Is the customer really always right?
When a band walks into the studio and utters the words "we want to sound like Radiohead”, I experience a shiver of discontent and an uncontrollable rolling of the eyes, and I take a deep breath. Then I offer the applicable, if not appropriate, retort of "Who wants a cup of tea?”
This first meeting sets the tone for any recording session: it gives the producer an idea of what they're working with and trying to achieve, as well as just how much extra work will need to be put into keeping the artist happy. I know that exposure to egocentric megalomaniacs is an occupational hazard in the music industry, but am I alone in thinking that encouraging their delusions is getting pretty old? I didn't sign up for giving a daily ego massage to every skinny‑jeaned, tightly coiffured and socially misunderstood musical aspirant, but when I do find myself in that position — which I invariably do — I would at least like it known that they're not given out until the band put in a decent amount of effort.
Within the business that is 'music', as I have observed it, there are two dominant behavioural patterns: arrogant and subservient. The dynamic between the two dispositions is especially apparent between a recording artist and their producer. The balance can alter many times during a session, the changes often spurred on by the emotional frailties of each party, but whose responsibility is it to swallow their pride and back down for the sake of the session?
Having spent an unfortunate portion of my life working in the hospitality trade, I'm well aware of the theory that the customer is always right, and I understand that it makes perfect business sense to create a comfortable and hospitable working environment for your clients. But does one party have to feel more important than the other? Isn't mutually beneficial gain better than self satisfaction? It seems counter‑intuitive to bring hostility into the creative process, but perhaps I'm in the minority for thinking so.
I'd like to feel that I have my head screwed on pretty tightly when it comes to dealing with clients. People, with the odd exception, don't often surprise me, and although choosing to live in London certainly compounds my cynicism, I think that for all the emotional walls I come across as a producer, I can generally work out what 'The Talent' need in order to perform at their best. When it comes to buying a round of beers for the band, to try and loosen the singer's vocal delivery, I'm your man! But if Rebecca Black had strolled through my door with a lyric sheet of Gregorian calendar days and teenage car‑pool seating arrangements, I think I would have been eating pot noodles that month, if you know what I mean.
Personally, I don't dislike working with people. In fact, I spend so much time staring at graphical representations of waveforms that the 'human factor' is what keeps me somewhat sane. But I have found that many of my engineering colleagues have struggled to create a rapport with their clients simply because they won't assume a subservient role. They have an old-school methodology placing them at the top of the social ladder, the kings of their respective castles, live or in the studio.
We all desire recognition and we look for it in different places: artists still clamber up onto a stage and vie for the adulation of the crowd, but gone are the days of the awe‑inspiring and dominant producer. It seems to fall to those behind the scenes to be of a fickle and malleable disposition, to be not only a skilled engineer but also a fan, confidante and friend of the artist.
To those 'yes men' that use agreement as a quick fix, I'd say that sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. In fact, I can't help but think that if Amy Winehouse, for example, had been surrounded by more people who challenged her, rather than tolerated or encouraged her destructive persona, a great talent would still be with us.
The truth is that a producer or sound engineer at any level would probably benefit more from a crash‑course in practical sociology than from attending a seminar on advanced Pro Tools key bindings.
Drew Bang (www.drewbang.com) is a freelance producer, sound engineer and composer. He lives in East London and is intolerant of studio-based intolerance.