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December/January 2021

by Richard Thorne

What Do You Call A Series Of Producers?

by Richard Thorne

What Do You Call A Series Of Producers?

Music is fashion and movements within the musical landscape often come in waves that follow, or sometimes herald the arrival of the latest industry trend. The closing end of 2020 saw a flurry of initiatives aimed squarely at Kiwi music producers; the announcement of new artist development-focused funding from NZ On Air, the establishment of a NZ producers’ representative body and staging of the two-week-long 2020 Aotearoa Music Producers Series, with 10 established local producers as speakers. There’s clearly something in the sparkling water and Richard Thorne, with the assistance of audio engineer/producer Morgan Allen, set out to connect the dots.

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From left to right: Morgan Allen, Rory Noble, Yasamin Al-Tiay, Simon Gooding, Edy Liu, Josh Fountain, Lee Stuart

For those who came of age sometime around the extraordinary global explosion into the world charts of Auckland teen Lorde that happened with Royals in 2013, the recent global success of Supalonely by the country’s new pop princess Benee may seem natural enough. And hallelujah to that notion.

In the between time Nelson siblings Broods and Wellington uni trio Drax Project, among others, have added substance to the possible notion that Kiwi pop has a natural place on the world stage, or maybe even that pop is what we do best. Throw Jawsh685 into the equation and it becomes easy to overlook the truth that NZ has scant history as a hotbed of pop music production.

Pop we’ve long been good at, it’s production finesse that’s traditionally been lacking, the kind of finesse that would readily persuade Kiwi radio to embrace a new song or artist. That historic belief that new artists need to break big elsewhere before they can expect recognition here still lingers.

“Often (when we were pitching songs to radio) we would get push back that the problem with a song was the ‘production values’, NZ On Air’s former, but long time Music Manager Brendan Smyth observes. “Sometimes I reckon it was just camouflage, that it was code for, ‘I don’t like this song’ or simply, ‘I don’t want to play this song’, because there are lots of examples of songs, local and international, that are hits with minimal production values.

“But it did put the spotlight on the role of the producer as part of the recipe and NZ On Air worked that into the Phase Four album funding formula. In the past, it often meant buying an international name producer to add not just production values but also their CV to the song. That was the orthodoxy – importing production expertise.”

It was the combination of 16-year old Ella Yelich O’Connor’s brave songwriting with the experimental production skills of former pop/punk singer/guitarist Joel Little that produced magic and Kiwi music history – and since then there has been something akin to an explosion of talent in the ranks of local music producers.

Among those pictured on the cover of this issue are Kiwis who have produced songs for Benee, Pink and Kanye West. They were photographed in the control room at Roundhead Studios (itself an important vital link in the chain reaction of that explosion), during this year’s Aotearoa Music Producer Series event.

AMPS is the brainchild of Welsh-born (these days NZ citizen) producer Greg Haver, who first came to NZ as a guest producer for the British Council-sponsored Resonate conference way back in 2003.

“It was at the height of that very independent NZ approach to production, where a lot of artists were self-producing,” Haver recalls of his observations 16 years ago. “There were producers working here, but a lot of it was engineers working with the artist to produce the record.

“I found there was a lot of misunderstanding about what the producer’s role was, and how producers get reimbursed. I remember the blank expressions I got when the idea of Producer Points came up in conversation.”

With his own production credits on albums by local artists that include The Feelers, Opshop, Chills and Junica (among plenty of others), Haver moved to NZ permanently eight years ago.

He says it’s a lot better now, though there’s still a way to go, and in the time since Haver seems to have made it his business to instigate constructive change. He’s currently preparing a research paper for NZ Music Commission comparing the Swedish music industry to the current NZ situation, investigating if NZ came become a global music exporter in the way Sweden has.

“What I’ve been really looking at is producer capability and how to upskill the producer sector, because a strong production sector becomes like a generational approach. Those producers will get older but the artists they work with will stay at the same age, so you get generations of artists working with a highly skilled set of producers. If you can hold onto that production sector for 30 years (instead of them giving up because once they start having kids it’s too expensive) then you have built an industry that means being a songwriter, producer or musician is deemed a proper profession.”

ampsThe first plan he contrived was what’s since become AMPS, but he was sidetracked when early conversations he had around that idea raised talks about the need for songwriter education, leading him to first develop SongHubs alongside songwriters’ organisation APRA NZ.

