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Music and Sound Across the Atlantic: The Cultural Work Differences Between the US & UK



Two Brits in America - SixtyFour Music’s NY MD Rebecca Grierson and Wave NY’s ECD and Partner Aaron Reynolds - talk LBB through the differences between the two markets, and how to make sonic waves across the pond…

Music and Sound Across the Atlantic: The Cultural Work Differences Between the US & UK

Successfully crossing the Atlantic can be a deceptively tricky task. A flight from London to New York may be a well-travelled path, but there are enough differences between the UK and US markets that culture shock can crop up time and again. When it comes to sound design, you might be forgiven for assuming the two countries work along similar rules - but it’s often not the case.

So, is making a move across the pond an easy process, or are we really talking about two cultures separated by a common language? To find out, we spoke to two Brits who made the move Stateside: SixtyFour Music’s NY MD Rebecca Grierson and Wave NY’s ECD and partner Aaron Reynolds.

Different Scales

After touching down in the US, the most immediate shock a Brit can expect to encounter is the sheer scale of the industry in the States. “I’ve been running SixtyFour Music in the US for four years,” says Rebecca Grierson, “and I remember my first observation on arrival was the scale of production in the US compared to the UK. Agency and Production teams are much bigger here, which of course is relative to the size of the market.”

The increased scale brings a sense of excitement, but also its own challenges. “There’s a really heightened sense of quality control and professionalism that goes hand in hand with how much bigger everything is”, says Aaron Reynolds. “You do have to go through a lot more layers in the US, the clients definitely have a lot more needs in terms of deliverables, and there’s a reliably quick turnaround on everything so there’s a lightning pace underpinning everything."

In addition to the size of the industry, Rebecca and Aaron both identify a more formal tone when it comes to work. “On a personal level, the US market feels more formal at times, and you see that reflected in email communication, for example,” says Rebecca. “UK clients often adopt a more casual style of writing, maybe with a bit of banter and more personal questions. The US email style is much more concise, with less small talk.”

“In the UK there’d always be a bit more of ‘how’ve you been, how’s the weekend’ kind of chat - whereas here you get down to business more quickly,” agrees Aaron. “Which isn’t a bad thing! And given the pace of everything, it helps to not spend too much time on small talk."

Collaborative Control  

The fast pace and collaborative nature of the US industry means that there are a lot of different voices who have an input into the creative process. “If you were an American going the other way and arriving in London,” says Aaron, “you’d probably be surprised to experience how much creative control the director has over any given project. In the UK, a director’s influence and authority can run through a project like a stick of Brighton rock. Over here, though, there’s a bigger focus on collaboration and making sure you get a thumbs up from different people across the whole process.”

Similarly, Rebecca cites greater influence from the agency side. “It’s certainly more common to have an in-house agency music supervisor or music team who is a kind of ‘gatekeeper’ for all music output,” she says. “There are huge advantages to working with an agency music supervisor as they specialise in music production and we can understand the nuances of music language and usage more clearly. Rather than receiving a one line music brief which can be difficult to work with, they can round up their creative teams and formulate a more concise brief.”

With the increased collaboration and number of approvals needed, however, comes a time pressure that can take some getting used to. “I’d say that sound is such a naturally exploratory realm to work in, when you mix that with the need for various deadlines over the course of a project you do need to strike the right balance”, says Aaron. “For our part, you need to make sure you have that focus and efficiency.”

Audience Expectations

When it comes to catering for an American audience rather than a British one, one could be forgiven for assuming that there might be more of a focus on loud, attention-grabbing sound. Rebecca, however, has noticed quite the opposite trend.

“Musically in the US there is a lot of emphasis on organic and intimate sounding music,” she explains. “Even if it’s hip hop, the requests are usually for more live-sounding instrumentation versus overly-produced."

Working in the US, there’s also a greater level of cultural disparity between different regions to keep on top of. “As the US is a larger territory there are more individual music scenes specific to different regions,” notes Rebecca. “West coast vs East coast rap, Chicago House, New Orleans jazz, Philly or Brooklyn punk, LA surf rock, the list is kind of endless.”

For Aaron, there are also some key technical differences when it comes to what a client might expect in the US compared to the UK. “It’s relatively common in the US where you’ll create a mix in 5.1, and then fold it down for stereo”, he says. “Whereas in the UK you’d tend to do an independent mix for 5.1 and another one for stereo. The result is that you end up with a much more organic, clean-sounding stereo mix when you’ve done it independently. We explain that to a lot of our clients here and they love the results when they hear them. So yeah, there’s absolutely an appetite for that kind of natural, organic sound."

Another key difference between client expectations in the US and the UK, Aaron explains, can be found when it comes to the mixing process. “Having worked in London for so long, I was used to completing sound design work and mixing the films as I go,” he says. “Here, though, there’s a complete separation between the two processes. Again, that comes back to that theme of layers and approvals.”

By bringing a bit of London culture to the US, however, the team finds itself with something of a winning formula. “I’d always found it strange how the sound design and mix get separated out here, given that it’s such a creative process. I always have a vision for the mix whilst I am creating the sound design. By separating the two I feel a large creative process is lost. It’s always something that I would want to see through myself”, says Aaron. “So we explained that to some clients and offered them that service - and they loved it! Everyone’s a winner, because it offers us a complete creative process, and a more cost-effective and time saving way of getting the job done for our clients."

Cultural Habits

As well as sharing successful habits from back home in England, both Rebecca and Aaron are finding the cultural exchange to be a two-way street. “At this point I’d have to say I prefer Manhattan to London’s Soho,” says Rebecca. “There are more options for restaurants, music and rooftop bars. I treat myself to a New York pizza slice every week, I like to think of it as a reward for working hard!”

For Aaron, it’s a similar story. “I’ve got my official American driving license, now, so I suppose I really am assimilating into the culture! In fact - and I hope they don’t revoke my British passport for saying this - but I can feel myself slowly becoming more of a coffee person than a tea person…”

Ultimately, however, it’s the work which is leaving the most lasting impression. “There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m doing the best work of my career here”, he says. “The opportunities are huge and the infrastructure is in place to make a success of virtually every project or idea we might have. It’s profoundly rewarding - I do miss being able to watch actual ‘football’ on a weekend, but other than that I wouldn’t change a thing!”

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Wave Studios NY, Thu, 04 Mar 2021 13:59:34 GMT