How to Become a Music Producer
Do you want to become a successful Music Producer but you don’t know where to start? Fret no more! We at Reason Studios have put together this comprehensive guide that outlines the role and gives you some real-world hints and tips how to make your first break as a fledgling Music Producer. Dive in and read more to find out how!
Defining the Role of Music Producer
Whether you’re active in the music biz or you’re a casual amateur who appreciates good music, the role of Music Producer probably doesn’t ring as new to you. But, if someone asks you to outline the role’s list of responsibilities, what do you say? It’s not easy, is it? Truth is, even if you ask many professional Music Producers what the role entails – especially in layman terms – it’s no easy feat. Most of them will probably give differing interpretations.
One way of looking at the role is that a Music Producer is to the artists and the song – or recording – as a sports coach is to the team and the game – a sort of orchestrator or organising principle who takes a bird’s eye view to the work and covers several corners to ensure that the end-goal is successful.
Essentially, a Music Producer sits back and looks at the whole picture, directing and counselling the players while tweaking the music to bring out its full potential. In other words, a Music Producer is a skilled team leader, able to pull people together when creating music to achieve great things.
Taking a closer look at what a Music Producer’s responsibilities include, we see that there’s really two main roles in one – Executive Music Producer and Record/Creative Music Producer.
The Executive Producer
Starting with the Executive Producer, as the title implies, this is more concerned with the entrepreneurial or business aspect of the role. A good analogy is that in the film industry, it’s comparable to a Film Producer. Apart from being responsible for delivering a completed record to the artist or record label hiring them, they’ll make sure that all logistical and financial steps in between are covered. They’ll take care of renting the recording studio, hiring all the right musicians, making sure everyone is paid, finding the Mixer, Sound Engineer, and other pivotal staff members, ensuring everything is tight on schedule, among other things.
The Creative Producer
Moving onto the other side of the coin – Record or Creative Music Producer – this is by far the most popular aspect of the job that kindles passion and reels aspiring Music Producers in. The long story short is that you take an artist’s vision for a song or record all the way from concept stage to realisation. You help them create music. And often, you’ll be taking it beyond what they thought possible by also blending in your own musical sensibilities and making it somewhat your own.
Minimalist vs Auteur
A minimalist Music Producer will only add minor tweaks to the artist’s work and not leave much of his or her own footprint in the final rendition. Generally, it’s advisable that you start out this way until you’ve gained enough experience, although this may vary depending on genres and style.
Then, on the other hand, there are successful Music Producers who, when you hear the final work, you know it was that particular producer’s work. They would have written the song or taken the artist and rewrote the song with them. Or, they’ll edit and mix it so much to make it almost entirely different from its point of origin. This depends to some extent on the artist. Some artists have a very complete vision and require little intervention. Then, there are artists who have some great ideas in a rudimentary sense but need a strong Music Producer to help them piece the work together as they guide them through recording sessions.
There are several world-renowned Music Producers who left their mark on recordings as they did in history. For instance, Phil Spector was a legendary (and controversial) Music Producer, who worked with household names like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, etc., was referred to as the first “auteur” among musical artists. Any record produced through him had as much of his influence on it as the artists themselves. He was a creative director, arranger, vocal conductor, and he navigated through the entire recording process.
The Bigger Picture and The Sounds in Between
In any case, you have to be able to visualise all the moving parts of a song in the final picture. As a creative Music Producer, you act like a conductor orchestrating aspects or elements of the song so that it serves the song. While contemplating the song, it helps to try and identify what’s missing in it to help it sound more complete. Then, see what tools you have available, and which ones you can use as the right ‘noise-makers’, so to speak, that will fill the void and round the song out even more. This might necessitate that you play instruments yourself or have the sharp sensibility to bring in the right players to cultivate the right sound.
