Producer/artist Mike Thorne lives most of the year in Greenwich Village, but he retains a home in his native England, and both his manner of speaking and his no-nonsense approach to the music business reflect his distinctly British sensibility. I spent an hour or so visiting with Thorne at his downtown recording facility and production hub, The Stereo Society (the name he also gave to his Internet-based record label). He's 50, looks 40, and he has the passion of a teen when discussing ideas that interest him.
Plucked from the countryside by Oxford University scouts searching for bright kids living outside the normal academic centers, Thorne took a degree in physics there before moving on to London, where he worked as a music journalist before finding his way into the recording industry as a tape operator on Deep Purple sessions. Eventually he would work as an A&R man (he brought the Sex Pistols into EMI) and move into production. Thorne produced Soft Cell, Wire, Bronski Beat and other bands in the punk decade. Tired of watching the creative edges being worn off acts by record executives searching for a marketing handle, Thorne retired from the business in 1994 and began exploring new media.
"I have no goals for The Stereo Society," Thorne says, "save that it can publish music that is different-makes people laugh and/or cry-and is self-supporting.The new technologies promise to make this feasible with sales a fraction of those of the old-style record business. Whether they help achieve escape velocity or not is the big question. How you achieve the goal of artistic self-sufficiency is the biggest question-how to deliver real music that is not dependent on patronage."
Thorne moves from producer to artist with his own techno-driven, multilayered vocal production CD SPRAWL. He says he sees the Web as a "club without velvet ropes." Open to all kinds of artists and visitors, his site (www.stereosociety.com), is dappled with links that offer detailed bios, related articles, and, of course, the ability to sample all label tracks and purchase material as stereo files or CDs. Although sales are important, using the Internet rather than traditional distribution tools means that a recording can be a success even if only a modest number of units are moved.
"Money gives you freedom to chart your own course," Thorne says. "If we sell lots of units it means, one, that we can continue delivering music that we like without external dependence, and, two, that people get the musical message, that we have done our job well. The applause that is implied in having a hit record is at least as satisfying as the cash.
"In the '80s and '70s, the producer's job was to organize the madness," he continues, "to help pull ideas together. But by the time I'd quit commercial production in 1994, producers were more expected to deliver to a marketing specification, and I wasn't happy to be reduced to a sociable knob-twiddler. When I started to think about pure music again in 1997, it was clear that I had to lead the way somewhere. One conclusion led to another. I evolved my group, a repertory company of edgy people who are all artists in their own right. The crew will be the same on my next record." Thorne's "crew" includes vocalists Lene Lovich, Betty, Kit Hain, and Sarah Jane Morris, legendary N.Y. session drummer Allan Schwartzenberg, and the Uptown Horns.
Thorne purchased an NED Synclavier system in the 1980s and it still functions as his main sampler, although he now uses Emagic Logic instead of the NED sequencer. Logic itself works as a front end to Thorne's Pro Tools system. He likes to tweak tracks through the mixing process, so lots of synth and drum machine parts are left as MIDI performances. "The Amek Einstein console has really glued everything together," Thorne says. "It's a simple but very clean board. I never wanted to own or drive a studio, but, starting in the '70s, I would always buy bits of equipment that provided more interesting sounds or possibilities, from a Flanger all the way up to the big Synclavier. I found myself with a workspace that included all of this gear." Thorne relies heavily on Neumann U89s and Drawmers from the 1960s. "For me, the clear U89 sound lends itself to more flexible treatment than, say, the more colored sound of the U87 or the AKG 414," he comments. "A clean mic sound permits extreme EQ, even on voice. I like having that option. I also like hearing that acoustic purity.
"I have never engineered a session for another producer," Thorne adds, "so my technique is oriented purely toward the music I make. If the engineering is minimal and doesn't demand mental energy that should be dedicated to the music, I do it myself. If there are heavy music and arrangement demands, or if it involves thinking on the feet as with recording a group rhythm section, or if I need extra perception for a mix, I would call [engineers] Carl Beatty, Harvey Goldberg or Dominick Maita."
Clearly jazzed by the possibilities of the Internet, Thorne also knows that it's too early in the game to figure out just how powerful a sales vehicle it will be for original music composed and produced by artists unwilling to bend in response to market studies. "I would love to know where we are in the Internet's evolution as a sales vehicle," Thorne remarks. "My future depends on it. I hope to be self-sufficient by this time next year, but this is possible only if the use of the Web broadens further within the general population. The statistical projections by the professional pundits are dubious at best and belong more in a boosterish plan for raising financial backing than in my real street world. Selling one CD on Monday, two on Tuesday and four on Wednesday does not mean that [we can] expect five kerzillion sales this time next year. Whether it works or not, the Internet is the only sales solution for new and niche acts, those with expected sales of below 100,000 units." Current Stereo Society artists include Thorne, CBGB owner Hilly Kristal, bassoonist Johnny Reinhard and The Reds.