“I did five years of curating SongHubs with the guys at APRA. That has probably been a more valuable programme for the production sector than the Producer Series has, because it has been getting NZ songwriters and producers and artists together, all working at a high level with international connections.”

Sorting sufficient grant funding for the first year’s AMPS event proved much more challenging but those two programmes have now been running in parallel for the last five years, with some crossover between the two. The AMPS model has been bringing a handful of international guest producers to NZ for a week or more, charging a limited audience of 20-or so local producers for the opportunity to learn first hand from them.

Attendees have been drawn to specific producers whose work they know. Among those Haver mentions are Andrew Scheps “very much the producer’s producer”, Silvia Massey, Mark Rankin and Gil Norton.

Haver describes the overall importance as less the influence of any international guests but that they have helped to get NZ writers and producers working and networking together, getting away from that determined independent Kiwi mode and into one of collaboration within production and songwriting. For AMPS 2020 the original plan was a hip hop focus, with P-Money curating, but given the advance of Covid in the planning stage it was decided to forego any international content and make this year’s event NZ-only.

“There are so many great producers here in NZ now, all back and trapped here, so I thought let’s utilise that. Ten producers over 10 days. It was a format I was forced into but it worked really well, to the point that even if I can bring in international producers next year I’ll still do a week of this.”

Simon Gooding, formerly Roundhead’s in-house engineer up until 2019, was the first asked to be a speaker and his response was enthusiastic.

From playing guitar and drums in various bands throughout high school, Gooding went on to study at SAE in Auckland, before interning at 301 Studios in NSW then York Street Studios in Parnell. Now 36 he was just 19 or 20 he got to help out as an assistant engineer at Roundhead on the Seven Worlds Collide sessions, working with Neil Finn, Johnny Marr, Katy Tunstall and members of Radiohead and Wilco. It was quite an initiation.

World touring international artists occasionally use Roundhead while in Auckland, and as well as Stevie Nicks and Ed Sheeran he subsequently got to work on impromptu sessions with pop megastars Katy Perry and Pink.

amps“Pink was playing at Spark Arena the night before and booked in super last minute. She didn’t come with an engineer or anybody, just knocked on the door and said hi. I get nervous with some artists but I wasn’t with her. I’m not sure why,” Gooding told the audience of around 50 budding producers who attended his AMPS session.

“She was super cool and really relaxed and they had a five or six-hour vocal session which was an early testing of songs for an album she was going to do later that year. The session went really well.”

So well, and Pink was evidently so impressed by his efficiency, that almost immediately after she asked if he wanted to come to California and do the album with her! A month later he found himself living in her house and working on her ‘Beautiful Trauma’, not only the recording, but being the keen Kiwi he also ended up mixing five or six of the album tracks.

It’s the stuff of dreams, and armed with a three-year US visa Gooding was due to return for Pink’s next album last March, until Covid-19 shifted the world’s axis. Listed among his diverse local production/mixing/engineering credits are Drax Project’s Woke Up Late, Mitch James21, and Alien Weaponry’s Kai Tangata. His international achievements mean that the recent press release for 18-year old singer-songwriter Venice Qin (and other clients) could mention the ‘attention of Pink’s sound and recording wizard’ – as a claim to fame in itself.

Fellow presenter Josh Fountain’s pathway into production began with the audio engineering and music production course at MAINZ. A tutor subsequently recommended him for a job at Auckland’s Woodcut Productions which specialises in music for commercials and TV, and had hip hop label MTC running out of the same building.

“I ended up forming a group called Kidz In Space with rappers Ethical and Neesh, and we started putting out music. That was the beginning of my journey!”

His band life continues as a member of the producer supergroup Leisure who have released their own share of fabulous pop tracks even performing in concert with the APO, but most famously and immediately, Fountain produced Benee’s global smash Supalonely.

Not sure that he has a ‘signature sound’, he says there are some stylistic choices he leans towards – spacious, simple drum grooves and big basslines for example.

