On the Watchtower
Former hit producer turned high-tech visionary Albhy Galuten ’68 is scanning the horizon and charting the future course of the recording industry.
Throughout Albhy Galuten’s 30-plus year career in the music industry, technology is a prominent, unifying thread weaving in and out of the colorful tapestry of credits and experience. After getting his start in the 1970s as an assistant engineer for Atlantic Records in Miami, Florida, Galuten spent two decades producing, arranging, and playing keyboards on records by some of the biggest names in popular music. As a producer, Galuten earned a pair of Grammys, produced 18 number one singles, and saw sales of records he produced top 100 million units collectively. In addition to his many musical contributions, Galuten has made and continues to make substantive contributions to the pop music industry in the technological area. He is credited with creating the first drum loop and with inventing the enhanced CD. In the mid-1990s, Galuten left the studio world to help the music industry sort out issues that seem like the bad stepchildren of modern technolgy.
These days, as senior vice president of advanced technology at Universal Music Group in Los Angeles, Galuten is the point man in these uncertain times for the recording industry. The boon of expanding Internet connectivity and handheld devices that can quickly download and store up to 1,000 songs ushered in a well-documented downside for recording artists and labels. Rampant duplication and sharing of recorded music for free over the Internet has left many scrambling to protect their intellectual property and wondering whether they will be able to continue to be compensated for their work. Galuten’s job is to help the industry stay in business. Like the explorer heading into an untamed wilderness, he sees himself as “the pioneer out in front with arrows in his back.” Despite the challenges of charting the course ahead, Galuten told me that he’s very optimistic about what the future holds for musicians.
Learning the Craft
Like many others, Galuten’s involvement in music began in his youth. As a kid growing up in Westchester, New York, he took piano lessons, and during high school he played in a popular local band. Although most of his musical experience has been in rock and pop music, he has always been fascinated by jazz, and confesses that his favorite music is jazz from the 1950s and 1960s. “From a young age, I loved piano and listening to jazz,” Galuten said, “but it was clear that I was never going to be Oscar Peterson. I found it impossible to play jazz but easy to play blues and rock and roll. It was also fun to be in a rock band at that time, so for me, the choice was clear.”
In 1967, after being drafted by the military, Galuten made an acquaintance who would motivate him to come to Berklee. “I met a guy in the army who was a really good musician. He played piano, sax, trumpet, bass, and drums. He had gone to Berklee and was well respected there. After playing with him, I decided I’d better learn more than E, A, and B chords. I went to Berklee after I got out of the army.”
At Berklee, Galuten studied composition and arranging for two years and then reconnected with a group of Memphis-based musicians he had met previously who had been doing demo sessions. They told Galuten that they had been offered a job in Miami as the house rhythm section for Atlantic Records. Galuten headed south to work with them. “I went there and stayed for a year playing various sessions as a keyboard player,” he said. “At the end of the year, Atlantic Records hired me to become [engineer and producer] Tommy Dowd’s production assistant. Tommy is incredible, a real innovator. He was the first engineer to splice tape.”
During the 1970s, Atlantic’s Miami studio was a hub of activity with a different artist recording there every two weeks. The label brought its top stars in to work with producers Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin ’61. Among the greats Galuten work with were greats such as Aretha Franklin, the Allman Brothers, Donny Hathaway, Delaney and Bonnie, Derek and the Dominos, and Carmen McRae, to name a few. He also played sessions on keyboards and occasionally wrote arrangements.
Galuten describes his time as a staff producer with Tom Dowd at Atlantic as “being at the feet of a master.” Recording technology was evolving rapidly and Galuten says he absorbed much by “keeping his ears open and his mouth shut.” When his contract with Atlantic expired in 1971, he pursued freelance- session work as a player and arranger working with musicians who were veritable legends. He remembers an early country session for which he played slide guitar and a very youthful Jaco Pastorius played bass.
