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Paul Staveley O'Duffy: Flexible Music Industry

Interview | Music Production (Production Lines) By Sue Sillitoe
Published January 1995

Producer Paul Staveley O'Duffy has strong opinions on how the music business could be improved. Here he puts the case for a more flexible approach to the record industry — one that would expand the boundaries of what the public gets to hear...

Ninety per cent of chart records today fall into two or three categories, each one identified by specific loops and keyboard parts. Basically, if you've heard one swingbeat record, you'll know that the next will probably have the same loops and Korg M1 piano sound. Human nature is such that we feel comfortable with repetition, something that is familiar. But now and again, a record comes along that has different qualities as well as the familiar ones. It catches our ear, and that's the record which may well lead us to buy a whole album.

Recently, two or three record companies have sent me demo tapes of their version of Eternal, and this is a perfect example of what I find disturbing — everything is coming down to the lowest common denominator. Where is the thrash metal band with electro beats, or the new age beat combo?

The problem is, of course, that A&R people are afraid to take a chance on something different, in case it doesn't fit in. Even when they have a success with a particular project, it doesn't mean they can then do something left‑field that only costs them £10,000 to make, because every project is viewed on its individual merits, and each one is expected to make money. Yet sometimes, things that come from the left‑field turn out to be popular — provided they are given the chance to develop. It is a lot to ask, especially as there is a very high turnover of staff, and the people who work in A&R are worried about their jobs. Obviously, you have to have the best people, but even the best people don't always have hits. They have to be allowed to fail as well as succeed, because making records is a lottery at the best of times.

It would certainly help if the public had more opportunity to hear a wider variety of music. At present, most people only go out and buy what is heard on the radio. Record companies and radio stations dictate what we hear, and, as a rule, if something is unusual and doesn't fit comfortably into a particular category, it simply doesn't get heard. I'm sure there are a lot of people who don't get a look in, simply because they don't fit the mould of the next Take That or Mariah Carey. If you came to a record company with something like Louis Armstrong's 'We Have All The Time In The World', and said you wanted to put it out as a single, what record company would have been interested? But look what happened when people heard the song through a television advert. They didn't care that it didn't fit into a popular genre, they just went out and bought it.

We need to give the public the chance to hear a wider variety of music, and it would help if there was more positive artistic control at record company level. Most A&R people haven't got a clue about the actual production of music, yet in the early days of making records, the A&R man was the producer. If we could get back to a situation like that now, a situation where artists could deal with someone who came from an artistic rather than a fiscal background, there would be more innovation and more opportunity to push out the boundaries of what is possible.

Bands like Oasis are very good examples of how talent should be handled. They signed to an independent record company that was interested in putting out singles, and suddenly they were selling them by the thousand. It's no wonder the album was a success — they had already built up a following who wanted to hear the music. But I'm sure that if Oasis had signed to a major, we probably wouldn't even know that they existed yet, because they would still be stuck in a studio somewhere remixing their first album.

If there was more involvement from producers and musically‑based people, we might all be able to avoid some of the disasters, by figuring out in advance who is worth signing and who isn't. At the moment, producers mostly get to hear bands after they've signed. It might be better if the record company included the producer in the decision process, so that at least they had a musical assessment of the band's long‑term ability.

As an industry, what we should all be doing is building up artists' careers, so that we get the major stars we will need in the future. The current situation doesn't permit this, because if the artist makes a record costing £100,000 and the record isn't a hit, he'll probably get dropped. Or, the artist signs the deal offering the most money, only to find himself under intense pressure to deliver first time, because there is so much money at stake. When the artist stalls at the first release, as many do, the record company drops them, because they are prohibitively expensive to keep on.

Bands and solo artists would be much better off if they were to accept a more modest deal over two or three albums — a deal based on good percentages and smaller advances. Then everybody involved would be under less pressure, and the band would have time to build a following and prove themselves.

We should all remember that the role of the music business is to sell records, and we should be addressing how best to do that. Making good records is only part of the equation. We should also be encouraging people to buy them, by selling them in the shops that people use every day — garage forecourts, supermarkets, toy shops and so on. The vast majority of the public never goes into a record shop, and so is hardly likely to spend its money on music. We need to address this problem, and find new ways of marketing music to the ordinary man in the street. I think there are a lot of things that can be done to encourage sales, and just looking at the way we sell music — as well as the sort of music we make — would be a good place to start.

Paul Staveley O'Duffy is 30 years old, and has been working in recording studios since he was 16. Early in his career, he spent a few years in New York doing club remixes for artists including Stephanie Mills, Bar‑Kays and Animotion. He returned to the UK and achieved world‑wide success with Swing Out Sister, Was (Not Was), The Beloved, Lisa Stansfield, The Pretenders, The House Of Love and Television, to name but a few. Paul is currently producing Touch's album for MCA Records.