Music producers are responsible for the overall production of commercially recorded music. They work closely with recording artists and audio recording engineers to ensure everything runs smoothly and according to plan during a recording session. They monitor and control the technical aspects of a session, such as microphone placement, tracks used, sound and effects, musician needs, and anything else that influences the quality of the recorded music, as well as see to other needs of the musicians and recording engineers. They review prospective new artists, maintain ties with contracted artists, and may negotiate contract and recording arrangements. They also work on the final mixing and editing of the recording.
Music Producer Career History
The job of the contemporary music producer as we know it began in the late 1940s with the development of magnetic tape as a recording medium. Tape provided a new and flexible method for producers to enhance the outcome of the recording session. Before tape, records were cut on warm wax blanks that allowed only minimal manipulation of sound quality. Generally, whatever the musicians played in the recording studio is what came out on the record, and the degree of quality rested almost entirely in the hands of the studio engineer.
The innovation of tape and the introduction of long-playing (LP) records brought significant improvements to the recording industry, which had previously been restricted to the five-minute playback time of 78 rpm records. Tape could be edited, enhanced, played at different speeds, and most importantly, it allowed for multiple recording tracks to be adjusted individually.
By the 1950s, producers were the key people in the record industry. They sought the talent to make hit recordings and often picked the material to be recorded. Until the mid-1950s producers were generally producing seven-inch, single records, often hiring arrangers to write the musical arrangement. In the mid-1950s, with the beginning of rock and roll, emphasis switched to full-length 12-inch records with multiple songs from the same artist. In the late 1950s, a relatively new factor appeared in the music business: the independent music producer. Until this time producers worked mostly for the record companies. The independents, however, hired their talents out to the studios by claiming they had the connections and vision to produce the next hit. They took over all elements necessary to produce the recording. Soon producers began to make their own contracts with the artists, produce the records independently, and then sell them to the record companies for distribution.
The producer’s job description remained pretty much the same until the early 1980s when the importance of music videos to the commercial success of a record became apparent. Music videos drastically changed the rules some producers lived by. Now they not only had to worry about hiring talent, audio recording engineers, and sound technicians, but also set and costume designers, video technicians, film directors, choreographers, and other skilled workers who worked for visual effects. They had to learn the basics of film production in order to help direct video production, just as they do for recording. Today there are some producers that work exclusively with video.
Music Producer Job Description
Artistry and experimentation aside, the goal of the successful music producer is to produce profit-making recordings that sound as good as they possibly can.
Fran Allen-Leake works as a music producer; she’s also a promotion specialist and does A&R (artist and repertoire) work and some artist management. “I’m a jack of all trades in the music industry,” she says. She is also on the board of governors for the Chicago chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the organization that presents the Grammy Awards. “The producer’s job is to paint the musical picture,” she says. This involves determining the tunes that will go on the artist’s CD and putting together the music team.
Music producers have to be creative and innovative, with their own style and method for achieving set goals. The degree of involvement a producer has with a recording project varies from producer to producer: Some are involved in every phase of production, and some (those at major labels) handle only certain elements and assign the rest to specialists. Most producers, however, will at least put together the talent (if it is not already there in the form of an established band or orchestra) and the music that will make a recording. Some producers, particularly the independents, arrange for the recording studio, technicians, and background musicians, and they frequently become involved in the mixing and editing of a recording, album cover art, packaging, contracts, administrative paperwork, and marketing and promotion. In a major record company some of these elements are more likely to be handled by separate departments.
Music producers usually specialize in a certain musical genre, be it rock and roll, rap, country and western, jazz, or classical. A record company may specialize in all, several, or one of the musical genres. Unlike many producers who specialize, Allen-Leake has worked in a variety of musical genres. “I’ve worked on everything from rock to R&B and blues,” she says. “As a producer, you have to have an appreciation of the musical format. You have to know all music genres and be able to anticipate what’s going to happen in the industry.”
Music producers never stop seeking new talent or projects to record. They keep close contact with the label A&R staff, whose job it is to scout up-and-coming talent, or they find talent on their own. Some producers build talent by assembling a group of musicians to release a recording or series of recordings that the producer feels will be successful based on the musicians’ skill and reputation.
Producers discover new talent in a number of ways. Personal contacts today are one of the most important methods; managers, musicians, conductors, songwriters, and arrangers often introduce the producer to a band or solo artist. Musicians frequently send demo tapes to record labels and producers they feel might take an interest in their music. Many producers find talent on independent labels. Since the early 1990s’ success of the one-time independent label rock band Nirvana, there has been an influx of so-called “indie” bands (indie is industry slang for “independent”) signing on to the majors. Other leads may come through reading the show business trade papers, such as Variety and Billboard. Once the producer finds up-and-coming talent, he or she offers contractual negotiations to the musicians, which may involve the musicians’ agents or managers and lawyers.
