MP3’s: The cause of (and solution to) all of life’s problems

In the last few years, there’s been an interesting shift in the music industry – not just among consumers, but also among artists. Albums are being made at an almost alarming rate and the equipment needed has become very affordable – it’s all become very democratized. Albums are being released as MP3‘s online, and thus reaching a lot more people than ever before. One would think that for us recording engineers this was a good thing. And in some cases it is, but not always. As a matter of fact, a similar thing has happened (albeit much faster) in the music industry as has happened in the food industry. The norm has become fast food.. made without nutrients, without soul and without heart. The idea that making an album should be an investment (time and money) is a thing of the past. Since it’s possible to make an album inexpensively, then.. shouldn’t I do it .. by myself? Well, no. Not entirely. In the past (and thankfully still today, to some degree) albums were made by a team of people. Not necessarily a large team, but a team nonetheless. And parts of this team were somewhat invisible to the artist. This included studio managers, runners, assistants, engineers – and producers. So, when the artist makes the new record, by himself this time (why not? he downloaded all the necessary software, so piece of cake, right?) he’s taking on the role of several people – usually without knowing it. In some cases this is fine. He can most certainly help himself to the fridge or make a run to the corner for beers. But when it comes to the craft of making an album, there are some roles the artist is not so good at filling. Producer / engineer immediately comes to mind – and I won’t even get into things like file management, labeling, backups, and the organizational skills 99% of artists lack (of course… otherwise they’d be shitty artists). Most artists will produce at least one of their albums by themselves, and nowadays a lot of them will even record most or all of them too. I can think of two artists that self-produced successfully: Prince and Stevie Wonder. And even they had spectacular failures mixed in with their landmark albums. Point being, there is something to be said for experience, and that certain skill-set. In my case, surely something must have rubbed off, during the making of those 100 or so albums I’ve been a part of.

One thing that almost always comes up, when i talk to artists about making records, is their perceived ‘lack of quality’ of MP3’s as a format for (their) music. Meanwhile, 2 days later they are telling me they won’t be needing my services for mixing, because they found a guy that will mix the record for free: “Can’t beat that, can you?” they ask. Well, um, if you mean ‘price-wise’ then NO.. but if you mean ‘quality-wise’ i’ll bet you my car the answer is YES I can beat that. No contest. But musicians today (a lot of them) don’t have the same respect as they used to. They don’t have the same respect for the music. They don’t have the same respect for themselves, and not for the craft… my craft. I don’t want to sound arrogant here (ok, maybe i do) but it’s not about the downloaded software or the vintage gear, as much as it is about the guy turning the knobs where the difference lies. So, when the artist is says: “And of course i’ll do vinyl, because having ‘only’ MP3 downloads doesn’t do the album justice” I can’t help but grin. This is the same album you just announced 10 mins ago you were going to have Bellbottom-Marvin in Echo Park mix on his laptop for free! I’m sorry, but i’m afraid the vinyl release isn’t going to help you, my friend. It’s still going to sound like crap.

MP3’s are a delivery format, no different than an 8track, cassette or vinyl, and they all have their place. For me, when i jog, i don’t care much for carrying a cd player with me. When i’m on a plane, not so interested in bringing 25 records with me, and a record player. So i use MP3’s. The fit nicely on my laptop, on my iPod and in an email, to my clients. But when i want to listen to an album, i’ll pull the cd out from the shelf, put it on my stereo and listen, as i read the liner notes. Different intention, than listening to music while jogging. Not interchangeable and one is not better than the other. Hot dogs and filet mignon, that’s all. I don’t think I’d want a hot dog on Thanksgiving of Christmas, and I’m sure I don’t want a steak in my hot dog bun at the ballpark.

A friend / colleague of mine just finished producing an album by a fairly well known french artist, and the artist gave an interview online about the album and the process of making it. And, in his defense, I’m sure his intension was to give praise.. but I got an entirely different slant from the article. He was talking about the small budget he had to make the record and how he was discussing this with the producer. “I understand it’s small, but not only do I want to make a very special album, without compromise, but i also want it to be a double album” (I’m paraphrasing here). And then he went on to say how “everyone did it for next to nothing” and the string players “did it for free, and didn’t even get credit on the album, because of the union” etc etc. (I know this union rule, and it’s BS.. but that’s another story). So, for me, instead of reading praise, I read “I have this sense of entitlement, this need to make an artistic statement, and this producer is a good producer because he knows a lot of people that will work for free”. Strange development indeed. Of course I am reading heavily into what’s being said here, but it’s my interpretation nonetheless, and there is some truth to it, I’m sure. So, guess who is going to be calling this producer and the string players and the rest of the musicians that played on the album for his next record? The guy with the big budget or the small budget? Exactly.

