INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian NOVEMBER 19, 2009 - by Helienne Lindvall
BEHIND THE MUSIC: PETER GABRIEL ON THE FUTURE OF THE INDUSTRY
The former Genesis frontman on fan funding, reliable filters, and why he would commission an alternative to The X Factor.
When I blogged about the lack of women in the music industry, one manager claimed that this is because girls are less interested in who worked on a record than what the band looks like on the cover. I'm not sure that's entirely true. After all, I was one of those girls who studied the credits on each song, often buying records based on who produced or played on them.
On Tuesday, at the APRS Fellowship awards, I was in the company of, what I consider to be, British music production royalty. Among those being honoured were legendary producers Trevor Horn, Peter Gabriel, Robin Millar and Steve Lillywhite, with Beatles producer George Martin handing out the awards. Since they're all responsible for creating the soundtrack to my life, I was more than a little excited.
As was pointed out early on in the ceremony, the record industry is in trouble. Many legendary studios have been forced to shut in the last few years. Katy Samwell, of Metropolis Studios, says that most of their clients are American (Rhianna recently booked up multiple studios in their complex). "UK labels have less budget to spend on studios," she says. Despite updating their equipment, the price of recording in UK studios has not gone up since 1972. There's a reason they spent such a short time recording albums back in the day - it cost a pound a minute. With digital recording technology getting cheaper and more portable, some people wonder if there is a need for professional studios any more.
Trevor Horn is convinced there is. "What's missing today are the acoustics," says the producer of Robbie Williams's latest album. "If you can't hear what you're listening to properly, or you can't get a proper perspective of the sound, then you can't push any boundaries - everything is destined to mediocrity." Listening to the incredible depth and space of Horn's productions for Art Of Noise, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Grace Jones and Seal - records that still sound fresh decades after they were recorded - it's difficult to argue against him. Of course, Horn also uses strings, which would be impossible to record properly without a big enough studio.
I spoke to Peter Gabriel, who co-founded the ad-funded streaming site We7, to find out his views on the future of UK music. Gabriel told me that he's just finished his new album Scratch My Back, a "song swap" project where he covers some of his favourite tunes while the original singers cover one of his. "The album features artists like Thom Yorke, Paul Simon and Arcade Fire," says Gabriel. "I wanted to do "Heroes", but Bowie didn't want to sing on the album. So instead Brian Eno (who co-wrote the song) will be doing a cover of one of my songs for it."
So what's Gabriel's view on the state of the music industry? "It'll be interesting to see what crawls out of the corpse," he says. "Sting is right in what he says about The X Factor. If I was a TV commissioner, I wouldn't take the show off the air, but I'd put on one that showcases new songwriting talent, featuring unique voices. Doing covers, impersonating other artists should not be the only option or goal to aspire to."
Gabriel is encouraged by fan funding, saying that an act recently recorded in his Real World studios after having raised the money from their hundred and ten fans. "When I started, you couldn't get signed unless the label thought you could sell a hundred thousand records. It took us two years playing gigs to get signed."
With the millions of tracks on offer on the net, Gabriel thinks a reliable filter is crucial. In an attempt to create one, in 2008 he launched The Filter, a recommendation site that suggests music, films and books based on your personal taste. "It turned out to be more difficult than we thought," Gabriel admits. "People have very strong feelings when it comes to music. It's like, you think you look like Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp, but the mirror thinks differently - it's not the reflection coming back at you. When it comes to video it seems people are less particular."
Ultimately, the APRS event was about the love and pursuit of great records. "There is as much magic in the sounds of things as there is in the notes," concluded Gabriel. "The studio can be the most boring place in the world, but when there's magic - when you open up a new vein - you wouldn't want to be anywhere else."