“I was never hired for what I’d play, he said, “but for how I would develop the song. I would turn tracks off and add a part here or there. I understood song structure and what was needed to get a message across with dynamics and groove. At the end of my first year, I was hired as a staff producer. I was really green then, but ultimately, I became a good producer.”
Galuten feels privileged to have spent a lot of time with Duane Allman, whom he ranks among an elite circle of musicians he worked with that he found to be head and shoulders above the others. “The Brecker Brothers, Eric Clapton, Steve Gadd, Aretha, and several more are also among the terrifyingly good musicians I worked with,” he said. “Duane was always present and he did nothing but play guitar. You would never see him without a guitar in his hands. I went to a lot of Allman Brothers shows and I’d see musicians get up on stage to jam with the band. They would do all of this flashy stuff. No matter what they did, Duane would be unfazed and then play the rightest notes in the world, immediately winning everyone’s heart.”
Galuten spent several years working with a variety of arists before the opportunity to produce the Bee Gees came in 1976. One of the most successful acts Galuten ever produced, the Bee Gees were among the bands that he first encountered during his tenure with Atlantic. “They had worked with Arif,” Galuten said, “and a friend of mine named Karl Richardson had engineered for them. Karl called me in London where I was working with another band and told me the Bee Gees were going to try to produce their next record on their own. They were on a new label, and Karl thought they could use my help. So I came back to Miami to work with them. Barry Gibb [the band’s leader] needed a sounding board. We really hit it off working on the Bee Gee’s Children of the World album. After that, Karl, Barry, and I produced a whole lot of records together.”
The next year, Galuten was in France working on a live Bee Gees record when the group was asked to contribute four songs to the movie Saturday Night Fever. Extenuating circumstances and schedule constraints led Galuten to create the first drum loop for one of the songs. “We really wanted to put the tracks down on ‘Stayin’ Alive,’ recalled Galuten. “But the Bee Gees drummer, Dennis Brian, had gone to England to be with his dad who was ill. Back then, drum machines were really primitive, not even close to what they are today. I had a brainstorm and told Karl we should take a bar from ‘Night Fever,’ which we had already recorded, and make a drum loop.
“Barry and I listened carefully to find a bar that felt really good. Everyone knows that it’s more about feel than accuracy in drum tracks. We chose a bar that felt so good that we ended up using that same loop on ‘Stayin’ Alive,’ and ‘More Than a Woman,’ and then again on Barbra Steisand’s song ‘Woman in Love.’ To make the loop, we copied the drums onto one-quarter-inch tape. Karl spliced the tape and jury rigged it so that it was going over a mic stand and around a plastic reel. At first, we were doing it just as a temporary measure. As we started to lay tracks down to it, we found that it felt really great—very insistent but not machinelike. It had a human feel. By the time we had overdubbed all the parts to the songs and Dennis came back, there was no way we could get rid of the loop.”
In their work together, Galuten and Gibb had tried playing with click tracks, but the music never felt good. “While today’s musicians know how to get a good groove with the click,” said Galuten, “back then, if you used a click track you rarely got a good feel. The loop crossed the boundary giving us music that was in time with a good feel. If I had been working for a technology company then and knew what I was doing, I would have tried to patent the idea. Nonetheless, it changed a lot of things. That first loop was a watershed event in our life and times.”
Galuten continued to work as a producer and session player for artists such as Don Henley, Andy Gibb, Barbra Streisand, Jellyfish, Kenny Loggins, Sammy Hagar, Eddie Money, Diana Ross, Kenny Rogers, Dinonne Warwick, and others. When he describes his role on those recordings, he is remarkably self-effacing. “I was on a lot of great records. But to be accurate, I never really played with the Eagles or Rod Stewart on some of them. They wou
ld need a synthesizer part and I would be the guy who knew how to get the sounds, find a part that was appropriate, and lay it down. I would put things in that you felt rather than heard. They would reinforce the bottom in the chorus or add structure to the song. At that time, a pop style was developing that would appeal to the masses but perhaps not to sophisticated listeners. I was pretty good at pushing those buttons and helping people to get their records to sound more accessible.”
