As I have worked with artists and discussed what it is that I do with people who are not directly involved with the music industry, one of the things that has become very apparent is that not many people are familiar with the role of a producer. They listen to produced albums, love them, but are not aware of the crucial role the producer plays in the process of making a truly professional, effective record. I’ll admit that it’s a little abstract – producers do a lot of different things and not all producers do the same things. To boil it down to its essence, the key role of a producer is to provide the integrity of the project. By integrity I mean several things: producers are responsible for focusing the creative vision of the project, for acting as an intermediary between the artistic and technical worlds, and for overseeing the logistics of the project.
Focusing the Artistic Vision
Producers are the people who decide how best to artistically and creatively represent the artist in a release. In popular music there are around four different kinds of artist-producer relationships: the personality, the singer-songwriter, the multi-instrumentalist, and the lyricist.Sometimes producers are songwriters and, in these cases, often the producer will select songs either from their own repertoire or, if more appropriate, from the repertoire of other writers. This used to be the norm in the music industry. Elvis wasn’t a songwriter – his producers were.
These days it’s more and more common for the artist to be a songwriter in their own right. To use a couple of examples to illustrate the difference: Britany Spears and Dave Grohl. Britany Spears is what I would call a personality artist as she does not write her own music, nor does she play any instruments in her recordings. Whomever is the producer for a particular release of hers will find songs that fit her vocal style, range, and persona and will coach her to achieve the delivery and style that the producer has decided is appropriate. The other extreme would be a multi-instrumentalist like the Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl, who, in addition to taking on songwriting duties, played all the instruments on the Foo Fighter’s debut, self-titled record. If someone were producing Dave Grohl, he or she would provide a more general creative vision for the release and may not require any additional performers or songwriters at all.
Often producers will actually ‘scout’ for unestablished artists that they feel have potential with the intention of developing their sound. Singer-songwriters type artists generally will provide the producer with little more than the song and its soul around which producers will craft a new, fully realized arrangement. A good example of this sort of thing would be Tori Amos, who writes songs as solo compositions on piano. A producer would be called upon to craft and guide the song into a complete arrangement, maximizing the feel and artistic intent of the original composition. To that end, the producer would hire musicians who would be adept at performing the style and character of the music.
The world of hip-hop and rap is unique with respect to producers. In this genre it’s common to find lyricists who have a signature delivery and character and producers often will create the music in its entirety to which the lyricist would write his or her song or rap. Somewhat like songwriter producers, hip hop producers often have a repertoire of skeleton songs – beats and beds of music – from which they and the artist can pick and choose to accompany the artist’s lyrics.
Perhaps the most important affect that producers make on the career of an artist takes place when artists have not yet thoroughly developed a mature ‘sound’ and have not yet found a core audience. A good example of this would be the fateful marriage of Radiohead and their now long-time producer Nigel Godrich. Radiohead was first signed as a fairly standard British stadium rock band and, while recording their EP My Iron Lung, they met Nigel who was working as an assistant engineer at the studio. Nigel offered to collaborate on a couple of songs which ultimately made their way onto the EP. Radiohead brought Nigel on board as the engineer of their next release, The Bends, and then officially as the producer for 1997’s OK Computer. Nigel focused the increasingly experimental impulses of the band into albums of exemplary technical, artistic, and popular merit. With the help of Nigel, Radiohead transcended their stadium rock roots to establish the juxtaposition of electronic and acoustic instruments, open, layered spaces, and dense arrangements that have become Radiohead’s trademark sound. He has produced every album of theirs since.Producers provide the critical ear, experience, and objectivity that many artists lack on their own and can turn a good song or album into a great one.
An Intermediary Between the Artistic and Technical Worlds
In addition to being adept at the musical aspects of songcraft, producers also need to be knowledgeable about the technical aspects of capturing and generating the recordings that represent the song. Engineers are technical types – they know the gear and are directly responsible for capturing and manipulating the sound of a recording. Sometimes producers themselves are also engineers. More often, however, producers select engineers who are experienced at achieving the sounds the producer has envisioned for the project. Many producers have ongoing relationships with engineers and collaborate across many projects.
A producer is responsible for understanding the creative needs of the artist and the song (are the vocals going to be wet – with reverb – or dry?) and how to technically achieve the desired result (tell the engineer to add reverb – maybe even what kind: a hall, a room, or a plate, etc.) Should the drums be really plush and hi-fi or should they sound like they’re being played by Oscar the Grouch in his trash can? The producer needs to be able to hear the needs of the material and understand what needs to be done to achieve the result.In this way the artist can focus on performing, the engineer can focus on running the equipment, and the producer keeps everything sounding as it should.
Recording sessions and records don’t just happen. Producers are traditionally responsible for making sure that everything that needs to happen for the project to be finished is accomplished. Generally during the negotiation process a producer will come up with an estimated cost for producing the project, which includes an itemized budget for things like studio time, paying session players, any royalties or licensing fees, renting a glockenspiel, and removing the green M&Ms from the candy jars. If that budget is approved by whomever is supplying the funds (which can be the producer, the artist, or a label), then any costs that go over are usually the producer’s responsibility. If the project comes in under budget, then usually the producer can pocket the difference. The producer chooses what studios are right for the budget and needs of the session (a large open space with a pool in the middle of an enchanted forest or a no-frills nose-to-the-grind basement in the middle of Manhattan?), what musicians are appropriate, how long to spend on the project, what engineer would get the best result, etc. Some experienced and successful producers will actually front the entire cost of the project, effectively acting as a temporary record label. Others will not invest any of their own money in the project – only their reputation will be on the line.
For those of you who are familiar with the film industry, music producers take on the equivalent roles of both film’s producers and directors.
As you can see, music production means a lot of things.You’ll get different answers from every producer, but just about everyone will agree that producers are the people who are responsible for the integrity of the project. If the project crashes and burns it may be the artist who is panned in the press but it’s the producer who will take the fall behind the scenes. Respected by those in-the-know and unnoticed by those who aren’t, producers may very well have the biggest, toughest job in the biz.