Eight Steps To Becoming A Sound Engineer

As a Partner at Dalton Koss HQ (DKHQ), I regularly visit educational institutions around the world to give Master Classes and lectures on careers in the audio, music and creative industries. Over the past 36 years I’ve earned my living as a live sound engineer, tour manager, studio engineer, record producer, artist manager, A&R consultant, rehearsal/recording studio owner, record label executive and more recently as an educator. Discussions with early career professionals always trigger the question, how did I get started on my 36-year career in the music industry? What was my personal journey? One of my most frequently asked questions is, “how do I become an audio engineer?” It’s an interesting question as there is no standard route into the profession. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever see a mainstream advertisement in the jobs pages of a newspaper for an audio engineer. I maintain that working in the audio production/music industry is not a job or even a career, but it’s actually a lifestyle, which requires a huge amount of personal commitment. If you are looking for high pay, hedonism and fame then a career in music and audio production definitely won’t be for you.

The music industry does an incredibly clever smoke and mirrors trick where it tries to make itself appear revolutionary and anti-establishment. In reality the music industry is probably the world’s most compliant, conservative and least revolutionary art form on the planet. If you want to be creatively cutting edge and revolutionary then try fine art, fashion or architecture as an art form. To help re-align perceptions of both employers and students, I have organised a number of speed dating with industry events in the UK, USA and Australia. At these very popular events students meet music industry managers and owners and speak to them one-to-one. Results are always positive from both sides of the table. Students start to realize that the product may be music, but ultimately, they will experience a very similar working life to everyone else. The job description may include activities that might seem like social occasions e.g. going to shows, visits to the studio, riding on a tour bus, but being involved in these activities from a work perspective is very different from hanging out with your mates.

The music industry is first and foremost a business and a very serious financially focused one at that. Whether you end up working in the independent music world or for a major international music label, you will be expected to work very long hours in a highly competitive work environment to achieve measurable successes often under difficult circumstances. You may get to wear skinny black jeans and Converse to work, but this doesn’t mean that you are working any less then your friends who have to wear a suit and tie to work in their office jobs. There will be long hours, with the potential for advancement if you perform well, the potential for dismissal if you don’t, good bosses, bad bosses, troublesome clients, all the standard workplace related experiences will apply. There will definitely be some cool perks, but trust my 36 years of experience, they will be very few and far between and they’ll definitely be hard earned. Anyone who is hard working, creative, passionate and motivated will fair extremely well in a music industry career. Here is my personal eight-step guide to become an audio engineer: –

  1. Start working with sound equipment: Audio equipment has never been so cheap and much of it these days is software based. Get your hands on as much equipment as possible and practice your skills. If you believe Malcolm Gladwell’s theory (I do) then 10,000 hours is the magic number. Start clocking up those hours now. Audition microphones, recorders, effects, plug-ins; work out what they do and how they can be used creatively and correctively. Spend all day mucking about with audio equipment, discuss audio equipment with like-minded folk when you’re not mucking about with audio equipment and then when you go to sleep dream about audio equipment – it’s a lifestyle remember?
  2. Enrol on an appropriate audio degree:There are a plethora of different degree options out there so find one that suits you. The role of audio engineer is a diverse one e.g. live audio, post-production, programming, maintenance, design installation, broadcast, mastering, music production, etc. Go and visit the different institutions, that’s what open days are for, and see what they have to offer in terms of degrees/diplomas structure, equipment, exit qualification and consider teaching staff experience. Ideally the educational institution that you choose will have lots and lots of project work (remember that 10,000 hour rule?) so you’ll get plenty of hands on time. A degree in audio production on its own will not be enough to secure you some work so in addition go to a recording studio, rehearsal room, music venue or local theatre and try to make friends with the sound crew. Tell them you’re interested in what they do, and ask if you can hang out and watch them work. Find out about the job and then work out what you want to do and start doing it.
  3. Read some books:There are lots of books (I’m currently writing my third one), magazines and web sites out there. Read as much as possible about audio engineering, music production, mastering, equipment and everything connected to audio and music production. Audio engineering is an incredibly complex industry but the information is out there but it will require you to actively research the industry. By reading you’ll understand the history and context of the industry and that will make you a much better and more employable engineer. Become familiar with different kinds of sound equipment; do lots of research on the Internet, check out the websites of sound companies, studios, record companies, producers, etc.
  4. Learn to use different audio software: You probably already have a favourite piece of software, which you love to use. As a professional you need to be confident in using all of the tools available. Find out about the other software packages available that you don’t use including: ProTools, Cubase, Reason, Cakewalk, Sibelius, Digital Performer, Live, Ableton and Logic.Most of the manufacturers of these products have free demos available on the Internet. Go on the different forums and speak to the audio gurus about issues that you are having. Watch lots of Youtube videos that show you the shortcuts and hacks.
  5. Get familiar with lots of different types of music: As a music industry professional you’ll be working with music that may not be to your taste. It’s vital you critically listen to as many different types of music as possible. No one is asking you to like this music but you do need to understand the mechanics and how it operates. Spend lots of time critically analysing different musical genres that you wouldn’t normally listen too. This is probably the most single important skill you can train yourself to do. A good educational institution will have critical listening sessions as part of their program. When learning how to record, mix and edit music you should also know about the wide variety of music available in the world. Here are some of my learning principles:
    • Listen to different types of songs.
    • Analyse different types of sounds.
    • Try to catch each and every beat.
    • Think “how did they do that?
    • Learn to create your favourite music and even the music you don’t like.
  6. Be honest with your weaknesses and commit to improving yourself:
    After you have completed a project, look back and critically reflect on what went well and what didn’t. Critically discuss with your peers, employers, and teachers about what you have created and work out how you can make it better. Commit to being better next time by adjusting your workflow or being better prepared. Where necessary, make amends with the parties at the receiving end of your mistakes (e.g. musician, performers, a missed cue on stage or in the mix).
  7. Expose yourself to the ever-changing audio technologies:
    Chances are, there’s a better way or better tools to get your job done today than there were 6 months ago. However, whatever technology you are considering to use needs to be thought through in the context of what your project actually needs. Technology should always serve what you are trying to achieve in the project, not the other way around. Think of technology as the tools of the trade but do not become technology obsessed because it should be about the music and not the tech. If you apply a piece of tech to a project ask yourself is it helping the artists express whatever it is they are trying to express? If the answer is NO then you probably don’t need that side chained, frequency sensitive plug-in gate ducking the out-of-phase room microphone in the mix.
  8. Be entrepreneurial and become the CEO of your own brand. Just like Bonds sells upmarket underwear and JB HiFi sells electronics, you sell something that is unique — YOU.  This includes your identity, personality, work ethic, goals, aspirations, fears and much more. Think of yourself as a brand, as your own public relations, sales and marketing department all in one, and you need to be the CEO of that brand. In the creative industries, self employment and working on short term contracts is the norm so know how to sell the best version of yourself and position your image that will be favourable to all. Your digital footprint (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc.) may be a huge factor in you getting that vital paying gig, so actively manage your brand.

Tim will be hosting the following music industry sessions over the next three weeks:

Tim Dalton is a Partner at Dalton Koss HQ with over 38 years of international experience as an audio engineer, record producer, record company executive, A&R consultant and educator. Originally from the UK, Tim has worked internationally with David Bowie, Sir Paul McCartney, Simple Minds, Elvis Costello, Faith No More, The Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Transvision Vamp, Primus, De La Soul, and Atomic Kitten.

Album Rescue Series: The Beastie Boys ‘License To Ill’

It’s 1986 and I am a fresh-faced skinny 23 year old. I’m working for Roadstar PA Systems of Sheffield who are located in the Socialist republic of South Yorkshire (sic) in the UK. Roadstar are the new upstart audio hire company supplying large concert PA systems to international rock ‘n roll bands like The Eurythmics, The Alarm, Runrig and a host of other bands that have long since disappeared into obscurity. I’d only worked for this company for 18 months when I’m told my next tour will be a Def Jam Record’s package ‘Raising Hell Tour’ of Europe featuring; Run DMC, Whodini, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys. Back in 1986 very few people, me included, had heard of Def Jam Records and I remember being very disappointed that my boss at Roadstar had assigned me to this tour. I was bottom of the heap on the audio crew, my job was to set up and pack down the audio equipment and I didn’t even get to touch a mixing console, never mind mix a band. On paper this wasn’t a very appealing gig, in fact it sucked big time. The ‘bands’ weren’t actual bands but one bloke playing some records, with one or two, or in the case of The Beastie Boys’, three blokes shouting over the top of these beats. The first show was two nights at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on Friday 12th and Saturday 13th September 1986. Because I’d left school at the age of 16 my education was extremely limited and I didn’t know that the name Odeon was the name used to describe ancient Greek and Roman buildings built specifically for music; singing exercises, musical shows and poetry competitions. With 39 years of hindsight, and lots of expensive education behind me, the name seems very apt. In Europe, back in the mid 80s, Hip Hop music was a relatively new phenomenon, and as with anything new, it was largely misunderstood and mistreated by the media.