One thing that might be hard to grasp about the importance of a Creative Producer’s role is that just like it’s the job of the artists to play the instruments, the producer must be there to identify where silence is needed in the song. This doesn’t imply that a sensible and experienced artist wouldn’t know how to do that. But the Music Producer’s presupposed ability to take a step back and see the picture as a whole gives him/her the perspective to see the silence as it relates to the entire song as well as to all instruments and sounds in play. The producer can take to the console and add silence and different degrees of sonority in line with the final vision when creating music. As Mozart said; “the music is not in the notes but in the silence in between”.
Students interested in pursuing a career as a Music Producer are advised to study up on all that’s involved, including the creative and technical aspects, as well as learning how the music business works.
Taking Your First Steps and Learning from Other Music Producers
Let’s say you’re ready to embark on your journey as a Music Producer. Now what? Start with a couple of introspective questions, and answer honestly: how far do you want to take your understanding of music production? And, what are your strengths and interests and how can you play to them? The truth is there’s no clear-cut path, magic trail, or one-size-fits-all. It’s different for everybody and the start always feels the toughest. This is why envisioning where you will be potentially standing in the industry is a good starting path. Now, you have to plot your own path towards that. And, the more you persevere, the more you’ll gain industry smarts and learn to map the way ahead. One way to do this is to identify successful Music Producers with a proven track record and use them as points of reference.
Skills that Pave the Way
The springboard for many aspiring Music Producers is to be versed in one or more instruments themselves. Quincy Jones, for instance, started off as a Berklee graduate trumpeter and Jazz arranger player, who made a name for himself playing for well-established band leaders, including Elvis Presley’s recording orchestra. Then, he went on to tour with an 18-piece band to raving reviews, before hitting a financial low. In the 60s, he had his first break as a Producer and became the Vice President of the record label Mercury. His portfolio of artists whose work he produced is truly stellar.
Then, there are those who have a solid understanding of other aspects like sound engineering, musical composition, lyric writing and vocal harmony as well as music theory and arrangement. Music Producers with a background in vocals may be coaches for singers, and they may be singers themselves, who also sing during recording sessions.
You’ll probably also need to be a talent scout; you can identify where the talent of an artist lies and bring that to the fore. Apart from that, you’ll need to develop clockwork time management skills. You must know how a professional recording studio session runs, while keeping the eye on the clock as well so as not to go over budget if that is a factor of concern.
In a more genre-specific sense, Hip Hop and electronic Music Producers tend to be the ones making the beats as well as playing other instruments. A modern-day example of a Music Producer in the genre who started as a Hip Hop artist himself is Timbaland. The tendency is for artists or bands to be matched up with a Music Producer who knows that genre or style inside out. The Music Producer is a staple part of the production of a song or record, knowing what it takes to make a record or song sell – especially from a business perspective in that particular genre.
Genre buffs can also be historians – real connoisseurs. Zev Feldman – who has a portfolio of Jazz masters such as Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans – is a jazz connoisseur through and through. His case is rare as he started off in Sales. He uses his keen ear for the genre to travel the world and find yet unrecorded pieces waiting to be cut into records and top the charts.
The Producer Behind the Curtains
On the other hand, making it as a producer doesn’t mean necessarily gaining public acclaim. There are many producers working behind the curtains, who produce music for films, advertising, documentaries, live shows, etc. They may work independently or be employed at a record label, specialising in one style or covering several. While you might not become a recognisable household name, this path abounds in opportunities and can be very lucrative anyway.
The Path Ahead in the Music Industry
Nowadays, with the technological progress in the digital sphere, people can easily set up their own home studio and cover a lot with nothing but a decent DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). And due to this, the interpretation of the title Music Producer has been stretched. This creates some confusion about the distinction between a producer on one hand and a DJ or Recording Engineer on the other. However, to become a truly accomplished Music Producer landing deals, there’s a lot more work entailed than just that.
That said, it’s still possible to go from making music in your bedroom to working in a recording studio. Computers loaded with recording software nowadays can accomplish what previously would’ve taken a fully equipped studio. So, the entry bar for learning your first ropes and dreaming up your own music has certainly been lowered.
