Sound & Vision: Brian McTear

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Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those working behind the scenes in the music industry. In this installment, I’m going back to Philadelphia to talk with the producer Brian McTear. McTear began his musical career in the early ’90s as a singer and guitarist in the indie band Mariner Nine, which he founded in high school. While in college he and bandmate Jason Knight founded Miner Street Recordings, a small recording studio in their living room. While many other studios didn’t survive the collapse of the recording industry, Miner Street has grown into a state of the art, fully equipped digital and vintage analog recording studio. To date McTear has produced and/or engineered over one hundred albums at Miner, collaborating with artists including Matt Pond PA, Dr. Dog, Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile, and The War on Drugs.

In 2009, McTear also founded Weathervane Music Organization, an innovative non-profit that supports and advances indie music through community building. Weathervane’s signature music and video documentary series “Shaking Through” shows the personalities, processes, and techniques that go into making great music. Over a two-day period, musicians not only create and record a new song, but also share all of their raw audio files, recording notes, and final mixes with Weathervane members who download, remix, re-imagine, and share tracks with each other. The series is designed to foster opportunities for promising new musicians at a time where there is no industry investment in early career development. As Brian explains, going DIY doesn’t necessarily mean going it alone.

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The Rumpus: You’re well-known as a producer, but I understand that you started out as an indie musician.

Brian McTear: Yeah, I started as a kid with a pretty strong Bono—or Michael Stipe—complex. (Laughs.) When I was in high school I used to wear a beret and shit like that. I always wanted to be in bands, and I was always in bands. When I was at The Hill School I was in a band called Mariner Nine, which we kept going at West Chester University, a little state school in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia, and then we continued for about four or five years after college.

Rumpus: Were you well-known in the local music scene, and did you record?

McTear: Mariner Nine took the typical touring opportunities, and we recorded in DC studios because we trusted that the punk scene there would provide us with inexpensive but stimulating recording resources. We recorded at places like Inner Ear and also with Geoff Turner at WGNS—it sounds like a radio station but it was actually a recording studio.

Listen to “AZ-Yoosa Plane” By Mariner Nine (iPad/iPhone users, click here):

Rumpus: What was it that drew you to D.C.—as opposed to Philly, which was certainly much closer geographically?

McTear: When we first started out, we hadn’t done a lot of playing or recording in Philadelphia. We were drawn to the indie/punk rock community and as far as our radar went, it was all about D.C. Fugazi was one of our hero bands, so we looked at their records and we went where they went. We followed the community resources that made sense to us at the time. Also at the time we sensed that the Philly club scene in the early ’90s had a certain closed feeling.

Rumpus: Yes, that was about when I left town. I remember it was all about rock, maybe pop—but not punk or indie. The musicians and bands that came up a generation before me were Robert Hazard, Tommy Conwell, and The Hooters. The punk scene at the time, such as it was, was all about style. I remember two stores—Skinz and Zipperhead—that sold the accouterments on South Street, which was Philadelphia’s version of London’s King’s Road. But they got more and more touristy as time went on.

McTear: Exactly. I should say that we weren’t really punk at the time—more indie—we were looking at [legendary rock clubs] JC Dobbs and the Khyber Pass. Being young kids from the suburbs we didn’t feel a very warm welcome, and they weren’t exactly begging for us to bring our audiences. And it may have also been some insecurity on our part, but from what we could feel it made less sense for us to go to Philly than to move to D.C. But while we were away the community grew and a whole mess of us ended up eventually moving to Philly and making our own scene. At that point the city was just starting to rebuild itself from major financial devastation and we came back at the right time. There was fertile ground and a slow trickle of other bands coming up. From the performing perspective it was great, but for recording however not as much. There were big studios going for up to $2,000 a day and that was not an option for us. So out of necessity we brought our own recording studio with us.

Rumpus: When did you start that up?

McTear: Actually when we were back in college, one piece of gear at a time. I remember when we bought our first multi-track reel-to-reel machine. We were totally self-taught, but lo-fi music was the thing at the time, people doing these junky four-track recordings. And not just up and coming people either but established bands like Guided by Voices. I knew down deep the recordings were totally shitty but even at our level the lo-fi stuff was easy to do and I was able to make stuff people liked. It became really important to me to keep building my skills as an engineer, producer, and mixer, but even more important, and way harder, is the people skills and that’s what I learned through working with our first clients, people we knew from the scene.

Rumpus: How did expand your base, go from being a guy with some gear to a bona fide producer?