BB AAA Pass
Original backstage access all areas pass from the Raising Hell European tour. This was the first time I met the Beastie Boys.

Rap music’s antecedents lie in various story-telling forms of popular music such as talking blues, spoken passages in gospel music, and the call and response of field music. Its more direct formative influences came from the 1960s, with reggae DJs toasting over strong bass beats, and stripped down styles of funk music, most notably James Brown’s use of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ raps over elemental funk beats. Initially this was part of New York’s dance scene where it had morphed out of block parties at which DJs played percussive breaks of popular songs using two turntables to extend the breaks. Black and Hispanic kids would competitively ‘rap’ over these breaks to gain kudos in their neighbourhoods. You can see the appeal of this music in Thatcher’s unfair, unjust urban locations. Zeitgeist; there’s that word again; it appears in almost every Album Rescue Series entry. Two sold out nights at London’s 3,500 capacity rock venue; the Hammersmith Odeon, was pretty impressive by four new unheard of New York ‘bands’ signed to an unknown obscure niche record label. Due to trouble outside the venue before and after these shows, Hammersmith Odeon refused to host any more rap groups for several years afterwards. This is a pattern of events would follow us around the world for the next few years.

At the production rehearsal, held early afternoon before the first show, we had a pretty big problem. Last band on the bill, The Beastie Boys, had taken an instant dislike to Roger ‘the Hippy’ who was supposed to be mixing their front of house sound. Roger came with the PA system and had a pretty impressive track record of mixing bands like Nils Lofgren and Katrina and The Waves. This palmares did not impress the Beastie Boys and it was obvious that Roger’s unfamiliarity of this new genre was problematic. Just before doors, the Beastie Boys hit the stage for their sound check. It was like a gigantic chaotic atom bomb going off. DJ Mix Master Mike was dropping some huge phat beats at a ridiculous high volume while the already sloppy drunk MCA, Ad Rock and Mike D start running around the stage screaming, “turn this shit up”. It was powerful, chaotic, and primeval, it was also kind of scary in an aggressive way and as a punk rocker I relished every single second of it. In complete opposition sound engineer Roger was not enjoying a single second of it and he tried to control this chaotic shambles by asking, “Could the lad in the red cap please give some level on the radio mic and the rest of you please shut up”?

I was stood at the side of the stage like a punk rock Aristotle watching this epic Greek tragedy unfold when Mike D (the lad in the red cap) grabs hold of me and screams “Yo homie, you know how to mix mutha-fucking sound right?” Indeed I mutha-fucking did and on the spot they tumultuously fire Roger and promote me to front of house engineer. Result! I’m only 23 and I’m now the front of house engineer for the most exciting band on the planet. A few months later, in 1987, I’m re-united with the Beastie Boys when we embark on their headline world tour to support the newly released debut album License To Ill. I guess these guys liked my attitude. I spent the next few years of my life touring the world as live sound engineer for The Beastie Boys and that made me very happy indeed. My personal mantra has always been “do what you love and love what you do”. It started that day and I’ve stuck to it.

So why this album rescue; everybody loves this album and has fond memories of it? With over 10 million albums sold, it’s an undeniable retail success. Granted it took 30 years for the album to achieve its Diamond status, but that’s a considerable number of albums to shift by anyone’s standards. Not only did the punters buy it by the truckload, but the music press loved it too as did lots of radio stations. Licenced to Ill was the first rap album to reach number one on the USA’s billboard charts and it’s the eighth best selling [1] rap album of all time. This pattern repeated all over the world although huge sales do not constitute a great album alone.

Surely all of these metrics prove that this album is not in need of an album rescue? OK, I’m pushing the boundaries here. This is not so much an album rescue, as a critical reappraisal, which is a rescue of sorts. With this album Mike D, Ad Rock, the late MCA and their record company, Def Jam, pulled off the greatest post-modern Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle of all time. Licensed To Ill remains the most creative and intelligent post modern parody ever created in any creative medium. There I’ve said it. When the Beasties Boys rap about drinking, robbing, rhyming, partying, fighting, pillaging and brass monkeys, we should really contextualise this subject matter through the lens of situational ethics. The father of situational ethics, Joseph Fletcher (1966) stated, “all laws and rules and principles and ideals and norms, are only contingent, only valid if they happen to serve love”. This album was definitely born out of love and I believe that it’s almost impossible to be critical of anything created out of love. In situation ethics, right and wrong depend upon the situation. There are no universal moral rules or rights, each case is unique and deserves a unique solution. As with other great parodies e.g. David Bowie’s (1967) The Laughing Gnome, a parody of Anthony Newley, the artist needs to fully understand and love the material that they are engaging with.

Maybe the correct way to rescue this album is to re-imagine, re-evaluate and re-contextualise it? Through this process we can construct an alternative discourse to the commonly misheld one. The buffoonery and cartoon controversy normally associated with this album can be dispelled and instead I’d like to reposition this album, as a deeply intelligent work of art, created by artists not fools. Granted the creators don’t do themselves any favours with their post-modern slapstick shtick parody. As with all post modern texts it’s all about surface, hedonism and fun devoid of any substantial meaning, which is why most people don’t fully appreciate this album. Licensed To Ill is a remarkable ironic marriage of heavy metal guitars, funk beats and edgy poetic rap lyrics. Hand crafted under the tutelage of producer and Def Jam founder Rick Rubin, this album is a substantial ground breaking piece of historical work.

Rap music was not supposed to be made by rich privileged upper class Jewish kids. Had they played by the rules then they would have become the stereotypical doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants or even presidential candidates. But their privilege and education provided the cultural capital fuel that ignites this album. Having an acute understanding and passion for different subcultures, pop culture, jokes, music, fashion and art all provided the foundational material on which this album was built. The traditional elements of rap, such as guns, ghettos, money, hoes, sex and drugs are largely eschewed or at least re-appropriated via intoxicating creative wordplay. Their parody was so impenetrable and utterly convincing that it wasn’t immediately apparent that their obnoxious, misogynistic, hedonistic patter was a consciously constructed part of their persona. Luckily for us the passing years have clarified that this album was a huge postmodern joke made all the funnier by those taken in by the joke or completely unaware of the joke.

This album is a classic example of what French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss termed “bricolage”. This album is the sound of the Beastie Boys acting as classic bricoleurs. They are taking some very specific symbolic objects such as music, language, clothing, appearance and forming a unified signifying system in which these ‘borrowed’ materials take on a new and more powerful significance. Not only is the notion of bricolage at play in their music, but it’s also at play (literally) in items such as VW car badges, clothing and even their language e.g. the use of the word “homie” as a shortened version of “home boy”. Criticism about the Beastie Boy’s lack of conviction and authenticity abounded at the time. They were unfairly compared to the punk rockers that a decade before them had taken to the streets to hurl bricks at the riot police. They consciously understood that punk rock had achieved zero and that the youth of the mid 1980s was not prepared to face the tear gas and baton charges. Instead the Beastie Boys instigated a much more effective covert semiotic guerrilla war and it was all expertly delivered under the cloaking device of extreme parody. Their work on this album and every other album they have made is intellectual, inter-textual, is constantly in dialogue with other forms of cultural expression and it can only be fully appreciated when it is located in its original context, which is in the mid 1980s.

Listening to the cajoling rhymes of this album in 2015, filled with clear parodies and absurdities, it’s difficult to imagine the offense that many people took back in the 1980s. This is one of the funniest and most infectious albums ever made and it’s all articulated via the gonzo literation of some posh bratty Jewish kids from New York who in all probability are much cleverer then we are. The parody of this album is not offensive to the traditional black rappers; instead it points its undercover barb at frat college jocks and lager louts; the people who bought the album. Their hedonistic beer soaked version of life was intoxicatingly aspirational, in an alternative way, and made to look very appealing via their gleeful delivery. The subject matter of this album is completely contradictory to the dominant mid 1980’s monetarist aspirations because it celebrates the very conditions of its enforced leisure; namely boredom, meaninglessness, dehumanisation, commodity fetishism, repetition, fragmentation and superficiality. Track seven, the huge worldwide mega hit of Fight For Your Right (To Party), is the personification of their new worldview.

The mid 1980s were a time of money, MTV, excess and spring break in warm sunny nirvanas such as Panama City and Daytona Beach. The interesting thing about Fight For Your Right To Party is that it was originally intended to be a parody of popular party rock songs of the time like Twisted Sister’s I Wanna Rock, although that intent was seemingly lost on the audience. It’s as if The Beastie Boys where insider dealers (something that was also popular in the mid 1980’s) and were poking fun at their own kind. Just sampling and scratching Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to hip-hop beats does not make for an automatically good record, though there is definitely a visceral thrill to hearing those muscular riffs put into super serious overdrive. Their artistry wasn’t just confined to the writing and recording of the album but also in their exceptional understanding of the media as a conduit or delivery system for their powerful message.

