Most people reading this will know all about Tony’s background, but for those who are unfamiliar with his work here is the first paragraph from his Wikipedia page:
Tony Maserati, born Tony Masciarotte, is an American record producer and audio engineer who has worked with many mainstream artists including Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Jason Mraz, James Brown, Mariah Carey, Notorious BIG, Black Eyed Peas, Destiny’s Child, R. Kelly, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Puff Daddy, and Tupac Shakur. His work encompasses worldwide sales in excess of 100 million units. He won a Grammy Award for his work on Beyoncé Knowles’ No. 1 single, “Crazy In Love”, a Latin Grammy Award for Sérgio Mendes’s Timeless (2006), and has seven additional Grammy nominations.
[JB blog note. These are unedited, real-time notes, presented here in their raw form, with apologies for the fragmented narrative caused by my inadequate typing. If anyone who was present has any additions or amendments, please let me know. Tony was an inspiring speaker – he talked for around 2 hours and the questioning session went on well beyond our allotted time.]
Tony begins by expressing his slight nervousness in a room full of PhD types, then stating that he plans to share some of his observations about the way the music industry is going, and explains that this is why he chose the title ‘Retaining Beauty in the Uncurated Music Business.’
The first discussion point is about brands, and Tony uses himself as an example, describing the way his public brand exists and has come to exist over time. “I make money from the value of my brand. My brand is my sound. I don’t have an avatar or a logo. It seems [in some cases] to have become more important that my name is involved in a project as opposed to the sound that I create.”
Popular culture has influenced art and vice versa. We are all curators of music, and those in education and in music contribute to the curation of music for the next generation.
Tony’s first case study is called Coast Modern. He discusses how he uses interns – by appointing them and letting them find the job for themselves. Some drift away in the first couple of weeks, and those who stay are successful. Coast Modern started as an intern who was about to be let go because he was ‘never going to be an engineer’, but he then played Tony some original songs (on an old cassette player) and Tony advised him that this is the direction he should take, pairing him up with another writer. Audio example: ‘Hollow Life’ by Coast Modern. The song has been on Soundcloud for 1 month and has 110,000 plays. They now have a manager/lawyer etc, and Tony hopes they will go on to greatness. In this course of events, Tony’s role was that of the curator (and in this case also publisher and mix engineer).
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Tony describes a straightforward career approach – “I want money – cash, cheque, barter, equipment – I’ll take it.” But Tony’s product does not sell to the public directly. His brand is dependent upon the success of his affliates – Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, but also Coca-Cola and Xbox, all of which are ‘brands’ that need to be successful for Tony’s indirect brand to be successful.
“For the survival of my business I must adapt to the conditions of the marketplace… on the surface this sounds far from art, but in reality this doesn’t matter, because art doesn’t give a shit… art has no conscience.“
Next, Tony describes the mixing of Beyoncé’s last album, which had to be mixed in a tight timeframe using a round-the-clock team. Some of that team of engineers did not get credit for their work – it was at least 10 people (this is engineering staff, not production staff, who did of course get credit). So “if I’m not getting credit or increasing the value of my brand, why am I doing it?”.
The next musical example is One More Chance (Remix) by Notorious B.I.G.
It was recorded at the Hit Factory in New York, a room with a Neve VR in it. The vocalist was Faith Evans, who at the time was in the studio with her four-year old daughter China. Tony had to hold China in his lap to stop her from running round the studio touching things (he mimes holding China back) while pressing the punch-in button on the remote. China soon learned that when the talk-back button was pressed her mommy could hear her, and so repeated “mommy, mommy, mommy” every time the mic was open.
When Tony was mixing, B.I.G. was writing in the background, and this became the way he worked. Now Tony teaches his students “always play [the music], never [press] stop. Leave the music playing all the time.”. Tony’s role was to mix the track, but he also played a role in providing a creative environment for B.I.G. to write. Another example of curating music. Tony’s point is that everyone who was in the room in that 2-3 week process had an impact on the sound of that record. “So who curates music? Is it the guy who shows up with pizza and makes everybody happy? More people interact with culture than ever before.”
