Sean Beavan on Mixing, Producing and Music Placement

Sean Beavan on Mixing, Producing and Music Placement

Sean Beavan is a producer, engineer, mixer and musician who has had and continues to have a phenomenal career.  You may not know Sean by name but you have heard his work.  He has worked with Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Guns and Roses, Unwritten Law from behind the board and as a member of the trip hop band 8mm you may have heard his work placed in One Tree Hill, Road Rules, the Real World or in several major motion pictures.

Music Consultant:

Tell me a little bit about how you got into the business, and how you wound up engineering, producing or mixed a string of platinum and gold albums?

SB:

I got into the industry by listening to AM radio in the early 70s- I was fascinated by it. I found a recording device in my parents’ drawer and got out the tapes and started listening to my favorite songs and the craziness that ensued. I started making tape loops, and I decided I wanted to make music. My goal was to become a producer. I figured the best way to do that was to learn how to play music, so I became a musician and played in bands and got on both sides of the glass eventually. Then I was lucky enough to meet up with Trent Reznor at the right point in time, and he and I started working together, and he took me on the ride.

Music Consultant:

Must’ve been a fun ride.

SB:

It was awesome.

Music Consultant:

I think it’s the first story I’ve heard where someone came into music not by being a guitarist or bassist in the analog age, but came into it being a music fan and doing home recording without having an instrument to record.

SB:

As a kid, I just loved music. I think the first record I bought was Dark Side of the Moon. And “Money” was the single. All the noises in the beginning, the cash register sound and the coins were so cool, and I did it myself. I found this recorder and read an interview where Roger Waters was talking about how they did the tape loops. So, I got out my mom’s sewing kit, just experimented with all of that. I even taped my sister talking on the telephone and put that into things and really just enjoyed the whole idea of recording. I became a musician from those experiences. I later played guitar, bass and drums and love playing and writing songs, but it was always from the aspect of doing all of it and not just necessarily doing the one thing.

Music Consultant:

You told your story up to the Trent Reznor point in all of three breaths. I’m a believer that luck favors the well prepared. Were you working with a lot of people, or was this just a chance meeting?

SB:

Oh yeah. I’d been playing for a long time, and I think the first time was for a talent show. A friend convinced me to sing lead, and I was kind of scared, but I did it, and then all the girls said, “Hey …” and I thought, “This is what I’m going to do.”

Don’t let anybody fool you. That’s the only reason we get into it at all. I loved doing that, and it was fun. I just started playing and singing and got to know a bunch of people, and as I was singing, I was the guy that ended up having to buy the PA system. So I got into all the microphones and mixing boards. I started mixing when I wasn’t playing in a band, and I ended up mixing every original band in Cleveland live in the 1980s. So I became friends with every musician in town, and Trent (Reznor) was one of the musicians. He and I happened to be in the two rival bands in town, but we both respected each other a lot. I was mixing live for his band, and he played keyboards for me when I was making demos.

Music Consultant:

What were these bands called?

SB:

It was 1984 or 1985. The big bands in Cleveland were Nation of One – the band I was in – and Trent’s band, with Andy Kubiszewski from Stabbing Westward, a band called Exotic Birds. Chris Vrenna was playing drums in it at the time. When they’d play, I’d mix them.  Trent would pop into the studio and play on my demo tapes. And when he listened to the demo tapes, he said, “Wow, these sound awesome. Do you want to mix my demos?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” I was originally trying to get him in my band, but then when I heard his demos, I said, “Holy cow.” So, I mixed the demos for “Pretty Hate Machine” which got him a record deal. And I said, “Anything you need me to do, I’d love to do.” And, I ended up working with him.  We would later work on The Downward Spiral album together.

Music Consultant:

And that became the  Pretty Hate Machine album…

My read on producers, particularly in the late 1980s and 90s was that you went through a period where everyone wanted to hire you when you had a hit, and then there was a giant lull lull. Most guys were usually hit or miss and didn’t last very long. But you’ve worked steadily for 20-some years now. Obviously you had a handful of big successful records, but was there any trick above and beyond that to working consistently?