I vaguely remember visiting Scotland on the License to Ill world tour.
I vaguely remember visiting Scotland on the License to Ill world tour.

This debut album, and its subsequent tour, provoked moral panic and media outrage resulting in tabloid headlines across the world. The Beastie Boys instantaneously became the latest folk devils, the band that the media loved to hate. Popular myth would be fuelled by stories of the band’s controversial behaviour. The media and popular tabloid press amplified and greatly exaggerated events on this tour out of all proportion, which greatly increased album sales. In part this was due to the exuberant stage show that was purposefully designed to mimic the album. As a member of that tour, I saw none of this behaviour, what I saw was lots and lots of identical looking hotel rooms, airport lounges, venues and the inside of tour buses. I remember helping a very home sick MCA backstage in Germany make a collect call to his mum and dad back in New York. Album Rescue Series is no place for these antidotes but you will be able to read them in my forthcoming book Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before. The Beastie Boys and their producer Rick Rubin had read Stephen Davis’ version of Led Zeppelin’s hotel destroying tour exploits, Hammer of the Gods (1985), and it had made a big impression on them all. Not only is the album’s lyrical content heavily influence by this book and lifestyle, but the album cover’s artwork is also highly inter-textual.

Just like a centre page fold out cartoon from a Mad comic, the fun is in the detail.
Just like a centre page fold out cartoon from a Mad comic, the fun is in the detail.

The smouldering aeroplane crashed into the side of a mountain cover illustration is a deceptively complex piece of work both artistically and semiotically. The image is darkly humorous, but not out of step with the times or the sonic content of the album. Artist David Gambale (aka World B. Omes) created a pre-Photoshop collage of various airplane parts then illustrated over it using water-soluble crayons. I’m not an artist but I’m guessing the process must have taken significant hours and the dramatic results are worth it. The plane on the album cover is an inter-textual reference to the legendary Starship, a Boeing 720 airliner owned by Bobby Shering and converted into a kitsch rock-star flying tour bus. Led Zeppelin were the Starship’s most famous occupants and even wrote the song Stairway To Heaven about their on board experience. The Starship would transport any rock band that could afford the exorbitant hire fee e.g. The Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Allman Brothers. Stripped of it’s reference, an aeroplane is not glamorous, its merely an ecologically unsound, inefficient and very expensive form of transport. Ever since “the day the music died” (McLean D. 1972) back in 1959, when a chartered flight claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper, plane crashes have ended the careers of some of music’s biggest names. Patsy Cline’s plane went down in 1963, silencing one of the greatest voices to ever crossover from country music to popular music. We lost the great Otis Redding to an airplane accident in 1967, and just a few years later, singer-songwriter Jim Croce’s career was terminated just as it was starting to take off. Perhaps none of the above was as startling as Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s horrific 1977 plane crash, which killed three members of the band, the assistant road manager, co-pilot and pilot. Airplanes are symbols of both extravagant rock star excess and sombre tragedy. What better way to announce a new young band to the world than to crash their jet into the side of a mountain before their career had even taken off? Just like a centre page fold out cartoon from the Mad comic, the fun is in the details. The plane’s tail number “3MTA3” spells “Eat Me” backwards. The Beastie Boys logo on the vertical stabilizer was intentionally designed to evoke the Harley-Davidson logo. Many people have commented about the connotations of how the smouldering plane resembles a stubbed out spliff. Via this album, the Beastie Boys are displaying an advanced understanding of semiotics that Roland or Ferdinand would be immensely proud of here.

Sitting in the cockpit of the Lisa Marie at Graceland.
Sitting in the cockpit of the Lisa Marie at Graceland.

I am quite prepared to stick my neck out here and argue that the Beastie Boys have never made a bad record: Paul’s Boutique (1989), Check Your Head (1992), Ill Communication (1994), Hello Nasty (1998), To The 5 Boroughs (2004), The Mix-up (2007) and Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (2011) are all masterpieces in their own right. Even their other parody record, The In Sound From Way Back (1998), which precisely parodies Perrey and Kingsley’s 1966 album of the same name, is another masterpiece. If we ignore the 10 million copies sold of License To Ill and listen to it minus the filter of parody then we are getting very close to rescuing this album. It isn’t only the music or the rhymes that translate beyond the parody crime scene. License To Ill clearly shows the Beastie Boys didn’t give a fuck at exactly the time when the world desperately needed to be shown how not to give a fuck. Flying in the face of rampant yuppie materialistic capitalism they demonstrated that you could be ground-breaking, cutting edge, important, creative and relevant all at the same time yet still have no goals beyond getting drunk and partying hard.

Licensed To Ill marks the turning point in cultural history when the slacker generation (the three members of band are born 1964, 65 & 66) start making music for the millennial generation. This album proved that you could live life as one giant inside joke, speaking in tongues and making hilarious obscure references to Chef Boyardee or Olde English 800 and no one outside your circle of jerks would be any the wiser. Oh how we laughed. License To Ill accurately predicted the future to the Millennials upon its release in 1986. The mantra bestowed on them was “follow your dreams” and because they were constantly being told they were special, this cohort tends to be over confident. While largely a positive trait, the Millennial’s confidence has been known to spill over into the realms of entitlement and narcissism. They are the first generation since the Second World War that is expected to be less economically successful than their parents. The Millennial’s optimism is founded in unrealistic expectations, which often leads to disillusionment. Most Millennials went through post-secondary education only to find themselves employed in low paid dead end jobs in unrelated fields to the ones they studied or underemployed and job-hopping more frequently than any previous generation. License To Ill soothsaid this bleak scenario but then also gave us a not too cryptic optimistic answer, which was “Fight for your right to party”. I rest my case.

[1] http://www.musictimes.com accessed 11th August 2015

The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. This week’s Album Rescue is by Tim Dalton. (Follow Tim on Twitter: @touringtim)

THE ART OF A&R

One of my most regular and popular Master Classes that I deliver to early career music industry professionals is ‘The Art of A&R’. A&R spelt out is Artist and Repertoire. The A&R department of a record company is responsible for:

A. working with the talent who are already under contract, and:

B. finding new talent; that is seeking out new material and acts to sign in an attempt to develop a roster of artists for the company.

The A&R department’s staff are frequently involved in all aspects of an artists’ relationship with the record company, including the initial negotiations and the signing of the recording contract, the rehearsal arrangements and production, and promotion divisions of the record company. The training of new creative, entrepreneurial forward thinking and business savvy A&R managers is, I would argue, central to the very survival of the music industry.

In a time of crisis and collapsing sales of recorded music in the music industry, creative and entrepreneurial A&R workers are more important than ever. Only by continuing to create new products and value can record companies compete in this rapidly changing market. The reorientation of A&R instruments and strategies are critical to meeting the consumer’s needs in the present climate. The relationship between the product/artist and the fan has to become closer through the use of new marketing and production instruments and strategies. New tools like. for example, fan community contests, new gatekeeping functions, new financial opportunities and new technologies afford record labels the chance to rally against falling turnovers. Even if record companies concentrate on buying and selling copyrights and catalogues in the future, A&R departments will be important as a gatekeeper to maintain the company’s A&R guiding principles and policies. In other words, A&R managers and departments are there to ensure the quality of artists and content associated with the record company.

To be able to survive this crisis new challenges have to be conquered, new requirements fulfilled and new opportunities seized. As a result of collapsing sales in the music industry, recording labels have less capital at their disposal. Production and artist development budgets have been dramatically reduced. When I worked in A&R we had at our disposal lavish budgets. That said nothing stifles creativity more than wealth. As such, it has become harder for labels to invest in new artists and to develop their careers. However, the business of finding and recruiting new artists still operates as it has done for decades. There is no shortage of hard working, talented artists who want to become stars but it seems to have become harder for labels to earn money with the music they are producing, and as a result they have less budget for their development.

To withstand the drop in sales, new income streams have to be found to ensure the development of, and investment in, the careers of new artists. As long as record companies are developing, releasing and selling new artists, a turnover is guaranteed. A&R management not only involves the process of scouting for and finding new talent, but also acts as a gatekeeping tool allowing record labels to meet the company’s A&R guiding principles and policies, even if finished products are being signed to the label. Even if labels decide to concentrate more on buying, selling and monetizing copyrights rather than developing and producing new artists and/or products in the future, A&R management will remain one of the most important instruments. To be able to conquer the current crisis and to compete economically, record labels have to recalibrate the instruments of their A&R policy.

