Groove Column: in praise of middle-men.

Just before Christmas, awful news. Nilesh Patel, ace mastering engineer at the Exchange in London died suddenly. He was 41. Within minutes warm tributes flowed across the internet for a man whose technical skills made recorded music better, and whose signature is etched into my copies of ‘Homework’ and ‘Homogenic’. Nilz mastered my first album; what should have been a completely nerve-wracking afternoon became massively enjoyable, even magical, as he made something listenable and coherent out my ham-fisted efforts.

We lavish a lot of attention upon art and artists in the pages of blogs like this, but not much on the craft and craftspeople whose shoulders they stand upon. And the line between the two isn’t always clear. ‘Raging Bull’ or ‘Goodfellas’ might be among your favourite films but you’ll put this down to Scorsese or De Niro. You probably haven’t heard of Thelma Schoonmaker, Marty’s editor for the past thirty years and quite as much of a genius. I heard her lecture nearly two decades ago and it was an inspiration; when I’m producing and mixing, compiling takes, organising sounds I think about her advice on creating rhythm, selecting performance and shaping narrative.

I worry for these people, their industries beset by aggregators and content factory-farmers touting business models which only work if you cut costs to bugger-all. It’s not cheap to record with a decent engineer, have your book copy-edited or get your record cut properly, and when we’re told music, books and movies should be sold at marginal cost (if you feel like paying for them at all), then it gets harder to afford those who help to weigh-up, polish, refine and sculpt raw ideas into finished things.

They will tell you that this is the age of DIY, of cutting out middle-men, but I am thankful for the A&Rs who’ve stood behind my musical choices, the editors who’ve focussed my arguments, the shop assistants who’ve shoved my record into a punter’s hands and said ‘have you heard this? I reckon you’ll love it’. Some things can’t be replaced with an API or an algorithm. Well, they can. Instead of paying the next Nilz Patel you could master your album yourself with a crack of Ozone. But your work, and maybe the world at large, will be the poorer for it.

One Response to “Groove Column: in praise of middle-men.”

  1. Rob says:

    I have very little time for music biz middlemen. But a mastering engineer is by no means a middleman. He’s a skilled contributor to the recorded work. How many artists can master at the highest level? Not many.

    I am also a passionate advocate of DIY and D2F but not to the extent that you do everything single thing yourself. And I don’t think many people would disagree. It’s not practical to believe DIY must be a go-it-alone business.

    That would make it some kind of religious pursuit. The aim is not to do without other people, it’s all about being in control and yes cutting out middlemen. But they are deadweights who add no value, not the people who have skills and assets you need.

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