Remixing is a modern phenomenon that has turned into a viable way for hi-tech musicians to make money from their skills. But how do you get heard, how do you land a job, and how much should you charge to do it? We get you started with the insider’s guide. This is the first article in a three-part series. Read Part 2 and Part 3.
According to Wikipedia, “A remix is an alternative version of a song, different from the original version. A remixer uses audio mixing to compose an alternate master recording of a song, adding or subtracting elements, or simply changing the equalization, dynamics, pitch, tempo, playing time or almost any other aspect of the various musical components”. Sounds simple enough, right? Well in theory, yes, it is, but like any musical art form, there’s more to it than meets the ear.
In this article, I’ll be telling you what it is like to work in the modern remix industry, and how best to go about breaking into it. In next month’s SOS, I’ll follow this up with some down-to-earth, practical advice on the creative side of remixing. I won’t lie to you and tell you that this is an easy industry to get into — it isn’t. But it is a very rewarding one. In many ways you can write and produce a track exactly as you would if it were your own, but with the benefit of having the song already written, the vocals already recorded, and a record label already committed to the song. You can also get a lot of publicity from the popularity of the artist that you’re remixing. Over the years, I’ve remixed artists including Rihanna, Robbie Williams, Sugababes, INXS and many more. By remixing tracks by artists such as these, it’s quite possible that the fans of the artist will keep an eye out for your remixes in the future, simply because you remixed their favourite artist. That kind of PR is invaluable — in fact, it can often help to establish you as a producer in your own right, further down the line.
Remixing: A Potted History
To understand the industry, you have to know where it comes from, so before I move on to today’s scene, I’ll run through some of the more important historical aspects of remixing. People have been ‘remixing’ music for almost as long as recorded music has existed, especially since the advent of convenient recording media such as magnetic tape in the late ’40s. Although technically not ‘remixes’, music forms such as musique concrète used manipulation of existing recordings to create new musical pieces, although in this instance they were often largely unrelated to the original recording — and, for the most part, unrecognisable. It wasn’t until the late ’60s and early ’70s that the remix as we know it began to develop. This period saw the development of the dance hall culture in the Caribbean (and in Jamaica in particular), something that was driven by advances in multitrack recording technology. Producers such as King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry would take the multitrack recordings and, with some heavy editing, create their own interpretations of songs. These were often just extended versions of the originals, created by manipulating the arrangement and dynamics of the original musical parts, but this arguably paved the way for the whole remix culture that has become so prevalent today.
At more or less the same time, the exploding disco scene drove a similar evolution of remixing techniques. Frustrated by the need to keep changing records, and motivated by a desire to get people on the dance floor, DJs would create their own ‘extended’ versions of the popular tracks of the day.
To many, the godfather of the modern remix is Tom Moulton, whose career started out by making ‘mix tapes’ for a Fire Island nightclub in the late ’60s. Eventually, he progressed to being an adviser on the nightclub-oriented recordings of the time: his skills were called upon to make sure that the records were club-friendly prior to release. Finally, he began to specialise in actually doing remixes, specifically for the nightclubs. He is said to be the inventor of the ‘breakdown’ and the 12-inch single format.
However, to many others, the true pioneer of the modern remix was Shep Pettibone. With credits as spanning The Bee Gees to Betty Boo, Erasure to Elton John, and Madonna and Metallica, Shep was truly a revolutionary, and it was his work that made people realise the value of specific remixes crafted for nightclubs. Alongside this, he also helped to establish ‘house’ music as part of the mainstream dance culture. In fact, without his work, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do today. And for that, Shep, I thank you…
Technological developments in musical instruments and production tools have continued to create opportunities. In the ’80s, the proliferation of relatively affordable synthesizers heralded a new dawn in the age of the remix: prior to this, remixes had been largely based on the original recordings, but remixers now had the opportunity to create something entirely new, without the need for huge recording studios. As dance music (as we now know it) arrived in the late ’80s, this approach developed even further — to the extent that often only the vocals and perhaps a few of the original elements were kept — and further still with the unstoppable rise of computer-based recording in the ’90s, which has given birth to a vast array of versatile production tools.
In the ’90s and ’00s, remixes ranged from subtle reinterpretations of recordings to completely new and — ironically enough — often sometimes unrecognisable versions of songs. Another new arrival on the scene was the ‘mashup’, the process of taking two recordings and placing them on top of each other (‘mashing’ them together). Normally this takes the form of an instrumental track and an acapella. Legally, this is something of a grey area, especially if the ‘remixer’ intends to sell them, but it is still something that’s gone from strength to strength. In fact, there are artists, such as The Cut Up Boys, whose career relies largely on their ability to pick out songs that will work together without sounding like a train wreck.
