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The advantages of working with a producer as an unsigned band. Sugar House explain the benefits of professional production...

Sugar House are producers Ady Hall and Lee McCarthy who came together to create quality records for unsigned bands & artists on a budget. Fast forward 9 years, working with many exciting breakthrough bands along the way, and Sugar House are now represented jointly by management companies 140dB and Big Life Management, opening the doors to the music industry at large for the production duo from Lancashire.

They chat to us and give us the lowdown on how working with a producer can be a career-changing development for as unsigned act; from nailing a distinct sound that will bag you radio airplay to connecting you with other music industry professionals for guidance on your next steps.

So how did you get started in music production?
We both started doing music production out of necessity really. We’d both spent time in various original bands throughout our younger years. Neither of us felt we were getting the right results from local studios. This led more and more to having a go at it ourselves, both in very different ways.

What made you come together to form Sugar House?
After working on a charity single together in late 2008 we discovered that we worked very well together as a team. We both have different skills and influences which has allowed us to create something quite unique.

2009 was when Sugar House officially started. The aim was to make release quality records on a budget that unsigned bands could afford. We’d both had the experience of paying for studio time but have the person on the other side of the glass not really care enough. So what we were trying to do was make the difference between a demo and a proper record. It took us a few years to really do that consistently.

How did Sugar House develop as the bands you worked with gained exposure?
It wasn’t until 2013 that we properly noticed bands we’d worked with gaining national exposure. It began really with our first Radio 1 playlist that year. From 2015 onwards there hasn’t been a month that’s passed without one or more of the tracks gaining national airplay, whether it be BBC Radio 1, BBC 6Music, BBC Radio 2 or Radio X.

All that definitely had a really positive impact on how bands perceived us. We had bands coming to us aspiring to be like other bands we’d worked with. We started forming what we call the ‘Sugar House Collective’. We’d encourage all the bands we worked with to get to know each other and share info/contacts. All this helped propel the bands forward.

When we started it was really up and down. We’d have good months and bad months. But as the bands started to do better that aspect of things became a lot steadier through good word of mouth. We were under a lot less pressure to find work. That’s probably the biggest change. We were able to just focus on the production more.

How did signing with 140dB Management come about?
We were introduced to Ros Earls (140dB founder & owner) last year by a mutual friend, Stuart Bridgeman - an excitable but experienced radio plugger who is a big fan of our work and he thought we might make a good team. He tipped us off for our production skills but also thought we had a great ear for up and coming artists.

Round about that time we met with quite a few producer managers. We instantly felt most comfortable with Ros. Not only because of her experience but because we felt she understood the market we were in and how to develop what we were already doing. We’re also big fans of the likes of Flood, who I’m sure had a big influence on us as producers.

What made the deal even better was the fact that 140dB had recently formed a partnership with
Big Life Management, who we were also very familiar with. So we actually joined the shared producer roster of both companies, with Kat Kennedy co-managing us with Ros. Between them they have masses of experience and knowledge so we feel extremely lucky to be in this position.

How do your management team work to develop the prospects of Sugar House?
The first main thing the management did was to change the way people thought about engaging with us. They wanted to move away from the idea of us being a daily studio facility for hire. In actual fact, what we were doing had already grown into a lot more than that. People were coming to us for our production, engineering, mixing and arranging. We used to have a standard daily rate but now a Sugarhouse Production is charged on a per track rate, which includes studio time and a mix. That way a band can spend their hard earned (or borrowed) cash knowing that they have put their work in the hands of a team who can oversee the whole business of making a release-ready track. Add to this the support we have from our radio/press/industry connections and the overall management structure of 140db/Big Life, and it’s quite a good prospect.

What can an unsigned act gain from working with a producer over self-producing a release?
A good producer should maximise the potential of a song. It’s not just about the sound (though that is very important). There are many things that go into making a great record. When needed we will question the arrangement of a song or change the structure/length. We will challenge the performances of each musician to raise the bar on other levels. This can be hard if you are self-producing as you can never be truly objective. Viewing the song from outside of the band is very important. You can pick up on things that seem obvious with an outside perspective but not immediately clear to the band.

