I was introduced to Julian via another @mastersofmany interviewee in Worthing, UK. We met up in Hove, where he lives, and for an unassuming man, his story unfolded to be a pretty impressive one! He’s a great example of somebody with a set of skills in an industry who has managed to pivot and evolve his interests to keep up with industry changes. There’s a lot that people in industries where social media and technology have drastically changed the rules, as with the music industry, could learn from him. I caught up with him find out more about his (ever evolving) journey…
Tell us about your journey to date..
I was in a band at university in 1988. We were called Earwig. Somebody paid for us to a demo in a studio and we ended up putting out a record on a local indie label, recording at the guy’s mothers house! It was all very small scale. We started gigging and got really good reviews, and titles like NME started writing about us. There was a small scene in London that later became known as post-rock, which is now applied more generally to US bands as well. We were one of those bands.
We got management, and signed to 4AD, which is a fairly big independent label in London. We were recording and touring, and the old system was that a band would get an advance on an album that would pay for studio time, equipment and touring, and then you toured to support the record.
When I left university, I wouldn’t have dreamed that I would have done music (I did English), but University, as it should do, gives you a lot of options. I carried on doing that for a while, you meet a lot of people, you work at a high level, and you see the standard that things are produced at.
We then got dropped in 1995, bumbled around for another year or so, and then Grant, who originally recorded us, was also at that stage of ‘what the hell am I going to do’. We bought a PA system and I naturally fell into the other side of music, the infrastructure side, setting up sound systems, installed in various pubs around Brighton. I learnt sound engineering off my own back. In that time, 1995/6, the internet was in its very early stages, and it was difficult to get technical support for equipment, it was a dark art. Because I’d seen people using it in the studios, I knew what it was and felt that we could start a studio.
In 1996, we found premises in Brighton, started renting a basement, and built a studio ourselves, learning building and electrical skills along the way, because we didn’t have enough money.
When I worked in music, you felt precarious all of the time, so it wasn’t any worse to start up a studio! We just started doing it, and you make it work, because, what the hell else are you going to do? By 2000 we’d paid back money that we’d borrowed and were able to pay ourselves a small amount.
The music industry in the 1990’s was making a ton of money, but in 2000 Napster came about, and the whole industry went in a puff of smoke. Lots of people started doing things independently, people started buying equipment and setting up their own studios. No-one knew how these things worked, and there was a consequent explosion of music tech courses. One started in Worthing and there was another guy who was signed to Grant’s label, when I was on it, who now worked there. One day, after we’d been running the studio for 5 years, he told us that they needed people to teach what we did. We went to an interview, and I found myself teaching. Pretty much since then I’ve been teaching half my week and doing recording for half of my week.
I do band demo’s, voice-over stuff for blue chip companies, but it’s mostly music. I recently started doing a band again too, it’s me and my partner, we may start touring again, I don’t know! It’s my second mid-life crisis!
The other evolution relates to the fact that I was recording a band in 2010 and me and one of the guys in the band started talking, and we had a lot of shared music tastes. He had started a blog, and was reviewing other people’s work. For some reason, it really took off in America, and he asked me to help him review stuff. There was another wave of social media coverage for bands, and we were getting lots of writers in, who were all working for nothing. We were getting really big stuff sent to us, because bands were desperate for coverage in a shrinking industry.
I very quickly saw the opportunity in the whole PR thing, and the ways to filter through that process. At some point, we sat down and thought about how we could make money out of it. I never cared about the money at first, I’d always loved doing the music journalism, as that’s what I had had in mind when I left university.
We were looking at businesses like Pitchfork, who were starting to branch out into TV and things like that, and the guy I’d started the studio with, Gavin Williams, now worked with a big building company that his Dad owned, but he didn’t really like working there, because he’d been a graphic designer beforehand. He wanted to get paid for making films. We started doing sessions of film making at the studio, during any down time we had. We quickly got good at it, invested in cameras, made a lot of links with places like Rough Trade, and Domino, the independent scene in London, and we started filming for their bands. The same bands then started coming into the studio as well. We started being able to charge for sessions for these big bands, like Warpaint and making music videos from live sessions. We then did arty promo videos for people, using tools like After Effects, and suddenly we were a video production duo as well.
A third of what I was earning was then making videos. It became a bit unmanageable at a certain point, so we dropped the writing, because we weren’t getting paid for that, and we made the whole site about video production. We now only make videos that we get paid for and have control over. Gavin now works full time as a camera man, getting paid loads of money doing filming and whenever we get an opportunity to work together doing a film on something interesting, we do that as well. The blog gave us an opportunity to gain a whole new set of skills. I now teach video at college as well.
It’s been a crazy journey of skipping onwards and onwards. I really enjoy learning about stuff, so I suppose that’s my lesson to anyone else. Keep learning and don’t think that the current iteration of what you do is the only one.
When you moved from performing music to music production, rather than going and working for someone else, what made you take the leap to do things differently?
