Remember the era of great big swinging British pop songs that powered us along from the early eighties to the late nineties? Well Simon Toulson-Clarke does, because he played a part in it. As the man behind Red Box, he gave the world some huge tunes that are still played on the radio now. “It was amazing,” says Simon, “and it felt like it would never stop. We took it for granted in some ways. Also – even though the standard of production was high and quite sophisticated – it was an era where the songs still transcended the production, with melodies and hooks that were instantly recognisable regardless of the way they were recorded. I don’t think that happens so much anymore, mainstream pop seems to go through a more homogenised production process. And I think that’s partly to do with technology and process – and quite a bit to do with business.”
Red Box had a row of hits in the mid nineteen eighties, including Lean on Me and For America. Both of these were sophisticated for their time – even ever-so-slightly avant-garde, as well as being infuriatingly catchy. Simon’s band became a British pop sensation, selling vast numbers of records around the world, yet this didn’t happen overnight. Indeed, he explains that it took the foresight of clever record company staff and producers to forge his music into hits. His story is a fascinating insight into the creative process.
What makes a great hit single? Simon says that – even though much has changed in the way music is recorded, marketed and consumed – the same fundamental laws still apply. “It’s about connectivity, no matter what the genre, the era or the marketing platform”, he explains. “Take Lean On Me for example: because it’s melodic and harmonic, it starts to work its way into your brain after a few listens, as opposed to a song which never gets better than the first time you hear it. If I had written it last month, I’d like to think that it would still succeed for the same enduring reason of being catchy.” When he writes a song, he feels as if he’s doing it for the first time. “It’s like I am in my own small corner of the forest, paddling a leaky boat down an unexplored river with no map or compass.
I used to think, “Jeez, one day this might get easier for me, when I’m truly experienced” but that never happened. Although getting older hasn’t seen it get easier I used to think that ‘virgin feeling’ was a disadvantage, but I have come to realise it’s actually a huge advantage. I never got bored of the process, in fact the exact opposite has happened.”
Would Red Box be able to succeed in today’s brave new world pop? “If I were a young man now,” says Simon, “and Red Box had just begun then I think we’d still sound like we do. We have always been a song-centric band. They usually begin with a vocal line and a simple accompanying instrument, guitar or piano perhaps, and if they don’t then we won’t pursue them beyond that moment. The song needs to stand up on its own two feet, no matter what we might add to it later. We range from very simple to ‘wall of sound’ type songs; there’s no muse that is unacceptable, no direction we won’t at least explore so long as we can make it our own. That’s a timeless commodity, and indeed perhaps our most precious asset.”
It’s all very well having your own sound, but getting it to a mass audience is another thing entirely. “Indeed so,” he agrees, “and one thing is huge – we artists can now make and distribute our music without a major label, and this is particularly true if you can connect directly with your fanbase through social media.” When Simon started in the music biz in the early eighties, a master-quality studio cost upwards of £3 million to set up and equip. These days, with ever-improving digital hardware, you can get good results for as little as £50,000. Even if you can’t set that up for yourself, it can be hired at a fraction of the cost of Abbey Road, so the recording process is much more accessible to talent now.
“An ‘old school record deal’ offers the band between 12% and 15% – depending on how good your lawyer is – of net profit. In other words, the label pays for everything but expects a lot back. So before the band are paid their 12% cut of sales, the label first recoups the cost of the advance, studio recording bills including producers and engineers, plus video production, promotion, marketing, transport, radio plugging, artwork and advertising. And here’s the kicker – the record company don’t recoup this out of the total sales income, from their 88%, but from the band’s 12%. This is why many bands never recoup enough to make real money, even though their label is making money out of them. These days, the record companies also want a cut out of touring and merchandising because it has become the most lucrative sector of the business. This is called a ‘360 degree deal’; sometimes a new artist can get favourable terms – these days perhaps up to a 50:50 split with a more enlightened label – and it may still make sense because they are going to need A&R help making an album and expertise in marketing it. But it’s by no means a simple decision because the label will own the master rights forever…”
With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why many artists decide not to opt for an old fashioned record company deal. “Actually,” says Simon, “there have been many notable successes recently where a switched-on management with an artist adept at social media simply hires the distribution services of a major label. This is how Red Box are releasing our new album – we have a following, supporters in radio and are distributed worldwide by Right Track through Universal Music on far more generous terms!”
