Installment #1 of “The Shallow Money Trench” by Todd Robbins – point blank war stories amassed from 30 years in the music industry
In the peaking years of the music business most anything was possible from a money perspective. In 2005, give or take a several years on either side, people would write checks for a wide array of music related services. Money flowed through Nashville’s Music Row like a river of green.
I was once paid to come to a recording studio for a day to listen to the differences in sound between various microphone cables. Some folks paid me to listen to songs just to see if I like them or not. One label paid me to fly to a 5-day music industry trade show at a fancy resort so I could adjust the volume of music being played during a 3 minute slide show one afternoon. An artist once paid me to listen to music in two different cars so I could tell him which car had the better sound system. I was once paid for 2 weeks of studio work in Tulsa when the artist only showed up for a grand total of four hours one afternoon. He spent the other 11 days explaining that he “had a ‘ting to do” in a thick Italian accent. Do you know how hard it is to entertain yourself in Tulsa, even on all expense paid junket?
The Radio Remix
Along these lines, one curious avenue of commerce available during this time was the “radio remix”. It worked like this – a month or so after spending painstaking hours successfully completing an album mix, some labels felt they had the bread to spend making special mixes just to send to radio stations. The aim was two-fold. One, usually an edit in the music to shorten the song under the magical 4 minute threshold of radio programming lore. Two, the thought was to make the mix “more radio-y”. In typical music industry paradox it would always be stressed that the radio remix needed to sound just like the record mix, but it also needed to sound different.
Oddly enough, no one was really ever able to define “radio-y”. Even Jon Rivers of KLTY in Dallas, the top radio programmer of the day, could not define “radio-y”. You’d take him a single to play and his team would say, “we can’t play this, it sounds like everything else we’re playing.” You’d take his team another single a month later and they’d say, “we can’t play this, it doesn’t sound like anything else we’re playing.” When Rivers overdubbed himself playing drums in his home studio over one of my mixes I considered it maximal indication of chasing a moving target. What exactly is our purpose here?
There were all kinds of hypothesis on how to accomplish “radio-y”, but my hypothesis took all of 5 minutes. I used to pick up an easy paycheck just by turning up the mix compression a few clicks and adding about 2 db of high end equalization to brighten up the mix. Let me explain; in the music business “louder” and “brighter” is almost always interpreted as “better”. You can make a lot of money off that tip.
These simple adjustments to the mix would almost always be met with nods of approval by record label minions dying to get their thumbprint on a project. Let me explain; minions are usually the ones tasked to oversee the radio remix. It’s a precursor to their being entrusted with an entire project one day.
These henchmen-types can get a bit eager though, like the minion sent to listen to a rock mix one time who proclaimed “Bagpipes are going to be really big this year. We need to add some bagpipes!” You have to stay alert and be on your toes around these folks.
Studio Secrets Revealed
I seriously doubt the following fundamentals are taught in recording schools today. They’ve certainly never been committed to printed media. I am going to reveal them now, for the first time ever, to the general public. I may question their viability today as no one really cares about radio any more. The money making steps of the radio remix, however, are as follows:
- Spend 15 minutes setting up the mix to make it sound like your original album mix. The mix the label does not want to change.
- Spend 10 minutes editing some superfluous sections to make the song 3 minutes and change. If you can make it under 4 minutes just label it as being 3:67. No one will notice.
- Spend 5 minutes adjusting some settings to make the mix more compressor-heavy and brighter.
- You’re done in 30 minutes. Take a 2-hour lunch break to eat and enjoy the driving range, gun range, or a fine cigar.
- Call the record label and ask if anyone wants to come hear the radio mix. They will send over a minion and they will ecstatically drive 80mph to your studio. Don’t phone them too early. Be sure you have some Nag Champa burning to set a groovy vibe. Candles and string lighting score bonus points.
- When the minion arrives, serve them some coffee that’s only available from a roaster in Oaxaca who speaks a near-extinct dialect of Bolivian Spanish. You know a guy who can get them some if they like it. Let them savor the aroma. Explain your water is artesian well water with the ph matched to the acidity of the coffee. Make them feel like they are on the inside now – a secret “in the know” club.
- As you make your way from lounge to control room, tell a story about working with someone famous. Make one up if you you don’t have one. You’ve just finished a big project for a famous person that will be released soon.
