have the validation of some self-proclaimed “arbiter of worthiness” who may not possess even the most basic hints of musical talent. I’m not saying that all A&R folks lack talent…I’m saying that we, by definition of our job descriptions, have an almost fiduciary responsibility to sign commercially viable entertainers, not necessarily great artists. It is tragic when a great band bails out because they took it too hard when some nonmusical bureaucrat in a suit rejected the band’s demo tape after eating bad sushi for lunch or getting dumped by a lover.

If you’re an up and coming artist looking for somebody in a position of power or influence to open a door for you, remember this: Do something because you love to do it, not because you hope somebody else will like you for it. This is the only way that your art will remain pure. Otherwise you’ll be chasing a moving target while creating “art by committee.”

This is where Emerson and I fundamentally differ. My attitude is to roll with a good thing while it lasts, and then be grateful for the past while I write a new adventurous chapter for the future. When he thinks it’s game over, I think we’re beginning Game 2 of a doubleheader. Did he ever consider the possibility that many fans would have loved to hear him speak about his music, or to take a master class from him, or to be mentored by him? His music was the soundtrack to many peoples lives. There’s a lot more he could have given if he was willing to adapt. Emerson’s music was cool, but it was by no means the only cool thing about him. In this article, Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess states, “Evidently [Emerson] was upset that he couldn’t play the same anymore due to physical issues; that he could not deliver for the fans. I will always think about that now. About the realities of what we do as players, and what I need to be aware of. In that respect, Keith Emerson will never stop teaching me.”

If there is anything that I hope you will take away from today’s blog post, it is the belief that a life well lived is its own reward. Don’t look to others for approval of your art; do it because you love it, regardless of how others react to it.

The second takeaway is to be open to serendipity. You may not always get what you want, but with hindsight, it becomes clear that you often get what you need.

The Hole Truth

I recall the conversation as if it were yesterday: “You really need to produce this band. They’re going to be HUGE!”

Bruce Pavitt, one of the two principals at SubPop Records, was calling me from Seattle, long-distance, back in the day when long-distance was enough of a big deal that folks jockeyed for position to be the recipient, not the originator, of the phone call. Long distance was expensive enough that I have a hazy recollection of budgeting $400/month for my phone bill–and a very clear recollection of asking record company execs to call me back if I was working outside California, so that they would pick up the tab after the conversation went beyond a few minutes.

“Michael, I love the work you did with L7–you really captured their soul and energy. Plus, you’ve proven that you can work well with girl groups.  You’ll be a perfect fit for these gals.  They’re heavy and arty. They call themselves Whole,” said Bruce.

“Right on, Bruce,” I responded. “Thanks for thinking of me. I’m curious, though… How did you know that I’m a vegan, granola-munching, Birkenstock-wearing, yoga-practicing hippy at heart?” Man, did I totally misread the pitch! I thought Bruce was pitching me on an equality-of-the-sexes, self-realized New Age Metal group that perhaps sharpened their used razor blades under glass pyramids in the energy vortex of Sedona.

“Uh… I didn’t know that about you, MJ,” said Bruce. “Let’s start over. There’s nothing holistic about this band. It’s a grungy girl band, without a “W” in their name. It’s just Hole. It’s a girl band. Hole… Figure it out, buddy. Got it now?”

We made a deal. I was excited to begin working with the gals, and finally the first tracking date arrived. I had no idea that my world was about to change.

To fully understand this story, one must be aware of the context. In November 1990, we were still feeling the effects of the ’80s, which included big hair, Lycra Spandex pants, shoulder pads and knit leg warmers inappropriately sported outside the dance studio. In the recording studio, bigger was better: multi-tracked instrument overdubs, long vocal echoes, and perhaps most conspicuously, massive drum sounds with electronic Simmons drums to beef up the tom-toms, and “gated” reverb made famous on the Phil Collins hit “In The Air Tonight.