“I like to find new sounds and samples all the time, so hopefully that means the stuff I work on doesn’t all sound the same!”
Having done a few overseas writing trips in the past Fountain says the main thing he learnt is that you need to work fast.

“You may only get one shot with an artist so you want to make sure you’ve done your homework and are prepared. In my experience most people are working out of bedroom/home studios with the same simple gear that we use back here, which I think is encouraging.

“Technology has improved so much since I first started out! I just use a laptop now, which means I can work wherever I need to rather than just be confined to the studio. I also love that if I need to figure out how to get a certain sound or try a new technique I can just jump on Youtube and learn it in five minutes – such a valuable resource!”

Over time, he says, he has managed to become less concerned with getting things perfect and put more focus on capturing the ‘vibe’ and energy of a particular moment.

“After all these years I can get the sounds I need quickly, or at least in the ball park, and I know I can always go back and work on production stuff later on, once the artist has left if I have to. Working quickly for me often means messy sessions and bad gain staging, but I think if whatever is coming out of the speakers sounds good and is inspiring the artist then that’s all that matters.”
That was something that drew him to participating as a speaker at the AMPS sessions.

“I was keen to share my story and talk a bit about all the times things didn’t work out or I completely failed at something (which is most of the time!). I also wanted people to see my messy sessions and understand that you don’t have to be the most technical producer around!”

Among the presenters at AMPS 2020, 24-year old Rory Noble counts as one of the new producers on the block, but has the significant CV addition of having provided music for Kanye West, specifically his 2019 Nebuchadnezzar debut opera project.
Palmerston North-born Noble has little formal music (or audio engineering) training, instead learning the ropes from his musician father and brothers. He was playing keys and drums as part of the family band from an early age, busking and even performing in bars before turning 10.

He says he knew early on that he’d be doing music forever, and his teenage interest in beat making eventually gave way to a passion for including live-recorded instruments in loops.

“I’m a bit less technical and way more on feeling,” Noble says “I want to write songs and put live instruments on them, not just rely on presets. I’m a fan of being in that moment, and doing things differently.”

His production is found on local songs from Chaii, Kings, Church & AP, Mikey Dam’s Time and Niko WaltersNot My Neighbour, for example, but it was that conscious point of difference that won him the Kanye gig, via LA-based Australian record production and songwriting duo FnZ.

“I do loops for all sort of producers overseas, often they’re just Instagram connects, for placements. About a year ago I was asked to submit some ideas for Kanye’s gospel album ‘Jesus Is King’, but didn’t hear back. Then one day they told me Kanye and Big Sean had been listening to some of those loops and both of them wanted to use one!”

Kanye won that fight but despite the legal wrangles and subsequent 20-page agreement Noble says he didn’t really expect it to actually happen until he watched the opera online and heard his work being performed live.

Becoming one of Aotearoa’s hottest producers hasn’t stopped the musician in him coming out, and in June Warner released his debut solo artist single Team, billed as a three-minute summary of his musical life to now.

“The whole story of Team is about trying to make my dream in the music industry work whilst being confronted by all sorts of issues in America,” he explains. “Knowing even when times are dark or a little messed up that I always have a team of people there cheering me on, and that gang of people will stay by my side no matter what life throws my way.”

Also featuring on the cover of this issue are some of the budding producers who attended many of the sessions at AMPS 2020. Edward Liu (Edy) featured in NZM’s last Dec/Jan issue and has since more than made his mark with numerous successful hip hop and RnB releases.

Previously resident engineer at Depot Sound in Auckland, Morgan Allen was good enough to volunteer his services in preparing content for this article. His interest was in getting an idea of each producer’s approach to songwriting and the craft of working with musicians, in particular vocalists.

“I’ve spent a fair amount of time learning and studying the technical side of recording but it’s the communication and social skills involved that I find are the most exciting to learn. It’s not something I find lends itself well to online courses or traditional educational environments. There’s no substitute for discussing these things in person with people who really excel in this area.”

Yasamin Al-Tiay is an artist and producer (her self-produced album ‘Songs Over Baghdad’ came out recently), who took the two weeks away from her life in Tauranga.

