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Interviews

A Fireside Chat With Producer John Snyder

By Published: September 30, 2003

It is not as if music execs are these eighty year olds, a foot in the grave, some of these cats are younger than I am. One would think they would be hip to the internet by now.

Cecil Taylor recorded an album in 1989 with what in essence was the first incarnation of his now famous Feel Trio. In Fluorescence, featuring Gregg Bendian and William Parker, is a classic Taylor record, and one that would never have been made were it not for one John Snyder. And the same holds true for Don Cherry's immortal Brown Rice session.

Snyder's importance to improvised music may be subtle and not widely known, but his impact is impressive. Snyder has been witness to some of the striking performances on record. From his work with Art Pepper to his session with Sun Ra, Snyder has been associated with the icons of improvised music for the better part of my life.

With such an impressive recorded legacy, conventional wisdom would dictate Snyder stay on the sidelines and live off the fruits of his labor, but convention is the last word to describe Snyder, a maverick producer and forward thinker who has embarked on the formation and maturation of Artists House, a revolutionary label that combines both recording and DVD features for less than the price of the average JLo recording.

Snyder's an insider. Convention would dictate that he fall in line with other record label execs and toe the anti-internet line like the other sheep in that flock, but not Snyder. He embraces technology and encourages it as the only way for the music industry to stay as a viable entity. The following is an informative conversation with someone who should know and gives incredible insight into the music and what is behind it, unedited and in his own words.



Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.

John Snyder: When I was a kid, my father would bring out his cornet and play it. That fascinated me. When I came to be ten years old and they were putting people in music classes, I signed up for cornet. I took to it pretty quickly. My old man woke me up at six every morning to practice it, so I became pretty good at it. I started listening to records when I was eleven or twelve and one of my first records was Miles Davis Birth of the Cool because it was in the Capitol Records catalog and you couldn't get records too easily back in those days. This is probably 1958 or so. About the only way to get stuff was through the mail. I happen to pick that out of the catalog because I liked the look of it. Hearing it kind of scared me to death, but that is where I started with it.

FJ: What does a producer do?

JS: It depends on the artist. In some cases, if it is an established artist, it is really about being the first audience so you can respond to the music instantly and determine whether or not it reached the emotional depth that the artist is capable of reaching. If you know something about the artist or have had experience with the artist, you know when they are playing really well. You put an artist in a live gig for a week and one night, one set is probably going to be the peak. Nobody understands why it happens that way, but sometimes you just have a good night.

Recording is about trying to create the environment to let that happen and producing is about judging the result to see if that did happen. It is kind of an interesting problem because the producer is absorbed in all the financial considerations, and all the logistical considerations, and all the technical considerations, and now all of the sudden, has to close their eyes and feel something and open them after it is over and decide what they felt and why they felt it. And then you have to convey that to the artist. It is kind of a tricky business.

FJ: In film, there are at times, more producer credits than actors, but on a jazz record or even pop records, there remains only a lone producer. That is a heavy burden to bear.

JS: Yeah, it is a little bit difficult. The movie producer really is usually the money guy. The record producer is more like the director. In my job, I have to be able to able to speak all the languages of the businessmen that run the record companies, who have their own way of talking and thinking, and the artists and musicians, who create the music, have their own way of talking and thinking. Those two things don't even overlap. There is no connection.

One of the roles of a producer is to be the middleman of those two points of views. In the process, you have a lot of other voices and languages you need to know about, including the manager language, the marketing language, and promotions language. As a musician, I know that language and as a lawyer, I know that language. So right off the bat, I have that advantage.

FJ: You would have been wealthier being a lawyer.

JS: I keep getting that. Being a lawyer, I am a member of the New York Bar, it let's me know where the tricks are and I can talk to lawyers, so it keeps me either out of trouble or into less trouble.



FJ: You have participated in your share of compilation or 'best of' CDs. What do you look for when putting together a limited, but effective document like a compilation?

JS:It depends. Sometimes it is a straight reissue of an existing LP. Sometimes it is a straight reissue with added material and sometimes it is a compilation. I've done hundreds of those and the first big challenge is to find the most original or best source because record company tape libraries are well maintained or well documented, although they are getting better.