By the early 1990s, Galuten became interested in the high tech wave that was sweeping over all industries including the music industry. Ironically, some of his own innovations like the drum loop, led recording practices in a direction that appealed to him less. “For me,” he said, “the best thing about making records was being in a room with great musicians. That’s why toward the end of my producing career, I went back to live recording and moved further away from loop and machine-based records.”
Around 1992, Galuten was producing a band in Sacramento. During the preproduction stage, he found himself with a lot of time on his hands. “Most bands can only rehearse about four hours a day before their heads start to explode,” he said. “That’s because as the producer, you are teaching them new stuff or new concepts. I was going to be there for about six weeks and knew I would have a lot of time. I only sleep four to six hours a night, so after rehearsing for four hours with the band, I found I still had around 12 hours each day with nothing to do. I always had a natural aptitude for technology and liked it, so I bought a compiler and taught myself to write C++. I had a pretty good idea of how to program computers and how object-oriented languages worked by the time I finished producing what would be my last record.”
Later, Galuten took a class in CD technology from Dr. Ash Pahwa. “He was talking about multisession discs. I knew that Kodak had invented the multisession disc which allows you to store photos on a disc and then go back in to add more photos. I asked Ash if you could put audio in the first session of the disc and then data in the second session. He said, ‘Well, I suppose you could, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to.’ I told him that I had an idea. I went to visit him and we played around and figured out how to make the first enhanced CD with audio and other data.”
Excited by the possibilities of CDs that could contain music as well as added value features like artist photos, video footage, interviews, and more, Galuten sought out a technology company to help him develop his idea. He was hired by the company Ion and moved seamlessly from producing
records to being employed in the high-tech field. “We brought the idea to Apple, Microsoft, and to the major record labels,” said Galuten. “I never patented it, I don’t know whether I could have, but it was very clear that this was the first time that this had been done.”
Ion was a startup and didn’t have the necessary leverage in the music business to realize the possibilities that interested Galuten, so he began plotting his next move. “I was interested in technology related to music, future delivery systems, electronic distribution, new formats, and so forth,” he said. “When I was with Ion, we consulted for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), so I got to know the senior executives at the record companies. At these RIAA meetings, we were trying to guess what the future would hold for the music industry.
“I spoke to Larry Kenswil and Norman Epstein at Universal and told them I didn’t think that Ion was going to survive. They asked me to come to work for Universal. I started there in November of 1995 as vice president of advanced technology. At that time, there was no advanced technology division, just me trying to figure out the future. I had a little budget for technology research. Our motto back then was ‘Learn a lot, do a little.’ Over the years, as the technology area became more important, Universal started a new division called ecat, which stands for electronic commerce and advanced technology. Larry Kenswil, who had been head of business and legal affairs, became the division president and I was made senior vice president of technology.”
Storm Clouds Ahead
At Universal these days, Galuten is tackling problems associated with electronic distribution of music. He spends much of his time reviewing contracts with technology companies, filing patents, and studying other people’s intellectual property and business models in the area of new technology. “It is daunting to try to figure out how record companies are going to grow the business,” said Galuten. “The way it looks now, we are coming into a time when you will be able to get a reasonably good copy of almost any music you want without paying for it. CDs are inherently unprotected and easy to copy—everybody has a CDR. We could rely on people being honest, but in reality it’s too easy to just copy a new CD from a friend rather than buy it. High-speed Internet connections make it possible for kids to e-mail all of their favorite music to their friends. The job for the music industry now is to figure out how we migrate past the CD.”
The compact Apple iPod’s popularity has Galuten and execs at many record companies quickening their step to keep pace with the prevailing trend among music consumers. The iPod can transfer a full CD in10 seconds and store up to 1,000 songs on its five-gigabyte internal hard drive. “Consumers have proven time and time again that they don’t care much about sound quality,” said Galuten. “So the MP3 format is not an issue. The future iPods will have 10- and 20-gigabyte drives. So instead of being able to hold 100 albums as they do now, they will hold 200 or 400—all in something that you can carry around in your pocket.”
