Sunday, March 29, 2009

FFW09: Hearing it like it isn’t

In FFW08 I proceeded to tell the entire Australian music industry that its recording and mixing work was below international standards. Hours of exasperating conversations ensued, from which emerged a clearer picture of the problem. It was extremely disheartening to learn that a local record company would spend many times more money getting the same record mixed and/or mastered in the US than they would spend here in Australia. The reasons behind that were equally disheartening; in fact, I chose not to print them at the time (as seen below) because they would do nothing but induce a feeling of futility and helplessness among local engineers. Considering the ill-feeling and potential damage I had caused with FFW08, I chose instead to portray myself as well-meaning but mislead. By publically falling on my own sword I put an end to the matter from my point of view, thereby conveniently short-circuiting the need for me to do any further investigation into it. In other words, putting a lid on it. I did, however, invite others to write in with their own experiences, in the hope that one of the engineers I had spoken to would be willing to ‘out’ the problem in their own words, but no-one took me up on the offer. I guess they felt like I did; damage control!

But that was a decade ago when I still had faith in the concept of a local music recording ‘industry’: one in which deep-pocketed record companies were committed to developing local artists to record and release their music. These days, that aspect of the local music recording industry has proven to care more about its deep pockets than anything else, and I personally care less for it than I care for a pocketful of cockroaches and mosquitoes. So, I’m going to put those reasons at the end of this Famous First Word. Enjoy, or whatever…

Hearing It Like It Isn’t
The late, great press critic A.J. Liebling once said: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”. There can be no doubt that having the freedom to publish whatever you want is one of the greatest things about owning a magazine, but as with all forms of freedom, it comes with an implied responsibility…

In my last column, ‘Hearing It Like It Is’ [AudioTechnology, Volume 2, Issue 2], I described my disappointment with the sound of Australian recordings that had been mixed and/or mastered locally in comparison to those that were sent overseas. I then went on to explain why I believed our major artists and record companies were sending their work overseas. I did some market statistics, spoke to a couple of A&R people, and even got some ‘insider’ sales figures from a local record company. Essentially, my conclusion was that our local mixing and mastering talent wasn’t capable of delivering an international sound.

Before going any further, I would like to offer my sincere apologies to all those people who felt attacked or betrayed by that column – it was not my intention to do any harm to the industry. I took a ‘hard line’ to shake things up a bit, and hopefully encourage some discussion and raise the standard. Judging by the feedback I’ve received, I have achieved those objectives. But my fundamental argument was misinformed and therefore flawed, and may have done more harm than good.

‘Hearing It Like It Is’ was a follow up to a column published two issues earlier, titled ‘Relativity & The Whispering Chinese Engineer Of The Year’ [AudioTechnology, Volume 1, Issue 6]. Both columns were referring to a specific set of recordings: the ARIA nominations for Engineer Of The Year and Producer Of The Year. No matter how cynical you are about such awards, you cannot ignore the impact they have. Whoever wins such an award can expect an improved income for the following 12 months (if they play their cards right), and may use it as a springboard to a higher profile career. They will contribute significantly to shaping the Australian sound, and their work will be held as a local reference by many of our aspiring young engineers. For those reasons alone, I took these awards very seriously. Hence the disappointment in what I heard – was that the best we could do?

The feedback flooded in from the day the magazine hit the streets. The first wave was very positive, mostly congratulating me for bringing this topic into the open. But the second wave knocked me reeling. These were industry professionals: recording engineers, mixing engineers, mastering engineers, producers, and studio owners. They felt angry and betrayed, but to their credit, argued their points rationally and objectively. As many pointed out, my conclusion was sending a very negative message to our local record companies and artists: “don’t get your mixing and mastering done in Australia!” That was not my intention at all (quite the opposite, in fact), and it didn’t take long to see the error of my ways.

The flaw in my conclusion was the assumption that Australian artists and record companies were going overseas because our local engineers could not deliver an internationally competitive sound. After discussing this situation with numerous local engineers, I can only say that it was not a valid assumption – which makes the rest of my conclusion bogus.

I heard many tales of woe from Australian engineers explaining how they were given ridiculously small budgets to mix albums, only to find the record companies and artists weren’t happy with the finished results. As Daniel Denholm points out, “You can’t clip the wings and then expect it to fly…” [see ‘Your Word’, this issue]. As a result, the work was sent overseas to be remixed, and the record companies spent at least twice the budget they had allocated for local engineers. Of course they got better results!

So why are our local record companies and artists willing to spend more on overseas mixing and mastering? Everyone has their own explanations – some plausible, some not. Whatever the reasons may be, there is one thing I am now certain of: if our record companies and artists spent the same amounts of money on local jobs as they did on international jobs, we’d be producing recordings that would be equal to those done overseas, perhaps even better. We have the technology, we have the motivation, and we have the skills. But most importantly, we have something unique to smaller markets – resourcefulness and the willingness to make the most of a less-than-ideal situation. It’s an Australian trait, and we’re famous around the world for it.

