The 6th Annual Grammy Producers Forum
NAMM International Music Market
Los Angeles Convention Center • January 30, 1999
In keeping with this year’s NAMM theme, “Music makes you smarter,” this forum has renewed my faith in an organization that’s been known for basing its nominations on popularity rather than quality. I was proud — and a wee bit surprised — to see that “purity of the music” was the consensus among the distinguished panelists. Moderated by eight-time Grammy winner Phil Ramone (Billy Joel, Frank Sinatra), the forum starred producers Narada Michael Walden (Barbara Streisand, Mariah Carey), Don Was (Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones), Judith Sherman (The Kronos Quartet), Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls), and Bruce Swedien (Count Basie, Paul McCartney) — collectively, well over a century’s worth of experience, and countless millions of albums sold, gathered in one room.
“One mustn’t be oblivious to what radio is playing,” Ramone started. However, one’s focus mustn’t be about making a hit record, Was added. In their minds, the producer’s obligation was to poise the artist for longevity, displaying the artist in the best light, and optimizing the artist’s vision. Like a director of a film, a producer is a visionary that must lead the pack rather than follow it. Most notable is 40-year veteran Bruce Swedien, whose work on Michael Jackson’s Thriller garnered the biggest selling album of all time.
Having a hit record wasn’t entirely the point. Although, a slew of bands will be dropped from their record companies if they don’t sell the appropriate amount of albums. Yet, in classical music, that’s expectedly not an immediate option. It could be 3 or 4 years before a classical work shows a profit. “[It took] Solti’s Ring Cycle 20 years to make its money back,” Sherman added, also noting that making an opera isn’t a cheap endeavor.
Swedien recalled “Billie Jean” had a special aura about it. It possessed “the most sonic personality.” (What other song sounds only a drum beat in the first few measures and one automatically knows what song it is, Swedien acquiesced.) But he wasn’t sure what levels Thriller would achieve. What he remembered most was how music had faltered in the video game age, and producer Quincy Jones’ main goal for the album was “to get the young people back in the [record] stores.”
Most often, the record companies want to recapture the rawness of a band’s demo. Walden likened that conquest to a “surfer trying to catch a wave.” Phil’s foolproof way of ensuring success was to roll the tape the moment the artist walked in the door, when the artist is at his/her most comfortable and least pretentious.
Cavallo shared his experience getting Alanis Morrisette’s “Uninvited” in its initial rough form, consisting of only those three famous, haunting notes. “That’s scary to anybody,” he said, cringing at the recollection. He didn’t want to be the one guy that “screwed up Alanis’ career.” Instead, he assembled her another #1 hit.
He’d also risen to the challenge when Green Day stood before him. Seattle had just taken over the music scene with its big, slow sound. And here was Green Day, faster and smaller than its grunge predecessors. Listening to Black Sabbath and Cheap Trick to inspire him, Cavallo prevailed, figuring “It would have to be different to have an impact.”
Then there was the issue of the producer’s role becoming less defined. Ingeniously, bands looking to get signed were now relying on their own resources to start a buzz, via home studio recording and the Internet. (“Believe it or not, record companies will hear about someone who sells a couple thousand records over the Internet,” Cavallo said.) Other signed artists were finding movie soundtracks a useful vehicle for promoting themselves further, subsequently promoting the movie, often giving more merit to a film’s key scene.
In the end, everyone agreed categorization of music was, unfortunately, a means of segregating people from music. Who’s to say someone like Sherman couldn’t work with an R&B artist? They’re all musicians. With her approach, Sherman could definitely see the music from a different perspective, just as sampling allows fans to experience their favorite old songs redone with distinction. Regardless, labels can’t hold a true artist back. Music is going to find a way to come out. And when it does, we’ll ultimately react to it with our hearts.