This pretty much brings us up to date. In the world of the superstar DJ and superstar remixer, the fees commanded by the remixer can often exceed the advance paid by the record company to sign the record in the first place! And with an ever-increasing diversity of musical genres to deal with, the need for remixes becomes greater than ever. And yet it is, perhaps surprisingly, a very competitive industry, and one which it takes a great deal of effort, and determination — not to mention luck — to get into.
So You Wanna Be A Remixer?
A quick trawl through the iTunes store will soon show you just how much competition you’re up against if you want to get into commercial remixing… and these are the ones who’ve already ‘made it’!
OK… so you love the idea of remixing and have decided that this is an industry that you want to get into: what’s the first thing you do? In my opinion, you really must learn how to produce your own songs first. Remixing a record today is a very similar process to producing a record of your own; it’s a multi-faceted job, which requires you to have skills as a musician, programmer, arranger, producer, engineer, publicist and diplomat. Yes, you read right: diplomat. One of the first things you learn when you start to do commercial remixes is that the remix is only partly about what you want. In essence, the point of a remix is to bring a record to an audience which it might not otherwise have reached. This is more complex than it sounds, because to get to that point you’re going to have to please a lot of people. Working from the target audience backwards, you have:
The ‘Punters’. That is, the punters in the nightclub. If they don’t dance to it, forget it, you’ve failed your mission.
The DJ. If a DJ doesn’t like it, they won’t play it — and the punters will never get a chance to hear it.
The Promoter. Because of the often huge amounts of records that some promotions companies work with every year, and because of the feedback that they get from the DJs, a good promotions company will often know in advance what is — and what isn’t — going to work on a dancefloor.
The Artist. While many artists understand the need for remixes, some are still very protective of their work, don’t really like ‘dance’ music, and may feel that a remix affects their artistic integrity. To convince them that your interpretation of their beautiful work of art isn’t outright blasphemy is sometimes quite a task.
The Record Label. As they’re the ones in posession of the cheque book (or Internet banking password) they have to be happy with your work.
The Remixer. Yes, that’s right, you’re down here at the bottom of the list.
The reason why the remixer comes last on this list is not because they are the least important (far from it!). Of course you, as the remix artist, have to be happy with what’s going to be released, but ultimately there are a lot of people after you that have to be happy with it too. When you’re more established and have some profile of your own, you can be more rigid about what you do: people will hire you to remix a record because they want your name on it, and as such they’ll be more accommodating. So in the beginning, you’ll need to be prepared to be a little flexible… but not too much.
Carve Out A Niche
Even if you can get clearance for a copyrighted sample, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to do so in time to meet your remix deadline. Some commercial sample libraries can have restrictive terms attached, so remember to check the license agreement.
With modern recording technology, it is more than possible to create commercial release-quality recordings with a small investment of a few thousand pounds, or perhaps even less. This is great news in some respects, but it also means that the music-production marketplace — and that for electronic music production in particular — is becoming increasingly saturated. This, in turn, means that one of the toughest challenges for budding remixers is to establish a niche for themselves.
What do you do to stand out from the crowd? That’s really a hard question to answer, but if, financially speaking, you can afford to do it, I’d advise you to stick to your guns and do what you want to do. But at the same time, you need to be prepared to take constructive criticism — and always remember the list above
Once you have your studio, you have your ‘sound’, and you know what you’re doing, what do you do next? This question is similar to the perennially asked “How do I get my band signed?” and, as with that question, there’s no simple answer. I was fortunate enough to have a manager to help promote me, and that made all the difference in my case, but there are certainly other ways.
Credit Crunch, global financial crisis, recession… call it what you will. We’re all acutely aware of it, and like most other industries the music industry is suffering. Illegal downloads remain a very large thorn in the record labels’ sides, too, and record sales are down. Way down: labels are having to seriously tighten their belts, and that includes what they pay out for remixes. Nonetheless, there are labels looking for remixes, and there’s still a good chance that if you approach one that is, they’ll consider you. They’ll probably want to hear a showreel of your previous work (a Catch 22 situation, if ever there was one), but if you can provide them with examples of your own tracks and productions, and if they like what they hear, you might get the gig.
Unfortunately, your work as a remixer will almost certainly be ‘on spec’ — meaning that the label will only pay you if they like what you do. That’s par for the course these days, and it’s only the real A-list remixers that aren’t working in this way. So you’ll need to be prepared to put in the effort and face the possibility that you might do all the work for nothing. The silver lining in this situation is that even if they don’t decide to use the remix commercially, you can still include it in your showreel. What showreel? Don’t worry: I’ll come on to this later!
