Sunday, 14 June 2015

Today's musicians, a vital part of Birmingham's Music History... and you

The Highbury Studio pledge campaign. It's different.

If there's one brutal fact to take from musicbiz posts on this blog and elsewhere, it's that the old model is broken. Now? There's no mid-ground, no comfortable living to shoot for, no clear path to take you from promising, brilliant and unknown to big and successful.

This gulf is everywhere. Record companies seek surefire hits and quick returns; careers can go hang. Huge numbers of name acts have been turfed off their rosters. Online? Apple's bombastic launch of their new music service had fine words, but the small print shows they will pay artists nothing for the three months of free trial each subscriber signs up for - this could not be a clearer example of the mighty exploiting the vulnerable.

And that brings me to crowd-sourcing - a natural development for working music businesses and beyond to tap into support, now that the previous providers have lost interest. Now, there's a very inventive campaign, freshly launched, that you really ought to know about. It ticks boxes - a lot of boxes. 

The playing field might be level - you just have to get there.

The gulf we're talking about impacted recording studios a long time ago. Three years ago on this blog, Jon Cotton of Artisan/Poseidon pointed out that mid-range studios had all but gone, caught between the big budget operators like Abbey Road and the smart kids with laptops running ProTools. A lot of places with serious music heritage have simply shut up shop. And others are under threat.

Just as with venues, I don't want to see us lose any more places where great music is made, places run with passion, history and a creative spark. But business is business: you don't survive on love and good vibes. 

So take a look at the PledgeMusic site. You'll find some big names front and central. There's UB40 pitching for funds for a new album, and OMD, Skye from Morcheeba, Veruca Salt, Megadeth, Rickie Lee Jones... all doing it, directly, for themselves. These are more examples of inventive ways to bridge that gulf part of of the industry - the creative part - from a hideous dependency on the platform providers.  

A studio that oozes history

So what do you do when you're running a studio loaded with history, using vintage and costly analogue equipment, in an old and possibly fragile building, and your clientele is, more often than not, local, brilliant but skint?

You play to your strengths. Highbury Studio is preparing, for the first time, an all analogue double album. It will be recorded on 16-track reel to reel, produced and mixed in the studio, and mastered directly to a limited edition double vinyl album. At no stage, until the entire album is made available for download, will digital come anywhere near the process.

Highbury has a lot of history. It was founded by veteran drummer Bob Lamb, who cut his teeth with the Locomotive and then Steve Gibbons' stellar 70s line-up. It was Bob who produced the first UB40 album. On the back of his producer royalties from Signing Off, Bob bought an old cricket bat factory on a quiet street in King's Heath, and turned it into a studio. Since then a huge array of Birmingham's finest have worked out of what is now Highbury Studio, one of the city's oldest studios, and one of the few remaining analogue facilities in the UK.

But Highbury is a fragile place, like so many centres of creative activity. They are caught in that awful pincer movement of rising costs and threatened income from an impoverished clientele. 

The campaign and some remarkable goodies

So something must be done. And they want you to help. If you go back to the Pledge website, you'll find this page: a campaign for Highbury. John Mostyn runs Highbury now. He's done it with love and care for several years. But things apeear to have come to a tricky pass. So...

This is both to celebrate the studio's heritage and today's musicians?
John Mostyn: Yes. This studio has been here for 35 years. We believe it's worth maintaining it as a piece of history. But we want to improve its sustainability. We really do need to bring it into this century – things like insulation and heating. And we want to ensure that it continues to serve the music community, of Birmingham and beyond.
I do get why you're doing this. If this place goes, we lose an incredible amount of history. It's very nice to have plaques on Broad Street, but I feel the nuts and bolts of the city's music aren't respected. But this is a Pledge campaign, and Pledge is a place where artists ask you to fund their album. You don't often see studios asking you to fund an upgrade...
We recognise that public bodies, that we might have gone to in the past – English Heritage, for example – just can't be supportive right now. So it seems the right thing to do to go out to the public.
What exactly are you doing when you say 'go out to the public'? Pledge doesn't do donations, they make you come up with something for each pledge.
I was originally quite nervous about using Pledge. But I love the idea that we are dealing direct with the public. We are putting together an album, using the artists that we love, and the skills we have on tap, to create something that we hope will be really enjoyable. We're doing the whole thing. The mastering will take place at Gearbox in London, who specialise in going to vinyl with no digital interference in the process. They built if for that process.
We all jumped on Digital when it first came. I worked on one of the very first digital albums in the UK – it was the first or the second – the Beat's first album, which we did at Roundhouse studios. It took forever, because nobody knew how to make the new kit work!

Duran Duran tapes, unheard for 30 years, played out through the old Rum Runner speakers, with the band's blessing. Form a line...

Tell me about the things that you will be offering through Pledge?
There will be chunks of rehearsal time, recording time, mentoring, visits to the studio to see and understand how analogue tape machines work.. We'll have an 80s evening, where we plan to play, through the original speakers from the Rum Runner, some exclusive Duran Duran demos that have been here since they were laid down, and have never been heard anywhere else. We'll play Stephen Duffy... and lots of other things, like a live Karaoke evening with the Highbury House Band. We'll record and film too.
And who's going to be on the album itself?
Ah... so far, Alternative Dubstep Orchestra, Big Tent and the Gypsy Lantern, Boat To Row, Goodnight Lenin, Hannah Molloy, Little Comets, Misty’s Big Adventure, Namiwa Jazz, Rhino and the Ranters, Roland Gift, The Bonfire Radicals and the The Old Dance School The idea surfaced a couple of years ago. I was originally planning a Two Sides of Highbury, like the old Marvin Gaye's classic. But then we decided to mix it up. It's a collaborative and mutually supportive arrangement between us and the musicians.

Old school, new tools, different thinking 

And that's another old set of skills – sequencing tracks on an album over two sides. But with this album you're calling for all sorts of old skills – you only have 16 tracks. That is a limitation to anyone who can simply add another track to their laptop mixer. So you need a clearer vision at record and production time, don't you?
You plan how you're going to do it. We're using our regular engineer, Rob Peters, who knows the kit backwards, and Roy Williams will be working with him. 
So you are seeking decent funds to do a decent production. How big a run will this be?
Not many more than a thousand, on vinyl. Double albums, that is.
Why stop at one double album?
You'll notice that it's an eclectic mix. But one key area is missing, and that is rock. I'm thinking that we might do one, a year from now, which covers that.
The Four Sides of Highbury campaign on Pledge Music launched on Thursday June 11th, and the timescale is 60 days. Go here to check out the goodies, and catch a few grooves from some of the participating acts. As of publishing date for this post (Sunday 14th June), the project had made it to PledgeMusic's front page, which is both admirable and significant. 

Some (just some) Highbury client history

Duran Duran
Jo Hamilton
Steve Ajao
The Beat
Ruby Turner
Ocean Colour Scene
Stephen Duffy
Lilac Time
Steve Gibbons
Trevor Burton
Maxi Priest

See more music business and studios and music tech posts on Radio To Go


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