“A mom at a PTA board can influence her PTA to make a cat video. They get 300 million views in a weekend. They get a YouTube payment and donate the money. By making that video they are influencing popular culture”.
The ‘why’ of popular culture is what Tony calls ‘beauty’. “Every curator of art considers not just its value to the marketplace but also its intrinsic value to the soul.”
“The various positions we hold – writer, producer, engineer… we must all be seeking beauty… if we stand for beauty in all we hope to do in our work we will be consistent in our prime directive…
“Beauty is the element we humans seek to explain our feelings. It’s the inspiration in our favourite vocalists and musicians. If we stand for it, no decision we make will be [artistically] wrong.”
Tony’s next two examples are of artists who are Philadelphia based and curated by the Internet – in this case YouTube. The first is Lil Dicky presents Professional Rapper, which is great fun and alludes to some of the issues around curation.
The second is T J Atoms – Recognize (a low-streamed video with only 7,000 views).
The whole product is team-created and co-curated by the artists themselves, and the audience has not caught up yet. “There are a lot of products that we make that have a low level of infiltration.”
Tony reflects on art and business;
“I got into this business because music spoke to me… we all have to keep that [inspiration] in focus. I’ve worked with millionaires and street kids who want to be millionaires. Not one of those is fake in their love for their music. I’ve met some people who were inspired and passionate about music that I thought was garbage.”
Ubiquitous Internet-based self-expression:
“Never before have we lived in a world where people [are able to easily] express themselves to an audience around the world.”
…And, of course, Beyoncé.
“One artist stands high above the rest. She’s got a little Aretha in her, a little Whitney, a little Tina. A true artist among us. I say this and I wrote this and I speak it reluctantly – no-one speaks like this, especially to a room full of PhDs. Beyoncé – it’s so hard to explain how amazing she is, it really is.”
“About ten years ago we were working on Beyoncé’s solo record – she was on a TV show doing promotional stuff. We were at the Hit Factory and she was doing some [promotional] shots or something. So they asked me to get the song going so they could shoot her doing some recording. I set all the mics up, and B comes down, and she and I hadn’t done a lot of recording together. There were lots of people in my room – camera people, A&R people, TV people, lots of humans. We record, and she sings it – perfectly. And it turns out I messed up – it didn’t get printed to tape. Nothing there. So I said over the talkback “can we take that again… from the top?”. And it was exactly the same – perfect – again. The dedication that this woman had to the moment – even with the cameras rolling and a promotional thing happening. She’s an amazing musician and an incredible performer. This was earlier in her career, and she was newer to promotion. Now, she could endorse Obama – or anyone or anything – and it would be a benefit to them. I don’t think she even knew that then. I found it amazing that she could [so easily] understand the gravity of what was happening in that room.”
“I went to Berklee school of music. Because of that, I will always love jazz. I saw Ella Fitzgerald in the park and she was outstanding.” Tony goes on to tell a story about a Berklee housemate who suggested that he should change his original major from performance to studio production, a decision that hindsight has proved to be the right one.
Here’s a quote that came from comments on the day to day activities of a producer.
“My life in the studio is really boring – I spend most of my time in a room, alone or with another man, and we listen to the same thing over and over again.”
Back to curation. The audience, Tony says, is deciding for itself and finding the good stuff. “Somehow, somewhere, this stuff is being curated. Coast Modern don’t have 100,000 friends – people are playing this track more than once.”
Finally, he reflects on the ‘beauty’ of his title, and how this value is co-created and co-curated by so many people.
“This beauty is what I suggest we should strive for. Whether it might be the engineer who helps to make the music, the software designer who makes the software that helps me to make the music, or the manager that brings Beyoncé to the studio. Who creates that value?”