Benjamin James completed a performance degree at BIMM Brighton nearly 10 years ago. Since then, he’s achieved success in his own originals project, toured internationally and most recently, has made the bold move of relocating to Vietnam to forge a career as a Music Producer. We caught up with the graduate for an in-depth chat on where he’s been, where he’s at and where he’s going.
When and how did you first set your sights on a career in the music industry?
From a very young age music was a big part of my life; it felt like I was barely out of nappies when I started learning piano and that definitely sowed the seeds for my interest in the music industry when I grew up. However of course as a child I never considered music as a career – my parents had steady careers in education and civil service, so I imagined myself working in a similar career and thought music would just be a hobby. As I grew up, the possibility of playing in a band and getting signed came into view but still I had no expectation for that and also, being from a small country town, had no idea how to make that happen. Honestly, it was only after I began to study guitar at BIMM that I saw the real potential for working in the music industry, and the range of jobs that were possible. BIMM peeled back the layers of the music industry, exposing the complexity of the machine, far past my rather-naive opinion that the only options were to start a band and get signed or to teach music!
Can you summarise your professional journey from performer to producer?
Yeah, this is true – like I said, BIMM exposed to me the plethora of job opportunities available in the music industry but in my mind I still wanted what I guess most musicians want – to be an original artist, write and perform my own songs, tour the world, and have a garage full of luxury sports cars! The first three of these I achieved…the car collection is still something Iʼm waiting on… patiently! I spent six or seven years performing in my band Bitter Ruin, toured through the US and Europe, supporting some amazing artists like Ben Folds Five, The Dresden Dolls and Tim Minchin, as well as crossing musical paths with Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith (albeit before they broke big). There were so many great experiences and I learned a huge amount about the way the industry worked (we were self-managed for at least half of this time) but there were also a lot of moments of disappointment… carrots dangled then whipped away just before we could get a firm bite. Those moments taught me resilience and perseverance, and that you have to make opportunities happen for yourself – donʼt rely on others to just hand your dreams to you on a plate. As an unsigned band, we experimented with home recording to make our first couple of records – I like to learn, and anything that I canʼt do today Iʼll be damned if I canʼt do it tomorrow (laughs) – this is how I got into production. Firstly, just producing our own material, but after that, I started to offer my services to other musicians. That was when I found my real passion and naturally arrived in my current profession. Being a producer gives me the opportunity to work with so many different artists, each with their own sound, style, influences and personality – that in turn grows my experience, understanding and makes me a more rounded musician…the best version of me.
You made the move over to Vietnam a few years ago. How has it been creating business opportunities for yourself out there?
A few years working as a producer in the UK put some good miles under my belt. Predominantly my clients were unsigned singer-songwriters and bands, Brighton being an eternal fountain of new talent (thanks BIMM!), then in 2015/16 I decided to take a short sabbatical to go travelling before I got too deep into my career and couldnʼt make the time. In every country I travelled through, I wanted to discover the local music scene, hear the sounds they were making and learn from the vastly different cultures. I sought out and visited recording studios (just to have a peak around) found live music venues, and even got up and played with the local talent. The biggest thing I learnt from this was how thriving these music scenes were and how diverse their tastes were too. Walking through a sleepy town in Nepal hearing locals smashing out RHCP covers (and very well too) in a local bar was so cool! My journey led me to Vietnam where not only did I find the same thing, but also something more – an industry pivoted on the cusp of big steps forward…following the footsteps of countries like South Korea, Japan and Thailand that have already created the infrastructure to support songwriters, to educate people in the value of music, and are posed to start competing with the West in terms of talent and quality of output. This was exciting, and I quickly fell in love with the country and the people and decided that I wanted to be part of the journey here. Of course, being a foreigner posed itʼs own set of problems – the language barrier, earning trust amongst the artists here, and proving the value in my skill set were all things that took time to overcome, but with the resilience and perseverance that I learned from years of striving for success in my band, I wasnʼt afraid of a bit of grafting.
How have you found the music market differs in Vietnam in comparison to the UK/Europe?
