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Colin Newman: From Musician To Record Label

Opinion | Music Production (Production Lines)
Published May 1994

Colin Newman discusses taking the step from being a musician to being the proprietor of a record label.Swim is a record company set up in 1993 by my wife, Malka Spigel, and myself, to release projects which, for the most part, we are realising in our own studio.

We have, in common, I'm sure, with many other readers of this esteemed publication, built up a small arsenal of musical and computer equipment and are able to produce our own masters; getting from that to finished CDs is not an impossible task given a very modest investment. So how come not everyone is doing it? Our understanding of the MIDI/computer revolution in music is that people are able to produce musical artifacts in much smaller spaces and for a much smaller capital investement. That is the whole point of magazines like SOS; they've been telling us how for years, but the psychological step from being a musician to being a record company is perceived as being a very big step. I won't pretend it wasn't for us! But why?

To understand this we need to actively acquaint ourselves with the nature of the business in which we are involved, something which, unfortunately, musicians are often loath to do. Firstly, take the following on board. The biggest proportion of the 'popular' music industry is dominated by a handful of large multinational corporations who make massive investments in popular entertainment. According to our understanding, it is inevitable that large investment in any potential product must be underpinned by a basically conservative approach to content. Big studios, expensive gear, expensive producers and engineers, big expense accounts, big promo and video budgets are all lavished upon the product which someone thinks people want to buy, yet those items are visibly failing to interest the minority of record buyers who are actively interested in interesting or engaging music (i.e. music fans). So, to put it brutally, all that dosh is being thrown at projects which are mainly of interest to people who really don't like music that much — or they want something to make their hi‑fi sound expensive. I don`t believe that any producer of music, apart from the most cynical, can feel comfortable knowing that the results of their serious endeavours may be destined to be just more designer wallpaper!

In the light of this, does it make sense to go for the big advance and all the attendant bullshit? If not, where's the money to come from to get the gear to achieve the necessary technical standards? I must admit that this was a sticking point for us for years; the pshychological attitude needed to deal with the question of 'sound quality' flies in the face of received industry wisdom (which is put about by those who have a stake in the existing establishment). Our answer is that there is no minimum requirement for equipment. There would have been no Detroit techno had it not been for digital synthesis and sampling drum machines, as no‑one was interested in those old 'unrealistic' monosynths and Roland drum machines in the mid‑'80s. The music happened because, for the first time, a synth setup (second hand, of course) was cheaper than guitars! Right now, entry level has got to be early digital synths (dropping like a stone) and early (basic) hardware MIDI sequencers. Second‑hand Ataris and 12‑bit samplers are getting cheaper by the day! The point I'm trying to make is that if we get hung up on technical perfection, it costs in more ways than one — and not only that: the music lovers don't need it anyway!

Admittedly we have built up our studio over a number of years, but as we have it in place we need only to look at those costs which occur after our finished mixes to cost our releases. That means that we can look at sales of between 600 and 1000 CDs (depending on how much you spend on the cover) in order to see a profit. SOS has already spared me the task of having to explain how these costs pan out, having published an article about how to release a record! This means that we only have to concentrate on making our releases in a way that pleases us. At this level of break‑even, commercial considerations just don't come into it!

Ultimately, the music industry as we know it will have to change in the light of new technological realities; we can already see that greater choice leads to smaller audiences per musical 'entity', and this reality flies in the face of the major‑interest monoculture. When we can distribute our product on a pay‑as‑you‑use basis, then even the 'minimum run' concepts allied to manufactured finished product need not hold anyone back from getting their product 'on line'. In fact, if the future of our industry is that the consumer will buy download time of our multimedia packages — which we have perhaps licensed onto a computer distribution network — then those least able to make the transition will be those who have invested most in the current method of manufacturing and marketing.

We hope that by keeping small and light, and by building a reputation on the strength of our product, we will be able to actively participate in and enjoy the exitement of what is to come in the future: the interaction between the creation and the consumption of music.

Colin Newman is a founder member of Wire; Swim, the label run by him and his wife Malka Spigel, has now made two independent releases, Rosh Ballata by Malka, and Tree by Oracle. Three more releases, including a solo album by Colin Newman, are planned for 1994.