Interview with ICMP music production tutor Charlie Thomas
Our new tutor Charlie Thomas gives us the inside track on how he broke into the music industry and worked in the studio with some of its biggest stars…
What do Cheryl Cole, London Grammar and Anna Calvi have in common?
Charlie cut his teeth at Pink Floyd’s Britannia Row Studios working with these stars.
In our new interview with Charlie, we find out how he made a name for himself in the studio as well as his essential advice on how new talent can sustain themselves from their music in 2018…
How did you begin your musical career?
Unofficially when I was 13 and first picked up a guitar and found that I was obsessed with music. I either wanted to be in Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers or somehow just become Dave Grohl. But officially it was when I enrolled on a yearlong BTEC course in audio engineering at a college in East London.
I knew NOTHING when I started out. I had never used Pro Tools or Logic, I didn’t know any different kinds of mics or anything technical about recording, I’d never even stood in front of a console let alone tried to use one and I had no clue about the processes behind recording music."
But I felt that a studio would be a great place to learn the techniques and the biz.
Six months into my course and I had immersed myself in the world of audio engineering so much that I was teaching my teachers new tips and tricks. I felt like I was ready to start putting myself out there and I reached out to as many industry people as I could, just to gain experience.
How did you get your foot in the door?
I basically contacted every studio in London. I was honest and said I knew very little, but I wanted to learn and be taught by the pros. I told them I made a mean cup of tea and I'd fix cables, clean toilets and do whatever else just to get experience.
I sent maybe 200 emails to music studios over the course of a few weeks and got about four replies. Three said no, and one said: “Why don’t you come down for a tea and we can have a chat?”
That was Britannia Row. I ended up working there for about six years and that, I guess, was my way into the industry.
I was very lucky. Luck isn’t everything, but you need a little on your side now and then. When luck is on your side, you have to make the most of the opportunity it throws your way, and that’s exactly what I did.
You were chief in-house engineer at the world-famous Pink Floyd-owned Britannia Row. What were your experiences there like?
I loved it. The studio was amazing and everyone there was a family. Some big studios can feel clinical and impersonal but Brit Row just felt like home.
You could be in the communal area at Britannia Row making tea with the boss and the other guys in the studio when someone like Harry Styles or Nick Mason from Pink Floyd would come in. You’d make them a cuppa and they would just join you like they were part of the family too."
This made for such an amazing environment for both the clients and the staff.
Every day was a new challenge and a new experience. One day you would be on a big session with a high profile client where label people and A&Rs stood over your shoulder watching your every move, and the next you could be doing a late night lockout with an unsigned band where you were engineer, producer, tea maker and band therapist all at once. It was stressful, but fun (most of the time!).
The studio was also home to a huge array of vintage gear, from fifties valve mics to our analogue 51 series Neve console, and keeping the studio free of technical issues and bugs was an ongoing battle. But it made it all the more satisfying when you solved a problem that meant a session would run smoother and the clients went away happy.
Your credits includes working on big pop projects such as Cheryl Cole to Anna Calvi and London Grammar?
When you are in-house you don’t get to pick and choose what you work on. You work on everything and anything. But I think that makes you a better engineer. It also broadens your taste in music so much because you start to appreciate what goes into making all types of music.
How do you approach such diverse projects?
I always found that the best way is just to take your time and be relaxed.
Treat every session with the same level of importance and professionalism and don’t let things overwhelm you. If you know your room and your equipment then no session is a problem."
Also, one of the most important parts of any session is the vibe. If people feel comfortable around you, their performance will ultimately be better and the session will be way more fun for everybody. So try and always have a smile on your face, be positive, be willing to work hard and CARE about what you do.
For our students, what's the best piece of advice you could give them about working in the music industry?
NETWORK! Get out there and meet people. The industry is all about connections. The old saying of ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is completely true. From labels to publishers, managers to booking agents, musical directors to musicians and producers to sound engineers, the industry is full of different people filling different roles, and all these roles play a vital part in making music.
Knowing more people makes for better opportunities and ultimately more work and more experience.
ICMP is a great place to start this! Get to know your fellow students. Collaborate and work together with as many people as possible. It’s what you have to do out there in the industry, so get practicing while you’re at ICMP.
Have you got any tips on music industry professionals can sustain themselves in 2018? How have 'income streams' diversified and changed?
Making money from music has never been easy. It also takes a long time for you to be paid royalties. If you release something and it gets some success, you probably won’t see a return for six to eight months, maybe even longer.
So you need to diversify your income stream with freelancing jobs and part-time work wherever you can. Technology has made this so much easier.
You can do things like making library music, create loops for audio branding companies, submit music to sync agencies, compose for adverts, sign up to websites like Music Jobs, Fiver and People Per Hour and try and have as many different opportunities going as possible. Also get your tracks up on Spotify and Soundcloud. If they live on your hard drive or in your head then no one will hear them! Get them out there into the world. You never know who’s listening.
Also make sure you sign up to PPL, PRS and the Musicians' Union (MU). If you want to get paid from music then you need to be a member of these societies. The MU can also give you tips and connect you with others, and also you will get equipment insurance from being signed up.
Aside from teaching at ICMP, what other projects have you got lined up?
I have just finished producing an EP for an unsigned artist that is coming out in October and co-written a single with another artist coming out in December. I have been developing an artist in collaboration with Sony/ATV and Polydor and have just finished recording the first half of her debut album due out next year. I am also constantly pitching songs out to artists, managers and labels in the hope of getting further cuts! It only takes one...
Visit charlietmusic.com to find out more.
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