Hugh McIntyre Forbes.com 11/29/2016 @
Tony Visconti is a name known to anybody who has been in the music industry long enough to appreciate not just the biggest and brightest stars that have ever lived, but those that helped get them to the top. While not known as an artist himself, Visconti has produced and written music alongside the likes of Morrissey, Anti-Flag, Adam Ant, Elaine Paige, Iggy Pop, Sparks, and most notably and memorably, David Bowie, with whom he worked for decades, up until the beginning of this year when the rock star passed away. Visconti is a true rock and roll legend, and despite the fact that he could probably jump into the studio with anybody he’d like to, he opts to continue to discover new talent and work with lesser-known figures, simply because he finds them more interesting.I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Visconti at this year’s Reeperbahn Festival, where he was a judge at the first annual Anchor Award. Thankfully, he didn’t hold back when it came to topics like the new music economy, and what made artists he’s worked with so special.Hugh McIntyre: You have been producing music for decades now. How have things changed in your line of work from when you began to when you go into a studio now?
Tony Visconti: I started out in the days of 4-tracks, multitracks. 4-tracks weren’t a lot, but if you listen to, say, Sgt. Pepper’s or Revolver, you can hear that you can do amazing things with 4-track, or two 4-track machines. It’s a very inconvenient way of working, and as soon as the higher numbers of tracks were invented, things got easier, but essentially nothing has changed except the technology.But, something strange has happened. The better the technology, the lower the quality of the musical content . That might be related to how convenient it is to work nowadays, and how many more people have their hands on recording equipment who shouldn’t even be let near a piece of recording equipment. I think there is much more mediocre music in the world today. There are very few iconic people making music.You might have digital workstations and Pro Tools and Logic and all that, but people still want microphones that are 50 years old, and they pay a lot of money for them. They want equipment that has tubes in them that are rarely made these days. They’ll pay a fortune for something that was probably built in the ‘50s. These things, they sound beautiful. It’s like an old car that’s been well-maintained. People like analog tape nowadays. The trend is going back to analog, back to vinyl. It’s nice that the younger generation values these things, because when my generation dies, we have to hand on this legacy. There was never anything wrong with the old way of recording, and people are now just learning how to do it.
I just came from Kingston University, and I think the oldest student I taught was about 23 years old. We worked on analog machines for five days and they were just in heaven. Nothing’s changed really.McIntyre: Do you find it odd that young people value and will pay for an instrument or a piece of recording equipment, but not an album? They’d rather stream.
Visconti: It’s interesting. This entitlement to having music for free is really ruining a lot of things. The ideal situation for any artist is to earn a living from their art. If an artist has to do a 10 hour job so they can support their music, there’s the law of diminishing returns. The artist should spend all day making their music, and that’s not easy. Nowadays music is more simple, and more basic. It’s maybe because people just don’t have the brainpower to stay with it all the time. Not because they’re stupid, but because they just don’t have the time. There are so many distractions. A lot of young people are struggling to make a living. There are internships all over the place that don’t pay. You might find people as old as 27, they’re still doing internships. These are terrible times. I’m not talking about my generation, I’m talking about yours. You deserve better. If you want people to be like David Bowie, his last real job was when he was 19 years old, and he spent the rest of his life as a paid artist. Of course, it paid off.
People need to make a living making music. When you go to a pub with your band, you should make money. You shouldn’t do it for the exposure. A bank teller doesn’t work for the exposure. A doctor doesn’t work for the exposure. A scientist doesn’t work for the exposure. Music isn’t taken seriously, and it should be. Every part of our lives is affected by music. If you walk down any street in any city, people have earbuds in, and they’re listening to music. If you get married, you have certain music for your wedding. You die, you have certain music for your funeral. You have sex, you have certain music for sex. It’s behind every human activity. People sing, they dance…whether they are going to do it professionally or not. It’s really a shame how it’s been devalued.
People pay big bucks for a blockbuster film like the new Star Wars. They might even see if three times and pay. Music doesn’t have that respect anymore, and that’s a very sad situation.
McIntyre: From the behind the music side of it, how has the business of creating music or producing changed?
Visconti: Again, that’s not changed too much. That structure still exists where producers still get money. I get hired all the time, still. I get paid very well because I have a legacy. I’m proven. I’ve got a track record. Young producers are making a lot of money, EDM people. A lot of pop music. I love pop music. I’m not a snob. I don’t have to listen to prog rock or something. I love good pop music when it’s done well. I think they’re doing well because if you go into a studio, it costs a lot of money to build a studio, even a digital studio. You don’t use tape and all that, but a basic digital studio that’s really good and that’s really going to do all the necessary jobs, and a bank of microphones–that’s hardware, expensive hardware—and everything else not in the box, that’s going to set you back $25,000. Then these things become obsolete, and you have to buy the latest computer, the latest plugins. They’re getting cheaper and cheaper. I remember when a plugin used to cost around $600, and now some of those very same plugins are about $50.
