How do you become a music producer? For every superstar known by millions of people, many other professionals are working behind the scenes to drive that success. Without the ability to make (and promote) recordings at the highest level, these artists would be stuck playing small gigs in small venues.
Aside from the fame of the artists themselves, the next most well-known people tend to be the Producers. Like Movie Directors, many Record Producers develop a following of their own, with fans seeking out the records regardless of the artist.
On the other side of the glass, the Record Producer is considered the ultimate dream job for many people aspiring to get into the industry.
Two Types of Producers
Before deciding to become a Producer, it’s important to fully understand what that role is. In fact, two very different jobs share the name of Producer. Since the beginning of recorded music, Record Producers have traditionally been the person responsible for the entire process of making the recording.
This may require a very diverse set of skills! Starting with the obvious role, a Producer would work with the artist or band to help define a vision for the project, then make sure each instrument, part, melody, arrangement, tempo, key and lyric is helping to meet that vision. Beyond just working with the music, the Producer may also deal with many administrative tasks to keep the wheels rolling through the process.
More recently, a new role has emerged for Producers. The same march of technology to allow recording outside of the big studio environment has also allowed the replacement of large groups of musicians required to make music. This can, and often does, put the bulk of the instrumental work on one person.
Through the ‘80s and ’90s in pop music, a Record Producer might hire a programmer to build the music with MIDI instruments but may also be recording live musicians, as well as managing the vocal sessions, mixing, and mastering. However, in Hip-Hop and Rap, the Producers were often personally building the tracks for their artists using a combination of loops, programmed drum machines, and MIDI instruments.
With the rise of Hip Hop to a dominant status in the industry, this self-contained Producer role has forced the industry to evolve and has earned a legitimate place alongside the Traditional Producer.
What Does A Traditional Record Producer Do?
To many, a producer might evoke memories of Christopher Walken strutting through the studio telling the band, “You gotta have more cowbell!” While this sort of direction may happen in the studio (certainly too many times since that SNL sketch first aired), it’s certainly not the only work done by a Record Producer. To help an artist take a rough idea or song to a final mastered product, a broad skill set helps the producer manage each step of the process.
Often, the biggest contribution a producer may make is having a network of incredible musicians to call upon to bring a track to life. It’s difficult, especially outside any of the music hubs, to find players that are not only creative and technically skilled, but also have a great attitude, collaborate well, and make the client feel great.
In Nashville, LA, and New York, among other music cities, there are hundreds or thousands of great players to work with. It’s up to the producer to sort through them and find the magic combinations.
In a smaller town, it’s important to develop close working relationships with the best of the best because there may not be many to choose from that can play at a pro level. Unfortunately, all this means that a lot of the producer’s work will be texting, emailing, and making phone calls to book players, studios, and engineers for the recording sessions.
For other producers, they may choose to play or build much of the track themselves. This means they will need a thorough understanding of what parts and sounds make music feel good, and how to get each instrument to fit into the puzzle. Some producers are accomplished multi-instrumental musicians, who can build entire songs by playing or programming each part. This is a powerful skill, especially when making records with budget limitations.
How to get in the door?
How did the current batch of producers find their place in the industry? Just like everything else in the industry, there is no foolproof template to follow to get work! Many (maybe even most) producers have fallen into their role by being successful in other areas. They may have a history of being an artist, musician, songwriter, or record label work.
Songwriters will often get asked to produce songs they have co-written because they have the most refined vision of what it should sound and feel like. If you look at the charts over the last decade, you’ll notice that a very high percentage of hits have the producer listed as a co-writer. This works out great on a hit song since the producer can get paid both for the publishing (ownership of the writing) and mechanical royalties (sales of the recording).
Musicians might get asked to produce a record due to their long-practiced skillset, musical knowledge, and ability to work with performers on a technical and creative level. By spending countless hours learning parts, working on their tone and musical expressiveness, and collaborating with other musicians they are well suited to help an artist create unique and specific feelings for the listener.
Some artists self-produce as a way to achieve their vision more specifically, or as a necessity due to budget constraints. This can be a beautifully creative outlet for some or a frustrating roadblock to others with less experience or perspective on the process.
Modern equipment and software have made it a much more accessible industry, and many amateurs enjoy the process of experimenting and learning while making their music with nothing more than a laptop and a set of headphones.
There really is no significant technical difference in the final product of a track built in GarageBand, versus one built-in Pro Tools. The key difference is just the level of musicianship, audio engineering ability, and possibly the quality of actual audio recordings (vocals, live guitars, real drums, etc.).
Many traditional production requirements, like a big studio to record real drums, have been eliminated or diminished by the ability to grab free or cheap loops and samples that sound and feel great with zero work.
The Modern Producer
These producers/artists are certainly the most plentiful these days, due to the low barrier to entry and easy ability to release music online for anybody to find. Sometimes called Beat Makers, they may be using powerful track-building tools like Logic Pro, Ableton, and FL Studio to create intricate textures out of largely artificial instruments.
Many of these will also be mixing their own beats, as well as recording/editing vocals. A workable vocal mic setup can be purchased for only a couple hundred dollars, and this would give them everything they need to work with an artist (or themselves) to release a song worthy of being a hit!
What makes them successful?
While there may be tens or even hundreds of thousands of aspiring producers out there, most of them are still working to make it big. What sets successful producers apart from the wannabes?
Success is hard to define, especially when drawing lines between artistry and business. For some that may be merely the ability to support themselves and their family with consistent income and a music production career they love.
By building a strong network of local artists and record labels, this is achievable in virtually any area with lots of musicians. Not to mention working with artists remotely from anywhere in the world. Whether selling or licensing beats online or recording full bands, there are producers having a blast and living their dream in every city and most towns across the country.
For others, they want to work on BIG records. Those who can do this need to not only be top-tier with their skills but also great at working with people. Record labels and hit-maker artists rarely gamble on unknown producers, so finding ways to meet people and show competence is vitally important. Some do this with a one-in-a-million breakout hit, and services like TikTok make that easier than ever, but still unlikely…Most, however, work their way into the industry incrementally.
Getting a foot in the door is usually something small like an internship, assisting gig, or mentorship in a place where music is being made. These provide the two necessary steps to growing a career: experience and connections. Learning directly from somebody who has the skills and connections already is the fastest way to grow a career and find a way in. It can help build album credits and broaden the producer’s musical knowledge.
Some producers choose to grow their careers entirely independently, which requires a great deal of self-motivation and drive to learn. Fortunately, the internet has tons of content available for learning, and many services dedicated to helping producers and clients connect. Starting with a small client base and helping them to achieve success will inevitably lead to a larger client base and better odds of hitting the sort of breakout success that can change the trajectory of a producer’s career overnight.
Regardless of your approach or career goals, the universal attributes that will lead to success are your musicality, creativity, knowledge of the industry and trends, and people skills. Patiently building an ever-expanding network based on the strength of your skills and professionalism isn’t easy, but it is a sure path to growth and success!
If you are interested in a career in the Music Industry, Dark Horse Institute’s music programs: Composition and Songwriting, Audio Engineering, or Music Business are a great way to take things to the next level!