[Editor's Note: Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. Send your problems to her -- confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.]
Hi Fan Landers! My band just got done recording. We struck a really good deal with a dude who's kind of a freelance engineer, and we appreciated it. But we think he took too much control over our sound. He's a self-professed arena rock aficianado, we're a really grungy band with radical politics. On top of saying shitty things about our lyrics during recording, he didn't listen to our demos at all to know what we sounded like beforehand. Nor did he listen to any examples of music we sent him, so that he'd get an idea of what we wanted to sound like. Now we sound too clean on our recordings. We even went to the studio while he was mixing, but he was moody and rushed through everything. I asked him for the mixes so we could get them mastered by a friend who knows our sound, but he only sent the high bit mixed tracks. What's the etiquette here? I feel that if we paid him hundreds of dollars, we should get the mixes. How do you think we should go about this?
Ungrateful Little Punk
Girl, I feel for you. That dude has fully hijacked your record. Was this one of those situations where someone -- a supposed professional -- cut you a deal and so you felt like you couldn't really step in and assert yourselves because it was like he was acting like it was a huge favor and he has been around forever and so he must know what he is doing even when it became apparent that maybe he didn't? THE VERY STORY OF THE MUSIC BIZ RIGHT THERE. Anyhow. I am sorry this is happening, but first, lets us triage the sitch.
You are going to hijack this thing right back. I wouldn't bother trying to reason with the guy, he sounds like a prick. You have a proprietary interest with your songs. Seeing as you have paid him for his work, you absolutely have a right to those mixes, raw tracks, what have you. First, if he did this at a studio, call the studio manager and tell them you want a copy of your recordings. All studios keep digital back ups. You can all just show up during normal business hours with a hard drive and say you are there to retrieve your copy if they give you even scant run around.
If you did not do it at a studio and it's just on this dude's laptop or something, I think you are going to have to ambush him with your hard drive in tow. Go as a band. Roll at least four deep for the intimidation factor. I am thinking full on wait-in-the-van-outside-the-studio stake out. It sends a message that you are not fucking around. If you can find a way to show up when, say, another band is arriving to load in to record with him he is really going to want to look all solicitous and smooth sailing.
Since you already paid in full you have little in the way of leverage -- so you have to muck about in the area that matters to him, which is his ability to get paid by other people. Once you have your tracks in hand, tell everyone in your scene exactly what happened and name him by name. Gossip is the punk scene answer to YELP; give him no stars.
Once you have your tracks back and if they are not very "you," you need to assess if you really want to throw good money after bad, or invest much time in fixing them. Mastering and remixing will only do so much. You might have to accept that this was just a bad call and do a one-day punk-it-out sesh in someone's garage and pay your engineer in beer. Many a classic has been made in such amateur ways -- let us not forget!
The big lesson here for you gal(s) is that even if you are working with pros and/or pals on anything that involves money changing hands, services or goods rendered -- at the very minimum -- outline it in an email. Create a paper trail. In case. Make sure you are on the same page vis a vis who is delivering what by when, cost, who is responsible for what. I am also a big advocate of simple contracts. A paragraph about the timelines and conditions of your agreement is useful. If people are trustworthy they will have no problem signing it. Secondly, do half your payment up front and the other half on delivery. Then you have leverage. And if something goes awry, you can bargain, or you can take your business elsewhere.
Lastly, you had a responsibility to yourself and your band that before you went in the studio, you should have had a meeting with him and made sure he had listened to the demos. Or had him come to practice and made sure that he got your vision, parroted some musical reference points back at you. It sounds like he used your band to pay his rent this month and didn't care about the outcome. Sure, he is the pro, but you were employing him and it is both your right and responsibility to say, "Hold up, this is not what we wanted." So, whenever next time rolls around: be aggressive, be professional and exact your vision on the world like a boss. That's why you're in band, right? Have fun on your stake out,