A typical way to record a commercial rock band would begin by striping a 2″ reel of magnetic analog tape with SMPTE (pronounced “simptee”) time code. SMPTE enabled us to synchronize multiple tape decks and computer based sequencers. (Anybody remember swapping a small stack of floppy disks to load Opcode Vision or MOTU Performer in a $4000 Macintosh SE with 1 MB RAM? That’s not a typo–one megabyte was state of the art!) The sequencer contained “sequences” of MIDI information, which was used in order to print to tape a click track (metronome pulse) and multiple keyboard tracks and drum samples that were performed and edited during preproduction. It was actually pretty cool to connect your Mac to a tall rack of synthesizer, sampler and drum machine modules, and listen to a dozen or more premixed and pre-panned stereo parts being triggered live to two tracks of a 24 track tape recorder! This was a huge time saver: we could do in five minutes what used to take days.

The good news is that we could then blow the entire savings on recording one musician at a time, in isolation, without the other band members. (Yes, you do detect more than a hint of sarcasm.) The pinnacle of this practice was to record one drum at a time. No, not one drummer–one drum! It should be easy to find video of Mick Fleetwood in the studio, recording a kick drum to the click track, before moving on to the other elements of the drum set, one piece at a time. I guess the thought was that isolation would allow us to surgically deploy the gated reverb effect to specific elements like kick, snare and toms, while avoiding the cymbals. Or perhaps it was to get the best possible performance of each part and subpart of the record. Or to sound like a precise machine, devoid of human imperfections…and feel. The (real, not sarcastic) good news was that we had a new benchmark for sonic clarity; the bad news was that we had no idea if our record would feel good until we heard all the overdubs together, which might require several days per song.

The previous old-school way to record a band was to have the musicians perform live together in the same room, or at least in isolation booths with line of sight to one another. Even if we might want to add copious overdubs later, we knew immediately if the we had a record that felt good. If the basic tracks–the foundation–got everybody excited, we could proceed to the next task.  If not, we would simply record additional takes until we got one that we liked, or a few partials that we could edit together into a righteous composite take.

Enter Hole. Four musicians, three of them women. I introduced myself and asked them about their music so that I could determine where to set them up in the studio. Radio Tokyo Studio was a small cottage in Venice Beach, California, converted to a carpet cave den of musical discovery. Due to SubPop’s limited budget, I already knew that I had to capture the band as “live” as possible, without resorting to tedious overdubs, so inspiration was the name of the game. And I knew that we needed to get the band into the inspiration zone quickly.

Hole’s excellent guitarist, Eric Erlandson, had a couple surprises for me. First, he was a guy. Not that it mattered, but Bruce Pavitt repeatedly referred to the group as a girl band. Second, and more important, was the fact that he was a sonic sculptor with a vision. He showed me his rat’s nest of stompbox pedal FX at his feet, precariously DIY connected, without regard for impedance or noise issues. My first thought was, “Uh oh,” and the second was, “We better tidy up the mess of cables before somebody trips on them and sues the studio.”

Eric then asked one of the most pivotal, game-changer questions I’ve ever heard: “Should I use my cheap FX, or shall I unplug them and use your expensive, hi-fi, rack-mounted studio effects?”

I asked, “Do you like your tone? Is there a reason you want to change your sound?” As enlightened as my reply seems, it was in large part the result of a pragmatic consideration. Eric had a dozen pedals connected in series. Delays, reverb, fuzz, distortion, overdrive, chorus, flanger, tremolo, etc. Frankly, I wouldn’t know where to start, and I could imagine us slipping down the rabbit hole in pursuit of an artistic (as opposed to traditional) effects-laden guitar tone. We simply didn’t have the budget to risk going there.

Fortunately, Eric said, “I love my tone!”

MJ: “Okay, let’s hear it.”

EE: (Plays some riffs that are nearly indecipherable through the wall of art-noise.) “What do you think?”

MJ: “I think that your tone is unique, and I’m not convinced that I could beat it with the expensive studio stuff. Let’s start with your pedals. When I hear your sound in the context of the band, I’ll tell you if I have any suggestions for improvement. Cool?”

EE: “Wow, that’s awesome! You’re the first person who has ever allowed me to record with my sound. Thank you!”