It might take a few attempts to get your first remix accepted, and even then, it might not earn you a lot of money. But it is a foot in the door. After that, and with a liberal does of hyperbole, you’re on your way to your second remix. And then your third one… and before you know it, you are on your 171st!
There are other things to consider along the way, including some legal issues that you need to be aware of. In almost all cases, although you may make recordings during the remix, you do not own the sound recording; that is covered by part of the fee that you are paid for doing the remix. It is actually surprising how few of the remixes that I’ve done I actually have contracts for. More often than not, the ‘majors’ will give you contracts, but only really in order to protect their interests rather than yours. Most independents simply can’t justify the expense of issuing remix agreements (which are still contracts) given the expected revenue of the track. In the absence of a remix contract, it is fair to assume the following three points as standard:
Payment & Royalties: Payment for the remix is ‘full and final’. In other words, don’t expect anything else out of the record label in the future. On some rare occasions, and if your remix becomes the ‘lead mix’ (that is, the version that is considered the main version), you could perhaps be entitled to a very small royalty on the record. But this is increasingly rare.
Copyright: Ownership of the sound recording lies fully with the record label. This is pretty much standard and to be expected. There are a few (and by that I mean you can probably count them on one hand) record labels that allow the artists they sign to retain ownership of the masters. In this instance, it’s more a case of simply licensing the track for release — but in my experience this is almost impossible to find. If the label owns the sound-recording rights to the original recording, there’s no chance of them allowing a remixer to own the rights to the sound recording of the remix.
Sample Clearance: Any samples used will be declared by the remixer (not including the original parts of the recording being remixed, obviously) and, normally, will have been cleared by the remixer prior to submitting the remix. Sample clearance itself is a very complex and often time-consuming issue, so it’s advisable to avoid using any samples if you can help it: there usually just isn’t time to clear them within the remix deadlines, even if you want to. Of course, sample libraries don’t tend to fall into this area — because when you buy the library you are usually given the right to use the samples contained within for commercial purposes. But it’s a good plan to check the licensing agreement carefully, because some of them do have restrictions on usage that you might not expect.
Contract, what contract? Although the major labels will usually issue a formal contract, many smaller labels don’t.
Many remix contracts will stipulate a certain number of alternate mixes (such as Instrumental, Radio Edit, ‘Dub’ mix, ‘TV Edit’ and so on), but in the absence of a legal agreement, it’s often wise to find out from the label exactly what they expect prior to commencing work on the remix. For me, an average ‘remix’ job will comprise an extended Club Mix, a Dub Mix (often the same as the Club Mix, but with less use of the vocals), an Instrumental and a Radio Edit. Sometimes the label will also ask for a ‘PA’ Mix or ‘TV Edit’, which are basically different versions of the Radio Edit where the lead vocal is absent, or, at the very least, reduced substantially in volume, to allow the artist to perform the track ‘live’ — but this is far from being a standard requirement. As I said above, if you have any doubt at all, it is probably best to ask. While these alternate versions do not require the same amount of time to complete as the main mix that you do, it’s still a factor in balancing the fee that you’ll get against the amount of time it will take to complete the remix as a whole.
Building Your Showreel
To persuade a record label to part company with their treasured masters, you need to be able to show them what you are capable of. When you get to a point where you can name-drop some of the people you’ve remixed, and when you can provide evidence that your remixes are popular (in the form of Club Chart positions, quotes from key DJs and suchlike) it all becomes a lot easier. But in the beginning you have to persuade them to give you your lucky break. This is why it is important for you to know how to produce your own tracks — because, in the beginning, and in the absence of any other remixes, they need to get some idea of what you can do, both in terms of your style and your quality of production. So if you have a few of your own tracks available that you can send to the label — either physically or via email or download links — then, even if the tracks haven’t been signed or commercially released, it will at least give them some idea of what you do.
As I’ve already suggested, a manager will be able to help you if he or she has good connections with record labels — who may take you on based on the manager’s recommendation — but, of course, you’re in almost the same situation when it comes to getting a manager, because you need to persuade them to take you on. And they’ll want to hear what you are capable of. So you need a showreel… Can you see a pattern emerging here?
One of the most crucial factors when it comes to building your showreel is quality control: you need to be one hundred percent certain that the work you put on your showreel is absolutely your best work. This is your one chance to make a good impression with the label manager or A&R person. Dance music may have a higher degree of anonymity than most other forms of music, and a producer today can have many pseudonyms under which they work, but if you make a bad first impression with your showreel it is still unlikely that you’ll get another chance with that person. So make it count.