I recently gave my ‘The Art of A&R’ Master Class in Sydney, Australia at the Australian Institute of Music (AIM) to a bunch of highly creative and motivated undergraduate students. During this session I realized that I was lacking some ‘takeaways’, so in order to re-address this gap, here are some possibilities and ideas:

  1. Closer artist/fan relationship. Major labels in particular still have a very impersonal system of information distribution for fans and end-consumers. It has become more and more important to show ‘the person behind the star’. by revealing to fans and consumers the real lives of their idols and stars with all their strengths, weaknesses and mistakes, The product can gain an emotional value This personalisation evokes compassion (a Dalton Koss HQ key word). The fan feels bound to the star, both emotionally and personally. By being transparent about the recording process through daily or weekly updates, pictures and videos of the work in the studio on the artist’s website, blog, You Tube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts it is possible to show the fan how a record is made. Fans learn to appreciate the intrinsic value of music by seeing the intensive work required before a final product can be bought in the store. Its time to fully exploit social media and turn it into a powerful marketing tool.
  2. Product development process. Fans could be actively engaged in the production and development process of artists via demo listening, remix contests and artwork contests. Demo listening
 would allow various versions of song demos that had been uploaded to the artist’s Bandcamp or SoundCloud accounts and fans could vote which songs should be produced as part of the next album. Modern young audiences are familiar with this format because of the numerous TV talent shows that exist. Remix contests are already a very popular means of creating a more personal relationship between artist and fan. Fans could download the audio stems of a song for free, or even for a fee, allowing them to create their own version of their favorite artist’s new song. By selling these audio stems another source of income could be generated. Their creators could upload these finished remixes and the fan community could vote for their favorites. Within the scope of a digital or physical release the most popular remixes could be sold guaranteeing a further income stream. For the re-release of the 1976 David Bowie single ‘Golden Years’ an iPhone app was created which allowed fans to create their own remix. The app was made available the same day that the EP ‘Golden Days’ was released, with remixes by well-known producers. For artwork contests
, the fan community could be asked to upload pictures or graphics they associate with the artist or with the artist’s song. After a vote by the fan community, the most popular ones are then included in the booklet artwork or even as the cover.
  3. Improvement of product policy. With the introduction of the compact disc (CD) from 1986 onwards, sonic quality reached a new high with the added bonus that CDs had more ‘space’ than a 12” vinyl record. To boost the income of successful singles, subsequent albums were often filled with inferior songs, of live or rehearsal versions, just to fill the empty space. Some of this material was of rather dubious quality and I’ve heard a number of my own live mixing board recordings end up as a ‘bonus track’ on records. It is important that the quality of the whole product is high and sadly this just hasn’t being the case. My main problem with digital dissemination is the poor sonic quality of MP3 and MP4 files; they sound awful. All the other creative media have moved into High Definition (HD) or Ultra High Definition (UHD) e.g. TV, Cinema, photography, yet music’s sonic quality has gone down the quantity over quality route. If music production moved into HD or UHD mode then the process of developing the product may take a little longer and be more costly but the product would be greatly improved and have more customer appeal. Who knows there may be an end consumer who is willing to pay a premium for an album of near perfect production and of a super high sonic quality?
  4. A&R competence of imprints. To cover a lot of different music genres, major labels are forced to depend on the A&R competence of their imprints. Through imprints, which specialise in non-mainstream and niche music markets, major labels get the opportunity to uncover underground trends earlier and to develop them. As such, imprints are talent pools, experimental research and development laboratories for their parent companies. Not only do they develop the performing talent they also develop A&R management talent too. For this reason niche imprints need fostering and developing.
  5. New strategies of market cultivation. According to record company marketing guru, Marcel Engh, A&R policy has to be the basic element of modern music marketing because it provides and produces the value of the value chain in the recording industry, the content is the strategic factor of success. As the developer of true value, A&R policy has to remain the foundation of record labels. A company’s turnover has to grow not only through artist copyright but also through comprehensive use of the 360-degree contract. Very controversial but worth considering?
  6. The use of new technologies as instruments of A&R policy. With the rapid growth of the Internet, it has become easy for unknown artists and musicians to share their music over the World Wide Web. With Web 2.0 artists can present themselves with their biography, pictures, videos and their music. The challenge of using the Internet as an A&R instrument to find new talent is the access to vast numbers of new and unknown artists. Fan communities can act as gatekeepers to show A&R departments which artists are likely to appeal to potential customers. Relevant indications include the number of plays of uploaded songs, the number of profile views and the comments written on an artist’s wall, all very useful metrics. The popularity and media presence of casting shows helps record labels increase their income. But developing long-term careers with the winners doesn’t appear to work all the time. It is hard for the artists to compete against the following season’s participants and often the winners of one year disappear from the screen when the next show begins.
  7. Public Subsidy. During the global financial and economic crisis of 2008 and 2009, automobile companies had recourse to financial support in several countries in order to be able to survive and avoid bankruptcy. Keeping these unprofitable automobile companies afloat translated into decreased job loss and maintaining industry activity until post-financial crisis. It’s very controversial but maybe something similar could also occur in the music industry? In a postindustrial service based economy, the creative industries, in which the music industry resides, employs significant numbers of people. Increasingly, governments are recognising that public subsidy may be part of the business model for the the creative industries.

Through the reorientation of instruments and strategies of A&R policy, record companies can overcome the recent sales collapse. However, the industry needs fresh ideas and creativity when it comes to selling new products and artists. The days of sitting back and waiting for the big money to roll in are long gone. It has become difficult for record companies and artists to promote and sell their music. Only with good ideas, extraordinary marketing tools and instruments can companies maintain the consumer’s interest in buying music. Major labels, in particular, need to return to developing long-term artist careers instead of relying on one-hit wonders and TV talent shows, even if these do provide some short-term increases in turnover. Successful long-term careers are the key here; the re-imagination of past business models, such, as the three or five album deal is probably the solution. Sign talent with a view of developing and growing it along with its audience over a significant period of time. In order to do that we need new, creative, entrepreneurial and media savvy A&R managers and workers.

ALBUM RESCUE SERIES: THE CLASH ‘GIVE ‘EM ENOUGH ROPE’

Some albums are born classics while others need a more revisionist approach. The Clash’s second album ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ is definitely in the latter category. If any album was in need of a critical rescue 37 years after its release then it’s this one. Back when this album was released I was 15, just about to turn 16, and I’d played their eponymous 1977 debut album, The Clash, to death. Every single track on the first album, according to my young ears, was amazing. At the time I’d worked hard to earn the money to buy this album by having two paper rounds, one early morning and another one in the evening. In compete contrast to today; music back then was an expensive commodity. I worked hard, saved my money and rushed out to my local record store to buy this record. When I got it home and first played this record I was pretty disappointed. Where was the anger, where was the aggression and where was the confrontation? In fact, where was the punk rock? This record sounded like some mid Atlantic over-produced pro-rock band?

Retrospectively there seems to be some social and economic parallels between the UK today and the late seventies. It was a time of economic depression, the working class were still down trodden by the conscienceless political rulers and moneyed elite, racial tensions simmered and a generation of disenfranchised young people with no future prospects were ready to lash out a wave of destruction in the form of riots in protest at the injustices of the world they find themselves in. We’re not quite there with the youth riots yet, Brixton and Toxteth style, but they are definitely on the horizon if things don’t change.

It was during this period that The Clash released their second eagerly awaited album ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ on 10th November 1978. When all the other major British punk bands died in 1978 and were replaced by tepid New Wave acts, CBS (the Clash’s label) tried to push the band into the US market whether they liked it or not. In preparation for the recording of this album the band undertook a ‘secret’ mini tour of the UK Midlands. Bernie Rhodes, the band’s manager, and the record company had settled on Sandy Pearlman, a heavy metal producer with a commercial track record with bands like Blue Öyster Cult, to produce their second album. He was described as the “Hunter S. Thompson of rock, a gonzo producer of searing intellect and vast vision” in the Billboard Producer Directory.

Between 24th and 26th January 1978 The Clash played in Birmingham (Barbarellas), Luton (Queensway Hall) and Coventry (Lanchester Polytechnic). According to Paul Simonon (2008) “The record company had this idea that they wanted a big name American producer for the second album”. The record company felt that the band’s first album was just too raw and not radio friendly enough for American audience’s refined taste. Pearlman attended all three shows to audition the proposed material for the album. At the last show at Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry (26/1/78) Perlman tried to get backstage just before the show to meet the band. Mick Jones’s old school friend, Robin Crocker (AKA Robin Banks), was taking care of backstage security and he didn’t know who Pearlman was. Crocker wasn’t a man you messed with. Some heavy duty manners were employed to keep Pearlman from going backstage resulting in the longhaired American record producer lying prostrate on the floor blood pouring from his nose as the band stepped over him to take to the stage. As normal The Clash don’t play by the rules, what a great introduction to your new record producer. Pearlman must have been keen because this incident did not dampen his enthusiasm to make their second record.

