A music producer manages the recording process. They work on behalf of their clients, who could be an artist or a record label, to get the best results possible from a studio session. They aim to make the instruments and vocals sound great, try to reflect the sound and spirit of the band and guide the artist on creative decisions based on their past experience.
For this article, I interviewed producer Phil Harding. Phil has recorded with legendary artists such as The Clash, Depeche Mode and Take That. He was the studio engineer on Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)“, voted by The Guardian as the 5th Best Single of ALL TIME!!!!!
What do you need to be a music producer?
The short answer is a combination of emotional intelligence, creativity, a great ‘ear’, all combined with the technical skills required to operate modern recording equipment.
Music producers need to quickly build a relationship with artists so they can be both a leader in the studio and provide constructive advice. Most artists will be precious about their songs and likely have a sound they want to achieve. The music producer has to bring out the artist’s vision while being prepared to offer alternative ideas in a way that maintains a creative atmosphere within the studio.
Phil says, “It’s a balancing act because on one side you’ve got a responsibility and control of the record, whether it be rock, pop, dance, jazz, classical, whatever. You’re the person that is hopefully turning the artist’s creative dream into reality. On the other hand, if your client is actually the record company, or a management company or publisher, you’ve trying to turn the vision of the artist into something commercial that they can market and sell and make money from.“
The majority of producers are freelance. They will typically own their own equipment and need the raw technical skills required to operate contemporary and complex recording equipment.
“It’s now very unusual for a music producer not to have their own equipment“, says Phil. “Take me, as an ‘average’ producer, for example. I’ve got a small studio at home that is well enough equipped for pre-production, recording vocals and mixing. It’s a small space but big enough to fit one vocalist or a musician. If I need more space than that, I’ll hire a studio. I’d say the absolute minimum requirements for a producer, are a laptop, an audio interface, some speakers, at least one microphone and a mini keyboard.”
How much money does a music producer make?
When people talk about producers today the names often mentioned are Dr Dre, David Guetta, Mark Ronson and Timbaland. These producers are at the height of their careers, responsible for songs that have been played countless billions of times. As a result, they’re extremely rich.
Phil says, “Rates can range from zero to £10,000 ($12k) per track. Depending on the situation and the artist. So, if you’re a top-line producer in the industry, take ….. (Phil gives me the name of a huge UK music producer but I’ll keep the name hidden) as an example. He’s produced several of the biggest singles of the last 5 years. Knowing him, and his manager, I’d be surprised if he wasn’t charging, ball-park, ten thousand a track. Plus, he’ll get a percentage of royalties from sales, which is generally on average about 3%“.
Bear in mind, if the client of the producer is a record label, this will be 3% of their share, not the artist share!
However, these highly successful producers represent a small proportion of the total number of producers. A typical producer is constantly working to attract clients. Their reputation and who they’ve previously worked with are their greatest assets.
If they score a hit they will be in demand. However, there is a lot of competition meaning they must constantly be on top of their game. Steve Mac, one of the UK’s most successful producers, sums it up when he says, “Just because you had a hit doesn’t mean you have all the answers. Enjoy it, but realize that once the hit has gone, everything resets.”
“When you’re starting out if you believe in an artist and you want to improve your reputation, producers will work for a low fee. But, there’s a general, motto amongst producers. “Say no to nothing”, because your time is worth something“, says Phil
Should rates be per project or per hour?
Although the traditional fee structure has been on a ‘per track’ basis, Phil says the situation is changing. “Me and other colleagues, especially a lot of producers and engineers in America, have decided to come up with an hourly rate and say, ‘Okay, we’re not sure how long it’s gonna take. So let’s agree on an hourly rate and after each session, we’ll agree how many hours we’ve done. It’s easier, especially if you’re working in your own studio“.
Despite many producers preferring a set fee, based on either a track or a project, e.g. a full album, Phil says many bands are more comfortable with an hourly rate because it’s already something they’re familiar with. “A lot of musicians earn their money by giving lessons or doing recording sessions. I’ll ask them, ‘How much do you charge a guitar lesson?’ for instance. We can look at some rates advised by the Musicians Union. I’ll take the view that, okay, if that’s what you charge for a music lesson, that’s what I’ll charge for engineering or producing your session. It’s a good modern compromise“
Does a music producer make beats?
Yes. Most producers will have knowledge of the latest drum machines, loops, sound libraries and programming. However, if you’re an artist in rap or hip-hop, then you will likely want to work with a specialist.