Galuten points out that the biggest threat to the industry does not come from people who pirate and sell CDs, it is more diffuse. “If someone is selling your work, you can follow the money,” he explained. “If someone steals a million dollars, you can find them. But, if a million people steal a dollar each, no one can be bothered. You can’t prosecute your customers.”
According to Galuten, record labels are not the only companies dealing with this problem. “Someone can cut the spine off of a new John Grisham novel the day it comes out, batch feed it to a scanner with optical character recognition, and put it on the Internet the same day. Then everyone in the world could download it. The same thing will happen with movies. MPEG-4, the new Codec, is very small. At about 900 kbps, you will get a copy that is better than a VHS tape if you started with a DVD.”
Galuten contends that as a society, we have to come to the consensus that people should receive remuneration for their intellectual property. “We will have to decide whether or not the sweat equity of people writing songs, practicing their music, shooting films, and writing books is something that should be paid for. Ultimately, we will decide that we want to protect it because it’s central to our society. The question is how creative industries can best weather the storm until that realization comes.
“The protection of copyright and intellec-tual property has not always been part of our society. After the French Revolution, with the revocation of the old laws of royal privilege and censorship, the publishing industry was in turmoil. Ultimately, they developed the ‘droit d’auteur’ or author’s rights. Since then, artists have been able to benefit from the reproduction of their works. People choose careers for many reasons and the hope of earning a decent living—or even a sumptuous one—is certainly part of it. If we as a society were to decide that these rights were not basic, even sacred, human rights, it would be very sad. Of course, that won’t happen. However, the protection and governance of creative works in a friction-free, ubiquitously connected world such as the one we are entering, is a daunting problem; and we will undoubtedly cross some rocky patches before we are done.”
For the custodians of intellectual property, like record companies, the next move is critical. For the first time ever, sales of blank CDs last year surpassed sales of prerecorded ones, and album sales in general declned by 10 percent. These trends have Galuten and other industry execs looking to devise ways to protect their wares.
“Consumers don’t like things that constrain their behavior,” Galuten said. “But at some point, you need constraints. You can package things in a secure fashion and allow the consumers to make a legitimate number of copies. If you allow unlimited copying and copies are deployed globally, then you have no business.
“Most of the music that consumers want is available on CD. So you have to say to them, buy this electronic thing that constrains your use rather than a CD that will let you make an infinite number of copies for your friends. We have a dichotomy. Until we get enough devices into the marketplace that support security—like DVD audio players—and begin to get away from formats like CDs that give little guarantee that artists will ever be paid, it is going to be a difficult transition. The hope is that we can build new businesses like subscription services quickly enough that we don’t get hurt economically.”
The Silver Lining
Despite the current uncertainty, Galuten says those now entering the music field have reason for optimism. “I would tell young people interested in the business to be patient, there will be a lot to be excited about. Over the next 10 years, billions of people on this planet will have high-speed connections and distributing your music will be frictionless. You will be able to record whatever you want, and be able to control and protect it with freely available technologies. You will be able to do as much or as little business as you want. Ultimately, your audience should be huge.
“Even if you sell your album for only a dollar, you could have a niche market that has one million people and earn a great living. If your specialty is hip-hop mambo, there will probably be 20,000 people in the world who will appreciate it. So I am working in the trenches now hoping that in the next five or 10 years there will be great possibilities for musicians. It will be incredible when everyone in the world essentially has access to all of the recorded music in the world. Then the opportunity to earn a living as a musician will increase ten-fold over what it is today.
“The business will be changing all the time, so we will have to remain open to new ideas and approaches. Ultimately, great songs and great performers move people. It is always about the song and the performance. As humans, we need things that touch us emotionally. If you can move people with your music, they will reward you for it.