Even in these informal days of text, email and downloads, presentation is still important, so if you’re sending a CD, make sure it is clearly labelled with your name, the names of the tracks that you’re submitting and — most importantly of all — clear and legible contact information. As for providing information about yourself with the CD, I used to always send a printed biography, but these days I am less sure that this is relevant. Often a link to a MySpace page or a personal web site (you do have one or both of those, right?) will be just as relevant and informative, as most people spend more time on-line than off-line. But again, if you are providing details of a web site or MySpace page, make the effort with that as well: not everybody is a whizzkid HMTL coder, and no A&R would expect a ‘newbie’ remixer to have a web site that looks like thousands of pounds have spent on it, but do your best. If you can, beg or call in a favour from somebody you know to help give it that little bit of extra gloss. And while you might wonder what relevance your web site or MySpace page could possibly have to your production skills, don’t underestimate the importance of the former. It all adds up to say “I am professional. I care about the impression I give, and I will put just as much effort and attention to detail into my remixing work as I did into this”.
It also helps to do some research to find out, where possible, the name of the correct person to send your showreel to. Sometimes this information can be found on-line, while at other times simply phoning the label and asking for the name and telephone number or email address of the person can be all you need. Some labels seem far less willing to give out that information than others, though… I won’t name names here, but I was once chasing up an overdue invoice with one of the majors. I called their main switchboard and asked to be put through to the accounts department and they actually refused to put me through without a specific name of a person that I wanted to speak to! It was resolved in the end, but not without a lot of effort on my end, and the patience of a saint.
Believe it or not, these record labels do talk to each other, so if you simply do a mass mailing (physical or email) to every A&R department in the country, you might soon acquire a reputation for being desperate. You see, the funny thing about the music business — and, from my experience at least, especially the remixing industry — is that if you’re available to do remixes, the labels will want you less, whereas if you’re too busy they’ll want you even more! So another thing to consider is being selective about who you send your showreel to: carefully target labels that you think might be receptive to your style of work and send them your tracks, but choose only one or two labels at a time, and be patient. Wait to hear back from those few that you sent out initially, and if you don’t get any interest from them, move on to the next few. Any time that you spend waiting, you can consider a golden opportunity for refining your production skills.
As a final word on this subject, I’d recommend that you don’t expect too much initially. It can be incredibly difficult to manage your expectations when you truly believe that you have got what it takes, but don’t go into record labels demanding exorbitant fees from the very beginning.
Value Your Work
Some remixers — and The Freemasons spring to mind — can command fees of £10,000 (in the UK) or more for a single remix, but that’s far from being the average. When I started out remixing, my first remixes paid in the region of £250. That might not seem a lot of money for something that could take three or four days, but it is a start. Once you have those first few remixes under your belt (assuming that they’re well received!), then you have more ammunition to approach record labels with. I did my first Soul Seekerz remix back in October 2004 and, as I said, I earned £250 for it. But a couple of years later I did three remixes for Rihanna in just over a week and earned £3600 for the three — after I’d split the fees with my partner and paid my manager his commission.
With the technology so accessible these days, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people out there looking to remix just for the profile it might give them — and you have to compete with these people. That doesn’t mean to say that you should put a value of zero on your work: while it might sometimes be tempting to do things for free, just to get a foot in, remember that nobody else in the process of releasing that record will have worked for free. So why should you? Just remember to be reasonable: be patient, and start slowly, but never sell yourself short.
From Little Acorns…
“Poca favilla…gran fiamma seconda”. This is a quotation from one of my favourite books, La Divina Commedia by Dante Alighieri. It means “a great flame follows a tiny spark”. Let me go back to the example I gave earlier of Shep Pettibone: not only was he one of the most prolific remixers of the ’80s (perhaps the most prolific), but he ended up co-writing and producing songs for Madonna. So while remixing may appear to be a case of reinventing the wheel; while it might not always have the appeal of having one of your own songs lauded and complimented; while it’s far from an easy thing to get into; and while it can involve (mainly artistic) compromises along the way, it really can lead to other things.
It requires you to have quite a high level of skill and competency from the outset, but it’s a good way to get a level of exposure that you might not otherwise get. You may be able to work with great people, and this all looks very good on your CV. There are less immediately obvious bonuses too: sometimes, for example, you’ll get sent the whole multitrack for the original song, which means that you get to listen to the individual parts and learn how these songs were originally constructed.
Personally, I find remixing satisfying. I have had a couple of the songs that I have written and produced in the UK Top 40, and I’ve even appeared on Top Of The Pops (RIP). But I still derive great personal satisfaction from doing remixes, simply because of the level of surprise that you sometimes get from people when they hear that you have completely reinvented a song and given it a whole new interpretation. Sometimes you can even change the context and meaning of a song (to some extent) if you are clever with what you do. But that’s a whole other story… 0