And this is the dilemma. There’s always a guy with a laptop that will do it for free. Always a band that will give the album away for free – thanks for setting the tone on that one, Radiohead (fuckers). And this devalues what we do for a living. And since the general public is quite happy with fast food, with music without heart or soul, Laptop Guy stays busy and the rest of us have to pedal twice as fast to cover the same ground.

Problem is, when we should be moving faster (mixing, for example) the material handed over is getting worse. More square pegs in round holes, because Laptop Guy has never made a real record, with real musicians playing songs with real arrangements. So, where in the past i’d mix records in two days, now i’m struggling to mix a song a day – since most of what i do is apply bandaids.  I mixed Solomon Burke’s album in two days, and won a Grammy for it. Two hrs per mix. Because I recorded it myself, so there were no square pegs. Now, when artists come to me and say: “Just do kind of a quick mix on this album” they’ve just showed me their cards. Volunteered that they have no idea what they’re talking about. Red flag! I can’t mix a song any faster, just because I am getting paid less for it. That would mean I was adding to the fast food problem. I built my own studio for this very reason. I had to stop mixing in commercial studios, because they needed their daily fee, and if I was to get the gig, it meant 30 mins per mix for me (“one day of studio time is all we can afford”). Guess how much time the record company allocated for mixing of the next record I did for them after that Solomon Burke record? Yep, two days again. Even after I busted my balls mixing it, and won them a Grammy. Oh, and by the way, get this: on that second record (Bettye Lavette), they couldn’t even get it together enough to send in the paperwork in time for a Grammy nomination (even if it was considered a shoe-in), they were so busy being great at saving money… Christ!!!

So what’s the bottom line here? The solution? Well, for me, it’s about finding ways to stay creative. To find the positive about the internet / MP3 revolution. Finding ways to be a part of making the records, from the beginning (here). A lot of people can and will hear the music we do work on, so keep doin’ it. It’s up to us as engineers / mixers to keep the bar high. Knowing that a well recorded and well mixed record will transcend any format. So for all you guys worrying about vinyl vs MP3 for your album .. it’s only a small piece of the puzzle. And trust me.. much smaller than a good producer or engineer.

So cough it up and show some respect. You are not entitled. Talented (in most cases), but not entitled.

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14 responses to “MP3’s: The cause of (and solution to) all of life’s problems

  1. very interesting, I must say and I totally agree. When it comes to music, 99% of the industry seems to forget how it all started.. Music is an “emotion driven” purchase, so nobody should think of running this business having only revenues and overhead in mind.
    You’re absolutely right when you say that musicians should not try cut down the expenses by making all the work by themselves, even if they’re compelled.. in my country (Italy) it’s getting worse by the minute. we have dozens of pre-cooked and pre-mixed ready to use “singers” who will be forgotten by next spring and the real talented ones are struggling just to put together a few gigs. People here don’t care about quality, music or talent.. they’re all atracted to “superstardom”.. so the music scene is made of a few big names who fill stadiums and hundreds of coverbands who keep on playing and imitating the big names music. So that audience and live club owners can be happy.. This is not music it’s copycats!.. Anyway.. thank you for your insight. Ross

  2. “Bellbottom-Marvin in Echo Park mix on his laptop for free! I’m sorry, but i’m afraid the vinyl release isn’t going to help you, my friend. It’s still going to sound like crap.”

    Unless “Bellbottom-Marvin in Echo Park” has great ears and is doing it for free to get his name out there and build up some experience.

    • Correct.. but the problem is not with Marvin (we’ve all been there), but the musicians that keep expecting him to do it for free, because he did – once.

      • To a degree the same thing happened when ADATs and Mackie boards came on the scene. And drum machines before that. etc.. Times is changing and perhaps the time is coming where audio professionals must accept the reality that they won’t be able to have a career making the money they once did in the ‘old days’. One of my best friends is an engineer who won a Grammy last year for the Usher record, his lifestyle and income have changed from what they were due to the very thing we’re talking about. It’s how it is. Perhaps this will weed out the ones who shouldn’t be here in the first place while the lifers will adapt and grow with the change. You seem like a guy who has to record and make records, the same can’t be said for everyone out there making them.

        The ‘system’ of how records were made and the money involved hasn’t always been like it was the last 20+ years. It’s like the housing market, it was bound to burst. Some people saw it coming and set themselves up for the change while others were devastated. Creativity and passion don’t always come with a paycheck. Art isn’t justified or validated by the money it commands.