As 1978 wore on an exasperated record company desperately wanted a follow up album to capitalize on the quick and cheap first album. CBS did not release the first album in the USA; it was only available via import, as they thought the quality was not high enough for American audiences. To compound matters, the once wholly supportive music press where also starting to view The Clash with suspicion amid claims that they were lazy and not pulling their weight. Strummer and Jones de-camped to Jamaica for two weeks to write new material prior to recording. The whole band reconvened and undertook an initial multi-track recording at Wessex Sound Studios, and Basing Street Studios in London.

Wessex Sound Studios would become The Clash’s studio of choice for future recordings while Basing Street would see Mick Jones return there with Big Audio Dynamite. The Clash, Sandy Pearlman and engineer Corky Stasiak spent many weeks recording the tracks for Rope. This was in complete contrast to the first album, which was recorded and mixed in CBS’s own basic Whitfield Street Studios, London. The first album had urgency to it; it was recorded and mixed over a three-week period working Thursday to Sunday each week. The band, and in particular drummer Nicky ‘Topper’ Headon and bass player Paul Simonon, complained about the nick picking way that Perlman recorded. Both complained bitterly about the lack of spontaneity during these recording sessions. Once recording was complete Mick Jones and Joe Strummer claimed to have been virtually kidnapped and taken to San Francisco for overdubs and mixing. Jones and Strummer probably went to San Francisco without Headon and Simonon quite willingly but their claims aid the myth and legend of The Clash. What is known is that Headon and Simonon where very pissed off about not being involved in the USA overdub and mixing sessions.

CBS Records, The Clash’s record company, initially owned The Automatt studios in San Francisco but by 1978 it was sub leased to ex-CBS employee David Rubinson. The studio complex was known for its top-notch equipment and for the radio friendly hit records it produced. Between September and October 1978, singer Joe Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones worked with Pearlman at The Automatt to record overdubs for the album. Flying in from the UK, Jones and Strummer stayed at the Holiday Inn in Chinatown, and almost every night they went to see punk bands play at the Mabuhay Gardens, known locally in the punk scene as ‘The Mab’. Between takes at The Automatt, Strummer and Jones listened for the first time to the Bobby Fuller Four version of I Fought the Law on one of Rubinson’s studio lobby jukeboxes. When they returned to England this song was re-made into a Clash classic which would make its first appearance in March 1979 on their short, five date, London Calling Tour. Then in May 1976 it would become the stand out track on The Cost Of Living.

The results of the Rope are not nearly as good as they could have been and there are perceived to be three major flaws. First of all, Pearlman hated Strummer’s voice and buried it disastrously low in the mix. Secondly, he packed the sound with distortion, booming drums, and overdubbing, making all the songs sound similar and muddying the impact of The Clash’s considerable guitar fury. Thirdly, the lyrics Strummer wrote came under attack because they were considered histrionic, esoteric and soaked in melodrama: they look unkindly on British punk. What the public didn’t understand was that Strummer’s lyrics were self critical of the band, his own career and the world at large.

Mixing the drums so loud on this record is probably a testament to the abilities of Topper Headon. This is one of the few albums in the DKHQ Album Rescue Series where I largely blame the production on the album needing a rescue. In this instance I would opinion that Pearlman was a bad choice as producer for this record. It could have been much worse though. At the time there was no digital audio workstations (DAW) or software, which allows for the manipulation of audio. If this DAW software and technology had been around at the time of recording, and had Pearlman used it as un-compassionately as he did of analogue recording technology available at the time, then this album would probably be un-savable.

The Clash were not in a pleasant situation during 1978. They were being accused by the music press of selling out, of being phonies and being pushed by their record company for a more commercial, clean, mainstream, sound which they apparently loathed. The music falls apart under the war between producer and band; commerciality and creativity never sit well together. In abstract form the songs written by Joe Strummer are fantastic, and would have been truly world-class had a more sympathetic production been employed. Safe European Home is a great mixed paean to Kingston Jamaica, Tommy Gun is a chilling take on terrorism, Drug Stabbing Time has an undeniable rock groove. Stay Free is a world-class romantic history of the band, written in true Mott The Hoople style by Mick Jones about his childhood mate Robin ‘Banks’ Crocker (he of the Pearlman punching incident pre recording of Rope). I would agree that these songs aren’t punk songs; correct they aren’t. This is Strummer developing as a lyricist, in the same way that Jones was developing as a superb studio arranger. This is the sound of The Clash leaving punk behind and moving into much more interesting territory. Rope is a transitional album. These facts should be celebrated because without Rope we would not have the undeniable classic London Calling or the equally impressive Sandinista. Rope is The Clash and in particular the creative talent of Strummer/Jones developing and serving notice on what’s to come.

The album cover features a painting in stark flat colors of a Chinese horseman looking down at an American cowboy’s body being picked at by vultures. The album art was designed by Gene Greif and is based on a 1953 postcard titled End of the Trail. The original postcard was photographed by Adrian Atwater, and featured the dead cowboy Wallace Irving Robertson. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones had come across a painting titled End of the Trail for Capitalism by Berkeley artist Hugh Brown that was on display at San Francisco’s punk rock hangout the Mabuhay Gardens. Strummer and Jones would have seen this picture many times during their three-week stay in San Francisco while attending gigs at ‘The Mab’. It obviously made a lasting impression as the album cover and picture have a striking resemblance.

The original postcard titled End of the Trail (1953) by Adrian Atwater depicts the dead cowboy Wallace Irving Robertson.
The original postcard titled End of the Trail (1953) by Adrian Atwater depicts the dead cowboy Wallace Irving Robertson.

Maybe 37 years is enough time for us to re-evaluate this largely ignored album and accept it into the cannon of The Clash’s work? In many ways this album is like a set of rough sketches of ideas and concepts, which would be employed on further work. On the first album, The Clash stuck to their guns and insisted on Mickey Foote mixing it despite opposition from the record company. On Rope they caved in to CBS and their decision led them to having Sandy Pearlman as producer. In actual fact this gave them a good position to bargain from, insisting that Guy Stevens produce London Calling. The other noticeable fact is that the last gang in town were split into two factions, Strummer/Jones and Simonon/Headon, during the writing, recording and mixing of Rope. Strummer/Jones are probably the beating creative heart of the band but they needed the Simonon/Headon lungs to function. I’d love to hear a Mick Jones re-mixed and re-mastered version of this album from the original multi track tapes (if they still exist). Maybe we should think of this album not for what it is but for what it could have been? Despite the inappropriate and unsympathetic production, this is a great album and is well worthy of rescuing.

Rope1

Why Study For A Music Degree?

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” (Confucius)

Over the last couple of months I’ve spoken at a number of careers fairs around Australia, where I’m described as a “music industry veteran”. This is actually quite an accurate description because over the last 36 years I’ve had a number of different international roles in the music industry ranging from stage hand, live sound engineer, studio engineer, record producer, tour manager, artist manager, entrepreneur,  music company owner and operator, A&R consultant and record company executive. As well as all this hands-on international industry experience I’ve spent a lot of time as an academic studying and teaching about the music industry. So I must be some kind of expert?

At these careers fairs I’ve really enjoyed talking to potential degree students and their parents. It’s an interesting conversation because there are two completely different narratives being discussed simultaneously. Firstly, there’s the conversation with the potential teenage student and secondly there’s the conversation with the accompanying parent(s). In most cases it’s the teenager that’s desperate to work in the music industry and it’s the parent putting on the brakes. The big problem here is that many parents would prefer their offspring to have a “real job”. A degree in any music industry subject e.g. audio production, performance, music business, etc. is probably going to be the second most expensive item bought during anyone’s life time, second only to property. At around +$40,000 (Aus) it’s a tough decision on how best to invest this money so early on in a career.

The music industry is a viable career option for many people, but only for those that are educated and trained to work in the industry. The modern music industry is a complex and multi-faceted operation with a need for a wide variety of skill-sets. For example, the Australian venue based live music industry entertains over 41 million patrons, contributes $1.21 billion to the national economy and employs almost 15,000 full time jobs (Music Victoria and City of Melbourne, Live Music Censure, 2012). On top of the live music venue-based industry there are other very vibrant sectors within the cultural industries such as audio production, events management, theatre, arts management, broadcasting management, content management and intellectual property management. As with any modern industry the correct education and training is vital if you want a career within these sectors. Various educational institutions provide high-quality, professional arts and entertainment education combined with training in an integrated, socially inclusive environment that allows for a diversity of voices and collaboration between individuals. Students should be encouraged to pursue excellence and innovation through creativity, critical reflection, individual endeavour, exploration and experimentation, unconstrained by style or genre and informed by scholarship and best practice. Any worthwhile educational institution should value its artistic and academic integrity, as well as its engagement with the entertainment industry to ensure currency of its programs. My advice would be to undertake some research and visit the institutions that appeal on open days. All their programs differ; as do their campuses and their staff.

