Production Lines - Muff Winwood
Guest producer Muff Winwood holds what are sure to be controversial opinions on artistes' responsibilities and expectations.
With the UK in the grip of recession, getting a recording deal has never been harder. Muff Winwood, head of A&R at Sony Records and honorary member of the British Record Producers Guild, offers the following advice.
This recession has had a serious effect on the UK music business because, for the first time, Britain doesn't have enough world-class acts to cushion it.
During the recessions of the 1970s and early 1980s, the music business had lots of great acts that were very successful in other countries around the world. In the 1970s, when there was deep depression and the three-day week, we had acts like The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Rod Stewart — all of whom were enormous superstars and supported the business to such an extent that we didn't even notice there was a recession. Likewise, in the 1980s when punk was happening and we had acts like The Clash, The Stranglers and Elvis Costello helping to cushion the industry from the problems the rest of the country was facing.
This recession has hurt the industry and the reason is simple — there are not enough major UK acts being successful in other countries. It might be a quirk of fate or it might just be part of a cycle. Someone pointed out to me recently that before 1960 the UK wasn't a world leader in popular music, so who's to say that we are always going to be in that position? Maybe the UK will never be a world leader again.
Well, I hope that's not the case, and I don't think it is, because we have developed such a marvellous infrastructure in terms of studios, technicians and music business brains. They know the business so well now that it is unlikely that the UK will lose its importance. However, what we do need is some new and interesting talent. The question is, where do we find it?
These days there are fewer clubs where you can see live rock bands. Maybe we need more small venues, but if people won't come and see live bands then we've all got to shrug and accept it. If you go to a club in a provincial town to see a relatively unknown band, the club will be no more than half full. If you go to the same club on a rave night, there will be a queue down the street. We can't ignore this — it's what people want.
This does make it harder for new bands, but it doesn't make it impossible. Newcomers have to look at what's happening and say to themselves 'Do I fit into this? Do I have something to offer? Do I fit the style and the lifestyle and can I add something to it?'
One result of the recession is that record companies are less inclined to help artists gig because of the cost involved. This means that if you can't find your own gigs you may find it harder to get signed. New bands must prove to record companies that what they are doing is wanted by local audiences. They have to find a way of selling themselves — either by making their own independent record and selling it through local clubs and music shops or by performing and building up a following. If people like you, it won't take long before a big record company gets to know.
I believe that right now the onus is on the band to a far greater degree, just as it used to be many years ago. The Beatles were no different to The Clash, who in turn were no different to Carter — all three bands, in different decades, started their recording careers by pulling fanatical audiences before they were signed.
These days, record companies are finding they have less and less money to spend on new signings and they look far more carefully at all acts before signing them. An act not only has to prove it is talented but also that there is an audience that wants to hear it. If they are talented they need to go a stage further and find themselves a good manager as well as selling themselves to local audiences. They need to be organised and show a higher level of commitment. I wouldn't sign an act unless it had good, sensible, intelligent management, because without that it is much easier for the band to fall by the wayside. Sending in tapes to record companies is not the best way to get discovered. I've never found an artist through an unsolicited tape in all my years in A&R. I personally don't listen to unsolicited tapes any more. I listen to about five a night, but they are sent by lawyers, managers, publishing companies and so on. My staff listen to the rest and if they come across a good one, they will follow it up, but when you listen to hundreds of tapes — as BRPG producers are doing now with the hunt for new talent — it becomes very difficult to sift the good from the bad. You end up thinking everything is awful — or worse, thinking something is brilliant just because it is a little bit better than all the rest.
Tapes are not the answer. You have to test your talent in front of an audience and then, if you have ability, someone will spot you. It could be the guy who runs the record shop or the guy who does the local radio show or a local club booker or DJ — they are the ones who usually set the wheels in motion by mentioning a talented and popular local band to a record company rep or A&R person. That's how bands get discovered these days. If you think you have something to offer, don't go to a producer or A&R man with a tape until you have played some gigs and built up a following or made a record and got your local DJ to play it. If people like it they will want to buy it and that will help create a buzz. This doesn't have to cost much — getting 500 records pressed won't cost much more than renting a van to cart your gear to a pub for a gig. The trick is to get noticed by kids in your own area before you invite a record company to come and take a look.