Yellow Phone Music Conference calls up Butch Vig as keynote speaker
Butch Vig has a lot on his plate. He just finished wrapping up a new Foo Fighters album, and he's heading back into the studio to start recording a new Garbage album – plus all sorts of other odds and ends sure to keep the legendary Viroqua-born drummer and record producer busy.
However, tucked away in that packed schedule is just enough time to head back to Milwaukee for the upcoming Yellow Phone Music Conference. Beginning Thursday, Sept. 4 and running through the weekend, Yellow Phone is an extended industry mash-up of informative panels and entertaining concerts spread across the city that aims to be Milwaukee's answer to SXSW, albeit more focused and accessible to small bands and outsiders than its increasingly commercialized predecessor down in Austin.
In merely its fourth year of existence, it's far from that lofty status right now, but with a respected big name like Vig as this year's keynote speaker and one of its strongest concert lineups thus far – including GGOOLLDD, Carbon Tigers, Hugh Bob and the Hustle, Jayk, Kane Place Record Club, Klassik, Tapebenders, The Living Statues, Paper Holland and My My My – Yellow Phone appears to be an industry event moving up in the world.
OnMilwaukee.com took to some time to chat with Vig before the festivities begin – namely his keynote address on Friday, Sept. 5 at the Hyatt Regency Milwaukee, the weekend's main event – and pick his brain about the state of the industry, making it and his projects currently coming down the pipeline.
OnMilwaukee.com: What are you hoping to talk about at your keynote speech at the Yellow Phone Conference?
Butch Vig: Well, I'm not sure. (laughs) Here's the thing: When Jeff Castelaz and Scott (Ziel) asked me to be the speaker, I was really interested and said that I really dread giving speeches. So Jeff said why don't we just kind of riff off of each other while talking about the state of the music business, where we see it going and we can take questions from the audience and keep it really informal.
But basically, I want to try to give a lot of the young musicians and artists there as much information as I have gained over the last 30 years and a lot of the changes that I've seen in how everyone is adapting to a brand new world out there.
OMC: What would you say is the biggest issue facing young artists nowadays?
BV: Well, young artists have a lot more accessibility to information about how records are made, how you market them and getting people to listen to them. You can just post your music to the Internet these days, and in 24 hours, you can have an audience if your song is great.
When I started 30 years ago, it was kind of a mystery. Hire a manager; what does a manager do? What is publishing? How do you get a record deal? It always seemed like there was an obstacle in the way. The advent of the digital revolution has made it pretty easy for young artists and bands to make records and understand the process nowadays.
But, just because you can get a record made doesn't necessarily mean it's going to make you any money and allow you to have a career at it. If anything, with this new technology, there are thousands more bands than there used to be 30 years ago. Take a guess how many bands are on YouTube nowadays. Five million? 10 million? Of all that clutter and noise and din, how do you get your song heard?
I guess that's one of the things I want to try and talk about: It's really important for an artist to follow their own course, try to establish their own identity and write songs that are unique that stand out amongst the crowd. Then you have to figure out marketing skills. There's still a lot of obstacles that are in a young band's path to success.
OMC: How do you feel about the accessibility of studio technology? A lot of people don't have to record in a studio anymore; they can just record something on Garage Band or something. Is that a good or a bad?
BV: Well, it's both good and bad. It levels the playing field. Anybody can make a good sounding recording now, and if they've got some skills, they can write a great song. You can write a great song in your bedroom at 10 at night and post it online the next morning and have thousands of people who are listening to it.
What I see is that a lot of people are using the same technology, so a lot of the music sounds the same to me. It starts getting very generic sounding. The thing I find sad is that more and more great studio rooms are closing because they can't afford the business model. Young bands just don't want to pay $500 or $1,000 to go into a world-class recording room.
Your brain understands when you listen to music the interaction and sound of people playing together. In great and classic recordings, you can actually hear the sound of an ensemble playing in a room. And that's going to slowly dissipate because you're using pre-set, pre-made plug-ins on a laptop. A lot of people are defaulting to the same kick drum sounds and snare drum sounds.
Now, they can still write catchy songs with great lyrics, but sonically, for me, it's going to lose a little bit of that vibe and mojo you get when you have people playing in a room that sounds great together.
OMC: How do you feel about the Top 40 as it stands nowadays?
BV: It's interesting. I read a couple of things recently. One, there was a study that said young music fans only listen to about 30 to 60 seconds of a song. They'll start it out, hear a verse and chorus, and then skip to the next song because their attention spans are so short now. They don't even want to sit through a four-minute song.
At the same time, there are some radio stations that have popped up that used to play about 12 to 14 songs an hour, now playing 30 songs an hour. It's verse-chorus-chorus; that's it, and then they move onto the next song. At first, a lot of artists were upset about it because they felt their songs were getting edited down and distilled. But then they realized, well, if they stick to their old format, only 12 artists are going to get played in the next hour. Now those artists who weren't going to get played are going to get played, even if they only hear a minute of the song.
It's just adhering to people's attention spans, and the bad thing about that is that it's just going to reinforce that and make their attention spans even shorter and shorter. No one's going to have patience for a four-minute song, much less a 40-minute album.
OMC: Now, according to a tweet of yours from late July, you are officially done with the new Foo Fighters album?
BV: Yeah, we approved a final master last week.
OMC: What can people expect from this new album?
BV: Well, we took quite a different approach. We recorded eight different songs in eight different cities and made eight one-hour documentaries that are going to start premiering on HBO in October. It's called "Sonic Highways," and each episode is about the recording of the song and the history of each particular city.
It was a really fun, challenging, crazy process. The songs sound like the Foo Fighters, but each song is kind of a reflection of the city we were in. A lot of the tracks are really epic-sounding; they start in one place and then take a detour and go someplace else and finally end in a completely different space. It makes total sense when you hear the record in the context of where each song was recorded and what Dave is singing about. I think it sounds great. There are some monster guitar riffs on it.
OMC: And you're currently working on some new Garbage, too?
BV: Yeah, we just started a new Garbage record this week. We've had some writing sessions on and off over the last six months. We have quite a few ideas; we're trying to focus now what everyone is excited about, and we want to have it done by the end of the year.
OMC: How is the state of the current Milwaukee music scene?
BV: I haven't spent a lot of time there lately, but just the feedback I've been getting from the Yellow Phone Conference and seeing some of the bands coming to play, it sounds like it's very vibrant. There's a lot of exciting bands and a lot of diversity, which is something I see happening all over the country. A lot of cities have their own scene, and they're thriving. There's an audience that sustains it in each city.
In all of these cities, what I see is a lot of diversity. It's not just, "Well, there's only rock bands in Milwaukee" or "There's only funk bands in Minneapolis." I guess if I can say anything, it's that there's some really great, talented artists, and they're all very diverse. And I think that's really exciting.
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