I’ve read quite a few music related books. Some books were for school (i.e. the history of a particular period in time or on orchestration) and some books were more for enjoyment. “Listen Up!” by producer/engineer Mark Howard and his brother Chris is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. The writers found a nice balance between the industry/gear talk and the social/personal aspects described in the book. And wow, there sure is a ton of stuff discussed. “Listen Up!” is like a freight train of activity — one project directly following another project following a tour and then followed by yet another project.
Besides Mark’s own production/engineering projects, he has worked extensively with producer/guitarist/singer/songwriter Daniel Lanois. Lanois’s approach to recording was often installation based — in other words he would set up a studio in a nontraditional setting such as a house. In many cases, it was one of Mark’s roles to “build” the studio. He would scout out a location, get the gear and assemble everything. He also spent a fair amount of time considering the decor of the studio. The feel/vibe of a space can absolutely affect how musicians perform, so it makes sense he thought about things like lighting, rugs and accessories.
A few things jumped out at me while I was reading the book. First was the incredible level of detail. Mark either has a fantastic memory or he kept a journal, but regardless the details help paint a very clear picture of his various interactions. And that was the second thing that caught my attention — all the interactions. It’s no secret that much of the music industry is at least partially based around personal, social interactions. If you work well with one artist then other related artists may want to work with you. The best networking and marketing is good work, which Mark obviously has, but he also has the ability to connect with artists on a personal level.
The third thing I found interesting was the importance of money. Obviously, recording with good gear, an engineer or two and a producer is going to cost at least a few bucks. While I’m aware of albums, like Chinese Democracy, Tusk and Random Access Memories that pushed their related budgets into the extreme, Mark’s recounting of Neil Young’s Le Noise was eye opening. Produced by Lanois and engineered by Mark, they spent six months making the record and when Lanois had the bill for $250,000 handed to Neil Young’s manager, there clearly was a problem. The record label had given Young a budget of $25,000 for the album. Without a doubt, there was a massive disconnect and I’m sure it was a painful lesson for both Lanois and Mark.
If you’re like me and you like to read about artists, the industry and have a look behind the curtain, then Mark and Chris’s writing will absolutely pull you in. “Listen Up!” is a good book and well worth picking up.
I like to try to keep my musical world in the financial black and as a mostly obscure indie musician, that’s never easy. Exactly like just about any other small business, I have to figure out costs versus income. The tricky part is that some spending is more a guessing game than science.
The production side of things is one area where it can get tough for me. Does a new guitar or plugin mean I’m going to make “better” music? Will listeners notice the sonic upgrade of a new audio interface? Is spending more money on gear going to hurt or help me? If a new tool speeds up my ability to make records that’s a good thing, but not if I slide into the financial red.
Just like many things in life, it’s the art of balancing. Part of finding the sweet spot is knowing who you are and how you like to work. I’m someone who likes to figure out minute details. That means, for me, overly complex systems slow me down. Massively slow me down. A plugin with a million moving parts is an absolute black hole of time suck. Same thing with too much of anything production or performance related. Combinations and permutations are not my friend.
What’s the answer? Truthfully, I really don’t know, but there are some broad, overarching things that make sense for me and for my career. I can’t go out and buy a $200,000 ’58 Les Paul. Or hire an orchestra to play my string parts. Or spend huge bucks on ads à la Bloomberg — not that I have, or ever will have, billionaire level resources. But the flip side is also true. Buying less than pro gear and ignoring marketing are not sharp things to do. So here I am right back at the start with more questions than answers and keeping my fingers crossed that I keep finding that elusive sweet spot.
I love the meeting point between music, technology and business. And I also have a soft spot for people and companies that pursue quality. So “To Feel the Music” by Neil Young and Phil Baker brilliantly checks off many of my reading interests. The book takes you on a somewhat out of control odyssey primarily detailing the creation and eventual demise of the high resolution audio player Pono. But the genesis of the device and the core of the book is what matters most.