The music market here in Vietnam is hugely different…but also very similar. They love all the western artists, old and new, and the singers here definitely strive to sound like their western idols. Korean music also has a big influence here, but seeing as K-Pop is derivative of western trends, it seems to me a little pointless to become a derivative of a derivative, if you get what I mean. However, one thing I have found is that the Vietnamese ear has a very different taste when it comes to mixing and instrumentation. They want more FX, wetter vocals, louder kick drums, and more heavily compressed masters. My personal opinion regarding this is that it is all a little much and makes mixes sound…well, less well mixed, but that is my western opinion and I have to remember that I chose to live and work in this country therefore I must assimilate, to an extent, to their tastes to be successful in my work. At the same time though, I do see a natural process of education, bringing the level of music output here up to match that of the US or UK. For example; upon delivery of two mixes – one done to my taste, and one to the artistʼs taste – they often opt for my mix. The beautiful thing about creating music however is that there is no ‘wrongʼ or ‘rightʼ – it is completely objective to the artist and listener. Who can really say what is better? One personʼs Bohemian Rhapsody is a gaggle of angry geese to the next! I just strive to make the artist happy, do my job the best I can, and most importantly, do what is right for the song. Thatʼs what matters most.
Can you explain a little about Inspiral Records and your role there?
Inspiral Records is an independently-run production house and label based in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh). The owner, Manny Tran, studied music production in San Fransisco and shares the same vision as me for the potential growth in the music industry here. I was fortunate to get my first production job from this studio (call it fate that our paths crossed when they did) and it was with him that I worked for my first two years here as a freelance producer and mix engineer. The studio was small but very well equipped, and with my gear that I shipped from the UK, we had a very good setup and did some great work together, attracting more and more artists to come work with us. He also runs a production academy (just like a mini BIMM) teaching production and music theory to all the young bedroom producers. Though I did not work in the educational side, it was always great to hear their music and see them improve.
This year I have actually made a departure from Inspiral Records and have started working with a new production house, called Novel Production, as an in-house songwriter and producer. Its a big step up the ladder and I get to work with much bigger and more influential artists. The company also has a lot of influence; exactly what is needed to spearhead real change in the Vietnamese music industry, and the signs are already starting to show. Spotify has just launched in Vietnam which is a huge sign of change as people are starting to pay for music streaming as opposed to using unlicensed free websites. That puts more money in artistsʼ pockets and enables them to reinvest more into their careers, raising the quality of music they make. Vietnam is also becoming more popular on the touring circuit, just this month for instance, both Martin Garrix and Deadmau5 have played shows in Saigon, completely independent from each other. Novel Production and our associated label, Amberstone Records, are also in the process of launching the official Billboard Charts in Vietnam, which will supersede the current flawed system in which it is too easy to pay your way to the top spot. We are also working on implementing a not- for-profit system for royalty collection, another crucial part of infrastructure that currently does not exist here.
On a personal note, it really feels like my first two years here were a test of my intentions – time spent proving to myself (and my peers) that I was working in the right place and prepared to commit long term to the industry. Now moving into my third year here, I feel privileged to have been welcomed by the Vietnamese people, I feel honoured to work beside them, and I try my best to show my respect for their culture and country. After all, the music industry is theirʼs and theirʼs alone, they can and will build it how they see fit and I am just lucky to be part of that process.
What would you say was the most valuable/useful thing you took from your time at BIMM?
Itʼs hard to pinpoint exactly what the most valuable thing BIMM gave me was. The degree course covers so many different aspects of being a professional musician and actually I think its the cumulative effect of all BIMM teaches that matters most. We donʼt need a degree to become the best guitarist/bassist/vocalist/drummer etc, that we can do at home if we have the motivation to do so. But we canʼt learn about the intricacies of the industry without hearing from people with first hand experience. The tutors at BIMM opened that window for me and practically pushed me through it! Sure, you get no golden ticket to success from studying at BIMM, or any other music academy – you have to be willing to work hard, make opportunities happen for yourself, and put the hours in to earn your place in whichever area of the industry you want to work in, but BIMM gives you the tools to build with and the compass to navigate with. That is the most valuable thing for sure.
Images c/o Alexander Ray