Tim Dalton backstage and on stage with students at 5 Seconds of Summer.
Tim Dalton backstage and on stage with students and industry practioners learning about tour logistics, audio and lighting for 5 Seconds of Summer.

There are two educational routes that can be taken here. The traditional ‘sandstone’ universities and TAFEs where initially uptake was fairly slow but now a significant number of three-year degrees are on offer. The other route is via the plethora of private institutions. The private institutions tend to condense a degree into two years and are slightly more expensive than the traditional institutions. I’ve worked in both types of institutions and there are pros and cons to both. Whatever institution is chosen the teaching staff involved in the delivery of music industry degrees should ideally be a combination of industry practitioners, professional qualified educators and to a certain extent academics.

While traditional manufacturing industries in Australia and throughout the western world are in rapid decline, the music industry is a viable career choice. The job description may include activities that might seem like social occasions e.g. going to shows, visits to the studio, riding on a tour bus, but being involved in these activities from a work perspective is very different from hanging out with your mates. The music industry is first and foremost a business and a very serious financially focused one at that. Whether you end up working in the independent music world or for a major international music label, you will be expected to work long hours in a highly competitive work environment to achieve measurable successes often under difficult circumstances. You may get to wear skinny black jeans and Converse to work, but this doesn’t mean that you are working any less then your friends who have to wear a suit and tie to their office.

Music industry degrees, as we know them today, have only being available for the past 20 years. Prior to this, particularly in the UK, education in the music industry came indirectly from various art school degrees. This non-direct form of music industry education worked very well if we look at the evidence; The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Roxy Music, Pink Floyd, Cream, The Clash, etc. Simon Frith in his 1988 book Art Into Pop tells the intriguing and culturally complex story of the art school influence on post-war British popular music. Art Into Pop tells the story of how artists went from life drawing classes to the recording studio and to the top of the charts all over the world. It’s a story of how rock and blues infected youth music with Bohemian dreams. The late 1970’s was a unique time when punk musicians emerged from graphic design, fine art courses and fashion departments to disrupt what were, by then, art-rock routines. I know because I was there. The other way into the music industry was by accident e.g. brother of drummer becomes drum tech etc. In the very early stage of the developing music industry this route was viable, but definitely not any more.

Tim Dalton teaching music students how to create fantastic mixes.
Tim Dalton teaching music students how to create fantastic mixes.

Much of my work is what I call ‘stakeholder engagement’, ‘knowledge brokering’ and ‘thought architecture’. This involves engaging in active dialogue with music industry employers and connecting them to the higher education institutions where I work. The industry tells me what type of people they want and I tell industry what types of people we are outputting. Ideally we meet in the middle somewhere. This can be difficult as it takes 2 to 3 years for institutions to educate a student. On top of this we need to be mindful that the students we are currently producing will be in the job pool until 2065 and onwards. With this type of time frame it’s virtually impossible to guess what skills will be needed in the music industry 30 or 40 years from now. What is known is that students that have developed skills such as: Learning to Learn (L2L), independent research and critical analysis, oral and written communication, time management and are creatively entrepreneurial will always be in demand. These are pretty much the skills that the music industry has always wanted and are the skills of those traditionally exiting from the art into pop route.

A number of employers are sceptical of degrees in this field and I’m often confronted by CEO’s telling me that they don’t have a degree and that they don’t see the need for them. This happened to me at one of Europe’s largest audio hire companies. The managing director told me that he thought the best route into the industry was through mentoring and working your way up through the ranks “just like we did”. I did point out to him that 90% of his employees had degrees and that while I had worked my way through the ranks I also had a good first degree and a number of postgraduate degrees. I made my point by walking around his very large warehouse with him pointing out the ex-students that I had taught. A degree is a starting point to an accelerated career in any given field.

The above-mentioned audio company starts all of their new employees on the bottom rung of the ladder, but their assent is much more rapid than those without degrees. I once popped into this same company after a Glastonbury festival to find all the ‘newbies’ in the car park with buckets of hot soapy water and sponges cleaning the mud off 100 metre long multi-cores. One ex-student made it clear to me his disdain for this type of job stating “I didn’t spend three years at university to end up doing this”. A few years later I met the same ex-student mixing front of house sound for an international mega star band playing at the local enormo-dome gig in Melbourne. I reminded him of how his BA Honours Audio Technology and his practical experience had landed him this top job. He rather bashfully agreed.

Music students jamming in a creative and supported music environment.
Music students jamming in a creative and supported music environment.

One issue confronting high school students contemplating undertaking a degree in the music industry is their perception of the music industry. Often this is solely grounded in media representations of the music industry and as such is an inaccurate one. The music industry does a clever smoke and mirrors trick where it tries to make itself appear all revolutionary and anti-establishment. In reality the music industry is probably the worlds most compliant, conservative and least revolutionary art form on the planet. If you want to be cutting edge and revolutionary then try fine art, fashion or architecture as an art form.

To help re-align perceptions of both employers and students, Dalton Koss HQ has organised a number speed dating events with industry in the UK and Australia. At these very popular events students get to meet music industry managers and owners and speak to them one-on-one. Results are always positive from both sides of the table. Students start to realize that the product may be music, but ultimately, they will experience a very similar working life to everyone else. They’ll have long hours, with the potential for advancement if they perform well, the potential for dismissal if you don’t, good bosses, bad bosses, troublesome clients, all the standard workplace related experiences. There will definitely be some cool perks, but trust my 36 years of experience when I state that they’ll definitely be earned. Anyone who is hard working, creative, passionate and motivated will fair very well in a music industry career.

Working in the music industry is not a job, it’s probably not a career, rather it’s a lifestyle and as such you can’t measure it with the standard metrics. Many of the young adults I meet at career fairs aren’t sure what they want to do. Indeed I’d be very skeptical of any 15 year old that has a clear life and career plan. If you are planning to spend/invest a heap of money on a degree then my advice would be “Do what you love and love what you do”. It doesn’t really matter if that degree doesn’t become your final career. Use the time to indulge your passion; it’s probably the only time in your life when you can do this. How many English literature students become famous poets? Not many but any degree is always going to open doors in the future. Over the course of your professional life that investment/spend will be repaid many times over.

Album Rescue Series: Mary Margaret O’Hara ‘Miss America’

The long format essay seems to have died; something I partly blame on Twitter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m on Twitter (@touringtim) and I love the expediency of only having 140 characters to say the important stuff. This reductionism can be even more extreme. A friend and colleague of mine writes four word movie reviews, e.g. Whiplash “drummer learns two songs” or Apocalypse Now “Chopper, hopper acid dropper”. This got me thinking about how best to describe Miss America released by Mary Margaret O’Hara in 1988? Four words is far too easy an option, so I thought lets make this really difficult and describe this album and artist combined into ONE word, and that word is . . . UNIQUE. This is a classic, perfectly formed, beautiful gem of an album that passed almost everyone by, hence its well worthy of an album rescue.

O’Hara is one of the most unique performers on the planet and what she does to music via the conduit of her voice is akin to the tricks a contortionist performs in the circus ring. Her timing is unconventional, her timbre idiosyncratic, her voice is expressive as it soars, falls and goes everywhere in between on this album. There are very few singers to whom she can be compared, so I won’t try. This album is one of those records that has to be heard to be believed though I doubt it will ever be fully understood, its often bewildering, at other times bewitching but totally intriguing. Miss America remains stunning nearly 27 years on from its initial release in 1988. There’s nothing else quite like it, so perhaps it’s appropriate, frustrating and mysterious that O’Hara never recorded another album. I’m discounting the soundtrack for the 2002 Canadian movie Apartment Hunting, which was released without her approval. Miss America is a rare and precious because it makes you long to hear more, I’ve being playing this record since its release and still haven’t tired of it. Trying to describe this record is almost impossible, words just aren’t complex enough to fully capture or describe O’Hara ephemeral voice. This is an album that you can only start to understand through repeatedly listening to it.

O’Hara was born in Toronto in the early 1960’s, the precise date is unknown, and graduated from Ontario Art College after studying painting, sculpture and graphic design. The art college route into popular music was a very common one and is superbly articulated in Simon Frith’s 1988 book Art Into Pop. With a surname derived from Irish ancestry she was one of seven children and raised a Roman Catholic. Van Morrison, Dinah Washington and the jazz records that her father would play in the family home, shaped O’Hara’s musical taste during her formative years. She also painted, and acted, like her sister Catherine, who would go on to star in Home Alone. After playing in bands at clubs across Ontario, the acting and painting were dropped and music became her primary creative outlet. Visionary executive head of Virgin Records’ A&R department Simon Draper was blown away by her demos, and O’Hara was quickly signed in 1983.

