Belinda Webster, Tall Poppy #1

Interview: Andrew Ford Tall Poppies website:

 Tall Poppies Records released its first three CDs 21 years ago and is still in business, still making CDs. Over that time, no recording has been deleted and the current catalogue boasts 221 recordings. Practically all the recordings have been produced and engineered by Belinda Webster. She has also designed most of the booklets, taken most of the photographs and overseen the production and marketing. Her friend and colleague Andrew Ford, himself well-represented as a composer on the Tall Poppies label, has often wondered what drives Belinda, so Music Forum asked him to find out.

Andrew Ford: Belinda, was there one moment when you realised you wanted to start a record company?

Belinda Webster: Yes, Andy. It was in the mid-1980s. I’d been recording concerts for 2MBS-FM for some years, and was also involved in the radio station’s record label, which was moving from LP production to CD production. I had made my first commercial recording and had a few others under my belt when Prof Roger Covell, head of music at UNSW at the time, phoned and asked to see me. I remember this day so clearly as on the way to the meeting I was almost run over on George St in Sydney – my closest call to date... Roger wanted to suggest to me that I could consider starting Australia’s Hyperion. I was surprised, but the germ of that thought took hold. It was a year or so later, after recording a Synergy concert in Glebe, that a friend, Tony Bartley, came up to me and opined that I was being wasted recording all these concerts for broadcast – why not start a record label? He offered to help initiate this. I can still remember the sense of shock that someone might believe enough in such a project to support it.

AF: What about the logistics? The money? It's one thing to make a recording, but another to manufacture and market it.

BW: The seeding funding and the office space was provided by Tony Bartley. I already had a recording in the can to kick the label off. This was Geoffrey Tozer’s first CD. We ended up launching Tall Poppies with three initial CDs. I already knew the manufacturing process and was working in printing at the time. Marketing was another story, but at least in those days we had a proper music magazine published in Australia and Limelight was then more of a music journal too. Advertising was a bit cheaper then. Overseas magazines like Gramophone were interested in new labels, and were willing to publish occasional reviews from the ‘antipodes’. So it got off to a good start and people seemed to be excited about it. Marketing has never been my strong suit – my forte is the music production work. If I had my time over again one thing I would change is that Tall Poppies would have had a resident marketing and publicity person.

AF: Did you know what you wanted the label to look like from the point of view of artists and repertoire?

BW: I knew that I wanted to promote Australian musicians – there were no outlets at that time for chamber music and solo recordings. I also knew that the label would reflect my considerable interest in local composition, and I also knew that this would be a non-commercial aspect of the venture. Local works were rarely being made available to the public through recordings, and as a lot of the music being written in the 1980s and 90s was so good, I thought Tall Poppies might be able to do something useful. And it has been useful: we now have an archive of many of the major works written and performed in that era – an era when funding was available and some superb performing groups were in action. It is a generation of chamber music on disc, performed by the commissioning musicians and supervised by the composers. I admired Hyperion and BIS and Chandos at the time, and particularly that each of these boutique labels was the brainchild of one passionate person and each was dedicated to promoting non-mainstream artists and repertoire.

AF: Has your vision changed much over the past 21 years?

BW: Not really, Andy. The need is still there, though the means of getting recorded music to the public has changed over the last decade.

AF: What about a sound? Did you have, shall we say, a signature sound in mind?

BW: I did! I’ve always tried to make natural-sounding recordings – what you’d hear in the best seat at a concert. From my years at 2MBS-FM I realised that it was possible to make a perfectly serviceable recording with minimal resources. At the time I chose microphones and I still have them and I still use them. I’m still not sick of them. Unless absolutely necessary my recordings are all done with just the pair of microphones, even orchestral recordings. And all are done in venues with good concert acoustics.

AF: Since there will be people reading our interview who are interested in such things, you'd better tell us about your microphones, what you like about them and how you use them.

BW: My mikes are made by Schoeps. They transmit a very clean sound. Almost too honest. Some musicians find them confronting in the detail of the sound. Others enjoy recognising themselves when they hear the recording back. I usually put the mikes where I’d like my ears to be in a recording session. The best ‘virtual’ seat in the house.

AF: So has your approach to recorded sound altered much over the years?

BW: Not at all.

AF: You must, though, encounter musicians who want something different. A closer recorded sound, say, or an artificial balance. Do you talk them round or meet them half way or what?

