Producer Michael Beinhorn Discusses Unlocking Creativity in the Studio

Michael Beinhorn and bassist Bill Laswell formed Material — the groundbreaking prog rock band — with the help of producer and impresario Giorgio Gomelsky in 1978. But as much as it was a band, Material functioned as an incubator of musicians, producers and engineers.

While releasing their own records, Beinhorn and Laswell were producing R&B artists such as Nona Hendryx and Whitney Houston, as well as downtown avant-garde musicians like Fred Frith and Sonny Sharrock. After co-producing Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock, which yielded the massively influential hit, “Rockit,” Beinhorn’s career as an in-demand producer took off, and his credits include some of the top-selling albums of the past three decades. The styles of music may differ, but the common thread is that many of these records propelled bands to the “next level” and sometimes superstardom, indicating Beinhorn may know something the rest of us don’t.

After working with artists as diverse as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Marilyn Manson, Violent Femmes, Soul Asylum, Ozzy Osbourne, Hole and Danish art rockers Mew, to name a just a few, Beinhorn decided to make some notes, which quickly became something much bigger. He realized he was writing a book.

“It’s not about technical approaches, per se, it’s about strategy. It’s a philosophical outlook on the creative process as it's reflected through record production. I was thinking about the protocols that I engaged in when I made records.”

Beinhorn's book “Unlocking Creativity: A Producer’s Guide to Making Music and Art,” explores the personal interactions, politics, philosophy and psychology involved in making records, and answers a question that has been plaguing him recently: given the state of the record industry, how can artists continue to develop and be encouraged to give their very best performances?

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You've Gotta Give

New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s was a very different city than it is now, and Beinhorn credits his time there with shaping his view of the artist's and producer’s roles.

“It was both an arts community and a cesspool. It was crime-ridden. If you went below Avenue C, you didn't know if you'd come back alive. That meant there was this constant sense of electricity. It was the most extraordinary petri dish I could have been handed for artistic growth. The whole experience was a form of mentorship,” which eventually landed him on a cross-country tour with Daevid Allen’s band, Gong.

Michael Beinhorn recording with Soul Asylum, 1992

“The drummer, Stu Martin, had played with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John McLaughlin, the list just goes on and on. This wiry little guy would hook up two EMS Synthi AKS synthesizers and engage both sequencers, which can’t be quantized. He'd tap out some rhythm onto the keyboards, both of them at the same time. He'd have them running free, and he'd play along with them. He was such a good drummer that he'd make a rhythm out of it. I was trying to ingratiate myself to him, so I told him about this place in New York where he could use modular synths.

“He put me up against the wall and lectured me for about two hours straight. I was so scared because it was really intense. He could tell I was a very self-absorbed kid, so he kept trying to impress this point on me, saying it over and over again: ‘You've gotta give.’ It never left me, but it took me years to understand. He meant you have to give up yourself as an artist. If you happen to be fortunate enough to turn that into a way to subsidize your livelihood, that's a beautiful thing, but the reality is that you've been given a gift to share with other people. It's a relentless pursuit not just to acquire, but to release and improve your art.”

However, “art” often is a dirty word in the business world. “I remember a famous A&R person didn't want me on a particular project. He said, ‘we're not going use him; Beinhorn is arty, and art doesn't sell.’ To this day, I'm very flattered. People in the corporate world don't recognize that people aren’t paying for a song; they’re buying a feeling, an emotional state. Art taps into that. Modern pop music stimulates a sensory experience, but it's like when you eat too much sugar and start to feel sick. Listen to ten songs that have auto-tuned vocals and squeaky singers and you do get a feeling from it, but it’s that of being manipulated. Compare that to a group like ABBA. They've sold almost 380 million records. When you hear those two women's voices together, never mind the melodies or how they're harmonizing, there's just something supernatural. You're just riveted, right?”

Beinhorn performing in Japan with his Sequential Circuits synth, 1983

Deal with the Here and Now

“In the middle of the 1990s, some of our most successful artists started releasing their most dismal records. I was at the height of my career at this point, and there was a very strong sense that some of the talent at the top of the food chain didn’t need to try anymore. People were going to buy their music regardless. It was a terrible miscalculation on their part, but everyone was just rolling in bucks.”