This, on the other hand, creates another challenge: a fierce competition for available spots, so you really need to be ready to put in the work. While this may sound obvious, a new Producer who’s trying to cut his teeth has to put in tireless hours to build up skills, an initial portfolio, and a network. You must take pride in what you do, because, after all, music production is a labour of love, and the quality of your work will say more about your skills than all the words in the world. And the best way to work incessantly is by making sure you are really passionate about what you do. Otherwise, it’s going to be very tough to sustain such a lifestyle.
In the beginning, you might be putting out work that doesn’t pay a fortune. But it can still be an investment in many ways, whether this means royalties coming in later on, or the artist becoming more famous and coming back to you for more work. Once a Producer has gained some mileage, he can aim for bigger and more lucrative opportunities. The good news is that, despite the fierce competition, Music Producers are always in demand. People want fresh music, so Music Producers up to beats with the latest trends in technology, business, and music styles and genres have a good shot at a career in the field.
Now, let’s look at some effective ways to hone your baseline skills as a Music Producer.
Music Production Programs at University Level
A music production degree is your best bet at exposing yourself to all the tools, knowledge, and recording environments, all under one roof. When choosing an academic course, it’s always wise to check out the course description closely and find out if it requires the ability to play an instrument and is more focused on the creative/musical aspect of the job or more on engineering, technology, or even other aspects like business.
Creative and Technical Courses
For example, if we look at the course description for the Music Production and Engineering Bachelor’s Degree at Berklee College of Music, it says that this experience “prepares you to enter the current music production field as an effective professional in any number of roles within a landscape of rapidly evolving tools and techniques.”
They add that you’ll acquire a critical aesthetic vision, understanding of complex production techniques, effective collaboration in numerous musical settings, learning to define quality using both musical and technical criteria, while also refining communication and time-management skills in multidisciplinary productions.
In a technical sense, you’ll acquire skills in producing electronic and analogue projects, leading full cycles of creative projects, business planning, applying knowledge of both analogue and digital audio systems, as well as evaluating audio material by observing and making informed decisions.
In the case of the Berklee course, this is coupled with training in Sound Engineering. This is because, as we’ve established earlier, a Recording Engineer is a bridge conducive to becoming a Music Producer. Being familiar with the music production process in a recording studio environment and being technically proficient at setting up microphones, working the consoles, while also understanding post-production, effects, track layering, overdubbing, and having at least a working knowledge of software and hardware so as to troubleshoot will give you a huge head start.
Also worth noting is how Berklee’s course emphasises learning soft skills like time management. While it is true that your end-goal for each project is to deliver a masterful record or song, you’ll often need to keep a very scrutinising eye on your timelines and budgeting. If you’re renting a studio, paying session musicians, and most likely other team members, such as Engineers, Arrangers, etc., you’ll need to deliver by deadlines, and it’s up to you to orchestrate everything, while also factoring in time and budget allowance for problem mitigation.
In other words, Producers need to be good at managing time, planning sessions, coordinating people and facilities, creating and communicating schedules to all participants in advance, and making sure everyone adheres rigorously to the schedule you’ve laid out. At all times, you have to have a knack for time management – an art in itself that can be learned. You have to be able to call the shots for when to pause for troubleshooting and when simply to move on.
One course offered at MI College of Contemporary Music is a Certificate Program for Artist/Producer/Entrepreneur. The approach of this course is truly holistic. You’ll learn music production, while also also learning accompanying visuals and social media branding, and finally, “writing and recording to marketing, publicity, website design and final release”. The description also emphasises that you’ll learn material from the Certificate Program for Music Business, as well as developing financial, legal, and managerial tools.
While many people get into this business for their love of music, understanding the business and the legal aspect of it – and not only the artistic and creative side – is vital if you want to make a living. The MI course, among others, prepares you for this. Legal and business frameworks include understanding topics such as music copyrights, music publishing, music licensing, budgeting, finance, marketing, and business management.
The music industry is a part of the larger entertainment industry and is connected to the leisure and media industries as well. And since the entertainment industry is more global nowadays, understanding cross-cultural business, international trade, and foreign market and international recording industry law are a must.
