A pro studio that's offering its facilities to new bands for free? Mike Myers tells Nicholas Rowland what's wrong with the record biz and how he's trying to put it right.
You know you're the hottest act since Frankie but the record companies won't listen and you can't afford any more studio time; are you sentenced to obscurity? Not if The Production Workshop have their way.
IMAGINE THIS: YOU'RE casting your eyes over the classifieds in a national music paper and you see an advert for a London studio. There's an eight-track tape machine and 24-channel desk on offer along with innumerable synths, samplers and expanders. Some expensive microphone model numbers are also listed as well a choice of sequencing - nothing out of the ordinary, just the sort of "industry standard" equipment you'd expect to see on the shelves of any local studio along with the 20-quid-an-hour price tag. You come to the last line and suddenly your curiosity is aroused. Why? Because the all-in price is a rather unusual figure. Zero. This studio is absolutely free.
Now, human nature (and the variable standard of proof-reading among classified sales persons) being what it is, you'd probably pass it off as either a joke or a misprint. And even if you took it at face value, you'd assume there was a catch somewhere along the line. "Probably involves mortgaging your soul to the devil", you'd mutter as you carried on down the page, musing that if indeed these were the terms, your soul is the least creditworthy thing about you.
Which explains why I now sit opposite Mike Myers, a man who really is giving his studio away for nothing, but doesn't want to pay 18p a word to advertise the fact in case people take him for a deranged loony with delusions of philanthropic grandeur. I soon discover that he's neither lunatic nor devil, but a self-confessed "songwriter-cum-producer" who has had more years experience in the Pop Bizz than he's entirely happy to mention. Indeed, getting Myers to talk about his own past as a prelude to the present proves fairly difficult. I sense a reluctance to drop names which were once on the tip of every tongue, but now are perhaps not quite the hippest of the hip. Billy Ocean, Nick Heywood, the Nolans and Buck's Fizz all crop up in conversation as acts for which Myers has written and co-produced. On the office wall, a series of gold and silver discs confirms that when he says he's been involved in 29 major hits, he means it. 'I'm in the Mood for Dancing' was one of them. Corny stuff, but it still shifted over seven million units.
Since 1978, Myers' writing and production activities have gone under the name of Tasty Music, which he co-directs along with the more recently established Tasty Music Publishing (affiliated to MCA). The studio, calling itself The Production Workshop for reasons which you'll learn later, is the newest project, set up around six months ago. It's primarily a workhouse for Tasty Music's own projects, though it's available for commercial hire as well. Two rooms contain an Atari ST running Hybrid Arts SMPTE-track, an Emax, three TX81Z modules, two DX7s, two Juno 106s, a JX8P plus a whole lot more. The distinguishing factor between the rooms is the choice of tape recorders; whereas one has a Fostex B16 in the corner, the other has an A80. So far, they've been used by the likes of Robin Millar, Hugh Jones and Black, as well as a number of lower-key producers and aspiring bands and solo artists. Judging by the fact that they keep on coming back, they seem to like it here.
"It's because, compared to the major studios, it's cheap", says Myers cheerfully. "Even people like Robin Millar enjoy working in an environment where they're not having to watch the clock, knowing that if they spend time working on something it's automatically going to cost a lot of money. Time really is of the essence in this business. I should know because in the early days when you had a group of musicians rather than a load of synths, if you ran out of time you had to pay them double."
The Production Workshop, like so many studios which are springing up at the moment, is a product of the last few years' advances in music technology. MIDI sequencing and the relative accessibility of digital recording through low-cost units such as the Sony PCMF1 means that the facilities on offer at these "production suites" can now rival those costing ten times as much. Of course, what you don't get is the fashionable address, the wood-panelled live room converted from a former priest-hole and designer coffee machine, but The Production Workshop does boast a special deal with the gym upstairs.
"Nowadays all you really need are good sequencers, a couple of good mics and a big desk to handle all the mixing live. For our own stuff, we often just stripe one track of the B16, use another couple for vocals, and run the rest live to the F1 and cut from there. Obviously there are situations for which studios of this type are no good, like when you've got to get a whole load of guys in playing together, but even then you can get round it by doing a series of takes and overdubbing one person at a time. Technology means that there's no real difference between doing something here and going to Battery Studios. You might get a few more toys to play with, but if that's all you want, we can hire them in."
THE BURNING QUESTION is, why let people use for free what others are more than happy to pay for? The explanation is to be found partly in Myers' past experience and partly in his vision of the record industry's future. On one hand, as the head of a production company and publishing concern, he has a commitment to new musical talent, particularly to taking the raw material of an up-and-coming act and turning it into the sort of product a major record company is likely to put pen to contract paper for. But on the other, his recent dealings with the record companies lead him to believe that, because they've become increasingly inaccessible to the struggling band, such new talent as exists is in serious danger of being completely ignored.
