An Open Letter to The Music Producers Guild
Many thanks to Ed Waring for letting me post his first ever guest post on my blog. Ed is a photographer, a record producer, a research wizard, band member and a great sharer of knowledge. I’m proud to call him a friend too. Over to Ed.
A little while ago now I had a very interesting twitter discussion with the UK Music Producers Guild regarding membership. Firstly I want to say fairplay to the MPG for wanting to have this discussion in public. Very positive of them.
When I started following @ukmpg on Twitter they sent me a direct message thanking me for following them and asking me if I’d like to join so I went to their website. The MPG’s mission statement is:
“The MPG represents and promotes the interests of all those involved in the production of recorded music, including producers, engineers, mixers, re-mixers, programmers and mastering engineers.”
Hey, I thought… that’s me! I’m intimately involved in the production of music for our band and for other people. I produce, I engineer, I mix, I program and I master. I am passionate about it. I am obsessed by it. In our lovely crypt I’ve done on awful lot of it now. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and learnt from some of them and I look forward to making more and learning even more. I’ve learnt so much from the internet from lurking incessantly on forums like the Womb and Gearslutz. From reading every interview on Sound on Sound. Every classic track on SOS and Mixonline. Every issue of TapeOp.
It’s an exciting journey and one that I’m very lucky to have made as far as I have. But I’m very aware that there are things I don’t know… Much of that comes from not necessarily feeling like part of peer group, of having no-one I can think of as a mentor. When you read about the producers and engineers who’ve made the records you love and they talk about interning or working at the Townhouse or the Record Plant and the environments in which they learnt and the people they learnt from I am so jealous. I am very aware of the history in of making records, the traditions in which I am working, that there are so many lessons in how things were done in the past and how decisions were made which are just as valid now. I’m actually in a situation where I act as a mentor to other younger engineers and artists educating and inspiring but there is no one to to mentor me!
So I went to the MPG membership page and found this.
To qualify for *Full Membership* of the MPG, you must have:
6 credits for production, engineering, mixing or mastering on commercially released tracks, either on single or multiple CDs, vinyl or cassette albums, EPs and singles, or DVDs. These tracks must have been commercially available via traditional outlets, i.e. record shops or mail order. *Personal sales, i.e. directly by the artist at live venues, do not qualify*.
12 credits for production, engineering, mixing or mastering on commercially released tracks or two full-length CD releases that are available via digital download from recognised online music retail sites. *Sales from personal websites do not qualify. Tracks solely available free from other websites, e.g. a MySpace page, do not qualify*.
WTF? Ok, I realise that there might have to be some criteria for membership but these criteria are really flawed and really really got my hackles up.
1) Being on iTunes is not a barrier to anyone. I can record the sound of my own farts through my laptop mic right this second, design some artwork, upload it all to a service like http://www.watunes.com/ and be on iTunes in about 2 weeks (Rich – Further development, with Ditto Music you can now be on iTunes in 24 hours). No cost, all royalties to me, and ermmmm… no sales. Being on a recognised online retail site proves nothing!
2) I don’t know if anyone’s noticed but the record industry is pretty screwed right now. The old ways don’t work and no-one knows really what the new ways are. The gap between under the radar and the mainstream is bigger and in some ways more insurmountable than ever. Giving away music for free and selling music directly to fans as pay what you want rather than through shops are the only things which are working for us at the moment and we advise practically every band we meet to do the same.
… Unless you have a lot of national and international exposure you are probably selling music directly to people that you actually know in some physical or digital way. People that you have a personal relationship with, people that will buy your music no matter where it is. The charts are all but irrelevant and the internet allows you to sell directly to anyone. When you are talking about small amounts of records sales, the amount it costs you to actually sell through established channels is such a major part of your meagre income that it really has no purpose, it has no benefit, just a negative impact on income.
If you sell just a thousand albums to fans who you already have a relationship with through iTunes you are paying Apple over £2000 for the privilege! In the world of a small band that is a huge amount of money… that’s the budget to record your next album, to get to SXSW, to do that european tour, maybe your years rent if you are a solo artist.
Hope and Social have made more money from selling music in the last year than we ever have (and that includes 2 years of national distribution, MTV plays, name PR companies, radio play etc) and for every one of those 5000+ sales we’ve had in the last 12 months, that person could have had the music for free. They chose not to and they chose give us money. What’s more, because they were interacting with us directly we got all that money. More than 95% of our sales are directly to fans either at gigs or online. We’re not alone in this.
