What it Takes to be a Music Producer

Recording Connection mentor producer Tre Nagella and student Dez Ward

To become a successful music producer, you need to have passion and drive, a great work ethic, a sense of responsibility, strong business smarts and, last but not least, musical skills, knowledge and abilities. Here’s how these skill sets play out in the real world of a music producer.

Back in the glory days of the record labels, a music producer was defined as the person who managed the recording and production of an artist’s music. This involved acting as the liaison between the artist and the recording studio during sessions, often suggesting which studio and engineer to use, guiding the recording process and overall sound and even hiring studio musicians as needed. They sometimes acted as the liaison between artist and record label on business negotiations as well.

Today, the internet, digital technology, and new genres of music that they created has blurred the lines, erased the standard definition, and requires the music producer to wear more hats than ever before.

At this current point in time music producers often write, arrange, produce and record songs and beats—sometimes for their own projects, other times for another artist. These days, music producers are as likely to have a pro home recording studio as not, meaning they also act as the studio owner, the audio engineer, the studio manager, and even the marketing professional.

Twelve-hour days are the norm. Between writing and recording sessions, they’re fixing equipment issues, demo-ing new software, prepping the studio, attending to phone calls and emails, posting on social media, keeping current with their accounting, attending rehearsals, setting and going to meetings, and going to concerts to scout new talent and support talent they’ve already worked with.

Even with 60-80 hour work weeks, the music producer is likely playing catch-up on a daily basis. About a third of their time is dedicated to the music (writing, arranging, recording), another third goes to sales (distribution channels, social media promotion, broadcast and venue solicitations) and the final third has to do with business (tracking residuals, negotiating with labels and other artists and studios, finding new avenues for revenues.)

Today’s music producer can often be found playing instruments on recording sessions, writing music to fill in a song during the studio session, acting as the audio engineer overseeing the recording session, and performing as a musician or live DJ. And while all of this is going on, the producer is the one who is tasked with keeping things on-track, motivating and inspiring those they work with (or at least not pissing them off), and making it all stays on-budget (time, especially in a recording studio you pay for, is money.) This brings up another personality trait that music producers need—the ability to handle stress.

This is where passion comes into the picture. If you aren’t passionate about the music you are working on, whether it’s your own music or that of another artist, all of these tasks and responsibilities can quickly become a burden. So, before you decide to embark on a career as a music producer, you need to define the types of music you are passionate about. It’s a lot easier to work crazy hours and withstand the responsibilities and stress that comes from it if you’re truly passionate about the music you are producing. Remember, there’s no guarantee that the project you are working on will be a financial success.

To be a successful music producer means that it must be your main, if not only, hustle. While you are working on one project, you need to be seeking out your next gig—a process that is never ending. You need to be organized and creative with great communication and people skills so that when you lead, or make a suggestion, others follow. When you’re first wtarting out, you should seize every opportunity as soon as they are offered, even if it means cancelling plans you had for that day or evening. This means showing up on time and being prepared. Once you develop a reputation for being dependable, you’ll find the phone ringing more often and you’ll start noticing how one gig leads to another.

Don’t overlook having a well-written producer’s agreement with anyone you work with that defines the amount of money you’ll be paid upfront for the tasks you will perform as well split sheets that define the writing/publishing revenue splits for any tracks you wrote or performed on. One day, if all goes well, one of the songs you were the music producer for will hit the big-time and you want to make sure you get your proper reward. In the meantime, network with musicians, clubs, recording studios, audio engineers and learn all you can about writing and publishing royalties and rights and gain experience working with distribution channels.

One of the great ways to get started is to find a local band whose music you like and offer to produce their next session for free or invite them to use your home recording studio. What you won’t get in pay, will be gained in experience. Most of the time, you will learn more from your mistakes than your successes and the more you do, the more you learn. A final piece of advice: under promise and over deliver—it’s the opposite of being a flake and will stand you in good stead within the industry.

 

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