He adds that Red Box was recently offered a major label contract for the band’s new album. “Well, it’s very flattering at our age, but they wanted two things we weren’t prepared to give – 75% of all profit on a 360 degree basis and 75% of the master rights ownership in perpetuity. This is a big price to pay for the promotional and insider-networking skills of a major label. Sure, they know what they are doing, but with majority ownership comes majority decision-making, meaning this can leech into our creative decision-making process. That’s a step too far for us at this stage of our career. Indeed it probably was even when we were young; much as I love many of the people at Warner Music in the eighties, we had a rocky creative relationship with the company.”
So how is new technology affecting all this? “Streaming is great in principle for artists”, says Simon, “because it allows a more direct route to fans and casual listeners alike. But the earnings are very small. I love Spotify – I just wish musicians owned it instead of the major labels. Things change outwardly and yet they don’t on the inside! Is it right that the majors should continue to exert a stranglehold on streaming – and, enduringly, radio – playlists and to cream off the lion’s share of an artist’s income, whilst arguing that it’s okay because artists can now earn money from touring? Although streaming empowers touring, I think it would be healthier to see both recording and touring as interdependent, mutually beneficial commerce that’s sustainable in its own right. It’d be healthier artistically, which is good for business. In a way, streaming reduces albums and singles to the status of mere marketing tools for the tour and the T-shirt. You’ve got to wonder where this is all going to go, because if the central pillar of the music industry – namely writing and recording – remains unprofitable in its own right, then why bother?”
By way of example, he tells me that it took over a year to write and record the new album, and Red Box’s gross profit for selling it will range from £4.60 for a download to £7 from physical CDs sold at gigs. “Compare that to the T-shirt that bears the album artwork which took two hours to self-design and sells for £22, and go figure”, he says…
“One of the interesting evolutions within the industry,” says Simon, “is that never before has there been so much technical analysis and demographic feedback available to the producers of music and yet – at the creative edge of the art form we remain blissfully in the dark – in a very good way in my opinion! Sure, we can quantify, analyse and replicate – but that gives us formulaic music in any genre. It’s been done many times with varying degrees of success throughout history but the real pioneers, the adventurers, from Bach and Mozart to The Beatles and Bowie, from James Brown to Prince, Dylan to Eminem – there are so many examples – those great artists and composers forged their own highly individual path.”
He points out that there’s a crucial difference between inspiration and inferior mimicry here. “I believe there’s a duty on both sides, that both artist and listener have a duty to explore further and to aim higher, filter out the background noise, sift the sand and find those nuggets of gold. Mimicry of what is currently successful is an age-old trend and although it has never been more prevalent than today, as artists we don’t have to replicate. We can actually explore, be bolder, chase originality down and find our own voices. And as listeners we don’t have to listen to the logjam of samey, wannabee songs and recordings that some sectors of the industry push towards us via the mainstream.”
Simon says that the nineteen sixties and seventies produced so many landmark records by standout artists principally because they had their own sound and walked their own path, and their ongoing great success further empowered them to be themselves. “Somewhere between the late seventies, possibly in the early eighties, something changed and an originality of sound, an individuality of approach became harder to pursue for new bands and artists because the industry began to exert pressure on them to conform to what they perceived was a proven successful formula.”
He continues, “a number of factors contributed to this. In the record company landscape the ‘many’ began to coalesce into the ‘few’, encouraging corporate ownership that still persists and a generation of passionate music-loving executives, some with a genuine altruistic streak along with real creativity, were replaced by lawyers and accountants who may well have liked music but knew about business. It’s a generalisation, because a handful of creative and music-centric executives like Seymour Stein do still exist. But in that period I believe the music industry became a little more like the film industry, where people who are good with money pay creative people to make a product they believe is marketable – and, crucially, this is most often – depressingly often – based on what has recently proved successful. A formula. And good art has never, ever been formulaic.”
