GRAMMY SoundTable @ AES '08
On Oct. 5 the Producers & Engineers Wing hosted the 20th annual GRAMMY SoundTable on Oct. 5 at the125th annual Audio Engineering Society (AES) Convention. The SoundTable explored the myriad of possible revenue-generating opportunities available to artists, producers, engineers, and those professionals who do all three.
Moderated by producer/engineer Mike Clink (Guns N' Roses, Sarah Kelly, Mötley Crüe), the SoundTable's all-star cast included producer/engineers Keith Olsen (Fleetwood Mac, Sammy Hagar, Ozzy Osbourne) and Phil Ramone (Ray Charles, Elton John, Shelby Lynne) as well as producer/engineer/studio owner Sylvia Massy Shivy (Johnny Cash, Econoline Crush, System Of A Down), producer/musician James McKinney (Mariah Carey, Kenny Lattimore, Stevie Wonder), producer/engineer/artist Carmen Rizzo (Coldplay, Paul Oakenfold, Seal), and producer/engineer/indie rock innovator John Vanderslice (The Mountain Goats, Spoon).
"The music business has changed and nothing as we know it remains the same," Clink began. "The days of the engineer pushing up the faders and making $750 or $1,000 a day are over." Clink emphasized that producers and engineers work twice as hard for less money these days, and to keep working they must look beyond the traditional advances and points from an album.
In response to a question from Clink, Rizzo described his typical workday, which usually begins at 7 a.m. and ends near midnight. Rather than spend two solid months on one project, Rizzo spends those extended hours juggling multiple projects, which may include producing an artist, composing for film or video games, and writing his own music.
From her RadioStar Studios in Weed, Calif., Massy Shivy also works on multiple projects simultaneously. "There may be three or four projects happening at the same time," she told attendees. "I may do vocals in one room, arrangements in another room, and then check on a mix. We set up a server so that mixes happening in two of the rooms can be sent to a drop box, so I can finish a phone call, listen to a mix, and then talk to the engineer about what I'd like changed. It's really busy, but it's really exciting."
Clink then asked the panelists to discuss their business relationships with artists. Vanderslice chooses to focus on his own music and leave his studio clients alone, "The farther you can recede from that anarchy the better," he said. Clink and McKinney often become deeply involved in an artist's career by taking on roles of both producer and A&R representative. "In this climate, there is a great opportunity for independent labels and for producers who make real music," Clink said.
McKinney explained how he often works as the middleman between the label and the artist, finding and negotiating record deals in exchange for a commission. With the financials out of the way he can then put on his producer's hat. "The value is that the artist owns a piece of their record," he said. "We start with the artist owning 50 percent and the investor owning 50 percent. And as we negotiate from that, the artist still gets significant ownership of that master. I don't think there's anything more precious to an artist than owning the art that they've created."
McKinney and others pointed out that more than half of their production clients come from either independent labels or DIY projects. Even Ramone, with four decades of experience and 13 GRAMMY Awards to his credit, takes independent projects on occasion. "Until they change the music on television and radio, we have to make good independent records," he said.
Ramone added that he's been shortchanged by labels before, at least early in his career, "I wrote songs that you'll never know I wrote," he said — a predicament that each panelist could relate with. Clink recalled a time when one of his clients filed for bankruptcy in the middle of a project. Olsen discussed the challenge of collecting a debt from an overseas project.
Regarding international business, Massy Shivy offered a more positive view. "In times like now when the U.S. dollar is low, Europeans love to come over here," she said. "We're getting clients from all over Europe — Slovenia, Croatia, Germany, France…there's good things happening [in this market]."
Speaking of dollars, Clink asked the group how they generate income beyond mere album sales. Massy Shivy revealed that because of its low overhead, her studio generated the most income. "I'll work in the rooms, and usually negotiate the production deal separately," she said, adding that the studio also offers video production services and merchandise manufacturing, which generates additional revenue.
Rizzo, who recently supplemented his production career with a stint on an upcoming HBO documentary, The Song Story, noted that performing his own music has given his production career the biggest boost. "kd lang hired me because she heard me on specialty radio," said Rizzo. "It attracts an audience that I want to participate in."
Considering the panelists spend most of their working life in the studio, the conversation naturally veered toward sound quality. After a discussion on digital and analog recording, Rizzo asked Ramone: "If there was better technology back then, would you have used it?" "Yes," he replied. "I couldn't be happier with what we have now."
Vanderslice pointed out that proprietary MP3 codecs used by various online music sites are the real "elephants in the room." "It can be jarring when you hear your work funneled down that tight," he said.
Before opening the floor to questions, the panelists left the audience with sage advice. "Leave you ego at the door," said Ramone. "Take a chance," said Vanderslice. "Invest in yourself," said Rizzo, who reinforced the value of hard work and learning new skills. Olsen emphasized the "SWOT (Strength Weakness Opportunity Threat)" philosophy that Record Plant Recording Studios founder and entrepreneur Chris Stone described in his AES keynote address. "If you're not great at what you do…keep working on it until you are." Olsen concluded, "There are so many things out there that you can do. It doesn't necessarily have to be a record recorded and a record sold. Your job is to identify the opportunities."