"I don't believe the record industry would know the next big thing if it came up and bit them on the leg.
"I think everyone would agree that music is no longer exciting. Everyone is desperate for the next Elvis, or the Beatles or the Police, no-one more so than the A&R guys at the record companies. I've got A&R guys, people I've grown up with in the industry, phoning me up, desperate for good new signings. Some of them have almost got money to throw away, although there's certainly not the money there used to be a few years ago. But I've also got these young bands who come into the studio and say 'Can you help us to get in touch with the record companies. We can't get past reception.'
"I've seen both sides of the story and I can understand why there's a breakdown in communication. For example, a few years ago I phoned a record company to make an appointment, but because I didn't know anyone in A&R the girl on the switchboard said, 'If you want us to listen to a tape, you'll have to send it in'. I explained that I didn't send tapes and she said, 'Well we don't give appointments'. I said, 'It looks like we're destined never to meet'. Then I explained who I was, what I'd done. A moment later there was a voice on the other end of the line saying, 'Hiya, Mike, how you doing? When do you want to come in?' I'd never spoken to this guy in my life.
"The receptionist was just doing her job, because there are a lot of time wasters. And you can see what the A&R man is up against when you're sitting in his office and you watch someone dump a whole sackful of demos on his desk, as they do every single day of the week. If you ask them how they can possibly listen to them all, the answer is they don't. They pick out the ones that look interesting, maybe because of the cover or the photos, and listen to those for an hour. That's all they can do because any longer and their ears go and so does their judgement."
But while Myers can sympathise with the predicament of the A&R man, it's precisely on the point of judgement that he takes issue.
"First of all, you've got the narrow-minded attitudes of the music business in this country. Unlike America, where if it's good and it's marketable, they'll try and sell it, in England, there's got to be an element of 'cred' about a band. If it isn't credible then the A&R guys won't touch it. They're all nervous anyway because if they sign a naff band they're out of a job. If it's not cred and it fails he's not going to live it down, if it is cred and it fails, all right so at least it's still cred."
Myers also identifies another bugbear - technology. But his argument is not the conventional one of "sampling killing music" or "too many people with too much cheap gear which they don't know how to use". It's rather that the standard of recording technology, particularly at what used to be considered the raw demo stage, has simply got too high.
"Too many bands are wrapped up in their own thing and aren't listening to what's going on around them - or even to what's going on in the band."
"Basically, it means that the A&R man is listening to demo tapes which are often better than the masters of five years ago. In that way, I think they've become spoilt. They've become so acclimatised to production that they no longer know whether the content is any good. For example, I've known cases where bands have been passed over just because the bass sound wasn't quite right, although the A&R man wouldn't actually admit it. One of the more common responses to tapes now is, 'I'm not quite sure, why don't you go away and master it and I'll see what I think of it then'. And you can see why they do it. If you eat caviar every day then smoked cod roe is going to taste pretty foul."
However, Myers doesn't see the point of bands producing quality masters solely to make the A&R men's decision easier, when it should be their job to spot the spark in the music which merits it being taken any further.
"In the old days you'd go to an A&R guy with a demo done just with piano and voice, on a four-track if you were lucky. And he had to have enough imagination to know whether the musicians should be put into the studio to see what could be made of it. The song simply had to stand up on its own two feet. I remember doing demos on an out of tune piano and a cassette recorder that was so duff you had to hold it right up to your ear on playback. But it earned me an awful lot of money - then. It wouldn't now.
"What it comes down to is that a lot of the A&R guys today haven't gone through the '60s and '70s - I'm not saying it's their fault, it's just that they weren't born in time - but it means that they haven't been able to learn their craft in the same way that the older guys have. In that respect, technology has made a rod for everybody's back."
MYERS' CONCLUSION IS: if you can't change the system, then you've got to learn to play it. Which is where we once more focus attention on the activities of The Production Workshop.
"Over the last few months it seemed to me that, because of our situation here, we could be doing the job that the record companies should be doing in the first place. For a start, people are always sending us tapes just because we've got a studio. Everybody seems to be in a band. The milkman, the guy who comes to read the meter. Just the other day, there was someone delivering pizzas and even he pulled a tape out of his pocket.
"Because we don't have the volume of tapes, we can listen to them all and perhaps, because of my background, have a clearer idea of what we're listening for. I'm not saying I'm immensely talented, but I do think over the years I've learnt instinctively if there's something there, even if it's recorded or arranged badly.
"And since there's less at stake, we can afford to take it further by putting the band in the studio and see what we can come out with. This is what record companies used to do, and they had studios specifically for that purpose, though now you find they're just not used.
"But with our experience we're also able to get things to a certain level where the production is taken care of, and since we're successful in our own right, record companies might pay more attention if the final tape then comes via us.
