It was a true honour this week to have the chance to speak with the legendary record producer/engineer Stuart Epps, who has worked with artists such as Led Zeppelin, Elton John, George Harrison, Bill Wyman, Oasis, Twisted Sister, Robbie Williams, Jeff Beck, Paul Rodgers and many others. Starting his music career at the age of 15 in 1967, Stuart has over 40 years of first hand experience in the ever-changing music industry.
Aspiring artists and producers alike should find this interview both sobering and inspiring. We talked about some of the main issues confronting the industry today and his answers were fascinating. The main message I personally took from it is that we all have sometimes rigid perceptions of what the “music industry” should be and what it owes us for our efforts, but, as George Gershwin would say, “It ain’t necessarily so.” Success in any facet of the business is difficult, but it is definitely possible. In some ways, not much has changed, and that should be a relief to many. Without further delay, Stuart Epps!
Mr. Epps, it’s an honor to speak with you and thank you for your contributions to music. Please share with our readers what you’ve been up to lately. I understand that you accept independent artist submissions for production, mixing and mastering, which is a stellar opportunity.
Hi James. It’s incredible, really. I’ve been in this business for 40 years now and I thought I’d seen everything, done everything and been everywhere, but it’s the amazing thing about this business I’m in that I’m often finding myself in situations I haven’t been in before; whether it’s a different band, different music or different sounds, and obviously the music business is changing and has changed dramatically.
At the moment, via a great music website called Music XRay I have been mixing bands and artist’s home recordings, which is something I never imagined I’d be doing. To be honest I got a bit fed up with lack of budgets and trying to get artists to record in commercial studios. Anyway, with the invention of the internet I’m in touch with bands and the internet has brought us together – musicians and artists and producers from all over the world.
So it’s pooling resources, and what I’m finding myself doing now is taking the waves from artist’s home recordings and mixing them, as well as sometimes adding my own production ideas such as adding other instruments and enhancing what they’ve already achieved, which is working out great. I’m enjoying doing it. Sometimes artists aren’t the easiest to deal with face to face. This way I’m not always having to. Sometimes I don’t even speak to anyone. We’re just communicating via their music, which isn’t a bad thing really. That’s working out well and I’ve been very busy with that. I’m still working with artists in my own studio and in commercial studios but as I said, unfortunately budgets are on the decrease so remixing is a good way to “carry on the good work”.
What is the best way for someone interested in music production to learn how to do what you do?
Interesting question because music is so huge now, really – bigger than ever before and everyone is making music it would seem. It’s promoted on the TV with all your X Factor style shows where everyone is singing away and playing furiously, and live music is bigger than ever before. So everyone wants to learn how to be a music producer it would seem, and I’ve been lecturing to music schools via skype in Canada and across the world about this. There are many thousands of colleges that are teaching engineering and music production and of course I’m all for it.
In my day, the only way to learn was really hands on starting at the bottom in a recording studio or a publishers. In my case it was a demo studio and you’d learn engineering and somehow work your way up. Obviously there is a lot more available now as you can actually go to schools to learn that. Hands on is the best way as well. With home recording facilities you can experiment at home, with your friends and with bands. I’m always talking about what separates an engineer from someone who wants to do music production. It’s a fascinating subject which is too lengthy to go into here, but they are very different things to learn how to do. For music production, the best thing to do would be to go to a college and jump into it as soon as possible with friends, with bands, with home recording, and learn as much as you can.
Please share your thoughts on the controversial issue of free file sharing and it’s effects on independent artists.
With the invention of the internet it’s incredible that you can record a demo or a track in the morning and by the evening have it finished and promote it through all the various music sites. Of course I think that it would be nice to make money out of it, but at that early stage I think just getting people to listen is a good thing, really. There’s so much music out there that you can’t really charge for these things until you become a little bit more well known and maybe your music has evolved and gotten that much better. Then, maybe you can charge for it, but that’s just the same as it was in the 60’s and 70’s.
A new band starting out was not likely to get paid in a pub or a club. If they made a demo, they probably would have to pay for it. Good luck trying to sell it, too. It’s not really any different in that respect. It’s just that everyone assumes these days that if you make something one day you should be able to sell it the next day somewhere or other. The main thing is – none of us really thought about the money when we were making music in the 60’s or 70’s. If you start out at age 15 or 16 or even earlier, you’re not thinking in monetary terms. You’re just thinking “I want to play music”, and if money comes along that’s a complete bonus, but this was when the music industry was in it’s infancy. It wasn’t such a huge industry as it is now. I understand that everyone wants to make money from it but I think the fact is that there are so many more people listening to music than ever before. It’s become a cheaper item. The whole thing has been cheapened to a certain extent, but because it’s in such vast quantities it sort of makes up for it in that respect.
Is the music industry evolving or collapsing? Does it matter?