But there were dark forces at work on the industry. Many record companies were purchased by mega-corporations and publicly traded companies, which changed the economics and incentives of the industry. To improve quarterly profits and make shareholders happy, labels began turning out product as fast as possible and dialing back artist development efforts. And digital piracy was about to make that even more complicated.

“Toward the end of the '90s, bands would put out a CD that cost $18, but would only have one listenable song on it,” he says. “The music business had assumed they had a lock on their content. So when that lock got broken, ostensibly by recordable CDs and the advent of Napster, it changed the game for the consumer.”

There's no way you can create something that's expressive if you tell them a song is good enough... Have them sit with a piece of music and try as hard as they can to make it sound amazing! This is what’s being lost."

Attempts at artist development ground to a halt. “It was a recipe for short-term returns, long-term disaster, and it’s terrible for art.”

That trend continues. More than ever, record companies now look for artists who fit into a niche and appeal to a specific demographic of listeners, Beinhorn explains, and very few are actively involved in longer term artist development efforts.

“There's no way you can create something that's expressive if you tell them a song is good enough; that we can edit it, sample and replace the drums and make everything sound great. Have them sit with a piece of music and try as hard as they can to make it sound amazing! This is what’s being lost,” he says. “There was a very active, conscious desire to develop artists and act as a support system. They recognized that popular art is no different than classical art, which itself was popular at one time. An artist used to be allowed to make as many mistakes as they needed until someone either said ‘I don't think this will ever go anywhere, we have to drop you,’ or they were handed a platinum record.”

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Be Radically Honest

One of the massive changes that have resulted is that artists now are faced with being critics of their own work, which can be difficult when they are so close to the subject. And by compromising on honest feedback, Beinhorn says that art itself is being compromised.

“You owe it to yourself to be really brutally honest. People must be willing to accept that challenge instead of settling for passable or just getting some content out there. And if you're bringing any agendas into the process, they’ll be detrimental to the project and the people you're working with. Find someone who will act as an arbiter, who you can trust to give you feedback. If you don't have the ability to pay someone, then look inside your network of people.

“Performances that don't work put me to sleep, but ones where you can feel someone's energy, where they found a way to step it up? I'm just riveted. That's magic, and magic is attainable. I don’t feel like I’m ever cruel, but my primary responsibility is to honor the work of the people who have hired me. Once the goal is defined, it has to be achieved. Sometimes not everyone appreciates how we arrive at that endpoint. But from my point of view, the result of our collaboration is something that lasts forever, and hurt feelings can be temporary.”

Ironically, the lack of honest feedback has coincided with the ability to tweak recordings into near perfection which has changed the sorts of artists rewarded with recording contracts, Beinhorn says.

“Either they write their own songs or they look good enough, can sing passably enough to be Auto-Tuned, and they're amenable to being manipulated by whatever writers/producers the record company gives them,” he says. All of which has further diminished the producer’s traditional role as mentor and spirit guide, which should entail creating music and stimulating the artist's creative instinct, he says. “The current method involves minimal commitment and compromises quality.”

Beinhorn with Paul Northfield, recording Hole in 1997

Find a Mentor

It’s hard enough to define what a producer does, so explaining how to become one is an even more difficult task. Like many others, Beinhorn essentially just one day found himself in the role that would ultimately become his career.

“Working with experienced players like Nile Rogers, Bernie Worrell, the late Tony Thompson, various jazz musicians, David Byrne and Chris Cutler was training in itself,” he says. “Mentoring is basically someone showing you what part of the stove you shouldn't touch. I ended up getting burned to learn what I needed to learn. People need to really think about what they're doing, connect with their emotional and expressive selves and get into their creative drive. They also have to make the distinction between being artistic, being expressive and being self indulgent. These distinctions were lost quite a while ago, and I’d like to see them return, but we shouldn’t make a futile effort to reestablish the past.”

“I’ve devoted so much of myself to this, and always felt like I had a sacred trust to uphold. My involvement is being a stepping stone in the organic evolution of their career. We temporarily converge, collaborate and presumably walk away from the experience enriched, with a greater tool set than the one we came in with.”

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