Mark Twain may have been right about England and America as quite similar cultures separated by a common language. Although an increasingly global music business and the proliferation of pro audio technology have made album production more accessible and more homogenous, differences remain, both in the language — “desk” and “console”; “valve” and “tube”; “teaboy” and “hey, you,” etc. — and in the culture of the business.
As chairman of the three-year-old UK Music Producers Guild (MPG), Andy East has watched the industry evolve on his side of the Atlantic. A former session musician and recording engineer, East, 42, worked for the Vox amplifier company before starting his own consulting and management company. As a record producer and artist manager, his discography is all over the map: He developed and produced the girl band Synergy, signed to BMG in Southeast Asia in 1996, as well as the Paris-based band Broken Eyes, whom he signed to Disney Village Records in France in 1998. Then, he went on to work with Pills, a French techno act on Mercury Records, and the UK’s Sugar Plum Fairies, led by ex-Wildhearts/Honeycrack singer/songwriter Willie Dowling. Today, in addition to continued production and related pursuits, East heads up an organization that has more than 450 producer members in the UK alone; hundreds more belong to the European Producers Union.
The role of the record producer in the States has changed during the past decade. The rise of independent record labels and the contraction of the major-label sector have pushed producers into A&R. What sorts of evolutions have UK and European producers gone through lately? And what’s in store for the future?
In my view, the UK, and to a degree Europe, is suffering from what I term a lack of throughput. Labels are not signing many acts, and their A&R departments often lack experience. Hence, the producer is picking up the reins. With fewer acts being developed by major labels in particular, producers are now doing the development. To a degree, it’s similar to the U.S., but you have a bigger market [in America]. Another point is that the majors are always going to be responsible to their shareholders and want a quick high-value return, so catalog music is a big attraction to them. But as a result, producers find themselves fighting for fewer projects. A leading producer manager tells me that it’s not uncommon now for him to have five of his producers up for the same job.
The trend has been overwhelmingly toward personal studios in the U.S., particularly by top-tier producers. Is that the case in Europe, or do they rely more on commercial studios?
Technology and falling prices have given UK producers that capability, as well. Project and personal studios are more attractive because of the costs. Unfortunately, many of our studio facilities are suffering from this, particularly those that don’t have large recording spaces, 5.1 expertise or [multi]media capability.
Speaking of studios, what’s the state of that business in the UK and in Europe? It appears from afar that after a relatively brief return to rock with Oasis and Blur in the mid-’90s, music has gone back to techno and other genres that are better suited to control room recording. How has this affected the fortunes of commercial recording studios in the UK and on the continent?
Commercial studios are fighting for business, in my opinion. Many studios are adding “writing or programming” suites or doing deals with guys like myself for mixing. I have to work with smaller budgets, so I often record the drums in a rehearsal studio on my portable studio, track in my home studio and then mix at a commercial studio. Studios will often be very happy to give you a rate below the published figure. At the same time, [rates] don’t seem to have increased in a good while. “Deals can be made” is the best answer, as they want your work. But there are some innovative solutions. For instance, there’s certainly been growth in small in-house labels and production teams who then license product.
Besides cheaper technology enabling more people to start their own personal studios, do you also think that changing music-consumption tastes — specifically, declining rock sales — are also hurting studios?
For sure, but I think that the music industry can be blamed for it, as well. There is a thriving pop/rock/alt indie scene, but most of it is going out via the indie-label market and can be held back by the lack of high-powered marketing and distribution.
Tell us a bit about the Music Producers Guild in the UK and the European Producers Guild. What has the experience of organizing producers been like? Some have likened it to “herding cats.” There’s been interest in the notion in the U.S., and there is an MPG here that is now part of the NARAS organization. However, U.S. producers have always been a bit wary of organizing.
Well, my experience as MPG chairman has been a positive one. UK producers do stand as a collective, and the past 12 months have seen us achieve some very positive results in a number of different areas; in particular, royalty payments. At present, our membership is 450-plus, covering a wide number of genres. I’m pleased with this after us being in existence for three years, but my goal is for this to increase in the next year. In my term of office, I set out to increase our profile via a number of different methods, including the press. At first, it was very much word-of-mouth, but I knew that we had to change this and underline our mission.
Is the MPG affiliated with any other organizations, such as the Association of Professional Recording Services [APRS]? And does it attempt to set or suggest producer rates?
There’s this rumor circulating that we are affiliated with the APRS, but it’s not true. The APRS represents the manufacturers and commercial studios, while the MPG is a completely separate organization whose aim is to represent the creative people working on the factory floor, as it were. We do, however, work closely with [APRS] and other UK industry organizations such as Music Managers Forum [MMF], Music Publishers Association [MPA] and the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters [BACS], to name a few. While we don’t set rates, we can offer advice and we do hold regular business-affairs seminars to address our members’ needs with these issues.