SB:

I don’t know. I’m always interested in the next thing, and I’m definitely interested in the job. For me, the process is every bit as important as having hits. I don’t really care about having hits. I wish I’d cared more, because I’d have more money. But I really just care about the music.

I love working with bands that are doing something cool or interesting. Luckily for me, I happened to luck into some really cool music that people tend to like and tend to put on their top 50 record lists and stuff. I guess by having a resume like the one I’ve compiled, I’ve attracted records like that, like Slayer’s God Hates Us All, where you’re doing something and you know it’s going to become an industry standard.

Music Consultant:

I certainly knew you from Pretty Hate Machine, and the work you did with Marilyn Manson and Slayer, because I went through… well, I continue to go through a pretty awkward metal / industrial phase.

SB:

If you dug it once, you never stop liking it.

Music Consultant:

What I was getting around to is that you’ve really done a lot. 8mm is a band you play in now with your wife, right?  ***Editors note 8mm is a trip hop massive attack / Portishead sounding group***

SB: Yes.

Music Consultant:

That’s really quite diverse. How have you convinced folks outside the genre for which you became known that you’d be a great fit?

SB:

It’s funny, my manager Shannon is really into the idea of being a renaissance man and always trying to change it up and do something  new and cool or off the wall and different to keep people guessing  and make them realize what kind of potential you have. I’ve always been interested in all types of music; I love everything. If Frank Sinatra was alive today, I would’ve been pushing to do a Frank Sinatra record. I just love that kind of music. So, when I started deciding that I wanted to do some music where I was writing for television or film or soundtrack-style music, the idea of writing in 8mm style, the more Portishead/Massive Attack/David Lynch-style soundtrack idea really appealed to me. I loved the fact it was very different than the super heavy, saturated stuff that I was known for. It was a real love that I had. So I was going for what I loved and what would also expand the boundaries people saw me in.

Music Consultant:

Definitely mission accomplished. I hears some of your 8mm writing and thought, “Wow … that guy?”

SB:

It’s funny, because my stuff has never been A&R driven. When I get gigs, and when people call me up and say, “I really want you to work on this record,” it’s the bands. They heard a record I did and fell in love with it, and the band asked the A&R guy, “Can we work with him?” And if he’s nice enough, he arranges to meet me. I got lucky that way. There was a Thrice record I did a few years ago, and they were interested because they’d heard a few records I’d mixed. One of their favorites was a Palo Alto record called Heroes and Villains. And Palo Alto is a much more expansive, U2ish kind of band that has some beautiful melodies and soaring strings and things and beautiful Radiohead-type guitars. They’d also heard Slayer’s God Hates Us All and really loved that record. What they wanted was a record that could run that breadth and gamut. So when it was pummeling you it was pummeling you, and when it was beautiful, you were immersed in that beauty. And they thought, “This is the guy that can do it.” It was really fun doing that record.

Music Consultant:

Are you doing mostly mixing these days?

SB:

Yeah. Mostly mixing. It gives more time for 8mm. Producing takes so much time out of the year, and I try to do more mixing so I have more time to write.

Music Consultant:

It seems like it’s much less of a sales process and less involved. Like you’re cleaning something up.

SB:

Exactly. You’re more imparting your taste filter on top of what is already done. They’ve obviously built something and sculpted it into what they want it to be, and then they’re asking you to put your overall taste over the top of it and make it do what they want it to do next, whether they want it to be more hyped or more beautiful or more hard edged. You direct it from there. I love that aspect of it. Plus, with mixing, I can mix practically anything. I get it once it’s in the mix stage. It can be country, dub stuff, jazz. I understand it at that point. Producing, I really have to get it right away and feel like I know exactly the direction the band wants to go in and run from there. There is less of a pool of people you can work with in producing in order to offer them the best. I don’t want to just take a gig when I know there is someone out there that would be able to do it better justice than I would. I have to know balls to bone that I’m the guy, and that I would make the best record for a band. Less of those things come about. I might get one or two a year, and that’s good for me.

