3/20/2010 11:33 AM
Saturday morning's SXSW 2010 panel lineup at the Austin Convention Center included the Producers Adapt & Survive Panel, run by Englishman and recent Austin transplant Tim Palmer (David Bowie, Pearl Jam, U2), and featuring Los Angeles-based producer and engineer Brad Wood (Sunny Day Real Estate, Liz Phair, Ben Lee), Austin-based producer Chris "Frenchie" Smith (Jet, Meat Puppets, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead), renown English producer Hugh Padgham (The Police, XTC, Paul McCartney, David Bowie) and indie superstar producer Chris Walla (Death Cab For Cutie, Tegan & Sarah, Long Winters, Hot Hot Heat The Decemberists).
The crux of the panel was the shift in the business side of production from practically carte blanche to very restrictive budgets, and the effect of those tightened purse strings on the process of recording music. Padgham remarked at one point that he "didn't even know what a budget was until 1995," and before that, there was pretty much no limit to the amount of money he could spend, saying he had been flown from his London studios to New York City on a Concord to master records. Walla, on the other hand, had never known that style of production: "I spent last September sleeping a tent to keep a record under budget."
These strict budgetary cutbacks, they say, are rooted in the fact that recorded music doesn't make nearly as much money as it used to because it's part of a much larger picture of bands and record labels who now make money on heavy touring and so-called 360 deals (in which record labels control and get a hefty slice of profits off everything from touring to T-shirts). The cutbacks effect everything from the available staff (e.g. a producer, engineer and mixing engineer are all now the same person), to the equipment used to capture sound (what once required a pro studio full of analog equipment can now be done with a laptop, some mics and a few other relatively inexpensive pieces of digital gear).
But according to the panel, there are also upsides to this situation: Padgham remarked that "smaller budgets are a great way to get a band back together in one room to record the way they play, which can yield some really magical moments" as opposed to tracking each instrument individually. Wood came right out and said he didn't miss analog at all, because, despite all the arguments of the warmth and classic sound of analog recording equipment, he likes "things to sound on the recording the way they sounded when they were being played in the live room," which is what he gets with digital, and any other characteristics he wants added to the music, he can add later. It's an issue of control and capturing sound at its rawest. Smith said he's conflicted because he loves the sound and process (and presumably the quirks) of analog recording, but that "it's really nice to be able to track where ever I want or need to -- at someone's house, in an office or in the field."
The final part of the panel discussion was all about finance beyond the studio, a debate about whether producers have a right to a slice from revenue beyond the recorded form, like publishing royalties, 360 deals, etc. There was a wide range of opinion expressed here, with Smith saying that, as he was a part of the creative process, he was okay with taking a part of the profit. Walla astutely pointed out that, regardless of how anyone felt about the proposition, there was definitely a larger issue at play: the SXSW festival, for example, is built entirely around making money from things associated with music -- the travel industry, clothing manufacturers, etc. -- but that the music itself, the reason why everyone is in Austin this week, is seemingly the only part of the event that is not directly monetized (bands receive no slice of event badge sales or venue cover charges).
While very few conclusions were reached, the discussion was fascinating and highlighted many issues surrounding the business and process of production in the age of the digital download.
Readers: Have you experienced any repercussions, negative or positive, from the challenged and changes facing the production industry in the new millennium? Please feel free to discuss in the comments section below, we'd love to hear your feedback.