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Expert Testimony

 
  Elliott Randall circa 1976

After Steely Dan's first hit "Reelin' in the Years" shot up the charts in 1972, Elliott Randall's stock as a New York studio guitarist skyrocketed. Randall's signature Strat lines, prominently featured in the song's intro, solo, and fade-out, turned many heads and caused Randall's phone to ring off the hook with offers for studio work. Throughout the course of his career, in addition to doing sessions with innumerable top rock and pop artists, Randall has led his own groups, played in Broadway pit orchestras and TV house bands, written music for jingles and industrial videos, produced records for himself and others, and more.

The technology boom that exploded during the 1980s totally transformed the studio business and deflated the careers of many session players. Randall says that for many musicians, the effect of MIDI was "like the A-bomb." But his self-described "geek side" enabled Randall to be a consultant during the original development of MIDI code and informs his continued embrace of technology. Now based in London, he continues to do sessions and an array of other music work primarily from his home studio. With more than four decades of experience, Randall has many insights to share about reinventing his career and navigating the unrelenting winds of change in the music industry.

How did you get a toehold in the music industry?

That spans a lot of time and covers a lot of territory. I went to New York City's High School of Music & Art and was classmates with Laura Nyro and Michael Kamen. I became a high school drop out when show business beckoned. By 1970, I had a band called Randall's Island; we were signed to the Robert Stigwood Organisation. Stigwood bought the rights to Jesus Christ Superstar and found himself needing a band of "readers" for the Broadway pit. Stiggy asked if my band would be up for it. As we were all schooled musicians, and since the pit meant steady employment and the chance to play eight shows a week, we agreed.

At the same time, I started being asked to do a lot of work in New York's recording scene. There was plenty of good recording work available; I couldn't have asked for a more ideal intro into that world.

I then became a music consultant to NBC for Saturday Night Live in the show's second season and stayed on for five-plus years. Playing live in front of millions of TV viewers was truly the experience of a lifetime. The challenge of getting it right the first time was a great confidence builder.

The increased use of music technology cut into the work of studio musicians. How did it affect you?

The advent of MIDI was devastating for many of my friends who were studio musicians. It put a lot of string, horn, bass players and drummers out of work. The smarter drummers learned how to program the machines and some continued to work steadily. On the positive side, MIDI offered young composers who couldn't afford to pay for orchestral musicians to play their work the chance to hear a reasonable facsimile of it.

The effect was different for me. The guitar has always been used to "humanize" synthesizer/computer-generated tracks. I did one Rod Stewart album that was all machines except for my guitar tracks.

The big studios started closing in the mid-1980s and the amount of work diminished drastically. Some of my colleagues opened up their own music production houses. In doing that, they were competing with people who used to hire them for sessions and were friends.

Since your move to Britain, you've created a strong Web presence for yourself.

The advent of the World Wide Web coincided with my move here. Loving "geekdom," I got some books and taught myself HTML and related skills. Your website - assuming that you can get people to it - is your stage, your calling card, and curriculum vitae. But you have to understand how to get people to find you. That's the most important skill to learn.

How have you used the Web to enhance your career?

Fast-forward to Web 2.0 and user-generated content (i.e., Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube). If you use these tools properly, they become income generators. Now I can offer my services as a guitarist and producer, sell my CDs, and preach the gospel of music quite publicly and effortlessly. Web 2.0 offers the masses the opportunity for real-time discourse, communication, and to experience quality arts with the click of a mouse. These tools are becoming better every day.

Record companies don't bankroll artist development anymore. They expect you to present a finished product. If it strikes their fancy, they will take it. Upon signing a lengthy contract, you lose a substantial percentage of your merchandising, performance fees, and in many cases, publishing. Arguably, the only value a "major label" has today is their distribution avenues for hard product. But an aggregator like Tunecore can get your music on every e-outlet that there is. And I'm not just getting a small percentage from a record company. Think about it: once my product is amortized, I'm able to take the profit and reinvest it in making more music.

The Web has certainly contributed to my career's longevity. Anecdotally, I got a call from someone I hadn't heard from in years asking me to play on a session. I asked him why he thought to call me. He said he was talking with someone who had just seen one of my YouTube videos and fresh work started pouring in.

You've posted a lot of helpful and enjoyable content on your website, www.elliott-randall.com, in addition to information about your work.

There are hundreds of pages on my website. When I started the site, it wasn't commercial; it wasn't about selling CDs. I'm not an in-your-face salesman. The idea was for it to be a source of information for people. There is a section called "Words" where I've posted loads of varied information for people interested in gear; magazine articles and interviews; tricks, tips, and more.

I also record and post videos with high-quality audio. I have a YouTube series called Couch Videos where I jam with various musicians in my studio. I also send out an e-newsletter. On my birthday or on Christmas, I'll give my fans a piece of music for free to thank them for their support.

I tell young people starting out that in addition to learning their instrument, they must also master recording equipment and the varied devices that will get them out there in a world full of competition. There are a lot of wonderful guitarists who aren't getting work-probably because they don't know how to promote themselves. Self-promotion isn't a dirty word, and using the Web cleverly and tastefully is a great help.

If you say something that's provocative and interesting on blogs, someone may recognize your name and click on it and become a friend or fan. Then you've opened up a new avenue to someone who may buy your music or hire you for a recording session. I have done dozens of recording sessions for people I've never met in person. When someone wants to hire me, they pay me half the fee up front through PayPal. After I put down my tracks, I send back an MP3. If the client likes it, they send me the rest of the payment, and I give them access to the full-frequency file on my FTP site.

Do you make it part of your day's work to communicate on social media?

Absolutely. I love communicating and have been doing that for years. Web 2.0 makes it so much easier to reach out to so many more people.

Do you still enjoy playing the guitar as much as you did in the early years?

Absolutely. In fact, I love playing now more than ever. Maturing musically is a never-ending process and it's always thrilling.