After the talent has been signed, the producer usually will have to prepare a budget covering all of the expenses of production. The next step might be setting up a rehearsal schedule and making arrangements for a rehearsal studio. Depending on the project, the producer either selects the songs the talent will record, or he or she lets the musicians decide and make suggestions on ways to make the songs fit better in the label’s target market.
After consulting with the musicians, the producer selects the recording studio and the audio recording engineers who will control the quality of the recording. Producers make certain all necessary equipment and instruments are available at the studio during the scheduled sessions. Some record companies have their own recording studios, which are convenient and save costs. Independent producers can be more flexible in their choice of studios and often choose places other than studios to record. Because some major recordings may take months and hundreds of hours in the studio, producers make sure the atmosphere is comfortable for the musicians. Most producers work closely with the recording engineers to get the most desirable sound quality during the session. They frequently adjust levels, microphone placement, sound quality, and other factors to improve the recording.
After the recording session, time allowing, producers wait a short period of time—a few days or a week or more—before attempting the final editing of the multitrack recording into a two-track stereo master. This process is called the mix. Mixing involves determining in which part of the stereo sound spectrum each recorded track will be placed to produce the optimal effect. This can be an enormously complex process, especially when some recordings have more than 24 tracks. During the mixing process other musical elements can be added, such as instrumental or vocal background, echo, and other sound effects. Mixing can go on for days even though the process has been sped up through the use of computerized mixing boards.
After the producer is satisfied with the mix, a master is made from which CDs, tapes, and (occasionally) records can be manufactured. The producer also may oversee the mastering to be sure of the final quality of the recording before manufacturing begins. “I like to look at the mastering as the ‘smoothing over,'” Allen-Leake says. “A bad mastering job can screw up all the work you’ve done on the mix. Ideally, I’m looking for enhancement.” After the manufacturing process, the recording is ready for distribution and promotion. Radio stations and reviewers are given promotional copies of the recording. Personal appearances on television and radio talk shows are booked for the talent where possible, and a tour is scheduled to support the new release. From a rock, rap, or country recording session, producers and label executives decide which song will be the likely hit, and from this song, a video is made—which is just as important and complex as the recording itself.
Music Producer Career Requirements
Begin your musical training as early as possible. Take courses in music and band to learn something about instruments, voice, and music theory. Learn about as many music genres as you can, including classical and jazz. Because music is often affected by social issues, courses in journalism, government, and history provide useful background knowledge. Classes in media, broadcast journalism, and theater may involve you with sound engineering.
After high school, you should seek postsecondary training in audio engineering. To learn about educational opportunities in the United States and abroad, visit the Web sites of the Audio Engineering Society (http://www.aes.org/) or Mix Magazine Online (http://www.mixonline.com/).
The most basic level of education is attending seminars and workshops. This may be the best way to obtain an early, hands-on understanding of music recording. These programs are generally intended to introduce new technologies in the audio field. A seminar can last a few hours or several weeks. Many workshops are geared toward introducing a certain aspect of recording, such as mixing, editing, or music production. Workshops can prepare you for entry-level apprenticeships at a recording studio.
If you are looking for a more comprehensive course of study in specific areas of the recording industry, you can enroll in a trade school program. Depending on the curriculum, these programs can take from several weeks to up to a year to complete. The most complete level of postsecondary education is a two- or four-year degree from a university. At a university, you will find an ideal learning environment complete with state-of-the-art equipment and a teaching staff of professionals knowledgeable in the industry. Universities incorporate music, music technology, and music business in a comprehensive curriculum that prepares their graduates to be highly competitive in the industry. At a university students can enroll in other nonaudio courses necessary for the successful producer, such as courses in business, communications, public relations, and computers.
“Producing takes a lot of understanding of how people work,” Fran Allen-Leake says. “You need an understanding of artists.” To get this understanding, she spent a few years working as a vocalist, “so I could really understand what it’s like to be on the other side of the microphone.”
Music producers must also have the instincts of artists to help artists record the best work they can. You should have a good ear for the music as well as a great deal of insight into the history and current trends of the recording industry.
Exploring Music Producer Career
Join a music group to get a sense of the collaborative process of putting songs together. Your school may have equipment available for recording performances—your school’s music teacher or media department director may be able to assist you in a recording project. Since a large part of being a producer involves good communication skills, any experience you can get dealing with a variety of people—as in a retail sales job, for example—will be helpful.
“Listen to everything,” Fran Allen-Leake advises. “When listening, try to get a sense of the picture. What is the artist and producer trying to get across? What do they want you to feel? Read the back of every CD, and start getting familiar with the names of producers. You’ll see some of the names over and over again.”
Students can contact record companies or recording studios to get more information; local studios can usually be found in the classified telephone directory, and others can be located in the music trade papers. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences can provide information on the industry, or it can suggest where such information is available. There are also numerous books and music trade magazines that cover music production.