There’s an economy involved, and it’s important to support that system. That system is directly supported by royalties, which are dwindling because companies like Spotify, and to some extent iTunes, feel that they don’t have to pay for the stuff because, we’re getting back to that word again, “exposure.” That’s your payoff. You find more money is actually made playing live gigs. I think that’s a healthy thing, but I don’t see why your recording income should be cut. I know a lot of big labels are taking percentages of the live gigs now because they can’t make money selling records. They’re actually stealing money from their artists. They’re saying, “We’ll take 30% of your door.” Well, what are you doing for it? “Nothing, but we want it if you want to be on our label, you have to give us that.”
The business of music right now is in an upheaval. It needs a really well-timed revolution, because the music business isn’t like the U.S. government. It’s just a business, and the healthiest thing for businesses is when you have competition. We have to build an alternative music business, which a lot of people have taken on anyway. There are so many self-released artists. You can go through iTunes, but you can also still sell CDs and vinyl at your gigs. The minute you put your signature to a contract with a label, you owe them money. You’re in debt from day one. If you don’t do that and you sell 5,000 CDs, it doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but it’s all your money. It all goes back into your band and your pocket. This alternative music business has already begun, but if it gets organized, it will leave the big labels standing saying, “Oh we missed out again.” They missed out on downloading when downloads and piracy first came out, they fought it instead of finding out how they could be a part of it, as if it was going to go away. Anyone who had a computer, which those old guys didn’t have, realized that this wasn’t going to go away. This was the future.
I’m in a funny position, I’m old school and new school. I reap the benefits of both in my work, but I feel for those that are just starting out. They practice in earnest and they write good music. This is my future, too, because when I retire, which will probably never happen, I want to hear good music when I turn on the radio or when I turn on TV! I want to hear really good bands and good singers who can sing really well, and not just have their only training be in the shower. I’d like people to take singing lessons again. Everyone does, and not say they do. All of the big stars have vocal coaching and all that, and I think that’s wonderful.
McIntyre: Since you brought it up, what would you consider a good pop song or album today?
Visconti: It’s a couple of years back, but Amy Winehouse was a beacon in the dark. There was a woman who could sing, who could write. She had a lot of character, a lot of personality. She was a great pop star, really a great one. Adele to some degree is as big a personality, though it’s not my taste in music. Amy Winehouse was wonderfully retro, and yet recorded in a modern context, which was a great feat to pull off. I had high hopes for her. I was very sad the day she died.
McIntyre: Do you feel that the future of music, this revolution, is all direct to fan? It’s all artists running things as entrepreneurs?
Visconti: I think it’s inevitable. Artists have to run it as entrepreneurs, and the fans are very loyal. Fans buy the music. They know it’s important to have the t-shirt and the CD and all that, and to pay for the downloads. Then in their own little private world they exchange bootlegs, but this is all very healthy. This has been going on for years, that aspect of it. I just met some young girls on the street who saw my South By Southwest hoodie. They must have been about 20 years old. They go to SXSW, and they want to learn about new music by going to festivals like this. They are now at the Reeperbahn Festival to see new bands. I believe you have to keep reinventing the music business. It is so important to have a festival like this.
More direct communication with the public, not from the ivory towers at the labels. Music venues in most cities are thriving. Little clubs. I go to them. You never know what you’re going to find. Usually run of the mill stuff, but occasionally… I think the next Freddy Mercury, the next David Bowie, the next Kate Bush, they’re all out there. That’s not going to happen once in the history of the universe. There are a lot of talented people at that level. Those people, unfortunately, are going to have to boost themselves through self-promotion and self-enterprise, because labels aren’t signing geniuses anymore. They don’t recognize it, it’s been devalued. They are following yesterday’s hits. They would rather have soundalikes and lookalikes. I’ll tell you something, if that system worked, you’d see sales rising. Sales every year are diminishing, even downloads.
Vinyl, that’s making it go back up again, but that’s a medium, that’s not a genre. Vinyl is the thing that’s cool to put on your wall. You have to make vinyl these days to get more sales, but even that, that’s a fad. I’m glad that vinyl is now an option that exists. You can actually buy vinyl. There was a 10-year period where they just stopped manufacturing it. Nowadays, there are only three plants in the whole world, and they are backlogged by as much as six months. So if I wanted to put a vinyl out tomorrow, I’d have to get in the queue.