      • You’re missing the point here, Rambo. I’m not ‘complaining’ about the money.. and please don’t start on ‘creativity and passion’. I understand how this works, believe me. My complaint is (in a nutshell) the devaluing of our skills. The idea that free is now the new low budget norm (for engineers) .. while the same artists asking for mixing for free, are perfectly happy to spend all kinds of dollars on vinyl releases or any number of other extras. The idea that our services should be free now, because the equipment is next to free is absurd. There’s no law that says you have to be fair or generous, but just because you can get away with it, doesn’t mean you should 🙂
        Just this morning, i got an email from a client i had mastered some songs for, a few months back – for free. He’s got 8 more to do today, and guess how much he’s hoping to pay this time? And, at the same time, do you think he’ll ask the post office to send the disc to me for free? No, of course not.

  3. Exactly. You have to earn your stripes and take chances on good material– do low budget stuff at first for experience, be resourceful, be Marvin for a while. But once you’ve built up that experience, the transition into better budgets is difficult. Assembling a team without pulling favors is impossible these days.
    Artists either expect you to continue at your rock bottom rate– even if you’ve invested in good “real” gear over the years, or they associate you with cheapness and leave you behind when they do get a real budget.

    Excellent article, Husky. Would love to hear more about solutions and new approaches.

  4. Being a guy that has spent most of his life on both sides of the console,i sympathize with both parties.
    As a young assistant at Conway Recorders I learned the hard way that the art of recording was never afforded the proper respect it deserved.But as a musician and some 300 albums later,Im always willing to learn from engineers who really know what they are doing.Its an awful reality that the new guys dont have a clue but are also forced to start careers with one hand tied behind their back…cause thats what their mix sounds like.

  5. I’m not mad at Marvin. He does a fantastic job of making me look like a genius.

    😉 kd

  6. You’re so right Husky!
    At some point, many times in the last years I asked to myself: am I the only one who is ready to invest money (you know the cost for great gear!) on this record?? I think that the problem came with 2 things: First, unfortunately, digital (in most people mind) have more to do with quantity than quality, even to the point that we now think that Steve Jobs with all his gimmick feeding our consumerism era changed our life. Wow! listening to cheap mp3 trough cheap headphones and that’s cool! Totally absurd!!
    Secondly, and most importantly, I’m against this false idea of democratization in music (that’s the only word I’m not aggreing with you). And I’m not speaking here about the record making process. Music have absolutely nothing to do with rights and power. In seeing things that way, this false democracy thing begin to makes everyone perverting it (as always the ego is good for that), thinking that “owning” now the power, I’m building my own world, my own universe in wich other people have to act as satellite to makes my own planet shine! Don’t have to say that all the gimmicks aforementionned are also encouraging this way to look at how we are related to the others. We are now so in an oversized ego era that we forget that WE ALL NEED each other to do something. Whitout the other, we are simply nothing. And it’s even more true with the record making process!! When we’ll re-begin to see the reality that way, again we will hear more and more soulfull records. It will be more about releasing DEEP art than stockpiling tons of mp3 albums. That’s why I’m a great believer of going beyond the album format and going back to a true collective effort in wich the engineer/producer is an equal part of the project from the start. Like, it was said that George Martin was the fifth Beatles. In fact, it’s just the plain reality of any recording project.
    Thanks Husky for making me not feeling alone with this problem.

    Etienne

  7. I’m with you on that one Husky. The first time a major label asked me to do something on spec ( we’ll pay you if we use it!!) I just laughed. My question was, is that what you say at the supermarket checkout?
    “We’re not sure if we really want it so we’ll pay you if we eat it!”

    If it doesn’t work there then it won’t work here.

    I do that for my close friends and that is it….. A bit of barter is ok, the taxman can’t touch it and it can be great if the deal is even. But work for nothing, never. I’m too old, too grumpy and value my skills too much to do that.

    People that expect others to work for nothing mostly go nowhere, and who wants to go there? The brochure looks like shit!

    As for MP3 it stinks, but if your mix sounds bad on it then you might just have to do it again because the medium ain’t THAT bad. I always think of it as the new Auratone. It’s why we have professional engineers and producers, because WE sound consistently good on all mediums.

    As for earning your stripes on low budgets and going on to bigger things, in 30 years in this business it’s never been the case for me. There has always been a mix of the two as that’s where the music takes you. The only difference these days is that the big budgets are getting farther apart.

    As for your last paragraph Husky, I’m with you 100%. Quality wins every time because it lasts. We must embrace every new avenue that presents itself so that we can continue to keep the bar high and make sure people hear it.

  8. Very true and Well written.
    Music making has lost that very soul it once had. Even though i wasn’t around in the golden years when record had top budgets and musicians actually went to a good studio to record their music, and knew what they were doing, every now and then, i get to work with the people who were from that era, and those are the moments where you are with a team that knows what they are doing and you realize that its not always about having the drums tight with beat detective or tuning the vocals… if the vibe is right and the people involved love what they are doing, thats what makes the record. Those are the times when you just focus on the creativity and not how much you are getting paid, or will the label/artist fuck you over!