Music Consultant:

That means when you’re really willing to produce something, you love it.

SB:

For sure. And I have to, because otherwise I would be blank and wouldn’t know what to do next.

Music Consultant:

Let’s talk a bit about business now, because you were a guy with a band making a name for itself in Cleveland back in the days of posting flyers everywhere. And now you have all this musical experience and you know all the executives in the traditional system. So, in theory you could leverage a lot of favors. But here you are self-releasing and doing your own thing. What are you finding? What is working for 8mm, and what is not? What has worked to make your own music fly?

SB:

One of the revelations is just how hard it is to market music. I used to have a little more of a producer’s bias about making records, and you get angry about the budget. You see the record’s budget, and the marketing budget is three times what it is. You say, “Just give me a little bit more so I can get these strings.” It seems counter-intuitive, and then you realize the other side:  making the record is the given. You have to have a great record, but there’s so much more that is involved and goes on. It’s definitely made me appreciate a good, solid marketing plan and people who get the kind of music you’re doing. It’s hard work for sure, but I love it. With 8mm, we never looked at going to majors with it, because that wasn’t what we wanted it to be about. It was more that we really wanted to be able to do licensing as the main thrust of the band.  We’ve been lucky enough to license practically everything we’ve written. That’s been very nice for us.

Music Consultant:

Tell me about how you accomplished that. The volume of calls I get asking “How do I license my music?” is amazing. And I sent people to aggregators, because I figure you almost have to be on the phone 24-7 to be on the phone at the right time for your one particular swatch of music when you have Sony Music calling on the other line with all of western music.

SB:

Absolutely. You can look at it as a completely daunting task, but the thing that an independent thing has going for them is that they don’t have the baggage of all the legal stuff that a big major label has, and just the hoops that have to be jumped through to get the publishing company and the record label to agree to the deal on the licensing end. As an independent you can say to the music supervisor, “And I own all the publishing.” And they say, “Oh!” It becomes much easier to deal, because they only have to deal with one person and can make the deal easier. You have actually a distinct advantage being indie in that regard. Obviously it’s great to have champions, and my suggestion is to get on the phone to every licensing house out there and try to get your music to them. We were lucky enough to get our manager and our record label that we put Songs to Live and Die By on to get in touch with Lyle Hysen at Bank Robber Music, who championed our music and has done an amazing job licensing us out to people. Before that, we had licensed several pieces through friends we had in the industry. We just got lucky on a couple things. Once you get a couple of things going, people look at it and say, “Oh, I know that band.” It’s like rubbing the Buddha belly. Once someone has done it, people feel freer to do it.

Music Consultant:

So, you found there has not been a stigma once you’ve been placed?  I always wondered how a creative ad agency would take a group like The Heavy, who had a lot of placements in Kia ads, but I’m seeing it pop up in four or five other commercials, and I’m stunned.

SB:

I’m stunned by that too. The advertising industry seems to look at it more as, for example, if you get a song in a car commercial, as long as that song doesn’t appear in another car commercial, that’s usually the sticking point on the legal that they do. I guess it makes sense. They’re selling a feeling. If your song has been used in a Jaguar commercial, then someone selling dresses or caviar is going to say, “We can even utilize that in cross marketing and use that same song.” All of a sudden they hear it, and it evokes the same feeling. They don’t know where they heard it, but all of a sudden emotionally it’s there. Music is like that. It’s about memory and emotion, and it’s emotion first. If you relate something swanky to that music, you’re going to automatically think the product that’s being sold now is swanky too. You can use that to your advantage as a marketing firm. I think it’s kind of genius.

Music Consultant:

It’s bizarre. You’re kind of a different case, because you had a lot of traction in the industry and relationships you could leverage. But I find a lot of people have a hard time balancing being persistent with being annoying. How did you walk that fine line before you came on with Bank Robber?

