How Music Producers Work


Producer George Martin, center, accepts an award with former Beatle Ringo Star, left, and fellow producer Giles Martin, right.
Producer George Martin, center, accepts an award with former Beatle Ringo Star, left, and fellow producer Giles Martin, right.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The manager shopped his rock group's demo tape to three record labels and was turned down by all three. Now he reaches his fourth and final stop. The music producer listens to the demo, but isn't impressed by the collection of oldies and uninspired originals. However, the unusual vocal arrangements and the quartet's potential convinced him to invite the group for a recording test.

Although he thought the drummer needed to be replaced and the songs needed work, George Martin liked the group's enthusiasm. The band he saved from obscurity: The Beatles. Martin signed them to a five-year contract within a month of the audition. Martin's suggested changes to John Lennon's arrangement of "Please Please Me" that made it an early hit. That was the beginning of a collaboration that lasted for seven years [source: Sonic Alchemy: Visionary Music Producers and their Maverick Recordings].

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Becoming a music producer can mean discovering and helping shape the careers of award-winning musicians. However, it takes time, talent, training and contacts. That's because a music producer has plenty of responsibilities during an album's production, both on the creative and the business sides. The producer supervises all aspects of the recording process, from helping to select songs to contracting with session players, selecting the studio and engineers, booking studio time and overseeing the recording budget [sources: Full Sail and Berklee College of Music].

All these responsibilities require musical skill and performance experience, combined with a thorough knowledge of musical genres, music and sound production in a recording studio. Some music producers work for record labels producing for recording artists under contract, while others produce sound recordings for movies, television shows, music videos, commercials or video games. And while many are full-time employees, others are self-employed. That type of music career means you also need to be adept at running your own business [source: Education-portal.com].

What training do you need to be a music producer? How do you get started? And, most importantly how do you gain clients as a music producer? Read on to find out.

 

The Training Involved in Becoming a Music Producer

Being a music producer usually requires skill as a performer like Mark Ronson who produces and plays.
Being a music producer usually requires skill as a performer like Mark Ronson who produces and plays.
John Shearer/WireImage

Becoming a music producer probably starts with a love of music and a skill at some type of musical performance. But to make it as a music producer, you also need to know a lot about music off stage -- how songs are written, how music and sound production works, et cetera. You also need to understand the set-up and operation of audio equipment and the roles of the engineers and others who work to produce recordings. And, as part of your job, you may help the audio engineers in the mixing, mastering and recording process.

You also need to know how the recording industry works, including the legal aspects of contracts and copyrights as well as the business aspects of working with musicians. Beyond that, you need to be skilled at project management, including the ability to work with creative people and to complete a recording on time and within budget.

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To do all that, you'll need training and experience working in the recording industry. You can obtain music training by obtaining a degree in music from a two- or four-year college. George Martin, music producer for the Beatles, for example, studied at the Guildhall School of Music in London and played oboe professionally before going to work for a studio as a producer of classical music [source: George Martin Music].

You may be able to get a degree with a concentration in music production, music business or sound engineering, but you'll need more than that. Here are some subjects you may study:

  • Musical history and theory
  • Composition
  • Songwriting
  • Ear training
  • Copyright law
  • Artist and product management
  • Music publishing and distribution
  • Marketing and advertising
  • Finance and accounting
  • Entrepreneurship

[sources: Education-portal.com and Full Sail]

You'll also need to be familiar with the latest digital equipment and computer software used to record, mix and master music.

Music producers often start as sound engineers. While sound engineers don't need a college degree, courses in using recording equipment, along with sound and music production can be helpful. To succeed as a music producer, you need to know different styles of music well.

In looking for a college or trade school, you'll want to find one that'll help you become a music producer. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Is this school accredited?
  • What courses are included in the curriculum?
  • What will the school do to help me find a job in this industry?
  • Does the school help students to get internships or apprenticeships?
  • How successful have your graduates been?

Once you have the training, the next step is getting a job and working your way up in the music industry. Go to the next page to find out how you can do that.

Working Your Way up to Becoming a Music Producer

Rapper Kerry "Krucial" Brothers produces stars like Alicia Keys.
Rapper Kerry "Krucial" Brothers produces stars like Alicia Keys.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

As with many industries, becoming a music producer often means starting at the bottom, gaining the experience and making the contacts to move up. But there are many different roads to becoming a music producer.

Consider these examples of how some producers moved into music production:

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  • Albhy Galuten began his music career playing guitar and keyboards. He then moved to string arranging and songwriting. From there, he became an assistant producer and then a staff producer at Atlantic Records. As a Grammy-winning producer, he worked on hits with the Bee Gees, Barbra Streisand, Kenny Rogers and Dianna Ross.
  • Jack Douglas played in bands before becoming an engineer at A&R Studios in New York. He switched to The Record Plant because of its cutting-edge reputation and started shelving tapes. He worked his way up from tape librarian to assistant engineer to engineer before becoming a producer who worked with Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, John Lennon and Alice Cooper.
  • Jerry Harrison started out as an architecture student in a college band at Harvard before joining the Talking Heads. Producer Brian Eno helped Harrison move from musician to co-producer to producer. He went on to produce albums by bands such as the Violent Femmes, Foo Fighters, The Von Bondies and Crash Test Dummies.
  • Kerry "Krucial" Brothers was an aspiring rapper who went to other people for sound production until he bought a beat machine and other equipment and began doing his own production. That grew into producing for other musicians and a shift to hip-hop when Alicia Keyes asked him to produce albums for her that became Grammy winners.