Although I didn’t understand Eric’s textural sound in a vacuum, I must say that in context it truly enhanced the emotional impact of the songs. It beautifully complemented Courtney Love’s urgent rhythmic drive. My world changed in an instant. No longer would I complicate the process simply because it was expected. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I would henceforth take the path of least resistance and be open to serendipity.

So… What about Courtney? Is she talented, or did all the good stuff come from Kurt Cobain or Billy Corgan? I’ve been asked those questions for years.

I still remember the day I met Ms. Love. She had a sense of style, perhaps one that could be called Thrift Store Chic. Green crushed velvet sundress over a white T-shirt, paired with white bobby socks and black Doc Martin oxford shoes, not the logger’s boots, nor the flannel shirt, that would soon become de regeur for Seattle’s music scene.

While we were setting up the band’s equipment, Courtney’s conversation was mostly quiet and understated, and had little to do with music. She talked about how she was being portrayed on Page 3 of the British tabloids, thanks to her celebrity status gained from her acting role in the film Sid and Nancy. And then I heard her sing.  Holy cow!

SubPop didn’t mail me any demo tapes before the recording sessions, so I had no idea what to expect, other than the band was a gritty Hole, not a New Age, bliss-ninny, colon-cleansed Whole. I knew that this band was important to Mr. Pavitt, so I signed up for the job. Anyway, I pressed Record, and the band fell into a trancelike atmospheric mood piece with quiet vocals. The sonic texture was so hypnotic that I became totally relaxed, at one with my studio chair behind the console. I wondered if this was similar to the experience of ingesting magic mushrooms or other hallucinogens. I became the chair–with a human head. Whoa… what a trip!

And then the SCREEEEAAAAMMMM happened, completely without warning! I swear to you that I nearly launched like a rocket from my chair-body-thing. Felt like I was lucky to have not cracked open my skull on the carpeted ceiling. Almost had a heart attack.  I heard myself say, “This is truly epic!” And it was. Courtney’s intense delivery made me actually feel something from the band’s music. (I find it interesting that, 25 years later, Adele’s “Hello” is the current poster child for vocal performances with conviction. Super Producer Michael Beinhorn, who produced Hole’s successful Celebrity Skin and is a beacon of truth about the current state of the record business, might have some intriguing then vs. now thoughts. Check out his excellent blog, How To Save Popular Music.)

Courtney definitely had talent. As I wrote earlier, her rhythm guitar playing drove the band. Not fancy, but visceral. Her vocal performance got my body moving, quite literally. She and Eric were writing about rape, incest, child molestation and women taking the blame despite being the victims. I knew she was going to be a rockstar the moment we met. Frankly, she already was a rockstar, only the world didn’t yet know it.

As a postscript, I’ll mention the sad news that sometimes there is a hefty price tag attached to talent. Artists often see our world from a different perspective than the mainstream populace. According to the media, Courtney had her demons, which she attempted to vanquish with chemical assistance. I cannot personally confirm this because she wasn’t high during the “Dicknail” and “Burnblack” recording sessions, but I can say that her one of her husbands, who was a VP of A&R at Geffen Records, personally told me that there was a five year period of the ’90s that had become “a blank” for Courtney, completely erased from her memory. The guy was still happily married to her at the time, so he wasn’t bashing his wife. We shared a rare moment of silence (well, rare in the context of an A&R meeting) contemplating how sad it was for someone so young to flush such a big percentage of life experience down the chute. Fame ain’t easy.

MJ Puerto Rico guitar 1986
The ’80s were good to me. Arecibo, Puerto Rico, 1986.

Friend-Sourcing, Part 3: For Your Grammy Consideration

MJ the extrovert, cloistered in his secret lair.

This year’s first Grammy ballot is currently in the hands of the Recording Academy’s voting members. Laypeople may be under the false impression that the Grammy awards are rigged. On the contrary, the Academy has gone to great lengths to level the playing field and to ensure fairness.