SB:

We’re a team. Juliette and I are a duo, and we’re actually a trio now because we have a drummer now as well. Juliette and I do all the business, and my business is mostly creative, and then Juliette does the day-to-day. She’s on every social networking site and is constantly promoting the band online. This is one of the places we really were able to glom onto early. We had a really heavy presence on MySpace when MySpace was the thing, and we got tons of music supervisors listening to our music on MySpace and writing to us and saying, “Hey, would you consider us using this song and this advertisement or show?” And there were some independent filmmakers, and there was no money, but what they were doing was kind of cool, and we liked the way it looked and thought, “Sure, we’ll do that.” We started opening up to that kind of idea. It was mostly Juliette and our manager Shannon who was also handling some of those social networking sites that really helped with that. We really got a lot of traction out of MySpace when it was the site to listen to music on. That was a big point for us.

Music Consultant:

Today it seems that a great deal of the MySpace experience is sifting through people trying to leave flash comments on your site.

SB:

Yeah. MySpace screwed up. First of all, they did something with the code and the program that made it not work most of the time. That right there caused all kinds of havoc. And then they made it so easy for people to run these horrible bots. And every decision they made on messaging was poor, and they took a site that was awesome and turned it bad. In 2004 and 2005 it was great. It was so much fun and so easy to find really cool music. I mean, there would be one guy in his bedroom in Iowa, and I would say, “Oh my God, he’s my favorite artist.” It was so easy. We have a daughter who was young at the time, and she would just be listening to everything. I thought that if I had this when I was a kid, everything would’ve been amazing. They just really screwed up, and Facebook was smart enough to slide right in there. I’m sure finding the right way to utilize the new social networking will be the next wave for the next group of people. We were lucky enough to be able to parlay MySpace and that social networking. We were in the top 3 trip hop bands on MySpace for four or five years. It helped.

Music Consultant:

I’m going to switch gears. What advice did you give classically and what do you give now about selecting the right producer, mixer and engineer? Because that’s a huge decision, especially now that it’s really all the artists’ money again. A vast majority of the records being made today are self -funded vs. label funded.

SB:

For me, if you’re a band on a very limited budget and looking to get the most professional-sounding thing out there, I would spend most of your money on mixing. Obviously, production is super important, because it’s much easier to mix things that are produced well. Mixing is a black art, not unlike mastering. There aren’t that many people that can do it really well. There are plenty out there that are looking for work too, so you can definitely get a better deal on it than you used to be able to in the Halcyon days of the 80s and 90s. But that would be my big thing. It’s kind of like what Al Jourgensen said to Trent Reznor when we were starting the Nine Inch Nails tours. He said, “The most important thing to think about when you go out on the road is to take a great monitor engineer so you can hear yourself well.” And Trent turned to me and said, “No, the most important thing is that the people in the front row think the band sounds awesome, so I’m bringing a front house guy.” So that’s what I did. Because Trent knew that no matter how crappy it sounded on stage for him, it sounded awesome up front, and the fans were getting what he wanted them to hear. Those are the kinds of things that are important. You definitely need to have your priorities straight.

Music Consultant:

Any other parting words of advice to people coming up?

SB:

The record is just the starting point. You have to work to make a great record, and don’t stop if it’s just “good enough” in your opinion. You have to stop at “great.” And then when you’re at “great,” you have to start working. Because it’s up to you to promote it, and up to you to do everything. You have to have a show that separates you from the herd and have a show that you yourself would go to.

And that’s a big deal, especially in this market, where live is going to be where you will make the majority of your money. You have to provide people with an incentive to go see your show, and not just a show. Because now, every moment of every day, I have six or seven things I could do that are really fun and interesting. You have to make yours more fun and more interesting than what is on TV or in the movies or on the internet. You have to really provide someone with a reason to come see you, and don’t ever expect someone to do it just for you. You have to give them something important and special.

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You can check out Sean’s band 8mm and do yourself a favor and follow Sean on Twitter.