It’s definitely evolving. It’s always been evolving. Revolving and evolving…it’s probably more revolving now as music just seems to go around in circles with the technology and the different styles of bands. It does seem that there’s very little that comes along now that seems to be completely new. It always seems to be somewhat of a rehash of some of the old music. It’s just reinvented. People say that the music industry is finished or has collapsed, and certainly the old music industry has collapsed pretty much. The giant record companies are obviously feeling the pressure from the internet, and that’s a good thing, really. The only way that you could get a record deal or get your music heard in my day was through a record company or a publisher and very much through the establishment that was set up, which was hard to break into.
Now artists can record a record in their bedroom in the morning and have it beamed out to whoever is there to listen by the evening. That’s something that didn’t exist when I started, so it’s definitely evolving. It’s difficult to make money from making records, I suppose. That’s what we’re talking abut. It’s not difficult to make music and it’s not difficult to get it heard, really. You can have your own radio station if there’s people there to listen. It’s possible.
Making money out of the music business and making it a career is not so easy, but then again it never was. Just like any other industry it’s very difficult. I would say that it’s an extremely exciting time. The live music industry is bigger than ever. There’s more bands. There’s more artists. There’s more people playing live than ever before, and that’s an incredible thing. Who would have thought that would have ever been the case in the 60’s, or certainly the 80’s when it was mainly electronic music. So that’s a great thing and I think that the music industry at the moment is more exciting than ever.
Many artists don’t seem to know how to promote themselves properly. What are some of the most common mistakes you see artists make all the time?
It’s very difficult. I tend to go for the old, traditional ways which are music publishers and record companies, but then obviously there’s Myspace and Facebook. There are literally hundreds of thousands of ways for the individual to promote themselves across the internet with all the various music sites. I think it takes the same tenacity that was needed years ago. The only thing is, life is a bit easier now generally.
People aren’t as ruthless now as they used to be in getting their music heard. It was a question of getting out of the house. “How do I get out of the house? How do I leave home? I’m going to go join a band and we’ll tour all over the place as long as we don’t have to be at home, and as long as we’re playing our music”. I think that some of that has gone out of individual artists ideas, really. I mean, everyone thinks that you can just make a record in the morning and tomorrow it will be number 1; everyone will be buying it and everyone will be watching you on Youtube and you’ll be on X Factor, and everyone tends to want immediate success without putting in as much of the hard work and technical ability or musicality that is required to make great music. It’s only when you make great music that you will get a great reaction, and you’ll find that you probably don’t have to promote yourself.
A lot of the artists that I work with – it took them years, really, to achieve any sort of status. You’ve got to be dedicated and single-minded. Never give up and never let anything stand in your way. These are the things that are required to help promote yourself.
It seems that you have found innovative and collaborative ways to continously be successful with what you do. Do you have any advice for young producers as well as artists who may be stuck in old models of thinking? (For example, many artists obsess over the decrease of album sales but fail to educate themselves on the benefits of licensing or advertising.)
If we’re talking about well known bands, it is a fact that record sales have decreased. There is a lot of pirateing and downloading that still goes on, so obviously even the successful bands aren’t selling in the quantities they used to. At the same time, ticket sales are absolutely huge for big bands and that’s become the new way for artists to make money. In the early days, the gig was really a promotional tool for the CD and now that’s completely reversed. The CD is the promotional tool for the live gig, where then the famous band can go ahead and charge $200 a ticket whereas the CD is only likely to be $20, so it’s changed a lot in that respect. I mean, it’s always been about promotion. That’s where the record companies were vital, really…that whole system of signing a new artist, nurturing them, paying for it as it went along, recording demos, promoting…
I was in there working with Elton John right from the beginning working for Dick James, and a whole team of us…40, 50 people working every day, really, to try and make Elton John a famous artist and to increase record sales, and his whole career, so it’s not an easy situation for someone to do on their own. It’s almost impossible I would say, but if you’re determined enough and you use the tools that are available (which weren’t available then), you just have to keep at it and it’s possible to get your name out there. You’ve got to be very dedicated, and beyond all those things, it’s about having a great product. You have to have a product that stands out not necessarily quality wise or production wise but depth-wise, the writing and the musicianship. Any great artist who has the right tools will come through in the end. It’s just a matter of time.
Is music more difficult to promote these days? Do you feel the market is oversaturated?
It’s a very good question. When I started off, music was not something that everyone was into and I suppose you felt that you were part of a select few that made music or recorded music. Maybe there was that magic about it, the idea that “it’s only us that know about it”, and now everyone seems to be talking about it. If we had a pair of headphones to listen to music with, that was unusual. Now you get on the train and everyone has got a pair of headphones on, but I just think it’s great actually. It’s just great to see everyone doing what we hoped everyone would do, and that’s listening to music and making music.
I don’t know about the term ‘oversaturated’. There’s a lot of still not very good music and there’s very few things that ARE great. Maybe that’s a good thing as well. To make great music and be a great artist isn’t easy. It is difficult. It IS possible but it still takes the same amount of talent that it always took, and you still can’t “make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear”, so to speak. No matter what technology comes along, it’s still not possible to be great unless you are truly great. It’s just like any other art, really, whether it’s painting or sculpting. It doesn’t matter how many people have a go at it. There’s still only going to be certain people who will succeed at it and are great at it. It doesn’t matter how many people make music or get involved in music. It seems that quality wins out in the end…hopefully.