Some beatmakers will do a one-off deal for the track. However, Phil has good advice for producers who want to concentrate on this area.
“In my experience, you’ll do better if you’re creating a whole backing track for the rapper to create a top-line and rap. That may require teaming up with musicians to provide a whole backing track and not just the beats“.
By producing the whole backing track it enables the producer to claim a higher percentage of the publishing, possibly 50%, in addition to the session fee and a recording percentage.
Phil points out another area where Beatmaking is different to the traditional role. “Sometimes, the person making the beats will be a specialist who then hands over control to another producer. This person will record the rapper over the pre-recorded backing track. And the identity of the beatmaker will be a closely guarded secret. This happens in the New York rap scene a lot.“
Are music producers in demand?
The world’s most successful producers are very high in demand. They can almost name their own price for work and will be booked for months in advance. They will also be in the enviable position they can pick and choose who to work with. However, they know their reputation is everything. While a record producer keeps producing hits they will be in high demand. However, if the hits start to dry up then they know there is a long line of eager, talented producers ready to take their mantle.
“Reputation takes a long time to build”, says Phil. “It’s not unusual for new producers to be working for nothing, unfortunately, but you can’t be doing that for long. You need to be making a living. “
What is a Music Production Team?
It’s difficult for a producer to be successful in every role. Recording, engineering, playing instruments, songwriting, top-lines and mastering all take time. This is in addition to the time required to run a business, business development, accounts, client support and such like. Phil’s advice, which echoes the same advice given to me by another Producer/Composer, Rik Bodgers, is to form a team.
Phil has worked in a team since the early ’80s. He was the Chief Engineer at Stock, Aitkin and Waterman, responsible for hits by Kylie, Mel & Kim and Dead or Alive. “The ideal team consists of a team leader, who at SAW was Pete Waterman. They deal with the clients and artists. Next, you need a good musician keyboard player who can programme. You have a good beatmaker who is strong at programming beats and samples. And finally, you need a ‘top-liner’. That’s usually a singer & lyricist who can write a song over the tracks the team creates.”
This doesn’t prevent the production team from working with an artist on their own songs. But it provides more options and experience to help the artist write better songs and turn their song into a hit.
Phil works predominantly in the pop/dance genre, so points out the situation is different in rock, jazz and classical. Even in those genres, it’s now rare for a producer to work solo without a team.
Who is the most successful music producer?
This can be answered in numerous ways depending on how you define success? In terms of records sold, influence or in modern-day demand?
Records sold include the likes of George Martin, who produced the majority of recordings by The Beatles. Quincy Jones for his work with Michael Jackson. Or perhaps you could include Jimmy Page, who produced his own albums with Led Zeppelin.
Influence is harder to answer since it’s so subjective. George Martin would have to be top, simply because his work with The Beatles has become rock n roll legend. Phil points out another reason why contemporary producers have a lot to thank George for.
“George persuaded EMI records that a producer should be getting a share of the sales. That’s where production contracts and producers earning a share of what they created started. Before that producers were paid a wage by the record company.”
Phil Spector created the “Wall of Sound”, which producers still try to emulate today. Spector used a variety of unconventional techniques, including placing instruments and vocalists in bathrooms to achieve an echo effect. Or perhaps Giorgio Moroder, a German producer who in 1977 recorded Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, a track that defined a Hi-NRG sound that still influences tracks made today.
Max Martin, Mark Ronson & Calvin Harris are examples of the ‘hottest’ producers in the world right now. They score hit after hit with some of the world’s most popular artists. If there is a formula to writing hits, then currently, they have it!
Is it hard to be a music producer?
The simple answer is ‘Yes’. The skills required are a rare combination of emotional intelligence, creativity and technical skills. Often people possess one or two but rarely all three. To be successful means hard work, dedication and building a reputation that can often take years. No matter whether you’re at the top, like Mark Ronson, or just starting out, you’re in a very competitive market where you’re only as good as your recent hits.
In addition, bear in mind a producer is working with artists. For all their wonderful qualities, artists can also be idiosyncratic. They may prefer to work throughout the night, go through a dozen emotions in as many minutes and are unlikely to follow the usual workplace etiquette. Producers must work with a wide variety of different egos and situations, striving to get the best out of the artist.