Fifteen years ago, when I was really active on a daily basis, mostly, it was an investigative job. Where is the tape? It was a question of finding tapes and then after that it is how you EQ a two-track tape to go on CD. In those days, and even now, there are no rules about that and so early LP masters were exaggerated on the top and bottom and been made CDs. If you look at some of the 1980s CD reissues and you listen to them, they are usually kind of overly bright. They had the potential of doing that and so they kind of overdid it.

For me, it was a question of how to best reproduce the existing master. Don't change it unless it is broken. If it is broken, be subtle about the fixes. As far as choosing the material goes, it was generally what I thought was right. When I did the Aretha (Franklin) set on Sony, I listened to all seven of her records on CBS and all the outtakes, everything, every note that was recorded and tried to make sense of it because the producers through the years there did not know what to do with her and so she did everything from Broadway show tunes to Dinah Washington tunes. John Hammond did the first three records and they were mostly jazz records and after that, school was out. They just did all kinds of things and mostly, not very smart.

So how do you make a compilation of that material? So I just thought about emphasizing the jazz to soul connections and just avoided the Broadway trial and error stuff that they were doing.

FJ: Apart from flooding an already diluted marketplace, do compilations serve a purpose?

JS: Commercially speaking, they are done because it is material that the record company has. Artistically speaking, if you were trying to make a representative record, you are not going to get but a slice of that pie because most artists recorded for many companies and so it has it limitations. It depends on your point of view and what purpose you have in making it. If it is just for the record company to make some money on a record that is already paid for, that's that, but I never thought of it that way.

The idea was to find the best material of the material that was available. Then you are trying to look for some sort of pattern, or consistency, or point of view, or concept. Record companies are always big on concepts and God knows, I have done enough love songs records to put you to sleep. Sometimes it is a valid concept, but you can find others. The concept that I like the best is this is the best playing.

I've often wanted to make the definitive Charlie Parker record. If I was a twelve-year-old kid and somebody said to buy a Charlie Parker record, what record would I buy? I don't know the answer to that and so I would like to take all the Charlie Parker records and I would like to program that record. I think somebody has come close to that through the years. If an artist has recorded a song many times, and that is often the case, which one is the best version? It helps to have some sense of the past and how it was reviewed and how it was written about. You want to make sure you don't overlook those and make sure that there are not others that were overlooked.



FJ: The musicians you worked with span the spectrum of recorded music. But I have a particular affinity for a few, the first, Junior Wells.

JS:Junior was a good friend and I loved Junior. Junior was trusting and he didn't automatically give his trust, but over a period of years of working with him, he came to trust. He would let me design the records for him and then he would trust me to help him get through the vocals. It was always an issue with doing songs that he didn't know. I will never forget trying to teach him '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' because we did a Rolling Stones tribute and I thought he would sound good on that song, but he had never heard the song. It took seven hours or something to do that vocal overdub. I would have to squeeze his arm or point to him to show him where to sing. It was a tape and we had already laid the track down. He was present for that, but he just didn't feel it naturally.

The question was how do you create the illusion of reality when it is obvious that it is not reality? You know a movie is not reality, but if it is convincing, you suspend your knowledge of that and accept the illusion. I think music is often the same way. Generally speaking, blues and jazz are not illusionary music, but like any recording, there is some degree of control and manipulation that is involved even if it is overdubbing guitar solos.

With Junior, it was a question of how do you get him to overdub vocals, one word or one phrase at a time and then at the end result, it comes out singing like he wrote the song. And if you listen to the song, if you can find it, you will see that it sounds like his song. That was the goal with Junior, to get him through the material that he wasn't familiar with so it sounded like he was.

FJ: How do you record an 'avant-garde' musician and make it sellable to Main Street America? Is that even attainable?

JS: No, it is almost impossible. I would hasten to add that not only did I record Ornette, but I recorded Art Pepper. Not only did I record Paul Desmond, but I recorded Don Cherry. Not only did I record Sun Ra, but I recorded Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. Not only did I record Cecil Taylor, but I recorded Dave Brubeck. I have existed in several worlds and then I have added the blues world to that and the difference between James Cotton and Bobby Short is almost the history of American music.

