Interview with founders of MMC Recordings

Interview with William Thomas McKinley and Elliott McKinley of MMC Recordings

By Peter Bates

Running an independent recording label may seem exhilarating to the
outside observer. At last, a chance to break free of the constraints of
the big established labels, whose ideas of what should be released
differ significantly from yours. Yet how does one get started? What
sort of financial arrangement can be made with artists and composers?
And what can be done to ensure that what you produce remains fresh,
year after year? Audiophile Audition spoke to the founder of MMC
Recordings, William Thomas McKinley, and his son Elliot McKinley.

Peter Bates: When did MMC begin? And what inspired you to start it?
William Thomas McKinley: We began in 1991. Conductor Robert Black had
been going over to Eastern Europe, premiering my music before the
collapse of the Iron Curtain. He’d also been doing premiers of my work
in Boston and New York. Because of his connections and advice, I went
to Poland to record my Fifth Symphony with the Warsaw Philharmonic.
After that experience, I told my colleagues about it—noting especially
how the costs were much lower than in the United States. I guess the
idea began germinating at that point, even before I knew I’d have a
label. Incidentally, MMC is not only an acronym for Master Musicians
Collective, it’s also part of my wife’s initials (Marlene McKinley),
and also the Roman numeral for the 21st century. 

PB: In the beginning how did composers find out about MMC?
WTM: I was teaching at Boston’s New England Conservatory, so that put
me in touch with many modern composers. I also have friends and
colleagues all over the country. I suggested the idea to people I’d
either taught or worked with. Almost overnight, everyone became
No one had been recording orchestral work at all. Very few composers
had that luxury. I saw the potential for orchestral recording for
contemporary composers. Many composers had been writing mostly chamber
music because few labels would take on orchestral recordings — the
cost thing, you know? I can’t tell you how many new works were written
for world premier recordings for MMC. Often it would be a concerto for
a soloist like clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. 
PB: How do composers find out about MMC these days?
WTM: Largely through word of mouth. It’s a grass roots thing. I think
we have composers from every major city, university, or locale in the
US. We’ve gradually grown. We’ve attracted some attention, some
publicity through reviews in magazines like American Record Guide and
interviews in Grammaphone and Fanfare..
PB: How do you select composers to be on your releases?
WTM: Currently we have a core group of really good composers such as
Roger Davidson who continually embark on new projects, which is how I
originally envisioned MMC would function. But every so often we get a
new composer who hasn’t had a work performed or has one that had been
performed badly.
PB: Do they have to be established composers or do you take people at the beginning of their composing careers?
WTM: They come from the entire range. Some composers are right out of
school, like Geoffrey Nytch, one of Paul Cooper’s students. We have
Pulitzer winners like Leslie Basset. I’m constantly getting scores sent
to me.
PB: Do you reject any of them?
WTM: That’s not really the way we work. I’ve taken a few chances on
people and sometimes I’ve told composers that they need to redo a
piece. However, I know who the talented composers are around the
country, so that doesn’t happen too often.
PB: How does this composer’s/musician’s
collective work? Do people contribute a certain amount to get their
music produced with MMC?
WTM: Because of the drying up of public and private grants and funding
sources (like NEA), the main source of support has become private
patronage. The old Mozart paradigm has returned. Many universities have
sponsored their own composers in the project through faculty grants,
etc. However, the support is never enough to cover the staff and
advertising costs. People have had to come up with money, either
through grants or whatever. At the beginning, I had to funnel my own
money into the organization.
PB: Does MMC specialize in a certain type
of music? I’ve noticed that it’s basically modern classical/art music
by living composers. Can some be categorized as scored jazz or fusion?
WTM: I look for people working in the classical and orchestral jazz
tradition. I don’t discriminate against any form or endeavor. This is
not a commercial venture. We’re doing this as an archive. Historically,
there was a brief period in which the major labels were producing art
music by composers who got involved in the process, like Stravinsky in
the Forties and Fifties. Then things got too commercial.
PB: What is the ballpark figure for producing a CD?
WTM: It depends on many factors: the orchestra, how many minutes long
the music is, whether there are soloists and conductors involved. In
general, the range is from $20,000 to $100,000.
PB: Have you effectively launched the careers of composers or musicians?
WTM: According to what they’ve told me. Some have gotten commissions,
awards, and tenure because they recorded with us–composers like Marie
Nelson in Salt Lake City. The Utah Symphony had been ignoring her for
years. Not long after she recorded with us, they suddenly started
playing her music.
PB: Elliot, please tell us a bit about the recording technology that MMC uses.
Elliott McKinley: Up until about two years ago, we recorded only on
DAT, then uploaded the raw takes to a computer for editing. Now we’ve
moved to hard disk recording, which keeps it all on one system.
Everything is mixed down live to two channels and we use ProTools for
both recording and mixing. If it’s a concerto, it’s mixed into three
channels. We add a channel for the solo instrument, so that we can get
a better balance afterwards.
After editing, the recordings are mastered onto CD-R; then sent to
Massachusetts, where everything is assembled. A mastering session then
takes place in Cambridge, MA, at M-Works studios. This may involve
balancing between the pieces and post-processing: a little reverb, some
spatialization that can be done in the two-channel dimension.
PB: Do you intend to branch into higher end multichannel (SACD) technologies, like Telarc has done with SACD?
We’ve considered it. It’s more expensive, but if the composers have the
means . . .  Whether we’ll go to multi-track as a de facto
standard remains to be seen. When you use multi-track recording
techniques, you get into the dangerous zone of getting artificially
doctored balances and you may not get a thoroughly homogenous realistic
sound from the orchestra. A lot of composers want to hear their music
as naturally as possible. With 5.1 recordings there’s a tendency to
smooth over the composer’s orchestrational deficiencies (dare I say).
It remains to be seen how much longer the CD itself will last and
remain marketable. There is already a shift to DVD (as well as virtual
delivery via the internet).
PB: Do composers ever hand you pre-recorded material to include on a CD?
EM: About 5% of the time. Sometimes a composer has recorded works with
MMC and may have another piece which was not recorded by MMC (a good
performance etc.) that they have received permission to release. It’s
always problematic when it comes to producing 3rd party stuff that
comes on different media—such as cassette tapes, for instance, which we
have sometimes had to work with. We usually need to tweak such 3rd
party recordings a bit to balance and clean up (removing tape hiss, for
PB: What do both of you see as your long term objectives?
EM: I see the eventual digitizing of the entire MMC catalog and making
it subscription-based, as a way of digital delivery (as well as pay for
one time downloads). So many people now have iPods and computers that
play digital sound files. High speed connections are becoming common
and virtual delivery is the way of the future and will probably happen
industry-wide in the next two to five years.
WTM: We are currently in negotiations with some European distributors
to expand our brick-and-mortar presence in that territory; in addition
MMC continues to record and release new music with the best composers,
orchestras, and soloists in classical music. Currently we are
coordinating sessions for this fall/winter, and will head to Bratislava
(Slovakia), Seattle, and Boston later in 2006.  In addition, we
are working with partners in film, TV, and new media to produce and
supply new music for their projects. We are also working directly with
film composers like Jonathan Sacks to facilitate the recording and
release of their works. In 2008, we’re going to be recording with the
Czech Philharmonic.
Note: All of MMC’s releases are available at their e-commerce site,

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