Steve Mac, in an interview with Music Business Worldwide, puts it more bluntly. “If we’re due to have a 1pm studio session together, I’ll probably be getting some ideas together before you arrive. You gee yourself up for it, you’re excited for it to start. Then 1pm becomes 1.15pm and you’re like, ‘Okay, I’m still up for it – it will still be great.’ Then it’s 1.30pm, and you’re thinking, ‘Are they still coming? By the time it hits 2pm, all this energy you had for the writing session has gone, or at least dipped.”
Is music production a good career?
Being a Producer can be extremely rewarding, both financially and creatively. Having input on a song or album that has an impact on an audience is extremely fulfilling. On the other hand, you have to be highly self-motivated, able to work long hours, often ‘alone’ – the majority of producers are self-employed – and in an environment where there are few rules. It doesn’t suit everyone but for the people who do it there is nothing they’d rather be doing!
“It’s as competitive as it ever was, if not more so”, confirms Phil, although he has useful advice for aspiring producers. “I recommend thinking, what genre do I want to work in? As a rock producer, you’re less likely to be writing songs and it’s useful if you’ve come from the engineering route. If you’re thinking of dance and pop, you could be a producer, songwriter, musician, possibly even an artist yourself!”
How do producers get paid?
The answer really depends on the level of the producer and the artist. A producer with a strong reputation working with a popular artist will likely work on a fee plus a percentage of revenue. Somewhere between 3-5% is typical. The label will also be pay for studio time and recording costs, which could run into tens of thousands of pounds for the best recording studios.
For most producers, the fee will be for a studio session or a project, such as an entire album. A producer may charge £100 for a 3-hour session, enough time to record a song if the artist is rehearsed and ready to record. However, some tracks may require overdubs or parts recorded, such as strings or horn sections. The price for Mastering is likely to be separate too.
The changes in the industry are affecting producers too. This is because the money from direct sales of music is lower. This impacts a producer who, say, made a living from receiving 3% of music royalties but can no longer depend on record sales.
Music Production Rates
Phil says this has placed a greater emphasis on the initial fee being charged. “Per hour, per track or per project are the three most common ways. It means you must be an accountant too. You need to be thinking, ‘If I’m going to do this one track with an act and I’m going to spend, let’s say, the best part of two to three days recording, and at least today mixing. And then probably it’s very rare that the first mix is accepted’. You need to calculate how much to charge for to cover all that?”
Technology has had another impact too, in a more subtle way. Historically, an artist would listen back to a track in the studio, or on a cassette, and had to make a decision on the final version there and then. Today, we’re all connected and artists will send an MP3 to each other, meaning there are lots of opinions flying around. “We’re all on computers and have mobiles”, sighs Phil. “So an artist can phone up the next week and say, well, I need more vocals in this section. I want to try this, try that.”
The industry standard is for one revision made within the agreed fee. If an additional adjustment is requested then an additional fee will be charged. However, producers may find this tough to negotiate, especially in a culture where more people are prepared to hold back payment until they’re 100% happy.
What is the Music Producers Guild?
Music production is a tough, but rewarding, career. Long hours in a highly competitive market can take their toll. However, producers work at the forefront of music, responsible for making hits that can affect millions of lives.
The Music Producers Guild (MPG) is a place for Producers who join to get together, talk, compare and stay in touch with how the industry is shaping up. It also provides access to contract templates, working agreements and 45 minutes with a music industry lawyer. Free memberships are available for students.
What is the Best Way to Become a Music Producer?
Music Production software is cheaply available and there are many online courses available. This will get you so far. If you want to be taken on by a professional studio or an assistant to a full-time producer, which is where you learn on the job, requires a student to gain recognised qualifications.
There are many music production courses available. I am involved with an organisation called Community Music who provide a Music Production course each year. Naturally, I highly recommend it!
Music production courses provide people with skills in audio and technology. These are highly transferable skills into other industries, such as film, theatre, games and TV.
An industry body called JAMES accredits university courses in the UK. It was formed to link the industry with education. JAMES work with educators to assess their courses, ensuring they’re high quality and that students leave with skills required by the industry.
Phil, who is a member of JAMES, points out that only 10%-15% of music courses are accredited. Therefore, if a course works with JAMES then a student can be sure it’s a high standard.
“The assessment is quite a rigorous process”, says Phil. “We’ll look at the course material, send in an assessor to meet the music practitioner and to meet the team. They’ll also meet the parents and students, they look at resources. Then they make a list of recommendations. What JAMES want is to ensure the course is teaching and providing current industry best practice.”