But to answer your question more specifically, Fred, when I was asked to do a series on A&M including Cecil and Sun Ra, of course, I mentioned that fact that it was unlikely that they would recover their costs. The A&R guy at that time said that he was the head of pop A&R and he made his money there and he wanted to allot some of that money there to making art.

I thought that that was a very enlightened point of view that would no doubt get you fired. He survived long enough for us to make ten or twelve pretty good records.

So how do you take Sun Ra, who made fifty records, and make another record that is worth listening to? My theory was to rehearse it and record it in a state of the art way because most of his recordings previous to that were two-track recordings. Not to diminish the value of the performance, but if the performance was so valuable, why not spend a little bit of time making sure you could hear everything. So that was my thinking.



FJ: Is there a mission statement behind the Artists House label you are involved with currently?

JS: Most definitely. One of them is to embrace technology and the other is to give consumers more for their money and give artists more ways of communicating with their listeners. The record business is suing college students. I am trying to give college students an extra disc, a DVD, free DVD packaged with the CD that has session footage, interviews, music lessons, and the music itself can be printed out from the DVD.

It has state of the art audiophile sound. It is loaded with context. I was trying to create a context for musical life to bring people into the creative community and to show people how it was done and that it is worthy of respect.

I am all for downloading music. I think it is a great development. But I think it is also true that kids who download music are victims of the record business making music a commodity. Music isn't a commodity. It is an art form. And if you know more about it, you will respect it more and you won't view it as a commodity, at least exclusively. I am hoping that offering consumers and listeners more for their money, for less money, a $16.98 list price and not an $18.98 list price, that they will be persuaded to join the community and then after that, have some respect for the creative process so that it is not a matter of downloading music, anytime, anywhere, but it is a matter of considering the consequences of your acts.

FJ: Kids are oblivious to the inner working of a corporate record company.

JS: They don't know.

FJ: And I don't think they care because if I am a high school student making minimum wage at a burger joint and I walk into Tower Records to buy a 50 Cent CD, out the door, I am out twenty bucks and I listen to the thing and like two tracks, I was taken. Then it isn't a stretch for me to sit at my computer for an hour downloading those two songs. Record companies need to follow the path of film studios and the revolution they have created with the DVD. A DVD is often times cheaper or equal to the price of a CD and as a consumer, I get deleted scenes, commentary, behind the scenes material, and outtakes.

JS: While the movie industry has enjoyed its biggest year since the 1950s... last year, they sold 9.3 billion dollars worth of tickets. Also the DVD player was experiencing a growth spurt that makes it the fastest growing home electronics medium ever introduced. At the same time, downloading movies from the internet is proliferating. So they are selling more tickets, there is increased competition with DVD, and downloads are occurring on the internet, but they are selling more tickets.

So the point of that is that when people are given more choices, more things are sold. The record business has been engaging in the bait and switch game for too long now. They bait you with a single on the radio that they paid three hundred thousand dollars to get on the radio and then they switch it when you go to the record store and want to buy it. Then you have to buy an eighteen dollar thing that you don't want and can't afford.

Also, the record companies just settled a price fixing suit saying that they conspired to inflate prices. So are they surprised that people don't want to pay that inflated price that they conspired to fix? You can't have it both ways. On top of that, you have AOL, who is betting the farm on broadband distribution and they own Warner Bros. music. So Warner Bros. is complaining about people downloading their records when their boss company is providing the service that allows that to happen. So the people who run Time Warner, they know this.

Sony has a similar sort of conflict. They share the patent with the CD. There were five hundred million blank CDs sold last year. A high percentage of those are going to put downloaded music on. They are also a major manufacturer of CD write-able drives. That is how the music is being put on the CDs. So you can't have it both ways. That is the conflict that companies are going through. You have divisions of Sony suing other divisions of Sony. It is craziness out there.



FJ: With current trends prevailing, will the music industry be able to sustain itself in ten years?

