Production Lines - Robin Millar
Guest producer Robin Millar strikes a note of realism on the subject of home recording, record deals, and the size of A&R department waste bins...
Robin Millar - musician, producer, former studio owner and one of the founder members of the British Record Producers' Guild - speaks out on the subject of paranoia amongst the music business elite and gives some sound advice to would-be artists and producers everywhere.
When I was 14, a revolution and a revelation occurred. The revolution was the Philips portable cassette recorder using Philips compact cassettes. The revelation — to me — was that by buying one of these things for £25, I could make tapes at home without the need for someone else's complicated and expensive open-reel tape recorder.
A year or two later, EKO and other manufacturers put out the first steel-string guitars for under £10, and by the time I was 16, there must have been 10,000 kids in Britain who were the proud owners of a Philips N3440 portable cassette machine and an EKO Rancho guitar.
From that moment on, it was possible to sit in your bedroom, make a tape, put it in an envelope and send it to a record company with the aim of getting a deal. And from the day that happened, people in the music industry began worrying about the competition.
While all this was happening, bands like The Beatles were taking responsibility for writing their own songs as well as singing them, deciding what to wear and specifying how they wanted to behave — all of which undermined the establishment because it opened up the world of the professional recording company to any Tom, Dick or Harry.
Since those days, we have moved on to more sophisticated home recording equipment, to the point where anyone can get hold of 8- and 12-track digital recorders costing around £3,000, which is actually not that much when you consider what £25 was worth in 1966. The same concerns that were expressed in the 1960s are still being expressed by people in the industry today — what will happen now that everyone can afford to have a digital tape recorder in their front room? In order to deal with those concerns, one has to separate the wood from the trees and realise that the real impact this equipment has made is exactly the same impact that the cassette recorder had in the 1960s.
Until Philips brought out its portable cassette recorder, bands would be taken on by 'the management' from London, and told by people 20 years older than them what to wear, what songs to play and how to play them. The result was that their music became music from the establishment and not music from the street.
All this changed with the introduction of the portable cassette recorder and low-cost guitar, because it made recording technology accessible to everyone. People could get together in a back bedroom, light a joss stick, put on the cassette recorder and sing about the fact that their parents were shitheads — and they didn't have to do what other people wanted because they could do so much more for themselves. A few enlightened people in the record business caught on to this and trawled for talent from outside the traditional areas. They began hearing demos in all shapes and forms and picking up people they liked who would then be put in a studio with someone nearer their own age. The result was that, for the first time since jazz, music from the street had an opportunity to be heard.
If we come back to 1992, very little has changed. Now young kids who don't feel they're going to get anywhere through the normal routes can make their own records, saying exactly what they like, and if they develop a buzz from the street and are in the right place at the right time, they will be picked up by the establishment. But the change in technology has not really affected the fundamental issue — that there are still far more people who are enthusiastic about experimenting at making music in their own environment than there are people with the genuine gift and talent to strike a chord with the general public. The fact still remains that most people who want to make music are not going to be successful and the same fears that arose in the '60s are as unfounded now as they ever were.
I hear so much paranoid conversation amongst the music business elite who worry about what will happen now that everyone can make records in their own living room. Well, fear not, said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds: they will all be crap —just like the tapes that I sent off to EMI when I was 16, recorded on my Philips cassette recorder.
I survived through determination and practice and because my stuff wasn't the worst stuff being sent in. These days, others will survive for the same reasons, but for most, all this technology is doing is giving them an opportunity to do their incompetent best.
Ever since I started in this business, people have made awful tapes and no amount of technology has changed this. If anything, the situation is worse now because people are duped into thinking that if they spend a lot of money they can make stuff at home that sounds like the records they hear on the radio, so therefore they must be getting it right. It may sound depressing — and I may be accused of being harsh — but I'm afraid the reality is that 99.9% of these people are just as wide of the mark and falling prey to exactly the same illusions that we did 20 years ago.
I'm not saying this to discourage — quite the reverse, because if someone has talent and is prepared to work hard they will always stand a chance. I just think that people should primarily create music at home for pleasure and not get too upset and indignant if they never get a deal. And all those in the business who are worrying about new technology should remember that the waste paper bins in A&R departments are just as big as they ever were and that tapes end up in them just as quickly.
Opinion by Robin Millar
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