Sunday, February 28, 2010

FFW17: Engineer, promote thyself!

“One of the best things about the democratisation of technology is that anyone can afford to record. One of the worst things about the democratisation of technology is that anyone can afford to record.” – Me, circa 2000.

For this First Word I tackled the democratisation of technology and how it had affected the recording industry at that point in time (about seven years ago, I guess). As Stewart Brand, founding board member of The Long Now Foundation once said, “Technology moves through society like a steamroller; if you’re not part of the machine, you’re part of the road”. Hitching a ride on the democratised technology steamroller has led us to a place where musicians no longer need musicianship. Affordable recording software makes it so easy to overcome limitations in tuning, timing and expression that the contemporary recording musician needs nothing more than a good idea and the time to realise it. But when we see those same democratised-technology-dependent musicians attempting a live performance, we wonder if it might have been better to be part of the road.

Fortunately, the skills required to be a good sound engineer have not yet been packaged into something that every musician can afford, and hopefully they never will be. It was with that thought in mind that I wrote this First Word…

Engineer, promote thyself!
One of the wonderful things about personal computers is the way they democratise technology, bringing the previously unattainable within reach of the masses. Consider recording technology. Years ago, releasing an album meant going into a professional studio with an experienced recording engineer. Studios were expensive to hire and therefore only available to artists signed to record companies. The average person could not afford to hire such a facility, let alone buy one.

But these days all you need is a powerful personal computer, a multitrack recording package, a horde of plug-ins and some clever modelling algorithms. Such a set-up will give you the power and flexibility of a professional studio, sitting on your desktop, for only a few thousand dollars. Furthermore, with presets and wizard technologies, you don’t even need an experienced engineer – you can choose a preset that’s specifically designed to do the job (it says ‘Snare EQ’, doesn’t it?), or let wizard technology choose the perfect parameters for you. You can now afford to churn out the same crap-sounding recordings that thousands of other losers around the world are churning out. Welcome to democratised technology, it’s a wonderful thing.

What is wrong with this picture? No matter how advanced our technology gets, it can never model or emulate the talent and skill of an experienced engineer. You can buy all the tools in the world, but if you don’t know how to use them you’re wasting your money. Billy Joel summed it up nicely when he sang, “Don’t waste your money on a new set of speakers, you’ll get more mileage from a cheap pair of sneakers”. But I digress…

About three years ago a particularly talented recording engineer/studio owner phoned to tell me his tale of woe. The majority of his clients were up-and-coming bands, and he was usually their first recording engineer. He would teach them how to get the most out of the studio environment, and hold their hands through the process of their first couple of recordings. But in many cases, the bands would eventually decide they were ready to make ‘real’ records, and book themselves into major studios with major engineers. After investing much of his time and effort into these young bands, someone else would always reap the rewards. Perhaps you can relate to his dilemma.

“What can I do to keep their recording projects in my studio?” he asked. I put on my best lateral-thinking Edward de Bono voice and said, “If you can’t keep their projects in your studio, try to keep your studio in their projects”. “Huh?” he replied, sounding totally confused. I explained that he shouldn’t be trying to keep the bands in his studio; rather, he should be suggesting the move to a major studio before the bands think of it themselves.

“But how is that going to help me?” he asked, somewhat cynically. I actually didn’t have an answer for him at the time, but figured there was an opportunity in there somewhere. Being in a mystical Zen Master mood, I told him to sleep on it and call me tomorrow. Which he did. “I get it,” he said excitedly. “You meant that I should take them into a major studio and do the engineering myself. That way the band sees me as the hero and the guy who is pushing their career forward, not holding it back!” “Precisely…” I replied, a wave of smug relief sweeping over me.

Following this, we discussed how he could capitalise on the situation even further by using a combination of his studio and a major studio. If the budget is low, do the bulk of the project in his studio, but mix the most promising songs and/or singles in a major studio for that ‘big budget’ sound. If the budget allows it, he could consider tracking drums and bass in a major studio, overdubbing everything else at his studio, and sharing the mixing between the two studios.

There are all sorts of combinations to fit a given budget, but the main points are a) allocating a larger portion of the budget to the songs that are most likely to attract attention, and b) remaining with the band and playing an active role in furthering their career, rather than letting someone else take all the credit and rewards.

It’s a good strategy for self-promotion. If you’re a studio owner/operator and you’re not prepared to think outside of your own little box, then that’s probably where you’re going to stay. There are large studios out there that will happily accept bookings from other studio owners. So make some appointments, get out and see some of these facilities, familiarise yourself with their equipment, and start furthering your career.

There’s another conversation I’ve had with studio owner/operators a few times lately. It follows the theme that the business is dropping off, the advertising isn’t working, and things are looking bad. In each case, the main problem here is a failure to see how the market has changed due to the democratisation of recording technology.

Studio advertisements containing lists of tracks, channels, effects and so on don’t impress anybody any more. What is valuable and impressive is your skill as an engineer. If you’re an experienced engineer and/or studio owner, forget about promoting your equipment. Concentrate on promoting your skills instead. Focus on your track record, and what you can offer to your clients that they can’t do for themselves. Your skill and experience as a recording engineer can never be put in a box or software package, and it’s the one thing that many project studio owners are realising they don’t have. It happens about three minutes after they realise that they’re churning out the same crap-sounding recordings that thousands of other losers around the world are churning out.

There’s an opportunity in there somewhere. Sleep on it and call me tomorrow, okay?

Over the last decade or so, the democratisation of technology has made it increasingly difficult for large studios. Many have closed down, taking the industries that service and maintain them down too. But the studio industry isn’t the only victim of the democratisation of technology; in fact, it’s a rather pissy and insignificant industry in global terms, hardly worth thinking about. Although I have the largest recording studio in the known world, I’m worried about something far more important than the studio industry…

The world is currently going through massive cultural change, mostly brought about by affordable technology and the media access it provides. Although much of this change is good, we’re moving forwards at such a great speed that by the time we realise something has been left behind it’s too late to do anything about it - it's become part of the road, and there's no reverse gear. The dashboard of the democratised technology steamroller needs a sign that says, “Warning: events in rear vision mirror are older than they appear.”

With that in mind, I’d like to draw your attention to The Long Now Foundation, holders of the 10,000 Year Clock, among other things. Established in 1996 to “creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years”, it’s a think-tank of intelligent and creative people working together to make sure that we don’t leave too much behind in our race forwards. Rather than write about the foundation here, I’ll encourage you to check out their website. Begin by reading Stewart Brand’s essay, then poke around the site. You might even consider signing up

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