I started helping out at a studio in Brighton, unpaid. I quickly got the sense that it wasn’t for me. I’d been self-sufficient before, and had been in the scene where you talked about ideas, and it was artistic. My baptism of fire was to record any number of poor covers bands. It’s just as hard to make it sound good, even harder in a way. I just thought, I want to throw some kind of artistic feeling at this somehow, and every studio I’d visited had the same outcome as the one that I was in, or had people heading them up with their own artistic ideas.
Partially it was fear that no-one was going to take me on, and partially an arrogance that I had an artistic sensibility that I wasn’t sure others would have because they came from a technical background. It was always my creative ideal to create an old-fashioned studio where there was an Auteur in control, like Sam Philips who had sun records who recorded Elvis, or Jo Meeks in London who was one of the biggest producers in the 60’s, yet was relatively unknown.
That was my vision and that’s what I continue to strive for. When I teach my students, I tell them to upset the apple cart a bit to find a sound, that you have to take a leap of faith. I get inspired by galleries, computer design and it’s the cross-discipline stuff that blows my mind. This industry has certain things that it values, but it makes everything the same.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in your new venture?
It’s nice when the phone rings and people want to come to you, but every connection was hard won, and it’s not like we had a moment where it was a gold mine. A lot of my business now is still people we’ve been recording over a lot of years, sometimes even their sons! I generally want to get their work to a better state, as good as it can possibly be within the budget they have. They trust me.
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
Certainly, with the band, I used to think that. I’d agonise in the early morning hours, thinking how will we get out of this? We were getting great stuff written about us, some of our music was going to be in films and the winter Olympics, but things didn’t happen. It just became exhausting, and my heart couldn’t deal with it. The artist gets paid last, and I thought that I needed to get in on the other side, where you actually get paid.
What do you find difficult about managing multiple roles?
All the roles have got different value systems attached to them. With teaching, I don’t think about the money, because it’s a salary. You think about ticking boxes, as that’s what teaching tends to be about these days, as it’s benchmarked. For the studio, it’s about a handshake, or trying to explain abstract ideas to strangers. There is no benchmark. In the music work I worry about money all of the time, you’re not sure how much you’ll get for a certain job. With the video production, you seem to do less but get paid more.
What or who do you find intimidating?
I find clients intimidating when I’m first in the studio, because you don’t know them. As you get more confident with doing stuff, you know that there are certain things that you can’t do short-cuts for and you’re not doing it wrong. You stop feeling nervous, and if there is a problem with something, that’s what you’re there to do. When I first started, you’d feel the weight of the client on your back, but now I just say that we’ll take five minutes and sort it out, and that it’s part of the process.
There isn’t an absolute way of doing a lot of these things. We’ve all absorbed knowledge from cases, and a lot of our industry talk revolves around the fact that we have different tools, but it’s totally artisan how you use them. You just have to brush up on what you don’t know, and the preparation is what prepares you for not feeling fear. I try to work with a band, go and see them, work up a Spotify playlist for what they like to listen to, so we have a common language, and then it’s a smooth result when we work together.
What makes you feel good / powerful?
Ultimately, it’s when someone says ‘I love that’ without a second edit. That doesn’t happen all the time though, I have to say, so part of it is being patient. It’s brilliant when people like what you do.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
It’s probably less about legacy now, I just take whatever is coming and try to make it as good as possible. I quite enjoy the process of whatever I’m working on. I like being in a room with a load of other people making music, where they’re enjoying it, and we’re all having a good time.
Part of starting the band again is that I’d like to make another album that is as good as the one that we were known for in my old band. I know that I have another album in me, and we’re 70% along the way of doing that.
How do you define success now?
Just being able to do it and the joy of doing it. There’s a quote about the fact that paying the bills and keep things going is the new success – that’s what I do, just keep going and not have to get what I’d class as a ‘proper job’!
How do you organise yourself? Any useful tools / tips? Essential apps on your iPhone you can’t live without?
I use google calendar, with multiple overlays! I have some people who work for me at the studio, and multiple freelancers that come in. The video stuff is easier to do, you can push it into the future and find a free spot and programme around it. Teaching days are inflexible, so they’re the starting point for everything – the studio work gets organised around the teaching, and then holes are filled with the other work. Sometimes that spills into the weekend as a result. I have a very patient partner, who is an angel!
I use drop box a lot to share audio files with clients. I have also survived because of a few businesses in the local area for tech support, businesses that I’ve spent money with and will act quickly as a result.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I remember wanting to be a cartoonist and sending my mum out to find that paper with the dots. I always wanted to be a journalist when I was at school, but it just morphs. My students are searching around for something they want to do, but the truth is that you naturally progress and change course to find that out.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
Don’t have a fixed idea of what you want to achieve, have a range of options. Musician friends of mine are expecting to sell music in the same way, not taking account of what’s going on out there, and not changing things or exploring where things are going. There are so many opportunities when it comes to programming and new technology that is coming out all the time. 3D audio and VR is a whole new world that will be the future, so I tell my students to take an interest in it, even if there aren’t job opportunities right now.
Single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
Just do it anyway – do the thing you want to do, just learn the skills even if you’re not getting paid. Don’t feel embarrassed or worried, no-one else knows what they’re doing either!
To find out more about Julian’s work, follow him on Twitter @churchrdstudios https://www.churchroad.net/