It took almost five years to make Miss America partly because of O’Hara’s perfectionism and partly due to her unconventional recording habits. Primary multi-track recording was undertaken in 1984 at the rural Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, South Wales. As a residential studio this facility has played host to almost every super-star band from the 70s, 80s and 90’s. Queen recorded Bohemian Rhapsody there. Rolling fields full of sheep obviously have a positive effect on the creative art of record production. Sonically this studio sounds superb even by today’s standards. At the time Rockfield was stocked with the very best recording equipment available. Andy Partridge of XTC, who was also signed to Virgin Records, had raved about the demos and he took up position in the producer’s chair on the recommendation of legendary producer Joe Boyd. Straightaway, there were problems. There are stories of Partridge stopping his production duties after a day when O’Hara’s manager fired him. The myth is she found out that he was an atheist and that Partridge’s co-producer on the project John Leckie (who later produced albums by XTC and The Stone Roses) was a follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a controversial Indian guru who reportedly supported free love. I guess this was too much for a Canadian with a strict Roman Catholic upbringing or its just another smoke screen? Tapes from this 1984 session were recorded by in-house engineer Paul Cobbold, but were left unfinished.

The Rockfield tapes lingered or languished in Virgin Record’s “to difficult pile” until Canadian guitarist, composer and producer Michael Brook broke the stalemate in the summer of 1988. After Brook saw O’Hara perform at Toronto’s Music Gallery, he made direct contact with Virgin and offered to help her finish the album. Virgin jumped at this opportunity. With Brook’s assistance, O’Hara and her band re-recorded four songs in the summer of 1988 and remixed seven of the original cuts from the Rockfield sessions to finish the album. Brook was once a member of the new-wave band Martha and the Muffins, remember that fabulous single Echo Beach? He obviously knows a good tune when he hears one. Three of the 1988 recordings were produced by O’Hara and Brook; the rest were “constructed and conducted” and produced by O’Hara. According to an article in Canadian Composer she mourns the lost of the original tapes, but she is still proud of the songs that eventually emerged on Miss America. O’Hara talks about the song To Cry About, later covered by Hull band Everything But the Girl, which tells us much about the emotional weight wrapped up in that album. “Virgin said I wrote that about my boyfriend who died. I didn’t. I wrote that song in August 1980, in the bath, when we were still together.” When the song was played to her boyfriend, full of lyrics about loss and timed disasters, he said it was about him, but O’Hara didn’t agree. A year later in 1981, the boyfriend drowned. “And then the lyrics were obviously about him, as if I’d seen it happening”.

Legendary 1960s wall of sound record producer, and now prison inmate, Phil Spector once said that a record only needed three vital elements to be perfect: –

  1. It must be ridiculously repetitive
  2. Have a primeval beat
  3. Be about sex

According to Spector’s metric this record is a fail on all three accounts. This probably says more about Spector’s chutzpah than it does about the music that we are considering here. Luckily there’s another set of much more appropriate metrics as proposed by ex-record producer and now academic Richard James Burgess, in his 1997 book, The Art of Record Production. According to Burgess there are eight elements that are needed in equal proportions to create the perfect pop record. The recipe is thus: –

  1. The song
  2. The vocal
  3. The arrangement
  4. The performance
  5. The engineering
  6. The Mix
  7. Timelessness
  8. The Heart

It’s quite possible that Dr Burgess is onto something here. It has to start with the song, a narrative, the story, an exposition that has a beginning, middle and end. You know when a song is strong because it can be sung with minimal or no instrumentation and still amaze the listener. Try this simple experiment with virtually any song written by Lennon/McCartney or Bob Dylan; it works. French philosopher Roland Barthes, as always, has much to say about the vocal or more accurately “the grain of the voice” in his 1977 book Image, Music Text. Every singer perfects his or her own chant, his or her own speed, rhythm, cadence, volume and grain of voice. “The Grain“, says Roland Barthes, “is that materiality of the body” the voice is the most misunderstood instrument on the planet. Very few singers posses the grain and the majority posses no grain at all. Mary Margaret O’Hara is the personification of the grain of the voice.

Arrangements on this record, which are credited to O’Hara, are intentionally sparse, comprising guitar, drums, bass with the occasional keyboards and violin. This is on purpose to give as much space as possible for O’Hara’s swooping, diving, twisting vocals. Everything is rigidly ‘on grid’. The current mode of production via a digital audio workstation (DAW), allows for the manipulation of the music and to place it precisely on grid. This variant of hyperreality was 20 years a head of its time, it simply just did not exist in 1988. This level of absolute millimeter precision came from spot on playing, hence its sparseness. If the playing were any more complex then it would be impossible, without DAW technology, to get it so perfectly on grid. If you listen to the album loud (I do) and on good speakers (I have) you can hear the click track bleeding through. The click track provides the rigid architectural skeleton on which this music is built upon. I’d go as far as to stay that Miss America was probably the last great structuralist record before the onset of post modernism.

The performances by O’Hara and band are sublime and it’s virtually impossible to fault. One reason why this record is worthy of reconsideration is because it captures these virtually faultless performances forever. The metric I use to judge audio engineering excellence is if it’s transparent then its good. According to this metric the engineering on this album is beyond good because it’s totally invisible. The mix adheres to the holy trinity, as instilled into all mix engineers, of PLACE, SPACE and BASS. Without an expansive explanation the mix on this album is as good as it gets hitting all three markers. Is this record timeless? Well I’m writing about it almost 30 years after it was released. Does this record have heart? Indeed it has a giant beating heart full of passion and emotion.

This record starts straightforwardly enough with To Cry About. O’Hara’s distinctive voice appears over super sparse ringing electric guitar and five-string bass. She sings passionately of love lost “There will be a timed disaster. There’s no you in my hereafter“. This song sets the scene for the whole album; it’s practically an advertisement for her voice. When the drums kick in on track two’s Year in Song it takes us to totally different unexpected territory. The drum sound on this track is pure 1980’s with super loud punchy kick drum, massive gated reverb snare, tom-toms that sound like cannons exploding and zingy cymbals. O’Hara begins the song with recognizable, but somewhat cryptic, lyrics and around halfway through she starts to free-associate, or to play with the lyrics in a way that a poststructuralist poet would envy. I am not sure what she is getting at or is trying to work out in this song; it’s an enigma. Indeed she sings “What iss [sic] the aim eh?… joy?” Possibly the aim is finding and going with the groove, letting the sense of the song take care of itself or of just getting lost in the music. By the time she’s barking about “ta-ta music” in lines too way difficult to decode without the printed lyrics, O’Hara seems to have created her own set of self-expressive language.

O’Hara’s songs twist logic, language, time and space to fit her own unique version of the world. It’s virtually impossible to know how much calculation went into these songs and performances; we just don’t know how much of the supposed spontaneity is planned or is organic. In Body’s in Trouble, track three, the body is both an object and a person and its also producing the sounds we are listening too. I’m sure Roland Barthes would love this track. O’Hara is not explicit about the dilemma; she just pushes and pulls and plays around with the idea of forces at work. Meanwhile, the music rises, dips, bends, and breaks. Far more grounded is track four, Dear Darling, a country styled ballad that addresses the classic themes of devotion and longing. In conveying “A thing of such beauty” that “Must be called love,” O’Hara proves that she’s the vocal and emotional equal of country legend Patsy Cline. By track five, she’s morphed into a French chanteuse fronting an English Ska band on the bouncy, piano driven A New Day, which advises “When your heart is sick with
 wonder
 at a long and lonely way
 walk in brightness
 ’cause it’s a new day”. Sounding like the previous song’s somber cousin, track five, When You Know Why You’re Happy is a slow vamp over which O’Hara meditates on knowingness and happiness. Next up is My Friends Have, which is propulsive, while Help Me Lift You Up is its gentle flip side. Keeping You in Mind transports us into slinky lounge-jazz, with a highly articulate and emotional violin solo. Then unexpectedly and from an entirely different universe comes the off-kilter but funky workout of Not Be Alright. This is the only track on the whole album that makes use of a synthesizer, a Yamaha DX7, which was known for the precision and flexibility of its bright, digital sounds. The lyrics of this track are insightful e.g. 4th verse “My tail, this tail, this tail is tall. This tale is tall. Innocent to a fault.” O’Hara makes it perfectly, inarguably clear that some unnamed situation will not “Just will not be alright”. Sometimes things do go wrong and everything does turn to shit and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. In the last track, a solitary bass accompanies her, while she offers us (or possibly herself?) the assurance that “You will be loved again” a truly beautiful sentiment on which to close the album. Miss America is not an easy listen by any means but like most difficult journeys in life the destination is worth it.