  9. Diversification. Not only do I produce/record/mix records and master in some cases, but I’ve taken to offering record label services to keep income coming in as this is my living. Husky mentions limited budgets- and he’s dealing with major label clients! I left those folks in Los Angeles back in ’02. Being in Detroit now, I have to find creative indie bands that want to grow their prominence regionally. Budgets are around $10K for an entire project and the bands will typically sell between 1000 and 2000 copies of their record. In this era of helping the indie artist, I’ll also take on the role of record label and doing college radio promotion for them. I’ve booked regional tours and had 20-somethings flake on events- no-shows, no-contacts, no-communication- just make the choice not to show up for a paid gig or support their release at a local radio station. I had a regional tour across 6 states booked with one band that and there were guarantees that were to pay them $8500 over 3 months time. They missed one gig and one radio in-studio appearance and I pulled the plug because they were directly affecting my reputation. Husky hit on that theme- about entitlement. I’d like to further that with the bands lack of respect. Has bloviating mindlessly with your own DAW created this lack of respect for themselves, their music and their art? I had another band where I had booked 15 club gigs in a month and the singer of the band calls me and tells me after a rehearsal one night that the band really can only do two days a week and possibly one Thursday. The shows had been booked two months in advance. I asked him, “This is the most gigs you’ve ever had booked for your band, isn’t it?” He said, “Yeah, but, you know, my wife is telling me (blah)…and the other band members have other things going and…” Suddenly, the incredible indie music market is being populated by amateurs. Oh yeah, they self-recorded/mixed their debut E.P. At least it had a charm and the songwriting was good. I re-mixed one of the tracks and helped them with their College Radio campaign. They got good support at radio, but apparently didn’t want to be a band. When the band had problems with playing too many shows, I pulled the plug because it wasn’t worth my time. As for a two day mix of an album? Laughable. A record mixed in two days will always sound indie- if not half-assed. If you don’t have 6 to 8 hours to spend per song, the record will be doomed. I mixed a record once for a band called Hazeldine in one day. It was a 15-hour day, but you have to kind of cherish the successes and let the other songs go. Joe Chiccarelli once mentioned he felt this way too. The goal was to try and make a record you can listen to over and over again without hearing the problems.

  10. Johnny No paycheck

    At the end of they day, engineers need songs to record, and the labels need songs to sell. You cant fake writing a great song. the power is there. Period…

    And if there is a way to get your message across to the public without the bullshit of dealing with a suit saying “the landscape is not ready for your music” or an engineer saying I need $100,000 (because he feels he’s worth it, and he may just be worth it) the artist WILL go to “echo park dude” and possibly have a shot at something that connects with the public that people will buy, opposed to said parties closing the door on the artist and not have anything to record.

    ……And the artist may just have enough to put gas in his car and eat….interesting.

    Do you blame the artist. its highly unbalanced in our industry. I love my industry, truly passionate about it, but…its in need of a major restructure. I’ve seen LOCAL limo/transportation budgets more expensive than my week recording budget..is that right?
    Shouldn’t the product (woops songs) be the most important budget and not the catering in the studio? come on…
    its not just the label, Ive seen producers have a “wine tab”…
    believe me, I’m still paying one off…echo park dude doesn’t seem that bad….

    BUT NO-ONE should work for free if they are at a HIGH level of ability. Take that one up with the Label who constantly tells the artist “this is all we have to spend for you”…..Then said artist has to factor promo, tour support, musicians (those not willing to tour for free) and the list goes on, rent, gas, blah blah blah…..its not just about the recording budget and you know that.

    What I’m saying is we are ALL being affected and in many ways “forced” to deal with the budget cuts and “ignorant” execs that don’t even know what a song is, but they know market projections for the 4th quarter? WTF

    Just like consumers put a value on what they are willing to spend their money on, so are the label heads putting a value on what YOU do and what I write…and that’s NOT how it should be. But it is…again..Not a complaint, just facts. It might have to come to a point that the machine is completely destroyed before we can build it back up where it functions the right way.

  11. The writer sounds bitter, entitled and doesn’t mention the more vital part of the equation- the artist. Without talent all you have is a sonically pristine recording of nothing. I would recommend to the author checking out some of the laptop recordings to see how people are creating with raw intuition and instinct using software. There is a lot of incredible music being made with software and it isn’t going away. You can either find some value or worth in the shift or grasp desperately to an obsolete paradigm of production. Not to take any value away from the authors wxperience as a producer. Change is inevitable. True artists exploit their medium and create uniqueness not vice versa

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