There are many variations! If I’m a club or hip hop producer maybe the music I make and give away is nothing more than an advert for my club nights where people pay to see me and maybe buy mix cd’s directly from me, it’s a calling card that in the future gets me paid remix or recording work for other acts who may just give the music away or put it on their myspace where teenagers who don’t buy music can hear it because actually the majority of their income comes from appearance fees and t-shirt sales. There’s a million situations where giving stuff away, selling personally and totally bypassing the shop system makes the much more sense than the traditional way of selling music.
THE CRITERIA ON THE MPG SITE DOES NOT REFLECT THE REALITY OF EXISTENCE FOR THOUSANDS OF GREAT, “SUCCESFUL”, SMALL BANDS.
On another note it means that if my only production work had been the last 4 Nine Inch Nails albums and Radioheads “In Rainbows” I wouldn’t qualify for full membership either!
3) I don’t know if anyone’s noticed but the record industry is pretty screwed right now. This is having a major effect on recording studios and professionals. Even some of the largest, most well known are having problems (see Townhouse closure for example…) Labels small and large are having huge problems making money and even justifying making records. This effects everyone in the industry. The people this is really going to affect are the people in the low middle…Fantastic niche acts who 5 years ago might have been able to count on a deal from a small label; now they’re are on their own.
The little cool studios, maybe run by someone in a band they love, full of interesting gear, well priced and capable of producing amazing music aren’t getting the same amount of business they used to. I know of at least 3 ‘major’ small bands in Leeds who recorded their albums in the states because the exchange rate made the deal too good… The MPG needs to support this area! This is where the ‘stars’ of tomorrow come from, this is where the music that inspires young people to want to be in bands comes from. This is the future if you like! In our twitter discussions this phrase was used
“Full Membership of MPG is intended for “working professionals” for want of a better phrase”.
Myself and Rich from Hope and Social made a decision that we do not want to run a full time studio. We look around and we do not see enough bands with enough money to make that a worthwhile proposition. We can offer a better service to other bands by restricting how much work we do, by working only on stuff that interests us or where we are paid by other organisations to work with younger bands. Bands that work with us learn an incredible amount about recording practice, about making records, about songwriting, about how performance is key, about how they can keep their band financially viable… We are a key part of our local music culture. We interact with and try to inspire hundreds of musicians and budding engineers every year…
We are ‘professional’ but not by the MPG’s definition. Again, we are not alone in this. We are part of training the next generation… a generation to whom the idea of going into a studio as we think of it now may literally be history. We also feel responsibility for keeping the “oral history” going… Telling the stories about how great records were made, about the generations of engineers and producers before us and the things they did and how you can use that knowledge when recording at home straight into a computer. Is this part of the MPG’s remit? To ensure that the techniques we know now don’t get lost or die out? To ensure that those working on a budget or in less traditional ways are doing so in the best interests of the profession as a whole?
4) Finally, when I went to the MPG site and read the T&C’s I immediately felt excluded. a) because of the reasons above (it didn’t seem to be aimed at people like me, it seemed to be aimed at people from the past) b) as I browsed the site so much content was restricted! I couldn’t even see the details of forthcoming events to see if it was worth me joining! In a tiny way I totally see myself as part of an ongoing history of recorded music and just as my band are constantly having conversations and making decisions and mistakes that are part of the future of how musicians will act to survive and make music and find an audience similarly I’m part of the future of how good sounding, well made, emotionally moving records are made too. I’d love something like the MPG to be part of that as well… because, and I don’t know if anyone’s noticed this, but the record industry is pretty screwed right now.
Why The MPG and Me Should Be
The MPG should be there to help me and my recording peers (from whatever genre); to give us opportunities to meet and learn from people who have so much more skills and knowledge than us and to provide a hub to help us all to find a way forward through these exciting but troubled times. I also feel as an organisation like the MPG should be looking to help ensure that even if the future means that most records are made by engineers working part time for artists who make a living selling ‘stuff’ directly to a small body of fans in rooms which may or may not count as proper studios that those records continue to be made with skill and respect and love for music that has produced so many classic records in the past. In a time where Elbow can win the Mercury Music Prize with an album that was essentially recorded and mixed in a project studio.
I look forward to your responses and am very happy to be involved in this conversation in whatever way you find useful. Maybe a little MPG organised convention could be in order? A day of round tables and panel discussions between ‘producers’ at all levels?