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.