Which leads me to another flaw in my previous conclusion: I had applied a broad generalisation to the issue, when in reality these things should be discussed on a case-by-case basis. I’d like to follow this up by talking with the appropriate decision-makers for each of the Australian recordings I was referring to in my previous column. But I doubt I’d get meaningful answers… After all, the two A&R people I spoke to as part of my research both gave me the same answer: “It sounds better, it sells better”. What I didn’t know then was that they were using an unfair reference: you can’t compare two different sets of mixes (local and overseas) when the overseas mixes have such larger budgets! And I thought these A&R people knew what they were doing…

There are more shortcomings of 'Hearing It Like It Is' worth explaining, but I'm out of space. I'd like to thank all those who contacted me to discuss this issue, and especially those who found the time to write in. I published my conclusion with the freedom of the person who owns the press, and now I feel obliged to turn that freedom over to the industry. If you have something constructive to say about Australian work going overseas, send it in and we'll publish it. But please, keep it short, concise and to the point. In closing, I'd like to draw your attention to this issue's Your Word, where we have published some readers' comments on this topic, and to Last Word, where Rick O'Neil gives me quite a beating. (Next issue, I'm going to talk about equipment…)

Okay, enough of the self-flagellation bullshit. I've always felt bad about not telling what I believed to be the truth behind that situation; this retrospective blog provides the opportunity to right that wrong.

In the numerous conversations that took place with local engineers and producers after the publication of FFW08, the following scenario came up again and again. A local engineer was given a budget of, say, $5000, to mix an album for a local artist. With SSL mixing rooms charging around $1000/day in those days, this allowed five days to mix 10 or more songs. In other words, mixing at least two songs per day. The mixes were rushed, of course. Not surprisingly, the local record company didn’t like the sound (what I rightfully described as a ‘demo on steroids’ in FFW08) and would decide to send it to the US to be mixed ‘professionally’. Miraculously, the US mixing engineer was given enough budget to mix one song per day; allowing for exchange rates at the time, that’s about three times as much as the local engineer was given. As each of the local engineers said to me, “If they gave me that much money and time in the first place I could’ve given them a world-class mix”. And I’ve no doubt of that…

So why don’t the local record companies spend the big money here in the first place? It’s not about our engineers and it’s not about our studios. It’s about networking and sales.

As I pointed out in FFW08, the record buying public in the US is (or was at the time) about 15 times larger than the Australian record buying public. There’s lots of money to be made for an Australian artist who lands a song on the US charts, certainly enough to cover the recording costs and even put some worthwhile money into the artist’s pocket (which is more than can usually be said for landing a song on the charts in Australia, by the way). But there’s little chance of US chart success if the recording is mixed and mastered here in Australia.

Consider the following hypotheticals…

Situation A: The A&R manager of the local branch of a major record label sends the finished and mastered mixes of his latest pet project to his US counterpart and says, “Hey, check this out, these guys are pretty good, kind of like Guns’N’Roses but with an Aussie accent”. The US A&R person takes a listen, thinks, “Yeah, okay. Apart from the Aussie accent, it sounds like everything else out there. Boring.” He drops it into the marketing machine without a second thought, leaving it to fend for itself.

Situation B: The A&R manager of the local branch of a major record label telephones his US counterpart and says, “Hey, I’ve got these artists coming over to do some mixing and mastering in LA. Please pick them up from the airport, show them around town and, you know, just generally take care of them.” A few cocaine lines later and the US guy has developed a relationship with the band; now they become one of
his pet projects. When the album is finished, he’s personally taking it to the marketing department saying, “Hey, check out these guys I’ve been working with. They’re like Guns’N’Rose with an Aussie accent. Look good, too. Awesome!”

You don’t have to be a genius to realise which of those situations is going to fly…

So when a local record company sends something to the US for mixing and/or mastering, they’re willing to take a bigger financial risk because the US networking gives it a greater chance of making a decent financial return. No wonder all of our more successful artists eventually go to the US to do their entire albums. The networking is as complete as possible and so, therefore, are the chances of success.

As I said at the start of this post, it's disheartening stuff, instilling a sense of futility and helplessness into the hearts of those hoping to make it big in Australia.

There’s only one conclusion to make from all of this. If you aspire to have a satisfying career as a ‘big fish’ sound engineer working in a music industry where there’s enough money to do things properly, get out of Australia as soon as possible. You’re wasting your time splashing around in this rapidly evaporating little pond.

Then again, have you heard the slickly perfected in-one-ear-and-out-the-other dross from the US lately? If you want a satisfying life, consider opening a café instead; the hours are better and people will always appreciate, and pay through the nose for, a good cup of coffee.

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