music industry [a warning]

As some of you many know I make music. I have been involved in the music industry for a long time now, over a decade, and while I spend much of my music related time in a professional listening capacity (producing records for my friends) I also play guitar and make music of my own.

Probably because of my regular interaction with the music industry I have never really taken my own music making very seriously. I love doing it and can not imagine ever stopping, but the thought of doing it myself professionally has always struck me as silly at best. I do it because it is one of the things I do. Some of the groups and projects I have been involved with have made it onto myspace. A few of these pages are actually created by me. Mostly so that my friends and I can share what we do.

These projects vary in terms of the types of music, from dense electronics to sludge metal to introspective folk. I like a wide range of music genres and it shows in the kinds of things I make.

So some time ago, around 2 months or more now, I was myspace messaged by a renown rock music producer who has mixed many of my favorite records of the 80s and 90s. He approached me through a myspace page that does not have my name on it about working with me. This is his first communication:

“wow. these songs you posted here are just amazing!

thanks for the friend request. thanks VERY much!

if you ever want me to mix or master something for you, just ask. my rates are stupidly low sometimes.”

After that we had a bit of an exchange where I said that I didn?t really see a point in pursuing this project in any real capacity. But I have to say I was delighted and taken aback that someone whose work I really admired had contacted me with such nice words. [my exact response to him was that he was my all time favorite engineer]

After the exchanges that followed I got the feeling that though he was being nice he was mostly fishing for work, which is fine, but I am not really into making this type of music for a living. [the project in question is a folk kind of thing]

But this producer also has a label (the second one in his career as he sold the first off years ago) So excited as I was I wrote him that if he was interested in releasing the music on his label then while I was in Chicago I could track an albums worth of tunes for him to mix and master.

He did not reply to this email for over a month. At the point where I was almost ready to return from Chicago to London I got a message from him. This is it:

“sure I can put it out DIGITALLY (download-only) but I am not really focusing on my label, and I am planning NO CD releases.”

Well, I thought, what the hell. If someone like this thinks the music is good then maybe I should do something about it. Very last minute I called my friend Todd and spent a day tracking tunes in his studio. So having these tunes I contacted the guy and asked where I should send them.

Now I know from experience that no one agrees to put out a record unheard. Most labels express interest, then once they get the material they make a decision. This is normal. But what I did not expect (alright to tell the truth I did have a glimpse that this was coming but shrugged it off as creative insecurity) was what would come next.

After I tracked the material I myspaced him and suggested we take the conversation out into the real world of email. He eventually emailed me but had seemed to have forgotten our exchange. We recapped a bit and to my astonishment this is what he eventually wrote to me:

“i would love to do this work for you, but this is not something i do
for free, and i get the impression that you are seeking a label who
will support the project financially. i cannot do that. so if you are
looking to hire someone to mix and master your release, i’d be really
into chatting about that. but if you are seeking a label, i cannot
help you. i do release stuff i’ve been hired to work on, when i really
dig the results and the working relationship has been mutually
satisfying. obviously i cannot even discuss such a deal until the work
is done, as it would be absurd for me to agree to release something i
have not heard. i would never talk about releasing something i haven’t
even heard. hope you understand. so if you seek a label, you must seek
elsewhere. i’m not signing artists right now, and will not likely be
doing so, unless i can secure funding for my label. and if you were
thinking i would mix without asking for payment, i’m sorry if i misled
you. it was not my intention. i am always available to artists whose
music i like, but i never work for free. everything on my label is
OWNED by the artist themselves, and i was paid for any work i did on
the recordings.”

But wait, didnt his previous email say he was interested in releasing it?

Alright, confusion happens. But there is something in this last email that frightens me a bit. Its an idea I have been thinking about all morning.

“…but i never work for free. everything on my label is
OWNED by the artist themselves, and i was paid for any work i did on
the recordings.”

What he is saying is that the artists are paying him to release their records. To him he is probably seeing it as being paid as the mixing mastering guy, but as the label owner all of these costs usually get covered by the label, not the artist (though some labels take those costs out of the initial sales).

Have we reached the point in the history of music that an artist has to pay a label to put out their music? Is it true that the entire roster of his label paid him out of pocket to finish their records and release them on his label?

I know a lot of labels owners. Not all of them are good people but in my time in the music industry I have meet some exceptionally nice folks. People like Dan O and Dan K at Dragcity, Bob Koester at Delmark Records, Bettina Richards at Thrilljockey, Eric Weddle at Family Vineyard, Eddie Prevost at Matchless. These are all the most respectable and stand up people you can meet. Honest and upfront with you from the go.

And to be clear I am not saying this record producer is not honest or upfront. I am just very very frighten that we have reached a point were artists, particularly young inexperienced artists, are paying people to make money from their work. What the hell is going on?

One of the reasons I agreed to a digital download only release is that I think the cd is a thing of the past. The format wars are over. (by the way, vinyl won as it will be the only thing being manufactured in under 15 years – you cant beat analog). Computers have changed everything.

To any musician out there who is looking for a label – do not pay someone to put out your music. That is not how it works. If a label expresses interest in your work, and they are a label worth being on, they will be able to make money selling your work. Don?t pay them to exploit you. You, the composer, the musician, the performer are a commodity. Maybe in the future labels will change to meet the changes in the industry. Lets hope that they do not change into this.

[I have chosen to not post this producers name as I do very much respect his work. This is not an attack on him but a warning for young artists about the process of the music industry]

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