[sources: The Art of Music Production, Sixshot.com]

Moving up to music producer takes work and some breaks along the way. Making contacts, learning from talented professionals, building a resume and catching the eye of music industry executives who can help you are all part of the process. Look for chances to stand out from the crowd and to step in and show your stuff.

If you're looking to succeed, here are five suggested essentials to making a music career:

  1. Hone your talent. Position yourself as the "go-to" person for your particular skill.
  2. Connect with as many people as you can because relationships drive music careers more than anything else, even talent. Your progress will depend on the quality and quantity of your relationships. Develop creative projects with fellow musicians.
  3. Take advantage of the power of the Internet and desktop technologies to create your own success. Instead of relying on record companies and agents, use technology to gain the look, reach and efficiency of larger companies.
  4. Recognize that every business is becoming a music business, so musical opportunities are multiplying. For music producers, this may mean considering a career producing for movies, television shows, music videos, advertising or video games or recognizing commercial sponsors for creative ventures.
  5. Be versatile and willing to wear several hats until you've established yourself in a music career.

[source: Berklee College of Music]

Let's look next at what it takes to find clients as an independent music producer.

Gaining Clientele as a Music Producer

Verizon created a mobile recording studio for Timbaland so he can gain clients on the road.
Verizon created a mobile recording studio for Timbaland so he can gain clients on the road.
©Frank Micelotta/WireImage

Ready to move out on your own as a music producer? Then you've probably completed the initial steps -- getting the training you need in music production, working with the pros in sound production and studio settings, and making the contacts you'll need to further your music career.

But while going out on your own gives you much more freedom than working for a record label or a recording studio, you also have the responsibility of being in charge. That means you need to:

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  • Set up your own shop with the digital recording equipment you'll need.
  • Establish relationships with recording studios where you'll send musicians.
  • Develop contact lists of instrument and equipment suppliers, as well as back-up musicians that you may need for individual recordings.
  • Handle the details of contracts and copyright issues yourself, or find a music-savvy lawyer to help you.
  • Manage your business's billings, costs and finances, or contract with an accountant.
  • Handle scheduling and office functions, or hire an assistant.
  • Create mix CDs and market your business. (See the next page for more on this.)

Probably two of the most difficult questions to answer are: "How much should I charge?" and "Where do I find clients?" The short answers are "Not much to start," and "Through your contacts."

Producers who are just starting out will probably need to keep their fees low to attract clients. As you build a reputation and become more well known among musicians, you can charge more. Look to work with a variety of musicians in different genres to build your expertise and give you samples of production work to show future clients.

Music production is largely a word-of-mouth business, so you're likely to find clients through the people you know -- referrals from bands who have used you as a producer, through studios where you've worked, through back-up musicians you've used, and so on. The more relationships you build in your career, the more links to potential clients you'll have.

Keep in mind that although you're running your own shop, you're not alone. Industry associations can help you build relationships and they also offer assistance such as help with legal issues, sample contracts, message boards where you can talk with peers, experts who can answer music business questions and places where you can post details about your business. Some of the organizations you may want to join or contact are:

Marketing is an important part of succeeding as a music producer. Next, let's look at some ways you can market your business.

Marketing Yourself as a Music Producer

With a recording studio in his home, rock star Slash markets himself by networking with fellow recording artists.
With a recording studio in his home, rock star Slash markets himself by networking with fellow recording artists.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Marketing yourself is an essential part of becoming a successful music producer. Since being a music producer relies on relationships, marketing creates a way to keep your name out there.

Here are some marketing methods that may help your music production business:

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  • Networking -- Probably the most important form of marketing for music producers. You want to keep in touch with people you've worked with, your peers, engineers, musicians, managers, publishers, record studio owners, label executives and anyone else who can help you find clients and grow your business. Getting involved with a trade association may be one way to add names to your contact list.
  • Mix CDs -- Part of networking is having something to show. As you complete recordings, create a mix CD of different styles of music to show your contacts what you can do. Burn a new CD regularly as you add to your experience.
  • Business cards and flyers -- Find someone who can create appealing business cards and flyers promoting your business. You'll want to list your services and the names of satisfied clients, as well as contact information. Keep business cards with you wherever you go. You don't know when you'll be sitting next to someone in a restaurant or on a plane who could connect you with a promising band.
  • Web site -- Take advantage of the Internet's reach by creating a Web site for your business. Beyond providing basic business and contact information, you can use the site to give information about your services and provide clips from recordings you have produced. Include the Web site's URL on your business cards so that potential clients can find it easily.

Finally, remember that maintaining professionalism is crucial to your reputation and future business. If bands and studio executives know you're the type of person who works well with people, provides a quality product, and keeps the job on deadline and within budget, you're likely to get more work. A reputation for late, sloppy work or an unprofessional attitude toward musicians can torpedo your career.

For lots more information about music producers and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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