The Capital Costs of Being a Hit

In our youth, we were always in awe of the hit bands and artists of the day.  There were bands, like the Beatles, that made the sort of magical music we imagined we wanted to make.  There were painters that were producing massive canvases and sculptors that were creating monumental civic structures.  Art was all around us, but making art on that scale and of that quality seemed to be far beyond our reach.

My teenage years were a constant quest to try to scrape together enough musical equipment to make the sounds I could hear in my head.  I had the imagination, but not the access to orchestras and the facilities of an Abbey Road recording studio, funded as it was by the mighty Electric Music Industries.  When we tried to write our own music, we were hampered by the limited capacity of our amplification, the one cheap condenser microphone we borrowed, that had to be used for everything and the technology of stereo cassette recorders.

That’s all we had.  No special room acoustics.  No mixing desk.  No outboard effects.  No overdubs.  Just stereo cassette decks, with built in mics, recording the sounds we made, in the room – usually somebody’s sitting room or else a garage.  We really were a garage band.  We had no access to the sound of an organ or piano.  We couldn’t add synthesiser pads.  Even the drum kits of the day squeaked and groaned under the strain.  The consequence of that set of limitations meant that the music we wanted to make couldn’t be made.  The people that were selling records had more gear than we had.  They also had more access to capital.

Some of the bands in my town had more money and gear than we did and so a few of them almost made it to the big time.  Near misses.  Not one hundred miles north of where we lived, though, kids our own age were making music similar to ours, but with better gear and with access to much better recording facilities, related as they were to a previous generation of Australian musical superstars.  AC/DC went on to do very well, I understand.

By the time we were in university, things were slightly improved.  You could afford to at least build electronic effects and amplifiers and being an electrical engineering student, there was a thriving community of people constructing their own mixing desks and synthesisers, to designs published in hobbyist electronics magazines.  Keyboards, like the lower end Yamaha FM synths, were at least available at reasonable prices and you could buy semi-pro rack effects and reverbs, for the first time ever, at prices that didn’t bankrupt you.  Best of all, if you saved for long enough, you could buy a Tascam Portastudio.  It recorded at double speed to ordinary cassette tape, four tracks at a time, but only in one direction.

For the first time, we could do overdubs, add primitive production techniques and add some synthesiser effects and pseudo pianos.  Synchronisation was the problem.  If you messed up a bounce down, it was a disaster that required you to go back to the start, recording sound-on-sound as we were, to make four tracks seem like eight.  It was a start, though.  At least you could begin to realise your imaginary songs.  The problem was the tape noise was horrendous and the room acoustics no better.  The recordings we made, especially if overdubbed, were as noisy as hell, by the time we mastered to another cassette deck, dbx noise reduction and all.  So noisy, in fact, that the recordings were virtually unusable and certainly not releasable.

Meanwhile, the bands we all looked up to were in twenty four track and forty eight track purpose-built studios.  They had banks of digital outboard gear.  Their guitars and drums were better than anything we could afford.  To nail our coffin lids shut, they had access to synthesisers, like the Prophet 5 and Fairlight CMI, which could make sounds never before heard.  Suddenly, we were back to square one.  The sounds in our heads were now full of those textures and timbres and yet again, the equipment that made those sounds was way out of our reach.

As a young lad fresh out of university, I managed to scrape together enough money to make a song in a proper sixteen track studio, on one inch tape, with decent microphones and outboard gear and with eight of so hours of Fairlight CMI programming added to the work.  It was the best experience of my life.  The mix was a veritable performance, because there was no automation, so everything had to be set to grease pencil marks at specific time codes.  We had used our sixteen tracks longitudinally, so that we got more than one instrument per track, provided they didn’t have to play at the same time.  This meant we were recording to sixteen tracks what would ordinarily use twenty four tracks, but the mixing process was complicated by the need to reset the EQ and levels, in the gaps between the instrument takes.  It was hairy.

I could finally make the music I wanted to make and which I could imagine in my room, though.  It sounded right, but while recording, it became obvious that we had spent far too little time rehearsing and getting good at giving a performance, in the studio.  Our drummer struggled to record to a click track.  Our voices fried out after a few takes.  We weren’t that good at tuning our guitars to the sampler and samplers weren’t all that good at tuning sampled sounds to a recognised standard of tuning.  We still hadn’t done enough to make a hit record.  It wasn’t even releasable, due to the odd timing errors and mistakes that we lacked the studio time to correct.  All the same, it was a step up.

Eventually, I got a job at Fairlight, where we built these top of the range synthesisers, samplers and sequencers.  I had access to their demo studio, after hours and could use their desk and effects, not to mention sound library.  The desk happened to be none other than the one used to record AC/DC’s first albums.  It was good gear, but the studio time we were able to utilise was limited, even if the time was free.  We frequently had the really big stars of the day in residence, so you had to work around these paying customers.  By then, unfortunately, I didn’t have a band anymore.  We had all grown up and gone our separate ways.  Bands are pretty hard to form, when you move to a new city where you know nobody and you are working very hard during the day.  More often than not, new musical collaborations revealed immediate musical differences.  We didn’t even have the garage to rehearse in, anymore.

