There are few more sacred spaces in the music world than the recording studio, and fewer still that evoke the kind of emotional reaction that Abbey Road Studios in London does. Inextricably linked with The Beatles, the studios have been the recording home for the likes of Pink Floyd, Aretha Franklin, Buddy Holly, Radiohead, Frank Ocean and Adele and has been one of the most storied places in music history since its inception in 1931.
Now, 90 years after Abbey Road first opened, Universal Music Group’s Mercury Studios is releasing If These Walls Could Sing, out today (Dec. 16) on Disney+. Directed by Paul McCartney’s daughter Mary McCartney, the documentary is a love letter to the studio that helped birth one of the greatest albums of all time and nurtured one of the most significant acts in music history. The release of the documentary helps earn Mercury CEO and co-president Alice Webb the title of Billboard’s Executive of the Week.
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Here, Webb discusses the making of the film, her three-year tenure atop the UMG-owned studio and the evolution and explosion of music documentaries over the past several years, with artists seemingly releasing a companion documentary to each major new album. “Much has changed in how fans consume content over the past few years that has enabled us to elevate the medium of music documentaries,” she says. “I think there is a diversity in the documentaries being made more now than ever before — from issues-led projects to ones that are easily consumable but offer great insight and information.”
This week, Mercury Studios released If These Walls Could Sing, the Abbey Road Studios documentary directed by Mary McCartney. What key decision did you make to help see this come to fruition?
Every decision starts with the story, and with this one we had a hefty responsibility to do it justice. Recruiting Mary McCartney, who is the heart of this film, was an incredibly easy decision to make given her unique perspective having grown up at Abbey Road. She is an amazing talent and as this was her feature directorial debut, our job was to build the best team to support her vision and the story of this magical place. If These Walls Could Sing is the result of a myriad of considered decisions — every film is a carefully crafted work of art and there’s no cookie cutter approach to breathing life into it. In the end, I think the key consideration is, are we doing right by the story, the artists and the fans around the world?
How did this project come together?
This was a story that had to be told and a project that had been gestating for several years, in several different incarnations, before I became involved. So, it was about putting the pieces together in the right way. My co-president, Marc Robinson, along with John Battsek and Ventureland, were key to building the foundation, along with Mary at the helm. When all of those elements came together, we felt confident to greenlight the feature.
What makes this topic in particular so important, both in general and for Mercury?
Abbey Road Studios is like nowhere else on earth. The walls rattle with stories; the magic of what was created within the studios still lingers all these years later. This year marked the 90th year of Abbey Road Studios. Looking back at the roster of artists including The Beatles, Celeste, Depeche Mode, along with scores such as Star Wars, was incredibly special; the music that was made there still connects with fans everywhere.
Part of the promise of the studios is the unconditional freedom provided to artists to find their sound — to be their unvarnished authentic selves. Doing justice to the artists, technicians and producers who’ve accomplished their best work at Abbey Road Studios is both an honor and a pressure that we felt keenly. With Mary’s vision and judging by the overwhelming support from luminaries such as Paul McCartney, Elton John, Roger Waters, Ringo Starr and others who attended the premiere this week, I think we may have pulled it off.
This film is being released with Disney+. How do you choose which distributor to go with, and which films see a theatrical release vs. a streaming one?
Your films are a bit like your children. Heaven knows some of them take as long to create as children do growing up. For that reason, you want these projects to go to the best home, which is why we couldn’t be prouder to have Disney+ as our partner for If These Walls Could Sing. In our experience Disney+ cares about artists, creators and storytelling — which is very much in line with everything we do at Mercury. And of course Disney+ has a massive global footprint. As soon as they knew we were making the film, they wanted it. They made it clear it mattered to them, just as it matters to us. That’s a persuasive combination, which as a filmmaker is what you hope to find in your distributor: someone who is as passionate about your film as you are and who will treat it like they made it themselves.
You’ve been running Mercury for three years now. Which projects have stood out for you that you’ve worked on during that time?
If These Walls Could Sing is an obvious highlight for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, but so is My Life As A Rolling Stone, the premium limited series we produced this year. It was an intimate, first-hand account of life as a Rolling Stone by Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie and was special to me because I don’t think anyone thought there was anything left to say about these titans of music. But we knew different, and our faith was rewarded with four captivating films that were enjoyed by audiences in 96 countries. At the other end of the spectrum, I’m extremely proud of Mars, the short film we made with Yungblud. It’s about the life of Charlie, a transgender teenager growing up in the north of England. Not only was it a heartwarming film about self-acceptance and youth, but we made sure the story was told — on and off screen — by people whose lived experiences were LGBTQI+. We were dedicated to and deliberate about authenticity and although there were challenges, I wouldn’t change anything. Mercury Studios is driven by our values, and we’re proud to wear them on our sleeves, in the stories we tell and the way we make our films.
There seems to have been an explosion in artist documentaries in recent years, often produced by and in conjunction with the artists themselves. How has the music doc world changed during your career?
I think the fact that music documentaries have always been special is a reflection of the timelessness of music stories. Some of the best directors of our lifetime have committed their passions to this medium. Documentaries have always been a popular format to tell stories; there’s a rich history of storytelling from VH1s Behind the Music to our own series, Classic Albums, and so much more. Much has changed in how fans consume content over the past few years that has enabled us to elevate the medium of music documentaries. I think there is a diversity in the documentaries being made more now than ever before — from issues-led projects to ones that are easily consumable but offer great insight and information.
Great examples are our recent film, Shania: Not Just a Girl on Netflix and Interscope Films’ Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me on Apple+. There’s a level of honesty and authenticity in music documentaries that resonates with audiences. We’ve also been able to indulge in huge feasts of musical testimony with the likes of Amy, The Defiant Ones, Get Back, Moonage Daydream, in recent times. I’m excited to see how documentary projects continue to evolve.
What are your dream music projects with Mercury?
It’s endless. Mercury Studios’ core has very much been unscripted productions, but that’s starting to change. We’ve just announced our scripted co-production with Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, SAS: Rogue Heroes) and Kudos (Broadchurch, Utopia, Spooks) which will bring This Town to our screens in 2024, and you can expect to see more scripted projects from us soon. Just as you can expect to see more premium audio projects, like our recent Audible limited series Crush Hour. It’s jam packed with characters, story, original new music, and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. I’d say that’s definitely a dream project.
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