JS: Only if they embrace the internet. The future of music is the internet. They are not going to continue to sell this out of date medium called the CD. That is a done deal. It is just a matter of time. The way it should be is that ISP should pay a service, they should be taxed just like radio stations and TV stations are taxed by BMI as a levy and they pay into that pool and the publishers and writers get paid. ISP should pay just like a radio station pays.

On top of that, the major companies should agree among themselves with publishers, writers, and artists to a service that people can go to and have whatever they want for a set $9.95 a month. If you were able to get whatever you wanted, anytime day or night for $9.95 or even $19.95, you might consider it. Especially if there was a service connected to it that you could go to and say that you are having a party and want a James Brown record that never sits down and they recommend twelve songs and you pay five dollars for it. That is a good deal and everybody's happy.

They have to adapt to the internet and they are not doing it. They are trying. EMI just started an online service in Europe that shows promise because it is not restricted and it is reasonable fee. Sony is charging $1.49 a track. There is nobody that is going to do that. You can't charge too much. If they had cooped Napster in the first place and charged ten cents a song, they would be billions of dollars ahead of the game. But instead, they shut it down. So record companies are not rational and they are not too advanced in technology.

My CDs are encoded with MP3s. I want you to trade my songs. I also encode the website, so go to the website and make a contribution to PayPal. You use the music, give us a dollar. Give us whatever you want and if you don't want to do that, buy something and here is what we are selling you. We are going to give you a four hour DVD and a CD and it is going to be less money than a CD that the majors are charging. You get more for less.

Amazon has its biggest quarter last year by increasing their product line to include clothes and cutting shipping costs. More service, less cost and it worked. The record business needs to look at those kinds of models. I think what is really going to happen is they are going to become software companies and I think an example of that is Apple and their talks with Universal to buy Universal music. Here comes a computer company that is going to buy content because they want to use it on the internet and in their MP3 players.

FJ: It is not as if music execs are these eighty year olds, a foot in the grave, some of these cats are younger than I am. One would think they would be hip to the internet by now.

JS: I don't think that they are really internet guys. I think most of them still have their secretaries print out their emails. I don't really think that they are technology savvy. It is the 20 year-olds that is the full blown computer generation. The 35 year-olds are a little late to the game and they have to pick that up.

It is like teaching French to a 3 year-old. It is a lot easier than teaching it to a 50 year-old. The kids that grew up with it, they don't think about it any other way. If you are still reading a newspaper, you're analog. My kid wouldn't touch a newspaper, but he reads more news than I do. It is going to change when the generation changes.

I will tell you something else, Fred. Eighty-five percent of recorded music in the history of the world is owned by five companies. Only fifteen percent of that music is available at any given time. What is up with that? Why don't they just take that out of the eighty-five percent and put it online and make some money. Why let it sit? That brings us to copyright law. They just extended the copyright law for twenty years, but only two percent of what they are perfecting is available to the public. So it is a strange business.

And as long as you have corporations running the show, they are going to do what is best for them. Ironic thing is they will often do something that is against their best interest. Radio is controlled by two major corporations and you have to pay a fortune to get your song on there and no naturally, there is a limit to what is available.

FJ: Westwood One (NBC) and?

JS: Clear Channel. And not only that, but Clear Channel owns many of the major venues, so if you don't play their venues, they are not going to play your record. It is owned by friends of the Bushes and if you criticize George Bush, your record is going to come off the radio. Witness the Dixie Chicks. That is not a positive development and it is not a positive development for music or politics or freedom of speech.



FJ: Which begs the question: is today's music truly an expression of freedom?

JS: Clear Channel is investing in the two big Latin TV networks. The result of which is they will control seventy percent of all Spanish speaking television. That is not good. That's not good. That leads to Fox News. It leads to very severe ideological points of views. You want the diversity of ideas to keep everybody honest. If you only have one group that is setting the rules, what rules will they set?

I think the capitalist system that we all seem to bow down to is being abused by the people want to make monopolies out of the businesses that exist under that system. The Clinton administration deregulated radio. I don't know if they realized what the consequence would be of it. In Denver, Clear Channel owns eight radio stations.

What do you think you're going to hear? All of it is programmed out of a closet is San Antonio, Texas. What does that have to do with Denver? We are losing a regional identity here and it isn't going to be good.


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