My flatmate and some new friends we met made demo tapes with the Portastudio in my sweaty, airless flat.  The windows had to be closed, even on the hottest evenings, to keep the noise out/in.  When the cicadas were active in the trees outside, their constant chirruping drones found their way onto the tracks.  We couldn’t shut them out.  We’d cheekily record the guitar parts through amplifiers, until the neighbours became annoyed and thumped on the walls to make us stop.  We never dared working past the 10PM noise curfew for fear of having our lease terminated.  Fortunately, we had a drum machine (a bottom of the line Yamaha RX-21) and we could record the bass and synths directly into the mixing desk that came with the Portastudio.  I also had a Scholz Rockman rack by then, so the guitars could be recorded with headphones only, too.  We got away with it.

There was some interesting material written and developed, during that period of time, but eventually we found wives, got married and attempted to establish our own young families.  All the musical gear went into storage, when I moved countries and it was years before it came back out.  By that time, my musical ambitions had diminished.  I felt my chance had gone by.

These days, the gear is more affordable and available than ever.  The hard thing is finding the time and the space to do a good job of it.  I now work better solo than in collaboration and I don’t know why that should be.  Perhaps it will change.

The point is that making a hit record has always been about collecting the money and the gear at the right time, to be the first to use the available new gear to make the sounds nobody had heard before, but which would soon become overused and overexposed, as everybody bought that same equipment.  Anything that sticks to sounds of an earlier time sounds like a homage.  That’s not the music I wanted to make, ever.  I wanted my stuff to sound as fresh as it could.  I still do.

When I visit artists’ studios, I see the same thing happening.  You have to be the first to exploit a new technique or new medium.  You need the space and light and the peace to paint.  You need the industrial scale premises to sculpt and you need a flow of money to buy your materials.  There are no shortcuts around needing to fund the art, somehow.  Of course, some get lucky and get to borrow what they need or have a patron fund them, but most do not.

What I am trying to say, clumsily, in this post is that there is a minimum amount of money you need to realise your artistic vision and there always has been.  It’s a myth to believe you can make something successful in commercial terms without any money at all.  Yes, you can get lucky and have the means fall into your lap and this is, indeed, the explanation for many artistic hits.  However, there always have been and always will be lots of artists that don’t quite find the means to make their artistic masterpieces, who remain in the shadows.

You have always needed to find that fortunate conjunction of money, new equipment, money, resources, people and money.  Somehow.  Even if you can record and release your album from your bedroom, in perfect quality, you still need to make your room sound good, you need to attract talented people to help you with your project and you need to publish and promote, without adsorbing all of your creative time in the process.  In some ways, it is more difficult than ever before, because so much of what used to be done by the art industry now falls into your lap to execute, on your own, even if the gear is more affordable and better quality than ever before.

This applies to painting, writing, digital art – anything that used to be brought to a paying audience by others, in the past.  These days, you have more opportunity to make your hit and to put it out there, but it’s harder than ever to get it noticed and monetised.  For one thing, it’s far too easy for the disreputable to use it without paying.  For another, there is such a vast ocean of mediocre work released now, that it’s hard to be seen above it all.

All that said, the capital costs of being a hit have never been lower.  We have more direct access to audiences than ever before and the outstanding is still going to find a place.  The hard part, now, is in actually producing something outstanding.  When we all have mini Abbey Roads in our laptops, or can distribute copies of our written work to millions for virtually no cost, people are all capable of making work as good as, or better than ours.  Finding the edge and the freshness is now harder than it used to be.  You can’t just buy the latest thing, be the first to make art with it and then be the first to market.  That doesn’t work so well, anymore.

As the quality bar has steadily been raised, though, we now have to have more equipment just to make art that is considered to be good enough by those we’re trying to impress.  Thus, the capital required to become a hit has gone back up.  For example, recording something even to the standard of the Beatles records won’t ignite an audience anymore.  Their ears have become accustomed to better than that.  You have to produce sounds that sound contemporary.  In painting, Van Gogh and Monet would, today, struggle, unless they were blazing trails with the latest media.  Expectations have risen and hence pushed up the capital cost of becoming a hit, even as the individual capital costs of the gear you need have fallen.  You simply need more of it.

Bottom line:  it’s still going to take money, unless you have really good connections and can borrow all you need.  You can make great art for less than before, but the audience requires better than that.  Becoming a hit still carries a significant, not negligible, capital cost.  You have to find a way to fund your art for it to exist in the first place.  Once you have the funding, then the problems become time and skill, but you need access to certain types of real estate (i.e. studio space) and you certainly need your raw materials.  There’s no getting around it.

And therein lays the dilemma for the artist.  How do you make the art when you don’t have all the capital you need?  If you don’t have the space and all the equipment and materials expected by your audience, how do you get the job done?   That, my friends, is why artists are some of the most inventive and clever people I know.  Somehow, they find a way.

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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