Scholarships and Other Options
While tertiary level courses may be beyond financial reach for some students, look out for scholarships, which are often awarded to students showing promise. But if that’s still not an option, many people take an entirely different route by jumping into the business and working their way from the bottom up as interns or in other roles. Like with any creative job, companies looking to hire you will want to hear your work. So, building a solid portfolio is a must, whether you go to music production school or not. For this reason among others, interning will be a massive asset in your favour.
Interning as a Music Producer
While it is true that there’s no clear-cut path towards becoming a Music Producer, listening to many experienced ones speak, you’ll often hear them say that at some point early on, they interned. So, it would be wise to give serious consideration to becoming an apprentice with a recording studio, recording label, or a reputable Producer. In an ideal world, doing a full course, followed by an internship, gives you a very well-rounded knowledge. You’ll go to the internship with an edge the course will give you.
Learning What Works in the Studio
One of the aspects of interning that gives you most value is that by simply being in the room with highly skilled and experienced producers can help at just about any point in your career. This will save you a lot of time and effort finding out what works and what doesn’t in the studio. And even if you don’t particularly like the music or production style of another Producer, there is always something to be learned from them.
While being supervised in a studio environment, you will quickly learn hands-on how in-studio tech works. This will likely give you such a strong technical grasp that you might end up tinkering with the equipment yourself. Similarly, an effective way of learning is by taking someone else’s production and picking it apart using the right tools. This way, you can take a microscope-approach to all the parts individually and learn what the producer and his team did to achieve that result. Close analysis and mimicry remain a great approach to practical learning.
Breaking the Rules
Also, more often than not, you’ll not only have to learn the ground rules for how things work but also be resourceful and flexible enough to learn to break the rules when needed. You’ll also learn how to fix things on the fly in the background without needing to halt the session. In many cases, the path that took you to the desired result doesn’t matter as long as you achieve that result. However, in order to achieve this degree of flexibility and resourcefulness, you’re going to have to take a one-step-at-a-time approach to build experience and resilience through a long learning curve made up of small successes and failures.
Repetition and Simplicity
In this case, repetition is the mother of mastery. And before you get into the more complex stuff, you’ll need the patience and temperament to grind through several repetitions of the simplest stuff until you know you got it right. As basic as it sounds, never skip mastering the basics. There’s a parallel to be drawn with the actual craft of playing an instrument here. A highly experienced player doesn’t need to play complex pieces to showcase his skill; s/he will play the simplest things and yet succeed in making them sound better than other players who lack the experience. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the demonstration of the simplest skills is where mastery shines.
‘How’ vs ‘Why’
One final note on the value of internship is that apart from teaching you ‘how’, you also learn ‘why’ things are done the way they are. Newer generations are growing up computer literate from an early age. And since music production has predominantly shifted to a more digital approach (due to the tools being used), it’s easier for these kids to grasp how things work in a technical sense. Then, it’s important for them to learn ‘why’ they do certain things and not only ‘how’. That gives them a strong sensibility, allowing them to make the right choices later on in a hands-on-deck scenario. This is where having an experienced mentor becomes important.
From Musician to Producer
Many people who pick up an instrument of their own volition do it out of love for that instrument and music. There are probably numerous reasons why a musician may decide to shift to Music Producer. One of these may be that a musician expands his or her artistic perception and vision so as to value a complete musical piece over emphasising his/her instrument of choice. They’ll feel the inner drive to see their own tracks through to completion, while keeping an eye on all parts. Often enough, the first step in this transition will be to learn a DAW (digital audio workstation) – an essential recording tool in today’s digital recording atmosphere.
Understanding Melody and Harmony
If then, a musician – whether they play an instrument or sing – makes the full transition to Music Producer, extensive previous training as a musician will soon start to pay off. Understanding different facets of an instrument or vocals gives you a working knowledge about how to create melody and harmonies, especially in rock music and other analogue genres. Even more power to you if you are trained in an instrument as well as in vocals.
Music as Common Language
Another advantage in your corner is that, as a Producer versed in an instrument – and therefore music – it opens up the channels of communication with the artists you’re working with. Like many other fields of expertise, music has its own lingua franca or jargon or lingo, which uninitiated people would have a hard time grasping. So, whether the artist is trying to verbalise something or you’re trying to tweak something in their work, being able to speak the language gives you a huge advantage.