For Neil Young, Phil Baker and the Pono team sound quality was the philosophical and business driver. It’s what informed the entire project and it’s also what ultimately drove the company out of business. The challenge for Pono was three fold. First there was educating the consumer as to what high resolution audio is and why they would want it. Second, the technical hurdle of building not only a physical player but also a distribution system in the form of a dedicated website. And third, convincing record companies that the pricing of high resolution audio should be similar or equal to the cost of compressed audio formats. None of these elements are what one would call a breeze to achieve.
I probably should add another massive mountain that Pono had to climb. Money. As the book details, product development is not cheap and at pretty much every step Pono was hunting for capital. To say it was an uphill battle would be an understatement. Just about every setback you could think of, they encountered — from personnel to engineering to finally losing their dedicated distribution website. All of these setbacks were costly and in the end lead to the demise of Pono.
Was it a worthwhile effort? On the business side, Pono burned through a whole bunch of cash and are no longer in business, which obviously isn’t a good thing. But from a purely audio quality and art perspective, I would say absolutely Pono did what they set out to do. Recordings should sound the best they possibly can and compressed audio doesn’t do that. There’s the argument that the consumer simply wants more songs and not better sounding songs, but why can’t they have both? Computing horsepower and bandwidth are not the limiting factor they were even in the recent past. If you can stream high definition video you certainly can stream high resolution audio. And that’s exactly what the Neil Young Archives are doing right now. My hope is that the large labels and streaming companies will follow in Pono and Neil Young’s footsteps and give listeners a chance “To Feel the Music”.
Gotta love it… They do everything “wrong” and still do phenomenally well…
The Grateful Dead’s Laid-Back, Yet Surprisingly Shrewd, Business Plan (NPR Music)
Economist Paul Krugman on How to Fix the Music Industry (and Why Not Much Has Changed in the Last 150 Years) – (Billboard)
Interesting short interview with Paul Krugman. His analysis of the incomes of past music “stars” is telling. From his research, past and current stars are very similar in terms of their income and that the majority of that income comes from live performance. My takeaway from the interview: Music was and is a tough business.
Same Old, Same Old: PwC’s Forecast Shows a Shrinking Music Industry through 2019 (Paste)
So many “ifs” in this PwC music industry study. But still, the gist of the study seem reasonable: Live music is where it’s at, recorded music not so much.
HOW TO REVOLUTIONISE THE MUSIC BUSINESS: RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN (Music Business Worldwide)
One of the best music business interviews I’ve read. Some impressively creative, forward thinking approaches to the music industry.
Great article with lots of intelligent insights. But, maybe it never was about creating a competitive service. Maybe it’s about building to sell and any patents Tidal controls.
Very interesting article on CNET today. Never knew about safe harbour and how it relates to YouTube. Has to be particularly tough for streaming companies that are paying out royalties when YouTube is basically getting their content for free.
‘We tell Spotify no, YouTube does it anyway’: The music industry’s love-hate relationship with YouTube
Quote from CNET:
How does YouTube get away with not paying out royalties? “There’s an inequality in the marketplace where we have a piece of the legislative framework called safe harbour”, explained Mulligan. Safe harbour rules are designed to give legal protection to companies such as, for example, Internet service providers in case their users do something dodgy using the service they provide. YouTube claims it’s covered by this law because the service is only a conduit for people to post content. As a result, said Mulligan, “YouTube has got a far bigger catalogue than any other music service will ever have under the current framework, and it does so because it doesn’t have to license it on a work-by-work basis.”
Don’t know what to think about Rihanna’s SNL performance last night. Even if you’re going to lip sync or sing along with the tracks, what is the point of starting a line and then letting the track finish it? Is that to acknowledge that the audience knows you’re singing to tracks or lip syncing? Maybe this is the latest cool thing and I’m even more out of touch than I thought I was…