JV: Obviously, doing so many great libraries helps, but what else to you contribute being able to be successful for such a long period of time?
Mike: That really has to do more with the focus on clients than anything else. Bob and I had long radio backgrounds before we got into recording. We worked at KROQ, WWWW and quite a few other stations. Our goal was never to get a record contract, but to super-serve the needs of Imaging and Production Directors. My greatest satisfactions in this business have always come from the relationships with our colleagues in radio. We basically have the same mindset as our clients. We just apply them to material that will help them the most and be the easiest to access. The process never stops. First it was to better organize the libraries into categories. Then it was to improve accessibility, which we continue to do to this day via such innovations as AIFF files and CD-ROM catalogs.
There is pretty much nothing that we wouldn’t do for a client. It isn’t a slogan. It’s a way of life that comes from our childhood and our parents. What a privilege it is to work with the top creators in radio and television. Their input is paramount to our success. We have listened to their concerns and ideas at every stage. And most of all, you have to stand for integrity.
The other factor that has sustained our success is the people we’ve been able to work with at Brown Bag. It’s the small team approach where three or four ears are always better than one. It’s a shame that radio production can’t afford the time and resources to do that. We’ve worked with Mark Hiskey, the late Randy California of Spirit, Neale Heywood, who is the guitarist behind Lindsay Buckingham in Fleetwood Mac and some monster talents like Jeff Brown and Bob Croft plus Sam Levine and Mark Koenig. Greg Fadick joined us a few years ago and has made Brown Bag and our world a better place.
JV: You’ve often used the phrase “sonic excellence” in describing your libraries. What’s the Brown Bag philosophy on sonic quality?
Mike: This has been a cornerstone of our work since the beginning. In a world of MP3s and some severely restricted dynamic range, we have persevered with the no-compromise, full-range approach. We don’t ever use MP3s or distribute our material that way.
When it comes to creating sounds, we are pure masochists. We don’t slather on delay or reverb to create a full sound because that just washes out when it’s combined with voice and music. We almost never use factory pre-set sounds. Instead, we will meticulously waveform edit multiple sources to get the richest, fattest sounds imaginable. That’s why we’ve had such success in network television promos and movie trailers and sports. And we believe in the power of fully realized bass. We don’t constrict the dynamic range into the mid-range and highs only.
When you get high praise from radio’s top imagers and the audio people at Fox Television, CBS-TV and NFL Films, it’s because you provide usability and sonic quality found very few places. Quite frankly, no one else in libraries puts in the tedious hours on sounds to do this like we have.
JV: Since the beginning, you’ve been very close to your clients, radio production people, and you have a unique view of our industry. How have you seen radio production change over the years?
Mike: When we started doing libraries, one person usually did the spots and the imaging. The emphasis was on commercials. Over time, stations assigned the imaging to the most talented people. The creativity of the entire medium, save for morning shows, is largely in the hands of the imagers. And we are blessed with some of the finest talents on the planet. It’s an impossible gig for one person to sit in a room 50 to 60 hours a week and turn out cool stuff all by him or herself. And yet, as the RAP CDs indicate, there are those who truly excel at it. One of those people is doing this interview, in fact. How many people know, Jerry, that you are one of the best imagers in radio at one of the country’s most successful stations? And RAP has had a huge influence on the development of talent and pride in our industry. We all owe you a huge debt for that.
JV: Thanks, Mike. How have production libraries in general changed over the last couple of decades?
Mike: Programming-based libraries have proliferated while advertiser-based libraries seem to have leveled out. Advertiser-based libraries are based on tonnage. Some of it is good, most of it isn’t. So much filler is released that it takes a high threshold of pain to find the good stuff.
Programming-based libraries have become much more narrow in focus. We’re on the path to hip-hop Country libraries. While that would seem to super-serve specific formats, in reality it is just a way to avoid doing the best basic work possible. We have always pursued the path of highest general applicability. Instead of 12 narrow libraries, put out a few great general ones that span the most popular formats. We take immense pride in serving more top stations in more formats than anyone else.
JV: It wasn’t long before we started hearing Brown Bag material on television and on radio stations around the world. What role have television and international clients played in the success of Brown Bag?
Mike: At one point we realized that television and international clients accounted for almost 40% of our revenue. I have traveled the world and learned more about it without ever leaving my office because of the many interesting clients we’ve had on four other continents. Radio imaging is global, and there are some amazingly talented, passionate people outside the U.S.
As for television, it provides the toughest group of critics amongst all the client groups. It is a challenge we’ve come to enjoy. When we started dealing with television, our material was heard almost exclusively on hard drama and reality show promos. Where we were once the province of X-Files, OZ, COPS, NYPD Blue and Law & Order, we now get to participate in The Simpsons, American Idol and, most recently, promos for most of the biggest soap operas on television. Those producers once thought we were the anti-Christ.
JV: How do you think the constantly changing technology is affecting libraries and production?
Mike: On one hand, it gives everyone the chance to do much better work at a much lower cost. On the other, it tends to make people lazy about writing and clever innovation. For instance, filter effects can be a tasty dessert. But when served as the entrée at almost every meal, it loses its unique taste and impact.
24-bit, 96K sampling is here, but radio producers are bogged down in speed requirements and end up in a world of MP3s. The excuse is the fidelity of FM, a 70 year-old technology at best. The advent of HD is probably more hype than advantage, but the quest for sonic quality is worthy of everyone’s best shot.