“I wanted to see how each producer approaches their work. I concluded that production is sound architecture and no two architects design the same.

“I have learnt that there is no right way to do production, to trust my intuition, and that no idea is too crazy. Like Bic Runga said in her workshop, all you need is ears, and everyone in the room has them. I came away from the 10 days full of energy, and ready to get stuck into making demos for the next album!”

Lee Stuart is another artist and self-producer, from Wellington. Now working full-time as a musician, she finished a jazz degree a couple of years ago.

“I was most keen to see Josh Fountain’s session – because who doesn’t want to see how a hit is made, lol! But I ended up rolling into all of them and really glad I did too. Each producer gave something totally different and I was surprised by the variety of experiences and processes.

“It was honestly an inspiring experience. I came away with a lot more confidence knowing there’s really no rules, and that it’s all just sonic experimentation. Trusting your ear for music was a big takeaway for me. Also, just realising that most producers feel like frauds or failures, no matter what level they’re at, was super comforting.”

NZ On Air’s New Music Development funding

In a bold new initiative made possible by additional funding for the next two years from the Government’s Covid-related Arts Recovery Package, NZ On Air Music is looking to support the development of emerging artists in collaboration with Aotearoa’s music producers.

Announced in September, the New Music Development scheme will subsidise the costs of production, songwriting and studio time to create new songs and bodies of work. Experienced local music producers will have the chance to collaborate, produce, co-write and record new music repertoire from promising emerging artists.

Kicking off in October 2020 NZ On Air will have regular rounds of New Music Development grants of up to $10,000. NZ On Air’s release noted that the new funding scheme has been inspired by the collaborative songwriting and production workshops from the last five years of the APRA NZ SongHubs and RMNZ’s Music Producers Series, and seeing the exceptional results these have been able to create.

With his experience in curating both of those annual interactive seminar programmes, Greg Haver was engaged by NZ On Air as New Music Development advisor, to consult with industry and shape the new scheme. NZ On Air’s Head of Music, David Ridler, makes the observation that great songs rarely just happen and increasingly in the NZ music scene collaboration is a key ingredient.

Haver is focused on upskilling right across the song-making sector, and firmly believes that developing new artists is the way the NZ music industry should be looking.

“The industry needs to be agile and so the support net for the industry needs to be agile too. Let’s give producers a few grand so they can spend genuine time with a brand new artist. Most have producers in development anyway. The fact that NZ On Air are thinking differently is really encouraging, it’s not just about immediate content for radio, it’s more long term development of artists.”

Music Producers Guild of NZ

Launched officially in mid-October, the Music Producers Guild of NZ / Aotearoa has been established as an advisory service to assist producers of recorded music and enable them to sustain long-term careers in the music industry.

The MPGNZ website expresses the non-profit trade organisation’s aim as being to foster a supportive and successful community of music production professionals, and help grow NZ music.

‘Think of us as part of your professional toolkit – if you need help with legal questions, advice on a production, or if you want a contact and network with other producers and the wider music industry we can help.’

It’s a concept that Greg Haver and well-known Auckland producer/mastering engineer Chris Chetland have been slowly working towards for three years, the basis of the idea being to create a community of local music producers and provide them individually with a guild backing. The Covid lockdown allowed these two very busy men time to pull it together.

Why a guild? Haver describes it as essentially a union – one happy to play the role of bad cop if needed.

“One of the most difficult conversations producers have with artists is about money. It’s about money, royalties and payment terms. If we can set some basic levels of recompense then everyone knows what they do is valued. It’s really just to give producers a more professional approach to the way they structure their careers, so when they get to my age they can still be producing records.”

Membership is by subscription ($100 pa), giving access to the advice service as well as discounts on recording equipment and software. Perhaps most importantly members can get personalised contracts to use in their producing and mixing roles. Things like work rates, royalty rates, credit terms, accounting periods etc. are all covered. And here’s where Haver’s constabulary allusion steps in.

“If there are any issues the producer can then go to the artist, or their manager, and say, ‘I’m just working to a standard Producers Guild profile, have a chat with them.’ Then we can interject and be the bad cop by giving them some basic fee structures.”