He says that punk rock “scared the bejeezus” out of the conventional, essentially conservative music industry in the second half of the seventies. “Because, at its best, punk was essentially chaotic, anarchic, to a degree less manageable and perhaps attitude-driven rather than record-driven. It was truly participational and certainly opened the doors to bands who had more creative excitement than actual virtuoso musicianship. Whilst it’s great when a truly creative artist also has the chops – McCartney, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Sting – I’ve always favoured musicians who say more in a simple style than those who with virtuosity say very little, but hey, there’s room for everything on our turntables, right? The point is punk made the music industry want to be in charge again.”
“The definition of a great pop song,” says Simon, “is one that has enough immediacy and structural strength that you recognise you’re going to like this, then it just keeps growing. Those are the real winners. For Red Box, this came fairly easily – it wasn’t the song that was the problem, it was translating how we heard it in our heads on to tape. Writing was easy but recording was trickier. I think that one of the technological differences between then and now is that to some degree you can write as you record, in a slightly freer way. But the technology should help, not get in the way.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he continues, “if you’re playing with samples or with a microphone and a guitar, you’re still after the same connection to that magical something that moves us. It’s about the music inside an artist’s head and how to get it out without getting in the way too much. It doesn’t really matter what the tools are, it’s how you hear things and then how you respond. It is communicating with other people, and is a formidable force. I believe in my heart that music has such power – and after all these years I am still in love with that idea.”
Simon has two main music systems. “I play everything directly off WAV or AIFF if I’m checking mixes and I monitor through two speakers systems for comparison”, he tells me. “Firstly I use a pair of Genelec 1081s, which are high quality studio monitors. I like the very true, untainted sound, you get out of them what you put in. They can be driven very loud with no altitude sickness. Love my Gennies. Secondly, I have a pair of Acoustic Energy AE1 actives. These are very decent hi-fi speakers costing one quarter of the price of the Genelecs; they sound a little softer, but retain the same proportional relationships between the low end, the mids and highs. Bass isn’t appreciably slower than the Genelecs. Very good bang for your buck in my view, and I like them a lot. I run a Thorens turntable hitched up to the same speaker systems via a little studio mixer. Upstairs I have a classic Quad pre-power amp, another old Thorens deck and some very old Gale speakers that I like. A bit agricultural for you audiophiles perhaps, but they blow the straw out of my hair just fine.”
Simon says that all hi-fi systems have a sound to them, as opposed to the flat sound of studio monitors. “A record you know intimately well will sound very different on them. Most, regardless of price, to my ears have a slight low and high range lift. Or a small midrange cut if you prefer. Depending on the system, my own music can sound fantastic or awful depending on how well they put the system together. I have one dear friend who spent a large sum on a system and put it in a terrible sounding room. Room acoustics are so important, and so many good systems sound awful because of them…”
“I had thirty good songs, and needed the shelf space. That’s why I put out my new album”, quips Simon. Chase The Setting Sun is something he’s very proud of. “It’s true to the idea of the band, of friendship bound closely with music-making. It closes the circle creatively between the beginnings of Red Box and the band today. I really feel it is the best album we’ve made and may be the best album I can make. It was recorded at Olive Studio – my home studio – on a Studer tape machine running at 15 ips synced-up to a state-of-the-art digital system run by an iMac. I use a Steinberg analogue-to-digital converter, Neumann, AKG and Shure mics, all running through a classic nineteen seventies mixing desk, a Trident Fleximix which used to be in Trident Studios in Soho. Bowie and The Who were previous users of it, so no pressure there, then! We only left the premises to do final mixes at Yellow Shark Studios with our engineer Clint Murphy. Good mixes rely on a controlled acoustic environment and most bands’ own studios are set up for recording rather than mixing. The record has a family warmth to it and I will always be proud of that. Red Box is the sound of my life really, and there’s no place I’d rather be than making music with my best friends.” Red Box’s first single from the new album – the infuriatingly catchy This Is What We Came For – is out now on all digital platforms.