"In order to encourage people to come out of the woodwork, I thought maybe we should offer free studio time. The studio may not be being paid for, but at least it's being used and hopefully there'll be a buzz about the place. That's why I called it The Production Workshop in the first place. I wanted it to become the centre of activity for a whole load of musicians. A bit like a mini-Motown where people would work on each other's stuff."
While you may see this as the stuff of which dreams are made, Myers has both feet firmly on the ground when it comes to declaring his interests in the setup.
"Somewhere along the line we would hope to get involved at a publishing or management level, but as long as we declare our interests right at the beginning then no one can lose out. The refreshing thing is that we're the ones taking the risks. How can anyone lose?"
"I don't think there's any point in coming up with sounds independently of the track - we don't spend any time here programming for the sake of it."
You sceptics may be thinking that all this is an elaborate plot to haul in musicians with little experience of the industry, and turn them into slaves of a Tasty Music production dictatorship. After all, one of the most successful production companies of recent years (we all know who they are, don't we, children?) has built its reputation on doing just that. But how, exactly, do you transform a homegrown demo into a slick master, fit to grab the attention of record company ears and still leave that essential rawness which young bands usually have intact?
The approach at The Production Workshop is to concentrate on the material rather than the production or the image. Get that right, suggests Myers, and the rest follows.
"One of the most common problems is that of waffle. Far too many bands are wrapped up in their own thing and aren't listening acutely enough to what's going on around them - or even to what's going on in the band. There's usually so much padding there - guitar solos going on all night and drummers playing fills all over the place. I don't tend to worry too much about that when a band is inherently strong, because you can always change the structure of the material. What is more difficult when dealing with a band is if it doesn't seem to work together very well. Maybe the drummer's shit - so many of them are - in which case you don't know how good the bass player is either and so on. That's when you start getting into personality politics, which is a whole different area altogether. But I'd never force a band or an artist to work with a producer or engineer they didn't like or who wasn't sympathetic to them."
There must be a danger, though, particularly when you're a relatively small concern in the great scheme of things, to try to persuade artists to follow certain trends because that's where the record company's interest lies at the time?
"Of course, the clever answer is that bands should set trends. But, yes, it is often a question of making them sound up-to-date, although obviously you tailor the production to the situation. If you've got an interesting guitarist, you don't turn it into Kylie Minogue just because you think it will be more appealing to a record company."
While aware that it can be the easy way out, Myers doesn't subscribe to the theory that success can be gained merely by having access to this year's presets. He qualifies this by making a neat distinction between what he calls "songs" and what he terms "tracks".
"Songs are like 'Three Times a Lady' where you could have done it on a piano and it would still have sounded great. Tracks are when you have to pull all the stops out and make the sound a feature of the record. Ultimately, it's horses for courses. It's the application which counts. I honestly don't think there's any point in sitting down in a studio and coming up with sounds independently of the track. We certainly don't spend any time here programming for the sake of it. It's always during an actual session.
"This idea of trying to keep up with the fashions in sound is very interesting, because if you're doing your job properly I think it's actually impossible to be fashionable for the sake of it. I think everybody at some stage or other has been guilty of hearing a sound on a record and saying, 'That's killer. I must have that sound in my song'. So we've had all these crazes like the Nile Roger's 'Let's Dance' bass drum, the Cameo snare and the 'Two Tribes' bass.
"But what many people don't realise is that those sounds were specifically related to their musical contexts. So Steve Lipson didn't sit down one morning and say, 'I'm going to create this monster bass sound which is going to set the trend for the next year', he already had a very definite musical part which he knew he had to play, and so he tailored the sound to suit that. No doubt all these other great sounds everyone nicks were created for their specific context too. But we do get people coming in and saying 'Give me Rick Astley's bass drum sound'. On the one hand that's naive because it shows they think that's the secret of his success, but on the other, that's the only way you can describe what sound you actually want."
Inevitably the name of the Pet Shop Boys crops up as an example of a current act whose production consists of the most cliched, dreary and old-fashioned use of sounds.
"We had a producer in here the other day who said, 'Can you get hold of those electronic drums which go booo, booo'. I said, 'You're talking about Syndrums. You can't use those, they're really naff. He said, 'No, they're really fashionable, the Pet Shop Boys have just used them on their latest single'. I mean, who's setting the trend there?"
I'm not sure whether Myers wants to set any trends by opening up The Production Workshop to all comers, but for the moment I get the impression that he's looking forward to the experiment.
"That way, everybody ends up happy. The band get through and make their point and the A&R people are happy because you're doing half their job for them. And we're happy because the studio is being used, even if it's not being paid for. And ultimately, who knows, we may find ourselves involved with the Rod Stewart of tomorrow."
At the mention of that name, the world begins to tremble in delicious anticipation.
Interview by Nicholas Rowland
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