How do you think European record labels feel about producers organizing? I would think that some labels would prefer them not to so that they can put pressure on younger, newer producers in terms of rates and royalties and other contractual points.
It’s a good point, and there is an element of truth there. While the budgets are tight, there’s work. The younger guys who are new to the business are put under pressure, though, and it’s very competitive, as I said earlier.
Perhaps the biggest coup of European organization has been that Euro producers have participated in airplay royalties for some years now. How much could a producer of a hit record expect to have his/her income augmented by that?
Well, as you know, the MPG has recently been involved in this subject with PPL [Phonographic Performance Limited, established by the UK recording industry in 1934 to administer the public performance and broadcasting rights of the recordings] in the UK, as well. At the end of the day, all income helps in a competitive business, but it is hard out there. My advice is that as an independent producer, or independent anything, you have to be able to multitask your skills.
What about the situation for audio engineers? What have rates been like and, perhaps more importantly, have many of them adaped to changes in the studio and record businesses?
The engineers are, in my view, the people who really suffer the most in the current state of the industry — no royalty base, studios closing, etc. Many of them, in particular the freelancers, are now carrying their own recording systems, such as a RADAR system, and working with acts on this level, as opposed to working with them in [commercial] recording studios.
Would you say that producer management has become more important in the industry and more prevalent in recent years?
Absolutely. It’s a highly competitive market out there, and you need all the help you can get, particularly if you are new to the industry. But it’s kind of a catch-22. If you don’t have anything happening, why should a manager take you on? Also, it’s hard to make a living if you have the added cost of trying to live in one of the most expensive capital cities in the world where the majority of the industry is based.
The overarching technical trend in the U.S. has been to hard disk recording, particularly to Pro Tools. In Europe, though, I still see a lot of RADAR and other platforms not often seen here. Where are the de facto UK and European recording media standards headed in regard to recording platforms and other technical standards?
Pro Tools figures into many studios, particularly in post-production, but not everyone can afford it. RADAR is as popular as ever, as is hard disk recording via Logic Audio and my own personal choice, Digital Performer 3. Nuendo is getting a push here, as well. As with others, I’m very into the future of SACD and DVD-A. I’ve just started my first 5.1 project.
The record business is truly global now, for better or worse. Have you noticed an increase or decrease in artists from the U.S. or other places who choose to record in Europe in recent years?
I think there has been a decrease, again due to the growth of project and personal studios. However, if an act wants to work with a particular producer or facility, they will still make the trip. I was at Abbey Road the other evening, and that place has a certain magic!
Where, besides the UK, are the hot spots for music recording in Europe these days?
France and Scandinavia; look at the success of people like Max Martin. I was based in France between 1997 and 2000, and that was a real hotbed of talent. It’s now possible to see the influence [of France] coming out in UK acts.
How has Eastern Europe been faring? When the Berlin Wall came down in 1991, certain cities, such as Warsaw and Prague, became magnets for U.S. film-scoring projects, because quality orchestras and recording sites suddenly became accessible for relatively very little money. Is that still occurring?
European film and TV budgets are a lot less than their U.S. counterparts, and musicians’ fees are a vital factor in where to record. However, the UK has been losing so much work to Eastern European orchestras that the musicians’ union has now adopted a more realistic approach and more work is staying in London. [That’s resulted in more] big-budget U.S. movie projects done here, like Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Reign of Fire, to name a few.
European DJs rule the world, and they are lionized in the U.S. In a sense, are they becoming the new generation of music producers in Europe? Is the DJ culture becoming a leading part of the pro audio and music businesses now? Is it nice to have an export product again?
It’s a huge genre and, as you say, an export, finally! But for me, there is a gap between what may be termed the “old guard” and these guys, and it needs to be bridged. Unfortunately, we, as traditional producers, are often seen as the establishment instead of creatives or allies. The MPG is working on trying to make better relationships between record producers and DJs. They’re still a bit wary of the mainstream music business. Ironically, many are unfamiliar with the fact that many of our members at the MPG were once as radical as they are, in their own way.
What’s the state of audio and media education in Europe? U.S. studio owners used to scoff at the notion of formally trained entry-level employees. Now, virtually no audio post facility will hire someone without their having attended such an academy.
For me, this is a very difficult area and my response is a personal one and not in anyway an MPG policy statement. There have become two paths to employment in our industry: formal education, or becoming the tea boy and working your way up. For me, both have merit. With the industry downsizing, the latter has become harder. It’s important that anyone considering employment in this industry considers those options carefully to suit their own abilities. Not all creative minds are academics.
Dan Daley is Mix‘s East Coast editor.