What is a Producer?

Nothing gets more acclaim and adulation in music these days than the title of “Producer.” It’s so coveted that in rap sessions anyone who comes up with the slightest idea or even a minute fader move demands a credit as “Producer”. Producing is probably the most misunderstood role in the recording process. Some think a producer is the idea man, the one who comes to the session with every musical phrase worked out in his mind and the artist performs in servitude to his vision. Others think he is there to be a yes man to everything the artist says or does, providing an eternal positive response to the number one question heard in studios around the world, “What do you think?”

This is my fourth attempt to define and write what a producer does. Though I know one when I see one, it’s hard to quantify exactly what they do and how they do it. It’s complicated because producer styles are so varied, ranging from polar extremes, from those who hardly do anything at all to those who are Hitler-esque in their domination of the session. Some are schooled arrangers who read and write music prolifically while others can barely write the language they speak. How do you quantify this, especially when every artist has a different take on what a producer does as well? Maybe it isn’t what they do or how they do it, but their responsibilities that define them.

I was watching the news some time ago and there was a story about a mayor who was trying to ban fast food from his obviously obese town. Well, not ban exactly but have a “fast food tax”. The reporter asked him to define fast food, trying to catch him in a faulty definition of calories verses nutritional value or something like that. The mayor calmly replied, “Fast food is when you have to pay for it before you eat it.” Brilliant. He defined it, not by what the food is, but by how it’s purchased.

As I thought about this, it hit me. A producer is the person in the session with the final decision on song selection. That’s it. Simple. Song selection leads, in turn, to arrangement, which leads to the performance. This is the Holy Trinity of the producer’s responsibilities: song, arrangement and performance. If you, as the artist, are not allowing the “Producer” this ultimate decision then maybe you are actually producing and that person you are paying is along for the ride. Maybe you will allow their input on the arrangement or performance, but that’s not a producer with a capital “P.” Obviously there is a bit of trust that has to happen here. My favorite analogy is “the artist is the tightrope walker and the producer is the rope.”  Do you trust your producer’s judgment (or talent) that much?

Established producers gain this kind of trust quickly with an artist, especially if the producer is well known and the artist isn’t. Everyone understands that the producer will pull the artist up to his level. This is why record labels have favorite producers they like to work with. That, and the fact they can deliver an acceptable product on time and on budget. It also doesn’t hurt if there’s a hit or two in there as well.

But what if you are not with a label yet and can’t afford to hire a ‘big gun’ producer? Like most artists, you either try to self-produce, or hire, or persuade a local producer-engineer-studio-owner-type to produce you. First, if you can’t find a producer that you can trust explicitly to turn over the song selection (be honest here), arrangement and performance, then maybe you should self-produce. But before you get too excited about that prospect, be forewarned. Can any artist successfully be his or her own producer? Probably ‘no’ if the goal is a great record. Probably ‘yes’ if you just want to get through the process and have a CD. There are very few artists who can successfully produce themselves. Almost all the projects of self-produced artists are below par in my opinion. Sorry, but it’s true. It seems in a collaborative art form like modern music, you need the additional honest opinions, guidance and input from others who can ‘hear’ the big picture.

I recently bought a CD from a band that really inspired me as a teenager. Though this band hasn’t been together for many years, they decided to get back together to release an album and tour. I bought the album without hesitation. I took it into my studio and listened to it. This may be the worst album I’ve heard in quite some time. Produced by a member of the band, he failed at all three of my major producer responsibility points with terrible song selection, average performances and dated, flat arrangements. See, you can still have a hit by failing at any two of my points, but not all three.

In popular music, the producer can take on a role like that of the film director. It’s his vision and micro-managed. He’s calling the shots. The artist is subservient to him. Song selection is under his control (he probably re-wrote some or most of the tunes –mo money!); arrangement is under his control (cut and paste–whoo hoo!) and performance as well, even if the artist can’t really do it (AutoTune, Beat Detective, Sound Replacer, etc.). Of course this example is an extreme one but kind of typical for a ‘pop princess’ or ‘alt rock’ type album. Beware of hack producers like this.

Most of the time a producer is somewhere between the extremes I’ve written about where there is a comfortable fit with the producer’s personality and the artist’s. One thing I’ve observed is the more talented the artist the less domineering the producer has to be. The less talented the artist the more the producer dictates. Oh, and a producer will bring the same organizational skills that he has in his own life to your sessions. The main thing a producer does, believe it or not, is make sure the record gets done.

Now, here’s the part where I may get hate mail. If you enlist the services of a producer whose responsibility is to make you sound like your favorite artist (read ‘radio ready’), what you are looking for is a “re-producer”. It takes very little skill to deconstruct a genre and reconstruct it with your parts. Kiss goodbye every chance of coming up with something new or possibly becoming “the next big thing.” You will sound like everyone else in your genre and a few years from now you will hate your music from this period. But, if that is your goal, it will be easily obtained. I’ve written about all the ‘art’ stuff but session scheduling and budgeting are part of the job as well, but few artists want a producer that “really knows how to schedule!” I wish a producer’s role could be as exactly defined as, let’s say, the piano tuner. We all know what he does; tunes the piano, nothing more, nothing less. But the producer in modern music has to be part psychologist, part boss, part servant, part accountant, part authority, part anarchist, part musician, part fan, part honest friend and part liar.


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