How We Make Records
SXSW, Austin Texas • March 19, 1999
Spiked with enough witty barbs to draw blood, this years’ SXSW Artists panel entertained and informed convention-goers on the far-reaching topic of “How We Make Records.” The panelists, who clearly gelled as a group, bouncing arguments and ideas off each other with great spontaneity, included Beth Orton, Kinky Friedman, Britt Daniel of Spoon, Exene Cervenekova, Richard “Too Sexy” Fairbass of Right Said Fred, and Dave Fridmann, who records with Mercury Rev but does not play with the band live. “We decided we don’t want this to be a long, serious discussion,” said Moderator Kevin Connor of Austin radio station KGSR. No worries there, the group provided a lively and humorous debate on subjects ranging from how bands get the funds to record to how artistic and commercial success is measured.
Starting off with a thrashing out of budgeting and financial issues, panelists revealed studio costs ranging from a $1,000 budget (for one of Cervenekova’s spoken word projects) to over $100,000 for Mercury Rev’s latest release, which Fridmann considered “really cheap.” Daniel was the only panelist whose band paid for the record themselves and then shopped it to a label. On other money matters, Fairbass — by far the most outspoken member of the panel — stated, “I have a problem with the way the industry treats bands. There is no reason we should play for nothing. This is our living, this is what we do.”
On the topic of how to finance a record without label backing, Daniel elicited laughs all around with his comment that “One of the guys in the band has a real job,” while Fairbass stressed finding a producer who needs the deal. “I would personally advise anyone to avoid going to A&R,” he said. When Right Said Fred tried to borrow the money to record, they found that the bank “would lend us money for a couch but were not interested in financing a song that could earn millions of pounds.” Faced with a cash shortage, Fairbass recommended focusing on getting one song right. From the income earned by their hit, “I’m Too Sexy” and its subsequent licensing, Fairbass admitted, “I don’t need to work again if I don’t want to. It’s my retirement plan.”
Motivation for making the record varied among the panelists. Orton, who repeatedly emphasized the importance of following one’s instinct and staying true to artistic vision, said she went with a smaller label for her first record, “so I could keep it in my hand.” According to Fridmann, Mercury Rev’s motivation was simply to a make a good record; “One that we liked from beginning to end.”
“I just wanted to be able to drive around and hear my song on the radio,” Fairbass said candidly. Cervenekova, who spent most of the panel sketching on the table top, countered by stating that X “didn’t want to be on the radio, that’s for sure. The mistake we made was pissing off the entire generation of hippies who controlled the airwaves. Punk rock wanted to change the world.” The focus for X was never on being a bunch of rock stars.
Cervenekova was also quick to speak up when asked at what point an artist starts making money. “I have a good horror story about that,” She said. “You do get charged for everything and you don’t know what’s being spent.” Expenses drawn against a band’s advance can include label executives taking their lawyers out to dinner.
“When great art walks among us, we usually don’t know it. That’s why we need Japanese insurance companies to tell us,” Friedman joked, receiving another a big laugh from the audience. He then cited the lack of commercial success of The Wizard of Oz — and the fact that the song “Over The Rainbow” was almost cut from that movie — as an example of lighting the fuse of a bomb that takes ten or twenty years to explode.
On the topic of how an artist measures success, Friedman showed his unfailing humor with the statement, “I have urinated backstage with Jimmy Page. There were times when I thought I was really happening.”
Commenting on his first SXSW experience Fairbass said “we’re all seeking approval, and it’s weeks like this that really hammer it home.”
Cervenekova, perhaps letting her cynicism show, said “when other people make money off your pain, that’s when it sucks.” Regarding the current tendency for bands to simply repeat a rote formula, she felt authenticity is what makes a good song, offering, “Elliott Smith is a great song writer, so everyone thinks if they sound like Elliott Smith they’ll be great song writers.” As a result, she said “Individuality has been lost.” In another of his typically capricious moments, Friedman threw in, “success is a bitch. Success is harder to deal with than failure. We can all deal with failure!”
Asked by an audience member if she felt her band had made a difference politically or artistically, Cervenekova remarked that, despite certain artistic sacrifices, she did, “as an artist, there are always going to be trade offs and you have to be happy with the bed you have made.”
A palpable chemistry between the panelists provided for an excellent flow to the discussion, which always returned to the love of music and a shared passion for the art of making records. Ironically, when all was said and done, only Daniel admitted to listening to his band’s music once the record is released.