You’ve worked with some of the greats such as Led Zeppelin and Elton John. In your opinion, is musical greatness something that has to come about naturally, or is tenacity the necessary ingredient?
It’s a great question, and I’m lucky to say that having seen it happen, I think I have an answer. Of course, musical talent is important first and foremost. Being a great singer, songwriter, and musician – if you have all those 3 that’s very, very rare but that’s definitely going to get you somewhere. That’s for sure. If you’re a great singer, songwriter and a great performer that’s when you get the greats. You mentioned Elton John and Led Zeppelin, some of the greats who I’ve been fortunate enough to work with – they had those 3 talents. But also, extremely important and just as important, if not more important, is determination, having an inner strength and a wanting to succeed in the business of music. To have it happen. To make it big. To question everything, really.
If you do that all the way along the line then chances are you will come out with something special. If you’re writing a song and you think “No, it’s got to be better. It’s got to be better. It can still be better.” then you’ll write a better song. If you’re trying to become a better singer, you hear yourself recorded and you think “No, I can sing better than that. I want to sing better than that. I’m going to sing better than that.” Same with guitar playing, piano playing, drums – everything. It’s critical as a musician to get better and better.
Some things I find difficult with young musicians if they want to be great at everything. They want to be a great drummer and a great singer and a great producer and a great engineer. They seem to want to be good at every part of every facet of the music business, which isn’t the case with some of those people I’ve mentioned. In the early days, musicians let managers and producers get on with what they did while they got on with what they did the best they knew how, and I think that’s something to learn from, really. Get as good as you can at your instrument, your song writing, and question it all the time.
I mean, Jimmy Page – you mentioned Led Zeppelin, I know that he never achieved what he wanted to achieve in the studio. None of these artists fully achieved it. It was always the striving to get that perfection, and that’s what makes for great music and great artists.
What do you look for in artists you choose to work with?
Sometimes it tends to be the other way around these days. Artists choose me, but I’m always looking for a great song. I’m always looking for a great musician. Of course I’m always thinking “Is this going to be the new Beatles?”. The new Led Zeppelin – I would love to find. Where is the next Led Zeppelin? Where is a band that even sounds anything like Led Zeppelin or Bad Company or any of the great bands from the 60’s or 70’s? They just don’t seem to exist. They don’t seem to stay together long enough to fully exist anyway. I mean, bands are really difficult to be in and difficult to get along with if you’re a member of a band so it takes a lot of work to make a band successful and I don’t think people work at it enough.
Basically, I try to clear my head and I listen to the artist hoping it’s going to be something I like and something I think I can add to; that’s more the case. If a band or an artist does come up and their sound is great and everything seems fine, the arrangement is all there and there’s not much for me to do then that’s great, but obviously not great from my point of view.
So, I’m looking for all sorts of things when I listen to a new artist for the first time. Working with Music XRay, I’m working with bands from Australia, the U.S, Canada, South America, South Africa, all over the world really. There does seem to be a common element in music when it comes to rock music. We all seem to like the same things, which is a great feeling, really. Coming up to nearly 60 years old, it’s not something I imagined would happen. None of us imagined when we were in our 20’s that the new generation would in any way like the music that we liked. To be in this era where everybody writes down their favourite band and it’s Led Zeppelin and we’re still talking about bands and rock music. It’s a great thing, really, and I’m just happy to be in it.
Very few people seem to understand the music industry. Can you leave us with some advice for anyone looking to follow their dreams and make music their career?
It’s a very wide subject, isn’t it (the music industry)? I do skype conferences with music students of all ages, but people are seeming to wait until older and older ages before they even start to learn. I say it’s best to start as early as possible. I started in the music business when I was 15 and I don’t think you can start early enough. I also think that it’s important to know as early as possible which area of the music business that you want to join, and to get into that and to learn all about that and not try to learn every facet of it or learn what everyone else’s jobs are. Admittedly, if you want to become a record producer it’s good to learn engineering. It’s good to have a grounding in that, but if you know that you’re a great guitarist and you love playing guitar I think it’s best to stick to learning that instrument and doing it the best you can.
Jimmy Page, I mean, he was one of the top session musicians at age 15 or 16. He had been playing since he was a little boy. He wanted to play that guitar and know absolutely everything about it. Of course, he became a really good record producer and got into that side of things, but still, he was learning and wanted to put together a great band. A lot of the musicians that I’ve worked with…Paul Rogers just wanted to be a great singer. I find that some of the new bands that are great tend to specialize. Coming back to the question, that’s what I think. It’s good to find out early on what you’re going to be best at and then honing in on that. Obviously if it’s a musician then that’s getting together with other musicians, getting your craft together, writing great songs.
People tend to work too much on their own these days. Sometimes you can’t do everything yourself. Sometimes you’re going to need a lyricist even if you’re a great songwriter like Elton John. His lyrics weren’t good at all when I first worked with him before he met Bernie Taupin. Sometimes you have to work with others in order to get it even better. It’s a great music industry, still. Get into it as soon as possible, I say.
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