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Tony Platt: Production Lines

Opinion | Music Production By Tony Platt
Published January 1994

Most major record companies are now involved in manufacturing hardware as well as signing bands and this, says producer Tony Platt, is causing a huge conflict of interest.

Can these two diametrically opposed aims be reconciled?It seems to me that the major record companies are hell bent on a course of action that can only be described as asset stripping. And no matter how you look at it, this situation is very damaging for the entire music business.

Repackaging and re‑releasing back catalogue material is fine to a degree, because it's always nice to be able to get a classic album or some rare archive material on CD. But there is only a finite amount of buying capacity and if record companies continue to saturate the market with re‑releases they will leave less room for new artists to come through. I'm concerned because the emphasis seems to be more on releasing back catalogue material than on encouraging new raw material.

You see it happening now in the predominance of cover versions. The songwriting capacity for artists is much lower than it was in the past and that is not because artists are any less talented — just that record companies are not accepting their responsibility for encouraging that talent. Most record companies seem to think that artist development simply means throwing money at a band until that band either takes off or flops. If it flops the band gets thrown on the rubbish pile and it has to start all over again. What is needed is much more experimentation and that has to be record company led. In the past, record companies used to offer their bands unlimited studio time in studios they owned. Bands would get a few ideas together, go into a studio and experiment, and it didn't matter if they didn't come up with the goods immediately, because the studio was owned by the record company and it was there for the use of the record company's artists.

What happens now is that record companies come up with artist development budgets and they give too much money to a bunch of kids that have never experienced that sort of money before. The kids buy a load of equipment and set up a home studio where they work in a complete vacuum creating songs from computerised tape loops. I'm not saying these kids are incapable of coming up with good music or that there is anything wrong with using computers in home studios — it's just that they are not receiving any third party objective direction, which is drastically important at that stage in their career. What they should do is go into a studio where they have access to a producer and to other people who can help them interpret their ideas in a more interesting way. A good studio has a special atmosphere that encourages creativity by relaxing the band and providing a whole support structure which is invaluable.

Record companies could do a lot to help this situation if they thought seriously about re‑introducing staff producers. At the moment what happens is that a few producers get offered all the work — even when they are not suitable for the project — because the record company looks through the Music Week charts and allocates projects to the producers who have had the most recent hits. That's ridiculous — A&R should be about fitting a team together to make it really work, not about relying on someone who is flavour of the month.

Another point — and it's one I often have to make to young bands I work with — is that being a musician and song writer is fine, but ultimately you also have to be an entertainer. If you spend your entire artistic life locked away in a bedroom with a rack of computers, you are not going to have any contact with an audience and you will never learn how to project yourself to that audience. This is becoming such a common problem; every week on Top Of The Pops you see bands that are scared witless because they've no idea how to respond — not even to a camera.

I don't want to sound like yet another old fogey going on about how great it was to trundle up and down the MI in a Ford Transit. It wasn't great at all — it was crap. But if you talk to artists who have played live they will all say there is nothing like the buzz you get when you play to an audience and that really is what this business is all about.

I feel so strongly about this that I'm putting a proposal together to send to the Musicians Union and BPI to see if a fund could be set up to subsidise a circuit of gigs in the UK where young bands could gain some experience of playing live. The biggest problem for young bands travelling around the country today is persuading pubs and clubs in a town where they are not known to let them play. We are getting to the point where young bands virtually have to pay to play and that is obnoxious.

I do feel there are many ways in which record companies could help new artists but one almost gets the impression that a major record company would rather have four artists selling 50 million records than have a full artist roster of 20‑30 artists selling various amounts but stimulating the whole market. We all know that record companies are increasingly run by lawyers and accountants but it has reached the point where the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing.

I think what all this boils down to is that record companies need to decide what they want to be. If they just want to set themselves up as hardware manufacturers they should accept that and not try to keep one foot in both camps. People who are dealing with business and manufacturing should take time to understand the creative process so that they can make deals and set budgets that help rather than hinder. The sales and marketing of the manufacturing end has become so intertwined with the artistic side that the whole business is like a sausage factory — you shove an artist in one end and get a CD out the other. It's interesting to note that every single major record company is now involved in software and hardware. No wonder we have such a conflict of interest.

One only has to look at this whole business of DCC to realise the extent of the problem. When I first listened to DCC I couldn't work out why something that sounds so appalling was being marketed as a primary sales medium. For a while I was very confused, because here were all these record companies throwing their weight behind this awful system. Why? Then the answer occurred to me — because there is no resale market with CD, no built‑in obsolescence like vinyl. But with DCC there is, because no matter how sturdy these things are they still get trodden on, they still wear out and they still get left on the dashboard of a car where they melt.

I'm concerned that it's all a bit of a con and it's about time the record companies came clean. Thankfully, I don't think DCC will catch on but it's another example of the music industry doing something for purely self‑financing reasons. And they have poured millions into this — millions that could have been spent on artist development and investing in new talent. Surely it would be better if record companies stopped spending a fortune on marketing new hardware that no‑one needs and instead put that money into new software, so that in 10 years time we still have something interesting and original to listen to. Otherwise all we'll have is a lot of gadgets playing ever‑decreasing amounts of back‑catalogue releases.

Tony Platt has recently worked with Walter Trout, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, McQueen Street, Les Casse Pieds, Buddy Guy, Testament and Bonham. Earlier credits include Cheap Trick, Gary Moore, AC/DC, Bob Marley, Free and Led Zeppelin.