How do you make a living from music these days?
Grammy and Emmy winning producer, Kipper, who is best known for producing and performing on Sting's biggest selling solo album Brand New Day and working with Gary Numan and Stevie Wonder has set up Extenso Music Unlimited or ‘EMU’ to nurture and mentor new talent and reinvent the business model for music and to answer the question ‘how do you make a living from music these days?’
I feel lucky to have worked in the rarefied world making records with people like Sting and Gary Numan, but what I know that young artists perhaps don’t is that it’s exactly the same thing. In terms of making songs, the process is the same, but of course, the questions I inevitably get asked are ‘what was it like working with them and what did I learn?’ and maybe some of the answers to those questions are relevant and important for emerging artists to consider.
Gary Numan’s record was the first production work I did after my original band, One Nation, split up. I was initially offered a slot on tour with Gary and it felt like just playing guitar instead of fronting a band, which meant that the pressure was off me. I wore spandex and played solos in the spotlight and did the whole sex and drugs and rock’n’roll thing. It was great. Then he asked me to help produce his new record. He was a bit lost at the time, wanting to do something different and moving away from what he’d done before and surprisingly perhaps, in terms of the production, we were really influenced by Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ record. It’s perhaps not recognised as being as influential as his earlier work, but it brought a lot of rock guitar to pop and also synths to R’n’B in a way that hadn’t been done before.
One day, halfway through recording, Gary asked me if I wanted to go to a flight display. I thought he meant just go and watch, but he chucked me a parachute and I got in the back of his plane with him. Even at that point, I just thought we were going to fly somewhere to watch a show, but it was too late when I realised we were actually going to be performing an aerobatic display ourselves. He did the stall-turns, swoops down to ten feet off the ground, loops, everything! He’s a great pilot, but I wasn’t expecting it!
What I learnt from Gary is the power of creating a persona and how to inspire dedicated fans. Wherever we went around the world, people turned up following his style, and his songs often spoke for them, as a group of people.
Sting was, of course, quite different. Where Gary was more about art and performance and image, Sting took a global view. Gary is very much himself, Sting was always about developing his craft and expressing himself more clearly in different ways. What I learnt from Sting was not to be too attached to any of your ideas. We’d put a lot of time and investment into getting an orchestra into a studio for a track, but then would compare how that worked for the song with five minutes on a cheesy synth. Even after the days and cost spent getting a whole orchestra into Abbey Road, Sting thought that it sounded ‘too Merchant Ivory’ but that the cheesy synth worked. He would always be exploring other options, even up to the point the track was mastered. He’d always want to finesse.
In terms of how all this experience feeds into the way I can work with and mentor emerging artists, it’s given me confidence in my instincts about artists and music, so that I can recognise the spark of embryonic talent, I can trust that instinct. I want to work with the people I really believe should have a career in music because of their talent and drive and spark of originality; the ones who are good at being themselves.
There were two things that inspired me to start up Extenso Music Unlimited - EMU. The first was working with Jamie Abbott, a really great singer I’d been producing. I was drawn to Jamie’s music, so pulled in favours to make a record on no money, but as if we had a record company budget. When the album was done, I handed it all over to his manager to deal with record labels, but it wasn’t working and was taking too long to get results, so I thought ‘what could I do?’
This coincided with, meeting Scott Livingstone, an entrepreneur who’d been supporting another artist that he believed in, Milly Winter, a beautiful and amazing singer. We had a lot of conversations about it being a great time to get into the music business, as no one knows what’s going to happen next and it’s constantly changing and evolving. Scott’s lack of cynicism was refreshing and he saw the current situation as an opportunity. Together with Harrison Shaw, another artist I’d been working with, this formed the core of Extenso’s launch line-up.
‘How do you make a living from music?’ is a question that many people are asking. My answer is that you have to find a loyal fanbase and offer them something unique so that they feel part of your story. I’m always thinking about individual artists and the ways they can connect. Making a living from music doesn’t need to be a string of hits. If artists can go direct to fans - 500 people spending £50 a year, which is an album, a couple of gig tickets, and a t-shirt maybe - that’s a living. If you can’t reach out to 500 people, you’re not doing it right. 1000 people and that’s a comfortable living and a decent budget for future releases. Obviously, that doesn’t work if artists are signed to major labels, but we can make figures like that work. At a certain level, the figures involved are a harsh reality, but the best way to reach the necessary level is to make a connection with those 500 or 1000 people. With modern distribution and publishing methods, if something’s really good, then the percentage of people it reaches that need to spend money on it is smaller than ever.
My advice to anyone who wants to make music is to get a laptop and something like GarageBand and a mic and work on it at home, and work on your talent. Don’t get too bogged down in the production side to start with. Just get immersed in the process of making music and doing something you really believe in. Leave it for a while, then come back to it and fix anything that needs sorting out. At the early stages, forget about the technical side and just exercise that writing muscle. Get the substance down and work on how it’ll connect with people and say something about you or what you want to talk about.
Music is here to stay. It’s not going anywhere. If you can reach those 500 people, through Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever’s coming next, and get them to spend just a bit of money, you can make a living.
More on Kipper and Extenso Music Unlimited can be found at www.extensomusic.com