I once worked in the same London building as O’Hara’s European booking agent, Boswell, who introduced me to her music and I’m forever indebted. My first encounter with O’Hara was one evening as I was finishing work when Boswell burst into my office and skinned up a huge joint and threw a CD of Miss America onto my desk. While we smoked the joint together he gave me his agent’s spiel as though I was another gullible promoter and he persuaded me to accompany him to O’Hara’s first London show. I’m not completely sure what happened during the 20 minutes it took us to get from our offices in Islington to the Town and Country Club venue in Kentish Town but something meta-physical definitely happened. We walked into the auditorium just as the second track off the album The Year In Song kicked in. At the precise second that I first set eyes and ears on O’Hara the tetrahydrocannabinol flooded my body and overpowered my senses. The sheer power and pure emotion that this alabaster skinned, curly red haired siren with bright red lipstick was emitting was un-opposable. This dangerous beautiful creature had used her enchanting voice and music to lure Boswell and I onto the rocks. Like two shipwrecked sailors we were helpless and couldn’t fight her immense siren like powers. It was a full frontal 100% attack on all of our senses; it was an out-of-body catharsis experience. On this occasion Boswell had not sold this artist short, it was totally incredible and it’s a memory that I shall forever cherish.

Virgin Records dropped O’Hara after the release of Miss America, partly due to poor sales and partly because they considered her material not commercial enough. Miss America is an incredible piece of work from an artist that shone incredibly brightly but only for a few minutes. Maybe she was just too creative? She wrote, performed, arranged, produced, mixed and even painted the album’s artwork. She sounds like a female harbinger of Jeff Buckley; you can fully understand why she enthralled Morrissey and Michael Stipe. This is a record that everyone who truly loves music should own; it has great melodies, twisted vocals, outstanding performance, and virtuoso musicianship and in CD format its sonically a near perfect audio artifact. Mary Margaret O’Hara once described herself as “an ancient baby whose cranium never quite fused together”.

Chapeau!

Mary Margaret O'Hara's own artwork adorns the front and back covers of her album Miss America.
Mary Margaret O’Hara’s own artwork adorns the front and back covers of her album Miss America.

Managing The Talent

I am not certain if the above title is misleading as it’s often disputed that you can’t actually manage talent. For approximately 30 years I have been involved in the management of talent, also defined as artist management, in one form or another. I have often been asked, “What do you actually do”? Good question. Ideally the management of talent should be career development planning. This can range from: sourcing new talent, developing material and pitching to record companies, publishers and booking agents. It can be likened to a good coach working with either a sporting team or an athlete. However, in the music business, this career development can often turn into fire fighting and damage limitation. Ex CBS head, Walter Yetnikoff, described the role of artist manager in his 2005 book Howling At The Moon as “A manager is a cross between a Rabbi, Priest, guru, banker, financial adviser, friend, psychotherapist, marriage guidance counsellor, sex counsellor and business partner”. In essence, there is no solid job description with a list of selection criteria for the role of artist manager. It is the number of skills that the manager has at their disposal and can be deployed at various stages of an artist’s career that hopefully, gets the right results and the job done. The hours are long; the work is hard, its underpaid and nobody ever says thank you.

Burning Tree outside the front door of my old company 'Tim Dalton Productions' in Hull, UK.
Burning Tree outside the front door of my old company ‘Tim Dalton Productions’ in Hull, UK.

The music industry is a volatile, dynamic and a rapidly changing area of business, that’s why we work in it right? As such the music business is not exempted from the repercussions of unplanned, uncalculated and unstructured activities. Therefore, as it is with every modern business, each manager needs to know her/his role and what is required to play that role. The role of the talent manager is now more than pitching to labels or simply supervising other elements that contribute to the artists’ success. What it is about is creating visibility and value (building equity and mind share) and developing revenue streams. Artist managers are now evolving into creative business development managers. Not quite the men in beige offices sat behind their spreadsheets, Venn diagrams and BCG quadrant charts but definitely getting there. This is a far cry from the trailblazers like Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin), Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones), Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols) Brian Epstein (The Beatles) or my personal role model Bernie Rhodes of The Clash.

In 1991, I solo managed my first band, Opik, a group of art students back in my hometown of Hull, UK. I met them the first week of starting a documentary film making degree in the university’s refectory when I shot my mouth off to them about my previous 14 years worth of exploits in the music industry. Within weeks we had inked a deal with major record company BMG’s imprint DeConstruction Records and became Kylie Minogue’s label mates. We bought two very cheap rundown Victorian houses and installed a recording studio across the attics with our advance. We lived, worked and breathed music and had our very own alternative bohemian lifestyle for the next few years; it was a total breeze, it didn’t feel like a job. There was a sense of community and collaboration, well we did live together. Due to our creative output and hard work we became one of the few bands on the label’s roster to actually recoup our advance and make a profit. We also made some serious kick ass music too.

On tour with Primus in Europe. We stopped at the top of the San Bernardino Pass enroute to Italy for a snowball fight.
On tour with Primus in Europe. We stopped at the top of the San Bernardino Pass enroute to Italy for a snowball fight.

At the opposite end of the spectrum I managed Finley Quaye, which consisted of some very hard work, lots of upset, sleepless nights, pain, suffering and where every single penny was well and truly earned. The metaphor I often employed at the time when speaking to record company colleagues was that it was like dragging a three legged elephant up Mount Everest in a blizzard with a broken piece of string, with no pants on while juggling.

I have this unproven theory that the greater the talent the more difficult it becomes to manage. Finley proves this theory. A man of immeasurable creative talent, good looks, a songwriter, performer, actor, painter, the list goes on, he was the complete artist. I once had a very serious ‘career development’ meeting with Finley about his disruptive behavior and his ability to completely destroy any pre-made plans. The result was lots of tears (him not me), lots of hugging and promises of behavior modification from that point forward. The next day at Air Studios in London he turned up on time and sober ready for the recording session (a first) and asked if he could leave his backpack under the mixing console for safekeeping. Thirty minutes later everyone in the studio was laughing uncontrollably, feeling very heady and slightly sick. It didn’t take to long to work out why. Finley’s backpack contained a canister of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) which he’d opened and effectively gassed the studio. Session cancelled, at great cost, lots of technicians and musicians with laughing gas hangovers and a very irate angry record company. This behavior was too much for me to handle, time to move to a safer and easier gig. This lack of respect for his own career development has led to Finley being homeless for the past 8 years and in dire health, if you believe the Internet.

Sadly these types of stories are all too common in the modern music industry. Artists start to believe their own publicity, indulging in unprofessional behavior and then blame someone else when the shit hits the fan. Ian Hunter’s 2014 book The Great Ones Are Always The Cracked Ones elucidates the nightmare of managing former Kooks front man and songwriter Max Rafferty. Hunter’s story is a sad one of lies, betrayal and ultimate failure. But this is a two way street, in the past it was always the shylock managers that were the villains; those archetypal managers with the huge cigars and Rolls Royce’s out shilling the rubes. This is an old American term for planting an accomplice in the crowd to drum up enthusiasm for a dodgy product. The etymology of the terms comes from ‘shilling’ meaning conning and ‘rube’ was a name for a country bumpkin and was heavily used by circus folk known as ‘carnies’. A classic example of how not to manage a band would be Bill Collins and Badfinger. Despite being signed to The Beatles’ Apple label and selling millions of records, the band never saw any of the money. Partly as a result of miss-management, Peter Ham and Tom Evans both committed suicide. Artists and creatives in general are vulnerable human beings and require a high level of compassion (a DKHQ key word). In the music business, version 2.0, compassion and duty of care are both important concepts.

Outside Tokyo airport with De La Soul.
Outside Tokyo airport with De La Soul.

Ironically the music business is improving in direct contradiction to the decrease in music sales. The Association of Artist Managers (AAM) has recently published its Code of Conduct for Managing Artists. It’s all common sense stuff, which good managers should be adhering too rigidly. I like to think that at DKHQ we always run ahead of the pack, being at the cutting edge of current thinking. To this end I would like to see all students studying music/entertainment management get free membership to AAM as part of their education. The Code of Conduct is influencing and positively driving improvement in music business. To ensure that this code is understood and adopted in succession planning by the music industry, it has entered the curriculum at various higher education institutions teaching music and entertainment industry management. As a music industry veteran, I regularly speak to early career music industry managers via master classes and guest lectures. I think engagement at this level is very important as it fosters good practice and establishes some of the basic ground rules.

A career in the music industry, and in particular artist and talent management, is never going to be a mainstream career choice. It’s unlikely that you will ever see a national newspaper advert for an artist manager but it’s a great rewarding profession and the jobs are definitely out there for clever creative managers. In the often repeated words of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager “I’m Elvis’ manager because he says I am and, because I say I am”.