Knowing what is and isn’t needed on a track is important. Sometimes bands can over do it and be tempted to clog the track up with too many parts. At the same time, it’s knowing when a track is under-cooked and needs more development/production.

As well as this, an experienced producer/mixer, particularly one who maintains close ties with radio pluggers, can be really helpful in knowing what might get played or sound great on the radio. Quite often bands are influenced by other popular bands at the time. This is helpful but can also be a hindrance for a band trying to carve out their own sound. We will always strive to make sure the band is creating something that is totally unique to themselves. Again, sometimes this kind of thing isn’t always obvious when self-producing. There needs to be a certain level of experience to making a record sound great, but also it’s important to make sure the song itself is good to start with. Otherwise, you just end up rolling the track in glitter!

Where does networking with the music industry come into the producer role?

At the moment, we are working around the clock because there are so many great bands that we want to work with. We are very hands-on with approaching the bands that we think have potential that might benefit from what Sugar House does. We’ve been really busy.

The majority of our work so far has come to us directly from artists or their managers (if they have one). Thus far we’ve tended to work with artists who are in their early days and this is partly due to the lack of development within the industry. But the next steps are definitely to network more with the music business at large - something our management team (who know everyone!) are working on for us right now.

Have you been able to put emerging bands in touch with other music industry professionals to help them form a skilled team?
Yes, we do a fair bit of this. That is one of the advantages of our management set up - they can help a lot with industry advice and contacts - which we think is really helpful to a band just starting out.

Our list of contacts has grown considerably over the last year or so and we are regularly speaking to labels, managers, music lawyers and pluggers. They’re interested to hear what we’re working on. We don’t bombard these contacts with anything and everything we produce, but we think carefully to see if we can create opportunities whenever we can. It’s very exciting for us to see where this networking can lead for the bands. Half the battle for any unsigned band is getting the songs heard and we’re now in a strong position to genuinely help bands with that.

What is the best way for an unsigned act to approach a producer they'd like to work with?
Check their work and make sure you like what they do. It’s always a good idea to meet and chat with them a few times to make sure you are on the same page about where the recordings might go. Ask other bands they’ve worked with about what the experience was like.

And what advice would you give to an aspiring producer hoping to follow in the footsteps of Sugar House?
We always had big ambitions for Sugar House, but it probably wasn’t until 5 or 6 years into it that we started consistently making release quality tracks. That just came with experience and being in the studio a lot. So the best advice is just to gain as much hands-on experience as you possibly can. That takes time. Experiment and explore your own ways of doing things. This helps to define your own style. But also, every job is different so it’s important to make yourself familiar with lots and lots of music. You need to constantly keep new ideas flowing and be prepared to adapt when certain ideas don’t work. Working within the bands budget is also key and sticking to deadlines wherever possible whilst keeping things creative.

Getting the basics of the engineering and mixing side of things is also important because there’s no point having brilliant production ideas if you can’t record and mix these ideas well enough. This should be a given. Gear-wise, don’t be fooled into thinking that buying really expensive equipment will instantly make you sound like a world class engineer. It’s better to learn on affordable gear and take it from there. Great gear is awesome but only as good as the engineer who’s using it. To quote the book ‘Bandalism’ by Julien Ridgway - “It’s a mixing desk, not Paul fucking Daniels!”

Finally, don’t expect the work to come to you. You have to be proactive to earn a living in this industry.

What advice do you have for unsigned bands & artists who want to work with a producer?
Before any band decides to work with a producer they should dedicate enough time to writing the best songs they can. This is always the most important part. It’s usually good to send the producer a rough demo of the tracks beforehand.

Be well rehearsed but also be prepared that things might change. This is why it’s important to place some trust in whoever you decide to work with. It might feel unnatural sometimes for an artist to let go of an idea or try a new one. But allowing exciting things to happen is usually what makes the difference when making a track.

And this is a simple thing but probably the biggest eater of studio time - make sure your guitars are properly set up by a proper guitar luthier. This means the focus is just on performance and not whether the guitar is staying in tune or not.



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