Dare To Be Different! Part 3
Be Kind OR Be Honest?
Put yourself into the following scenario: you’re a big fan of an Italian dance record label. So much so that you scour the import shops to buy every bit of music it puts out. Then, one day, you read that the label is going to launch itself in the UK. You beg and plead to be put on the advance 'promo' list for the new UK label, and your application is accepted.
The first promo arrives. And it’s terrible! You have to fill in the feedback sheet.
(a) Say the record is a good start for the UK label and you look forward to future releases?
(b) Dare to be different, and say not only is the record quite dreadful, but that its release seriously weakens the well-established reputation and global brand of the label. Going on to add that you’d rather be taken off the promo list than stay on it if this record is going to be typical of future releases?
Media Records Srl
In the 1990s, Media Records was an extremely successful dance record label, run by Italian entrepreneur and mischief maker Gianfranco Bortolotti. It was deliberately modelled on the ‘hit factory’ premise of the UK’s PWL record label that had given Stock, Aitken and Waterman so many worldwide hits in the 1980s.
Bortolotti adapted the ‘production line’ approach PWL had taken to even greater effect, setting up not just two, but seven or eight, small recording studios with in-house producers and engineers that could turn round new tracks in a matter of hours or days rather than weeks. He then went on to pair each set of established in-house producers with working club DJs to form new production teams. The intention was that this would create music that was suitable not just for the mainstream charts, but also for the leading-edge clubs. The end result was commercial music with a more contemporary edge than would have been possible if DJs hadn’t got involved. It also had the added benefit of guaranteeing promotion in the big clubs where the DJ halves of the production teams worked, because no DJ is ever going to NOT play something he’s produced. This was a win-win for everybody!
DJ production partners were not allowed to use their real DJ names. Instead they were given names that looked like they’d been plucked at random from an English dictionary: Cappella, (or Anti-Capella!), DJ Professor, Mars Plastic and RAF to name just a few.
DJs were told this was to stop professional jealousy and to ensure their rivals in the DJ world would play their music, ignorant that their ‘competition’ had produced it. In fact, the policy made it very convenient if a successful DJ-half of the producer pairing fell out with the label over lack of royalties or lack of creative control - the DJ could simply be replaced with another, and the buying public and fan base would be none the wiser.
This cross-fertilisation of engineer and club DJ worked well and produced some great records, but there was always a problem when it came to making non-instrumental tracks. The heavy Italian accents of the locally available singers had a negative impact on the foreign sales that were considered crucial to the label’s long-term survival.
Media, like most of the Italian record labels, got around this issue mostly through a ‘musical magpie’ approach of ‘borrowing’ vocal snippets from elsewhere. The story of Black Box’s huge smash ‘Ride on Time’ (a misheard “Right on Time” grab from a Loleatta Holloway acapella of ‘Love Sensation’) is perhaps the best-known example of the sort of litigation problems such ‘borrowing’ can cause if a record actually achieves commercial success.
Media Records UK
Back in the UK, Peter Pritchard, a music teacher in London, had discovered a pupil with an amazing earthy, raunchy, but soulful voice, called Ann-Marie Smith and offered to become her manager. He took Ann-Marie for a ‘try out’ studio vocal session with Media in Italy which led to her voice appearing on many different hits credited to different groups with names like Clock, Cappella, The 49’ers, Sharada House Gang and 99th Floor Elevators, to name just a few.
As well as being Ann-Marie’s manager, Peter co-owned a small, rather run-down, studio in Islington. After the trip to Italy with Ann-Marie, Peter suggested to Gianfranco that it would be advantageous for the label to have a UK office and an extra London-based studio, and so the ‘franchise’ of Media Records UK was formed. Following the Italian parent company’s lead, Peter decided to hook up with British club DJs to make records for the worldwide market. One of the first productions was with Justin Berkmann who was co-founder of, and resident DJ at, The Ministry of Sound.
‘Brutal but Honest’ Works Better Than ‘Kind but Dishonest’
I can’t remember whether the label’s first release was a Peter Pritchard original production (Peter used the ‘nom de plume’ PTP for all his solo productions) or a Justin Berkmann one, but I do know I thought it was commercial suicide, and stated so very bluntly in my DJ feedback form.
Peter’s response was as generous as it was conciliatory: “One of the Italian producer/remixers, DJ Professor, is coming over to the UK for a few days to work in the studio. I know you’re a fan. Do you want an exclusive interview with him for your Prime Cuts newsletter?”
Face-to-Face Contact Always Works Best
Of course I leapt at the chance, although it turned out the DJ’s English back then was almost non-existent and the only translator available was Peter (who didn’t speak Italian), making the interview a rather difficult and rather short one! The important thing was that I met Peter face-to-face for the first time, and was able to vocalise what, for me, made Media Records (Italy) productions work and why his first proposed UK release was such a betrayal of what the label stood for.
It also meant that I had a contact when I wanted permission to re-edit a Media Records (Italy) single and license it for the A Saturday Night at Heaven CD [last issue]. Peter not only gave the required permission, but when he received the finished re-edit, rang to tell me how impressed he was with the end result. “We should work together on something in the future,” he said.
It wasn’t long after that when Peter called to ask if I’d help re-edit into a 12” version a short track Justin Berkmann had made. Although I liked Justin as a person – we were very similar, in that we were both extremely opinionated and passionate about our music – I’m afraid I didn’t like his music at all. However, the end result of our session together met with his approval as well as Peter’s, and meant my name was noted for possible future collaborations.
Persistence Pays Off
Peter was juggling a lot of balls at Media and was extremely busy – not only producing original recordings, but also managing his roster of UK artists, organising club P.A.s for them, dealing with DJs on mailing lists and sub-licensing Italian releases to major labels who could afford to promote and distribute them. At the same time he was trying to negotiate a distribution deal for his UK label’s more commercial releases with the major label MCA which he felt was needed if he were to have any chance of a Top 40 hit.
Although there were frequent mentions when we spoke on the phone that we should work together on something, nothing seemed to actually happen after the re-edit for Justin. I found myself ringing Peter on an almost weekly basis, pretending I was calling to find out what new releases might be on the way, in the hope that he’d then remember he’d talked about us working together.
Just at the point it looked like nothing would ever happen, we had a conversation that ended when he suddenly asked: “Are you doing anything right now?” “No,” I lied. “Well I’m working on a project for Germany and I need another mix. Want to come over and help me with it?”
My heart sank when I discovered what the ‘project’ was: a dance remix of the Beverley Hill’s Cop theme ‘Axel F’ written by Harold Faltermeyer. I had already heard several different dance records of this track on Italian import in the previous six months alone, and felt the last thing the world needed was yet another. If you’ve heard my mix of the track you’ll know I spent as long as possible delaying the introduction of THAT tired old riff, teasing just the first few notes for long stretches of time, before finally having to introduce the whole thing.
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 75, Pages 56 - 60.