One way this really comes in handy is when you’re bringing session musicians on board. Most session musicians nowadays have solid sight-reading, and by preparing everything in written form, it will help them come up to speed more quickly. The same goes for communicating with an Arranger in case the Producer is not filling in that role and a separate one is brought on board. The Producer will need to familiarise himself with all the written arrangements and communicate about changes with the Arranger.
Digital Music Instruments
However, in today’s digital-sphere, there are also many producers whose instrument, so to speak, is the computer, especially considering that in music genres such as Rap and Pop, a lot of beats and loops are created digitally in DAW. In the music industry, a computer, along with other devices such as pad controllers and MIDI keyboards are known as Digital Musical Instruments (DMI). In a nutshell, some instruments tend to be genre-specific.
Just like with playing an instrument, knowing how to read and write music – music theory – gives you another great tool for communicating with artists. Knowing note names, deciphering written rhythmic figures, breaking down chord progressions, and then arranging or orchestrating music for specific instruments serve as fundamental knowledge for musicians, which Producers can also benefit immensely from.
People Skills and Networking
“Stay humble” is not an overused cliché; it’s as applicable to becoming a Music Producer as it is to learning any highly rewarding skill and making a career out of it. There will be no point where you can rest on your laurels and say; “OK, I know everything there is to know about being a Music Producer”. It’s an endless road. Many established Producers have been at it for years, and they don’t claim to know it all – they keep their head low and keep on learning. Even if you simply consider the rate of technological progress and how it bears on music production, it becomes clear that the path is endless.
Right from your time as an intern, your attitude will take you place – or not. You might be talented and have just walked out of school with a lot of knowledge gleaned, but then, you start your internship and only be asked to do menial jobs for some time. This tends to be a test of character and you need to be humble and patient – something very easy to forget nowadays. It also builds discipline, and you will probably learn a lot of small but significant detail that will come in handy once you start handling larger tasks.
People Skills for the Successful Music Producer
Whether you’re a naturally born empath and you know when to keep your crest low or you’re a little rough around the edges, it’s a good idea to sharpen your people skills in any case. Once you gain a reasonable amount of acclaim, your management skills will be tested when dealing with other people, especially if the artists walking through your door are celebrities.
Since you’re coordinating all members active on a project, you’ll need to communicate, negotiate and resolve conflict confidently, calmly, and empathically. Naturally, having a short temper will most certainly backfire. And, just like a real leader, you need to be able to take decisions and think clearly under pressure. People skills are considered a trending soft skillset that equips you with suitable insight into psychology, motivation, and powerful communication to handle group settings and dynamics effectively.
People skills also come into play when you’re mentoring, say, as a Vocal Producer. Knowing how to identify the difference between your strengths – or your run – and those of the singer you’re coaching is important; your goal is to bring out their strengths, not impose yours onto them. You’re a facilitator, not a dictator, and part of your role is to make artists comfortable performing their roles and give everyone their space to breathe and not alienate them. Don’t act like it’s your record just because the artists may lack the knowledge or language of sound engineering or music production. They have a vision and it’s your role to translate what they’re trying to say into a musical production.
Expanding Your Network
Being an excellent listener, emotionally intelligent, and having sound people skills are fundamental to successful networking. Most Producers get work – especially initially – through word-of-mouth. Networking is vital to create music industry links. One way to learn more about the music industry and role of a Producer while broadening your network is to join professional associations and attend conferences and events. The Audio Engineering Society (A.E.S.) and The Recording Academy (GRAMMYs) are good places to start.
Another way to expand your network is by hanging out with other musicians or where they tend to gather. Music connects people. Playing an instrument yourself helps if you want to jam and meet people that way. A university course also yields a lot of network possibilities.