- Next, play the radio remix for them really loud. Then play it for them again even louder. Pummel them with decibels. Hit them hard to alter their senses. The pain will combine with the coffee for a euphoric feeling. Leverage endorphins to your advantage.
- Now, name drop both the project you are currently working on and the project out in LA you are being pitched. Remember, it has to be a project out in LA. If you don’t have one, just make one up.
- Take an urgent call. Pre-arrange for someone to call if you don’t get urgent calls. Excuse yourself into the studio lounge while you shout angrily into the phone. Discuss large amounts of money and berate the person you are speaking to. This is to establish dominion.
- When you return, pat the minion on the back and tell them what a wonderful job they are doing at the label. Explain how you would like to connect on more projects with bigger names in the future. This is you wrapping up the session and terminating their chances of trying to come up with things for you to do on the radio remix. We’re done here.
- Convince them to buy dinner. They will be eager to whip out the company Amex card they rarely get to use, so it’s usually a go. Important note here, drive separately so you can leave on your terms. Suggest a nice steak house or expensive sushi.
- At dinner tell them you are developing an artist they might be interested in. Promise to send them a demo that is creating a lot of buzz in the industry. Of course, if you are not developing an artist just make one up.
- Lastly, make sure you know where to send the $1,000 invoice for the radio remix.
It Really Happened…
So here’s the story I want to share… I honestly can’t remember the band and I honestly can’t remember the label, those brain cells seem to be long gone. It was a CCM band meant to mimic FFH with a heavy dose of Filter to toughen them up. Most every CCM act is a derivative of another CCM act combined with a mainstream idolic influence. This is most likely the reason it’s hard to remember all of them by name.
After dialing in my magic radio buttons I hit lunch. After crab cakes and a buttery Chardonnay, I took in a movie. As I was leaving the theater I called the label to see if anyone wanted to come hear the radio remix. My day was proceeding as planned. For now…
The label sent over a lady I had never met before. She introduced herself as the promotions director of something or other and made it clear that she would be the one to sign off on the radio remix. She drove a black BMW 328i and carried a large Louis Vuitton handbag. Oooooh, power moves. I’m game!
We drank some rare Oaxacan coffee in my studio lounge and I told her a story about recently finishing a dance remix for Brittney Spears. As we moved to the mix room I gave her the chair behind the console and hit “play”. I set the volume set at a hefty level. The music hit with a bang!
“Whoa, whoa, whoooooooaaaaa!!!” She shouted, frantically waving an arm in the air while reaching for the LV bag. “Hold on a second!” she gasped. I hit the stop button and saw her bring a big orange foam earplug out of her purse as she explained; “I am deaf in one ear and my hearing is all messed up in my other ear.” She then took a moment to compress the foam earplug send it toward the tympanic membrane of her right ear. Once it was in place she nodded, “Go ahead and hit play again. I’m ready now.”
At this point I was convinced I was being spoofed. Someone was on to my easy money remix gig and decided to have a go at me. There must be a camera that was surreptitiously planted in my studio somewhere. Had this label really sent over a deaf woman to approve the radio remix? Let me guess, the Art Director is color blind?
As the last note faded I was still fixated on that foam ear plug wedged deep in her auditory canal when she turned my way and said, “Hmmmm… the guitars sound muddy and I can’t really hear the vocals very well.” Really? I didn’t know what to say. “Hmmmm….” I replied. “You mentioned you are deaf in one ear and you have a foam earplug in the other. Do you think that has anything to do with it?” At this point I still was not 100% sure this wasn’t a gag, but regardless that was the only response I could even begin to conceive.
As it turns out the record label had in fact sent a deaf lady to my studio to approve a radio remix. It really happened. I don’t remember much of the conversation but I do remember it getting a bit sticky as I explained I had no interest in trying to tailor a mix to the critique of a hearing-impaired listener. This did not land well – I suppose we can safely say it landed on deaf ears.
She got up and left the studio in such a way I knew dinner was off the table. It was a complete crash and burn. I never got the chance to tell her about the big project I was currently working on, or the project in LA I was being pitched.
By late afternoon word of the fiasco had spread. The producer of the project called me to find out where we had de-railed. “What???” I screamed into the receiver. “Listen…”, I shouted. “I’m deaf in one ear and I have an earplug in my good one! It’s hard to make out what you’re saying but listen, I am being pitched a big record for a major label out in LA!!! Can you hear me?? What are you doing for dinner? You know where to send my check right?” Click… I was done here. Time to move on…
This is a true story.