Then the labels are thinking, “Oh, that’s going to save the business!” That’s really small. It’s not going to save anything. What will save this industry is if they realize that people like Bowie, Kate Bush, and all that, were weird. They were very weird. Some people gravitate towards that. They are tired of the same old thing. They’re tired of their father’s music. They want to hear something of their own generation. Those people are out there. You’re not going to find them on a major label. I heard a rumor that the major labels are looking for weird people now, but I haven’t heard or seen any evidence of that.
McIntyre: It doesn’t seem like it .
Visconti: Well, if Adele sells so many records, they clearly are looking for more Adeles. They would rather have more Adeles if such a thing is possible, but that’s pretty much an insult to Adele, who came up and decided to have this big voice and sing these big, dramatic songs. She was a little bit weird. That wasn’t de rigueur .
McIntyre: You have produced many genres of music. Rock, world music, pop, and several others. How do you decide what you’re going to do, even if you’ve never worked in that genre before?
Visconti: My criteria is that I look for uniqueness. I still do. I still have faith in it. I’ve been offered a lot to do a run of the mill thing many times. To do the backing, put the singer up front, tune his or her voice and make it sound great. I find that I’ll get very bored doing things like that. I still look for a person who has a voice that’s unlike any other voice. In my history, for example, I’ve worked with Morrissey, who sounds like nobody else. Bowie, who sounds like no other person. Marc Bolan, who sounds like no other person. Even in my folky days, I worked with Mary Hopkin, who I married eventually, she had a great, great voice.
I nearly worked with Kate Bush. That would have been nice. I had a couple of meetings with her and a very long lunch all about working together. She transitioned into self-producing after that. She said, “I would work with you if I wanted a producer.” She called me, I didn’t call her. I gravitate towards that kind of person. There are plenty of people to work with.
McIntyre: Is there somebody you hear now where you think, “That’s an original voice! That person is unique! I would love to work with them!”
Visconti: I just worked with such a person, Esperanza Spalding. I did her whole last album. I did the whole thing and then she went off and self-produced a few more tracks. I think about seven of my tracks are on there. There is a person who is quite unique in every way.
McIntyre: That was quite a weird album, I have to say. Very unexpected for her.
Visconti: Yeah. That’s her attempt at being more widely accepted. If you listen to her earlier work… I think she did an R&B album once before. She is true to herself. She has no shortage of fans. She’s touring all the time, makes big bucks, plays to big audiences. She’s definitely not a top 10 pop artist, but she sells a lot of records. There are a lot of people who sell a lot of records who don’t make the top 10. They have their own specific audiences. Heavy metal doesn’t make the top 10, but they sell hundreds of thousands, millions.
That’s my point. Big labels are concentrating on pop more than anything, and they’re concentrating on this imagined teenage audience with loads of cash to spare. It’s an old model. It’s not working anymore. They’re signing artists that they think teenagers are going to go for, but there are people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s that actually have good jobs and they’re making good money. They would spend money on good, new music if it was presented to them, and if they knew where to find it. If it was marketed the way records were marketed in the ’70s and ’80s. Some people go out and buy the best clothes that they can afford. They’re buying quality. They don’t go to a real cheap clothes store, unless that’s all they can afford. We live in a society now where people do have a lot of cash to spend. They take holidays. If you take holidays, you’re making a good wage. They’ll spend money on quality, and it’s wrong to just target the teenage market, who by the way, know how to download anything for free. It’s a no-brainer.I think in the ’70s, the difference was a label might sign 50 new acts a year and give them enough money to make their album. They would sign those acts on the basis of their uniqueness. It was already proven that the freaky artists eventually became the biggest stars.
Bowie is a weird, one of the strangest artists. He has two different colored eyes… Everything about him is out of the ordinary. He’s probably one of the biggest stars that ever lived. He started out as a very strange musician. When I met him, he was laughable. He’d been around the block a few times. He’d submitted a few demos and the labels thought, “He’s weird, we don’t want him. We don’t know what to do with him.” “We don’t know what to do,” I’ve heard that so many times. Then he busted through with “Space Oddity.” He did the first thing that nobody had ever done: he invented a stage persona. Everyone would go on as themselves, and he went on stage as this character Ziggy Stardust. Ingenious. I’m telling you, we have people like that. That can happen again, and again, and again in different forms. It’s something I haven’t thought of yet, something you haven’t thought of yet. There’s some band of geniuses that will come up with new formulas and that will come up with new ways to make music.
Tags: Tony Visconti