Tips on Finding Clients
One of the first things you’re going to want to do is beef up your portfolio. Assuming that you only have a modest recording setup at home, you’re going to want to get yourself out of the house and connect (cue networking). Go to shows and talk to bands, offering to record them, even if you’re doing it for free. Make your presence known and jump at any opportunity to get your hands dirty. When starting out, try finding up and coming artists who are at the same stage in their career as yourself. If you make mistakes or fail, it will be expected as people will know you’re still at your first ropes. Otherwise, if you’re diving in the deep end, it’s best to have a limited role with a clear list of responsibilities, so you won’t be caught off guard.
Social Media for Music Business
And since we’ve all gone digital, you’ll also need a strong online presence. This is where social media comes in. It really pays off to put your name out there and connect with others. Then, even if you’re offering your services to artists living far away, it’s become easier to mix, master, and share files online. Once you set up social media pages for your business, start posting your work and other interesting content to engage your audience. At the same time, find online communities in music forums and share ideas and connect with people there.
A Good Reputation in the Music Biz
Once again, a couple of notes on attitude. The way you act, especially with other Producers, Engineers and Mixers is very important. Show respect towards others for the work they’ve made and don’t take on an aggressive and overly competitive attitude. Industries like this primarily attract people who have a love for the craft. This mutual love for it will naturally serve as a bridge for you to connect with others. Even if someone else’s work is not your cup of tea, keep in mind that you can glean a lot of insight from it, especially if it pulls you out of your comfort zone.
The same goes for your attitude with clients. A good attitude will also take you a long way with artists who become your clients. Apart from listening carefully to them to make sure you help them concretise their dreams, you should ensure that they enjoy the journey as much as the final product. You want them to walk away singing your praises with other potential clients because, after all, some of the best advertising is word of mouth.
How do I prepare to become a Music Producer?
Learn an instrument or vocals, familiarise yourself with a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
Learn how to use an audio mixer, consider a course at university level, take an internship
Network with others in the music industry
Offer to record and produce artists starting out
Research the methods of established producers.
How hard is it to become a Music Producer?
When deciding to become a Music Producer, you must make sure you’re passionate about it. There is no minimum time required and you’ll probably be putting in long hours, and sometimes for a small pay. You might have to do another job at the same time. It’s hard work but it can be done as long as you’re passionate, motivated, and disciplined.
How do I promote myself as a Music Producer?
Build up a portfolio of music, collaborate with up and coming artists, become knowledgeable about your genre and niche, become active in music communities and share content, find a publisher or record label to work with, etc.
Is a university degree necessary to become a Music Producer?
No, but it helps by giving you an edge, especially before interning. You’ll be studying and practicing different aspects of the job in one place, while having the opportunity to network.
How do I get clients as a Music Producer?
Start making your own music and put together an extensive portfolio.
Build a network of artists and offer to produce their music, even if you do it for free until you put your name out there.
Share your music in social media and forums.
Are Music Producers in demand?
Yes. There’s always a demand for fresh music in different genres, so talented and skillful producers are highly coveted. Also, many more university courses on music production are being held. This is a sign that there are positions in the industry to be filled.
How much do Music Producers get paid?
In the U.S. a Music Producer makes $50,986 p.a. (according to payscale.com). This is an average figure, and a salary will typically range from $29,000 to $99,000, with rare exceptions of top producers making more.
How long will it take me to become a Music Producer?
Courses at university level may take around a year – some more, some less. The shortest will be a few weeks long. The longest is a Master’s that can take around 3 years.
However, after completing a course, it’s highly recommended to do an internship. Again, the time spent there varies on your progress and your agreement with the studio or Producer who take you in.
What does a Music Producer do?
A Music Producer assists artists bring their musical vision to life and guides them through the full production and recording cycle.
They may manage the studio, schedule, and direct the team of artists, sound engineers, mixers, etc. (or fill in one or several of these roles him/herself.) They’ll recruit talent and bring out the artistic talent in musicians. They’ll organise meetings with managers and record labels, among other things.
In summary, they envision the song or recording and ensure that it reaches completing.
What’s the first way to step towards becoming a Music Producer?
Start by studying a musical instrument and music in general. Also, learn how to operate a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).