McTear: One of the first jobs I got when we moved to Philly was doing live sound at Silk City, which was a small local indie venue. We came up with the idea of doing a holiday record for a cassette release. We didn’t charge the bands for the recording and gave each participant four copies of the tape. That worked great. I mean all of those bands—there were thirteen or fourteen—became our core clientele for the next two or three years, our first bands beyond the people we already knew.

Rumpus: Were any of these “breakthrough” artists for you?

McTear: Probably the most important for me was a band called Eltro—they were a few years older than me, they came from the art/indie scene, and they were brilliant. I looked up to them and at the same time I was able to contribute by producing three full-length albums with them, even helping them to negotiate contracts with national labels. The first time a label guy took me out to dinner was with Eltro—it was Dave Allen, who at the time was the A & R guy of eMusic, which one of the first “MP3 labels.” [Allen is now at Beats Music.]

Listen to Grand Canyon by Eltro (iPad/iPhone users click here):

Rumpus: This was a very interesting period. It became easier and less expensive to record but you also see the old label model beginning to collapse.

McTear: Oh yes—without a doubt. My skills as a producer bloomed at a time when the pay was dropping precipitously. If I had started even five years earlier I might have made $30–40,000 to produce a record. But all those conventional revenue sources were changing, going away. I don’t think, to be truthful, that I was aware at the time that the reason I wasn’t making money was because the industry was collapsing. I was interpreting it as not being from that “mainstream” scene. Really the truth was that anyone who was making money at that time was coasting on fumes.

Rumpus: Do you think being ahead of that change is one of the things that has kept you viable?

McTear: I didn’t see the collapse coming but I did luck out. I just happened to rebuild the wheel at the right time in the right way. We were working in the model that would become the whole music industry from that point on—artists paying out of pocket rather than relying on inflated major label budgets.

Rumpus: As you built your technical skills and your clientele as a producer did you continue to stay active as a musician?

McTear: Mariner Nine did break up but I stayed active in a number of other bands and I juggled the back and forth of making and producing music. Every time my own records came out I got more work as a producer. And the more records I produced, there was interest in my own music, which maybe peaked with my solo project—Bitter, Bitter Weeks. That project really took off with the release of two albums in 2003 and 2004 and stayed strongly active until 2007. It was really just me and a guitar, and I discovered a lot about my own style.

Listen to Oxbow Lake Syndrome by Bitter, Bitter Weeks (iPad/iPhone users click here):

Rumpus: Can you tell me more about how Miner Street evolved during this period?

McTear: As I mentioned, the studio was originally started in my college house, which was at 112 E. Miner Street in West Chester. We kept the name “Miner Street Recordings” but eventually moved it to the Manyunk neighborhood in Philadelphia because we found a really cheap place there. The studio was effectively in two warehouse spaces across the street from each other from about 1996 to 2005. The first place had rats the size of cats and I co-owned it with a Mariner Nine band mate, but when he decided to move to California I bought him out. There just so happened to be a guy named Gary Ferenchak running another studio across the street from us. I knocked on the door and asked to rent some of his space and he said, “I’ve got a better idea: Why don’t we just become partners?” I could bring clients to the picture and he could bring a bigger place and professional level gear. It really worked out! He’s an angel, and a dear friend, and he’s still a partner though he’s no longer active in the studio. Since about 2001 my girlfriend Amy Morrissey and I have run the business, and the three of us own the gear together.

Rumpus: When I was coming up, Fishtown was a scruffy scene; blocks and blocks of narrow streets and row houses known back then as “holy ghosts”—three stories packed one on top of the other, joined by staircases so steep you could barely keep your footing. Today, Fishtown still isn’t Brooklyn, and doesn’t aspire to be, but it does appear to be thriving. There’s Di Pinto’s custom guitar shop, clubs like Johnny Brenda’s, Kung Fu Necktie and Fire, and a slew of new restaurants and art spaces. What led you to bring Miner Street to this neighborhood?

McTear: We moved the studio here in 2005 because we were living in Fishtown, we were dirt poor, and it was a hardship to commute across town. Our current location, which is five blocks from our house, came up for sale and we could build the studio here from scratch. Our model was centered on nurturing relationships between musicians and studios, not between studios and labels.

Rumpus: Had you ever considered becoming a label?

McTear: Not really—only inasmuch as everyone dabbled in ’96-’97! We had put out some 7 inches but I was pretty convinced from the label negotiations I had been involved in that the business side was its own thing. I functioned more naturally on the creative side, talking about creative goals—not moving units.

Rumpus: How did that approach lead to Weathervane?

McTear: I remember that when I was making my third record with my friend Matt Pond in 2001 we started talking about the possibility of a non-profit approach that would create opportunities for musicians in the indie community, and I just kept going with it. My friend Bill Robertson from high school brought his non-profit management experience to those ideas and we formally launched in 2009.

