How quickly they forget

When I asked former Phonogram and A and M Chief Brian Shepherd – the man who broke Dire Straits and Def Leppard among many – why some artists get to the top and stay there while others fade away he responded ‘Simple – they break up the team.’

Like any Formula 1 Champion, Premiership football club or blockbuster Movie success in music is a team effort. Teamwork is something which Americans take to like ducks to water and which the self-help books constantly espouse in their efforts to make Brits understand that without teamwork we will not compete on even terms.

Yet in the British Music Business there are still many slow to realise the importance of teamwork, and who still tend to deny the contributions of all the participants even when faced with overwhelming evidence.

Some facts:

  • UK sales in the US [the worlds biggest record market] have slumped by a staggering 90 percent in the last 17 years
  • They fell a further crushing 20 percent last year alone
  • Only 6 out of the RIAA list of 80 biggest selling CD’s of all time did NOT involve an outside producer

And yet . . . The Brit Awards have no engineering, mixing or production categories, while the Grammies continue to recognise all these contributions.

Thereby hangs the tail: despite this doom scenario British Record companies seem increasingly happy to allow artists, the minute they achieve any success, to boot out the manager, band, co-writers, producer, engineer and all in order to take over the lot in the name of ‘artistic control’.

The artist has entirely forgotten how they got there – the inspiration, musicianship, career guidance, shop minding, audio and project management of those around them. They want to write all the songs, play all the instruments, produce all the tracks and employ a salaried gofer as ‘manager’.

This was dangerous enough when albums were still made in Commercial Studios with technical backup, good well-maintained equipment and experienced engineers, but at least this scenario allowed for some quality control and inspiration. Indeed many of these house engineers went on to have glittering careers as producers and make some legendary discs as the RIAA list shows – Hugh Padgum, Bob Roc, Glyn Johns and many more.

Now Pro-tools and the decline and fall of the UK Pro audio Studio makes the situation even more dangerous. An artist with his/her own gear out back, no producer, engineer or co musicians has an infinite capacity to produce crap – and who’s going to stop them? Not an A and R officer told to indulge their every whim, and not a record company driven by short-term cash savings and run by inexperienced office workers with no idea of what making a great record involves.

By contrast the US still makes its important records in Class A facilities and seldom dreams of handing over $250,000 to an unsupervised and unencouraged artist. The producer’s role is understood as clearly as is that of the Movie director i.e. pivotal.

An artist can only ever show the world what they are; a producer’s job is to show what they could be. The people who benefit the most are the artists themselves could they but see it: does anyone demote David bowie, the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Elton John, Michael Jackson and Madonna to second division behind Floyd and Zeppelin just because the first group of dudes had producers? No, only in the minds of the artist and of a few musical snobs is this important.

I have just been watching the Grand Prix. I wonder what the reaction from public and media would be to Alonso’s announcement that next season he will be designing his own car, building his own engine and running his own Race Team from his bedroom – as well, of course, as driving the car. Or Brad Pit stating that he felt ‘artistically compromised’ by directors producers, cameramen, scriptwriters, makeup artists and other actors and from now on he would be taking over all these roles including production and direction with his new apple Mac Movie wizard package. Incredulity from the press, laughter from the public and suicide from his agent.

Of course there are and always will be exceptions; artists who have the built in objectivity to craft their own work successfully; Jimmy Page, Pink Floyd, Clint Eastwood but they are rare indeed and all these had a legendary team around them.

US Record companies and crucially artists themselves as Americans thrive on the team effort and heap praise on those around them as witnessed at the melodramas of the Grammy and Oscar acceptance speeches, and the sidemen and women get their moment in the sun.

Come on Britain, let’s get it on. Let’s compete at the highest level again. Let’s spend money on good artists working in good facilities with a good production team around them, whether they like it or not. Lets not allow a cottage industry of chancers in the bedroom with their Pro-tools and Pizzas to think they can take on the Americans. It’s a no win deal.