Having said that, it’s a longshot for an independent artist, or even a major label artist without deep pockets, to make the leap from the first to the second/final ballot. The first ballot is basically a free-for-all. There are so many artists competing for voters’ limited attention spans that my mental image is that of the sea of faces in the iconic Woodstock photos snapped from the stage. A veritable multitude of individuals shouting, “Choose me!”, anonymously disappearing into an ocean of minuscule dots.

Similarly, everybody listed on the first ballot is hawking their wares to other voting members for their “consideration.” If you’ve ever seen those full-page ads in Billboard magazine with a banner that says “For Your Consideration” above an artist’s visage and some category names like “Song Of The Year” or “Best New Artist”, then you’ve seen ads connected to the first ballot.

I’m amused every October when new or indie artists announce that the have been “nominated” for a Grammy award. They are misrepresenting the process—the first ballot vote tally determines the official nominees. The voter package may list literally hundreds of entries in “consideration” for a category like Pop Vocal Album, but only four or five will be the “nominees” on the second/final ballot. Those chosen finalists are the same nominees announced during the televised broadcast right before we hear the words, “And the winner is…”

The nominees are typically artists with hit recordings on the charts. Voting members sometimes pick songs and artists with whom we are familiar because there are simply not enough hours in the two-week voting period to listen to everything listed on the first ballot, especially when we don’t recognize 90% of the names. (The second ballot is a different story: we have three weeks, skirting the holidays, to listen to the cream of the crop before casting our “winner” votes.)

So, the question is: how does one make the leap from “for your consideration” to “nominee”?

If you have access to vast resources like the major labels and superstar artists do, it’s simple. Saturate the market with a solid promotion campaign so that everybody knows about you and your music. Unless they are hiding under a rock, voting members will know who you are. It’s up to them whether or not they like you enough to actually vote for you, but at least they are aware of you. You have a shot.

If, on the other hand, you are an independent artist, you’re traveling a tough road. You may be the best band since The Beatles, but if nobody is aware of your existence, you won’t make the second ballot.

As glamorous as the job of being a successful record producer may seem to the uninitiated, I can emphatically tell you that I do not have the resources to promote my new artist album, titled Marchesano, to compete at that level. (You may stream the full album here.) Rather than writing off the opportunity, I decided yet again to “friend-source” the necessary support.

In Friend-Sourcing, Part 1, I discussed the importance of developing and nurturing balanced two-way-street relationships. Part 2 was about converting a surplus of good karma into significant and meaningful press generation and brand building. Now, in Part 3, I will describe yesterday’s successful call to action.

I looked at the calendar and counted only a few days remaining before the first ballot needs to be completed and mailed. My manager Jan Seedman and I discussed a few options, including an email appeal to everybody who worked on the album to let their friends know about it. Ultimately we decided to use Facebook as the vehicle. My appeal was simple: ask my friends to share links to my album and some individual songs before the first ballot is due.

I briefly let them know that I was on the “for your consideration” ballot in several categories, including Best Contemporary Instrumental Album; Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical; and (ironically) Best New Artist. I attached a link to stream the full album, and asked my friends to share it far and wide.

Some of my friends, including Michael Goyette, guitarist from Save Ferris and Artificial Joy Club, shared heartfelt posts encouraging their friends to rally the troops and “share, share, SHARE!!!” Michael’s friends actually did it! By the end of day one, nearly 1000 streams happened on Bandcamp alone, and 72 people shared my original post. Plus other folks began new threads with links to their favorite tracks from the album, which were in turn shared by others.

This may not seem like much traction when compared with The Weeknd or Taylor Swift, but it’s much more than I had happening a day earlier. A few voting members told me that the increased visibility put me on their radars, so they listened and voted for me. More importantly, I was gaining new fans with whom I can communicate directly.

If you want to help spread the word, you can! It’s easy. Click on this link to my original Facebook post, read it, leave a comment, and share it with your friends. For extra credit, follow up with a link to your favorite songs every day until Monday morning. I couldn’t ask for anything more valuable than this: a timely opportunity to make folks aware of my music.

Ask, and ye shall receive. Especially if your friendships are genuine.

Cover artwork : photo by Frank Bevans; design by Shannon Brown and Kristin Prentice.