BW: There’s quite a lot of latitude in the way I can set these mikes. I’m not a close-mike person, and prefer to hear the room in the sound. If someone wants a closely miked recording maybe we’d not work together. When the balance needs to be changed I often use the old radio technique of moving the musician.

AF: So how does a typical Tall Poppies recording session proceed?

BW: I tend to view sessions as collaborations between musicians and producer. The musicians will have done their preparation and my role is to try to ensure that the recording not only sounds good but that the captured performance reflects the intention of the players and the composer (especially if it’s a premiere recording).

AF: And what is your role? Are you like a pair of super ears?

BW: My role is to make sure everything is covered in the session and to keep the session to time. I wish I had super ears – I have average ears, but they’re sufficient to get me through most situations. I don’t have perfect pitch, thank heavens, but a good sense of relative pitch. I do have opinions about whether music is working well in a studio situation, and try to keep a perspective about the overall structure of a piece.

AF: Do you ever get involved from a musical point of view? Do you ever say, for instance, 'I think this could go a little faster'?

BW: Sometimes. OK – often!! If there is trust in the studio, one can make musical suggestions. It’s often the way in which things are said. I try to take a supporting role, and see the process as one of collaboration, rather than making pronouncements from on high. It helps having been a musician myself.

AF: You must have a lot of highlights. Name three.

BW: ARGHH!! It’s like asking a parent which of their children they prefer. Personal highlights have mostly revolved around extraordinary performances. Such as Riley Lee playing his dozens of honkyoku in the National Acoustics Laboratory in just two afternoons; the sessions I did with Roger Frampton where he really let loose improvising on two pianos. In more recent years it’s been a total pleasure to work with Geoffrey Lancaster on his Haydn project – he is such a wonderful artist and has given a lot of himself to this huge undertaking. To be honest I never thought the Haydn sonatas were particularly interesting until I heard him play them.

AF: And in 21 years, you must have regrets. Projects that got away. Are there things you would have done differently?

BW: I did try to get a complete Grainger project up for the Bicentenary. This would have needed massive funding. Chandos eventually took up that project, but I thought an Australian effort would have been appropriate. There are always things one would have done differently, but sometimes one learns useful things in life by having to work around difficulties.

AF: So what have you learnt from making and selling recordings?

BW: First, that it’s not something you do if making money is your goal. From making recordings I have made loads of friends among Australian musicians, and gotten to know many many wonderful pieces of music. From selling recordings I’ve learned that it is very difficult when you’re working outside the mainstream repertoire. Gosh – it’s even difficult when working in the mainstream. You really have to head off into popular music territory to make money.

AF: We're constantly hearing that classical music is dying and the CD is dead. As someone who makes CDs primarily of classical music, this must give you pause for thought. What are you doing about it?

BW: Well the whole catalogue is available now on iTunes. CD sales have plummetted, and the future is uncertain. There’s no talk of a new medium, though I notice with interest that in some circles the LP is making a comeback. Classical music is such a tiny part of the music market, and within that the interest in Australian music is miniscule. I do attribute part of this to the quality of music education in Australia – development of musical curiosity is not a strong point. With major music retailers like Allans Music and the Billy Hyde group going into receivership recently, and situations such as that being experienced at ANU, where one of the best music education institutions in the country is currently being gutted of all the best teachers, one has to wonder where it will all end. As Australians we are just not proud enough of our musicians – if we realised that what some of our performers have achieved is as wonderful as an athlete winning an Olympic gold medal, there’d be a lot more interest. Music has always been the poor cousin of writing and painting – a new novel is newsworthy; an exhibition of new paintings is exciting. A new musical work needs much more than an ability to listen in order to be appreciated. The audience has to submit to the work and take it on its own terms, and most of our audiences are unprepared for this effort

AF: So 21 years ago, on that front lawn in Glebe where you launched TP001, TP002 and TP003, did you imagine that you would be here now with 200+ CDs to your name?

BW: I didn’t dare to imagine, but I might have dared to hope!

AF: What are you daring to hope now?

BW: That I can continue to make recordings until someone tells me I’m past it, or, even better, until just before that time! Having now entered my seventh decade in life, I would hope that I now know a little bit more than I did 21 years ago…

Andrew Ford is a composer and musician and host of ABC Radio National’s The Music Show, heard every Saturday morning.