Rumpus: What specifically did you hope to achieve?

McTear: To be a “music incubator” is a good description of the goal when we first started. When the industry collapsed we tried to create a way to raise money for artists to access the kinds of resources previously accessed through labels. That led to the series “Shaking Through”—a musician or band professionally records one song, which we share with the public. It was almost like a public radio or public TV approach—we were looking to create a community that would ensure that quality indie music could be made. The incubator term went away after a while as we realized the community we hoped to activate wasn’t just the musicians. It was broader than that. We were serving the larger music community—both musicians and fans who wanted more access to the process. In the past even the most dogged supporters of music had only two ways to show it—buy the album and go to the show. But people don’t really buy records anymore. They still see bands live, but that only opens you up to the later stages of the music experience. We realized that we could offer a whole new experience, learning what it’s like when music is being born.

Watch a “Shaking Through” episode with Cassandra Jenkins:

Rumpus: The concept for Shaking Through involves a two-day recording session, which is documented, and then distributed. How are the artists selected?

McTear: Initially our board and selection committee drew from the community and then it evolved into a guest curator process with people like Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear, Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog, and Mikael Jorgensen of Wilco. In the last year it’s evolved again as we’ve come to understand that the community of fans is essential, and we want to give them the best music and the best stories. Currently Peter English, the creative director and producer of Shaking Through, is at the helm of that selection process. The artists are still prime beneficiaries, but so are the fans, members of our community who want to learn more about music creation. A third group of stakeholders are those in the music community who want download access to the raw tracks, samples, and stems. Since 2011, we’ve made those available for remixing, which our members can then post onto our site. People who post get constructive criticism from other music production enthusiasts.

Rumpus: How many members does Weathervane currently have?

McTear: All told we now have several hundred members in about 30-40 countries. We have an additional 2,000 “trial members” around the world. Our growth has taught us the value of community in very concrete terms. When we gave people ways to support us and interact with each other we became very strong.

Rumpus: So members are not just subscribing to resources or services but connecting with each other?

McTear: I think I once heard the guy from Spotify say that a subscription was like turning on a faucet. That’s really one directional. With Weathervane membership you get access to the resources and the ability learn and share with others in your community. It’s the interaction that keeps people coming back.

Rumpus: You recently gave a TEDx talk where you suggested that fostering community is far more valuable than content creation. Can you elaborate?

McTear: There was a time and day when musicians had access to the resources of the industry—which included constructive relationships—not just stuff. But when that community disappeared we tried to fill that gap with a reconsidered peer-to-peer community-based model.

Watch Brian’s TEDx talk “A Modest Proposal for Fixing the Music Industry”

Rumpus: So you’re saying that “DIY” doesn’t necessarily mean do it all by yourself?

McTear: I’ve come to a place in my life where I appreciate so many elements of the DIY era and that model. It was once a necessary thing, but it’s now at a point where it needs to start going away. A person doesn’t need to know how to do everything on their own and they shouldn’t need to. Instead that person can and should start specializing in the thing they do best. We can come to each other and share our skills and resources.

Rumpus: Yes, but at a certain point an artist also has to think about long-term viability—like how long can I continue if I’m not making any money? I think we’ve gone a lot further in figuring out how to launch a career than on how to keep one going. How can cultivating community connections help?

McTear: There are people within your own community, with expertise, that might help you to figure out ways to keep going. I’m 41. I’ve never seen private jets or limousines, but I have had records played on the radio. I have had people I’ve worked with on TV and all that kind of stuff. The idea of the high roller rock star is so old, even famous people aren’t living like that. People need to start understanding that it is possible to be a working musician, to harness resources in the community to make it work. Art has always been about a desire for the artist to communicate by making something that allows people to communicate with each other. If you can do that, you can be viable. It’s not about “here’s more awesome shit I’ve made”—like a signed record—but here’s more valuable experiences I can offer, more meaningful connections, more of the fans seeing their value in the shared project.

Rumpus: What’s next for Weathervane?

McTear: I want Weathervane to keep growing, to become self-sustaining without foundation support, to earn our keep through direct community support. Weathervane was started in Philadelphia, which happens to be an inexpensive city where an artist can make a living, but I’d love to see it go mobile, grow in other cities, lay down the footprint wherever it goes.

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Bonus Material:

Sharon Van Etten recorded the song “Love More” at Weathervane for the launch of the “Shaking Through” series in January 2010.

Listen to “Love More” (iPad/iPhone users click here):

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This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, The Brooklyn Rail and others. More from this author →