Music producers work independently (freelance) or for a record company (usually referred to as a label). When working independently, they may be hired by a label for a project or they may bring their own artists to the attention of industry executives. Although many producers work in major cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, many cities across the country have vibrant music scenes. Wherever there are recording studios and musicians, there will be a need for producers.
Postsecondary training in audio and recording technology will provide a strong basis for getting a job in music production, or at least in the music industry. Most training programs offer job placement assistance for their graduates, and record labels that are looking for producers frequently post job openings at these schools. Some of the larger record labels offer highly competitive and much sought after internships in music recording. Students who finish an internship for a major record label will have a high success rate in finding employment. A job in any capacity with a record label, an independent producer, or in a recording studio would be worthwhile just to get your foot in the door. Many major labels prefer to hire only producers who have first worked independently.
To find a job as a music producer you have to be aggressive in canvassing the record companies and related businesses by telephone and mail to seek out entry-level jobs. Leads to jobs in the industry can also come through studying trade publications. These include Billboard (http://www.billboard.com), Variety (http://variety.com/), Mix (http://www.mixonline.com), and Down Beat (http://www.downbeat.com/).
Music producers advance as they continually produce projects that are successful, if not commercially, then to the satisfaction of the musicians and record label. There is no limit to where a successful music producer may go. Music producers already have a high degree of responsibility with a record label, as their work is directly reflected in the sales and profits of a recording. Producers who consistently produce profit-making hits will constantly be in high demand and will have the luxury of choosing labels and artists. Independent producers are already their own bosses, but if they are exceptionally good, record companies may want to put them under contract. Similarly, producers with record companies may see a brighter future as independent producers.
Within a major record label, producers could become heads of any of several departments, but they are most directly in line for the directorship or vice presidency of the A&R department. Depending on their talents and career goals, producers might also move into sales, publicity and public relations, advertising, marketing, or promotion. Some producers, whose sound or style is particularly sought after, may go on to start their own recording studios.
A music producer can earn a considerable amount of money or go broke. It is difficult to indicate an average salary for producers because they generally make a lot of money or their tenure in the business is short. This is because the income of a record producer is directly tied to the sales of the records he or she produces. An independent producer works on a royalty basis, which usually is about 3 to 5 percent (also called points) of retail sales. They may also charge a fee or get an advance from the record company, which would be deducted from sales.
Starting out, producers often work as technicians for studios, making $19,090 or less a year in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (USDL). The USDL reports that the median salary for audio and video equipment technicians was $33,130 in 2004, and the median salary for sound engineering technicians was $39,380. The median salary for producers and directors (including those who work in film, theater, and broadcasting) was $52,440 in 2004, and salaries ranged from less than $26,940 to more than $145,600. Producers who work with leading performers in the industry can earn well over $200,000 a year.
Benefits packages vary from business to business. Music producers employed by a recording company can expect health insurance and paid vacation. Other benefits may include dental and eye care, life and disability insurance, and a pension plan. A producer’s salary can increase by yearly bonuses or profit sharing if the company does well in the course of a year.
Music producers have the opportunity to work closely with creative people. They also have an actual CD as a finished product. “There’s a great deal of pride in authorship,” Fran Allen-Leake says. But to stay competitive and in demand, producers must work very hard, sometimes weeks on end without a break. “The hours are unbelievably crazy,” she says. The traveling can also be demanding. “Generally, every month I’m gone for some period of time. Could be five days, or three days, or three weeks.”
A music producer at a record company usually has a private office and all of the support staff he or she needs. Recording studio space is supplied by the company and is either under its own ownership or contracted as necessary. Staff producers have expense accounts that are fairly unlimited so that they can entertain and travel when necessary. Independent producers may have situations similar to that of staff producers, or they may work out of their homes or apartments and rent space as needed.
A producer working steadily is frequently under a lot of pressure, especially during rehearsals and recording sessions, when high-priced talent is tied up and the producer must produce dramatic results within a limited amount of time.
Music Producer Career Outlook
The recording industry is in a continual state of flux. New technology, new music, new markets, and new ways of doing business are constantly redefining the way the music producers perform their jobs. Computer technology is simplifying the recording and mixing process while opening new outlets for creativity. Employment for music producers is very competitive. Although some independent-label bands choose to produce themselves, the experience and know-how of a successful producer is a standard for major-label productions. Record labels will continue to seek the specialized skills of the music producer.
Thousands of recording companies exist in the United States, and their receipts measure in the billions of dollars. Every time a new technology is developed or any time a new musical trend develops, especially in the pop field, it gives the industry as well as the music producer a lift. Although the recording industry has undergone considerable consolidation in recent years (five mega-companies control 80 percent of the industry), talented music producers with an eye for talent and technical acumen will continue to enjoy good employment prospects in the industry. According to the USDL, employment opportunities for producers overall, including those working with musical groups and artists, are expected to grow about as fast as the average through 2014.
For More Information:
- National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS)
- Recording Industry Association of America
- Society of Professional Audio Recording Services