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Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News
Published December 2011

Franchises like the X Factor, and Dr Dre's new range of headphones, show that consumer tactics may have a role to play in the world of pro audio.

There are a number of accidental souvenirs of the music-recording profession. If you live in the condos that once were The Hit Factory Studios in Manhattan, your building lobby is peppered with the gold and platinum records that the famed facility earned over nearly three decades. Oasis' Noel Gallagher admitted to ripping up a shred of the floor in Studio Two at Abbey Road Studios in London, after making Dig Out Your Soul there a few years back. (I tried to do the same with a brass plaque on the front of the old Columbia Studios' East 30th St studio, across the street from my flat in the 1980s, when it was being torn down to make way for condos, but the concrete anchors were too deep. I have no idea what became of it.)

These sorts of mementos are esoteric artifacts, relics of saints largely unknown outside of the readership of magazines like this one. But some denizens of pro audio — both brick-and-mortar and carbon-based — have been making deep branding inroads into consumer territory. The outcomes of these efforts, which range from headphones to special offers, are mixed, but they represent some out-of-the-box thinking that's necessary, even overdue, as the fundamental nature and perception of record production evolve.

Perhaps the most visible examples of personalities from the pro-audio universe making an impact on consumers have been Simon Cowell, a successful record producer (even before the Idol and X Factor franchises), and producer and Innerscope label chief Jimmy Iovine, whose venture with entrepreneurial rapper Dr Dre resulted in the Beats headphones. Neither Cowell nor Dre suffer from media under-exposure, but Iovine has gone from cypher to celebrity as a result of the headphones. He's also helped draw other artist/producers into the wider consumer limelight by hooking up the likes of Will.i.am, Kanye West, Pharrell, Timbaland and Polow Da Don with computer makers HP, to advise the company on how to improve the reproduction of digital audio files on their laptops.

What Iovine really accomplished, thanks to a strategic marketing plan that placed a strong emphasis on sonic quality, was to remind the world that music does not magically appear fully formed out of Lady Gaga's or Katy Perry's various orifices. Rather, it is the result of a process that requires expertise and time, and the listening environment should receive some of the same care as the producers took in making the music. In other words, he's made it cool to sound good. Dr Dre's headphones are also making over-the-ear listening fashionable after a generation brought up on frequency-response-challenged earbuds. I'm not sure I'd pick Beats over AKG or Audio-Technica, but it puts the whole train on a better set of rails, so to speak. And looking back to the balance sheet, the Beats venture has yet another tendril: electronics retailers Best Buy and cable makers Monster have partnered to create Club Beats, which will not only sell the headphones but also sponsor live shows by artists including Gaga, Will.i.am and Dre, at 300 of Best Buy's largest stores.

This kind of consumer-driven initiative can also work on far smaller scales. Sixty-one-year-old Sun Records Studios in Memphis is the perfect hybrid. By day, it's a museum chronicling the early days of rock, when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins were regulars under Sam Philips' tuneful ear. After 6pm, Sun Studios is used for regular recording sessions. But the gift shop, where museum-goers pick up a hat or T-shirt by day, stays open after hours too, helping to reinforce the Sun label and studio brand to consumers and musicians alike. That kind of exercise also helps promote Sun Studio Sessions, a live music show aired on public television stations in the US, which in turn helps promote the studio as both a tourist and recording destination. Nearby Ardent Studios, which celebrated their 45th anniversary in 2011, have an online gift store that manager Jody Stephens says does a brisk business in T-shirts, refrigerator magnets and tote sacks, as well as CDs from the studio's Big Star label roster.

It's not just producers and studios that are using this kind of branding. Perhaps taking a leaf out of Iovine and Dre's playbook, Ministry Of Sound have released their own range of headphones, from entry-level in-ears to classic over-ear designs, to coincide with their 20th anniversary. Indeed, it appears that headphones are the new cupcakes of the industry: rapper 50 Cent announced in October that he would be putting out his own brand of cans, to be known as SMS By 50.

Then there's the daily deal phenomenon, and, not surprisingly, some recording studios have also tested it. Firehouse Studios in LA employed Groupon's whimsical editorial touch to offer two hours in their Studio A for $175: a similar deal to those offered by studios in New York, London and elsewhere on other daily deal sites. Taking this route has its risks, of course. You could find yourself facing an endless stream of frustrating amateurs. On the other hand, you can't accomplish very much in two hours, so serious customers will need to buy additional time. Furthermore, any time you can get a musician out of a home studio and into a real one, you're doing yourself and the industry a favour.

As record production has become consumerised in the last couple of decades, much of the mystique around making music has disappeared. But since, implicitly, consumers buy stuff, pro audio in its many forms may as well use that to its own advantage. Why should the professionals have all the fun?    

Published December 2011