Tips on becoming a hotshot producer
Tip #1 Decide what you want to be
There are many different avenues into this world, and even more potential outcomes. However, perhaps the most important consideration is deciding which type of producer you want to be. Do you want to be known for excellence working in a specific genre? Or perhaps you want to be an in-house producer tied to a specific studio. It may be something local to you, and this kind of role will ensure you are exposed to a huge variety of different bands and artists.
Or maybe there’s a technological attraction for you. This is particularly common in electronic music circles, where the musician is comfortable with the technology element and feels they can do the entire production role themselves.
Whatever it is, the best advice here is to research for yourself the different types of music producer, and have a clear idea in your head of what exactly it is you want to achieve.
Tip #2 Swot up
In truth, the career and educational backgrounds required to become a music producer are extremely wide and varied. There is no ‘right’ path into the role. There are, however, certain academic paths which will give you skills that it’d take a lifetime to learn organically.
As well as the more obvious skills like audio engineering and music production, you might find courses in subjects like music industry law and business management will give you a head-start over someone who has no qualifications.
Career-wise, there are certainly more apparent roads you can travel. It is fair to say that a music production graduate with little to no actual studio experience will find it harder to get a job than someone without qualifications but who has spent a decade already doing relevant work in some capacity.
We’ve spoken plenty of times on this blog before about how it is far easier for anyone to get access to a basic production rig. So, if you want to be a music producer, start producing some music! It won’t be a quick process, but if you’re determined enough and have put the time in to learn your chops, you can start approaching local bands and building a portfolio of your work.
Once you have some experience under your belt, you’ll find it much easier to get a foot in the door working at an established studio.
Tip #3 Network
This leads nicely to the art of networking. If you’re an antisocial loner with little to no compunction to get along with people, you’re going to find it hard to succeed in this world. At any level, the record producer has to act as the glue in a situation, working with people of all backgrounds and sanity levels to get a result.
A warm and sunny disposition also helps with one of the most crucial parts of starting out in this – or any – career. That is the ability to network.
Networking is essentially getting out there and meeting people and leaving a good impression. The aim being that at some point in the future the relationship you started will somehow become mutually beneficial. In this context, it means getting to know the people who move in the circles you want to move in, and getting yourself a reputation for being useful/interesting/good to know.
It’s said that people buy from people, and it’s no different here. If you’re trying to get a work experience placement, identify the people you need to speak to and find ways in which you can leave a positive impression on them. If you are at the start of the journey, offer to come in and make cups of tea for a week. If you are working and have a decent reputation, find ways to expand your network. Sites like LinkedIn are definitely useful here.
Tip #4 Learn your trade
Enough of all that fluffy ‘people’ stuff – for now. Let’s get down the nuts and bolts. Put very simply, if you want to be a music producer, you better know how to produce music. You need to know all the terminology, have a handle on a huge variety of technical details and basically know your craft inside out.
There’s no easy way around it. Music production is definitely an art, as opposed a science, and there is no end point when you can say you’ve cracked it. But you do need to have an understanding of many, many different things.
There’s a superb article here on the different stages of learning to become an electronic music producer. Essentially, there are five stages, from total novice through to master. Going by this article’s very well-reasoned argument, becoming a master in the field of music production will take years of your life.
It uses the famous example that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach true expert status in anything. Best get stuck in then.
Tip #5 Make the right impression
We’re getting to the point where it’s prudent to forget the academic or career backgrounds which will stand you in good stead, and start to look at what kind of skills you as a person will need to succeed.
Let’s break it down…
Nobody is saying you need to be a classically trained musician in order to become a music producer. Plenty of producers are self-taught, and that shouldn’t act as a barrier. However, when you consider that the vast majority of people you’ll interact with daily will be musicians, it’s pretty clear that some kind of musical grounding can only be of benefit to you.
Learning even the basics of music theory will be a head-start. As will learning a couple of different instruments – even at a very basic level – so when the drummer starts asking technical questions you don’t look like a total novice.
As we’ve said too, a big part of the job is communicating with the people you’re trying to produce for. If you can talk their language, and offer them a different perspective, you’ll find it will make a big difference in your relationship.
Recording projects can last anything from a day or two, through to longer residential stays if the budget deems it necessary. Consider the fact that you’re going to be in close confines with these people and you can see how it might be useful to have some solid interpersonal skills.
Picture the scene; you’re recording a four-piece band over a period of a week. The singer and the drummer don’t get on. The guitarist keeps messing up his takes. The bass player keeps disappearing. Regardless of all this, you’ve been hired to make a record and your own reputation is at stake here. Sometimes a producer has to act almost as a peace-maker, friend, band member and psychologist all at once.
If anyone reading this hasn’t seen the Metallica documentary ‘Some Kind Of Monster’ then we can highly recommend it. In fact, we’d go as far as to say it’s mandatory for anyone hoping to become a record producer, because you’ll see a side to production which isn’t choosing microphones or tinkering in Pro Tools. We’ll say no more.
As any musician will know, the ability to create something is what drives us. Yet most will also recognise that creativity isn’t a tap which you can turn on and off, and often it will desert us when we need it most.
As a producer, if you can offer good, creative advice to your musicians you are worth your weight in gold. Sometimes it can be as simple as suggesting a different guitar effect on a certain part of the song, or it may be the ability to come up with a creative solution to a strange request (e.g. “we want the drums to sound like an elephant falling off a cliff…”)
Keep in mind though that the music you’re producing has come from the creative efforts of the musicians involved. As such, learn the times you can have an input and learn when to keep your ideas to yourself. You might think a 42 bar middle 8 in 16/7 of a pure pop song is an utterly crazy idea but if that’s what the client wants…
Leadership is one of those strange character traits that people either have, or don’t. It’s not something you can really learn. People will either listen to you and take your ideas seriously, or they won’t. But to be a good producer, you need to accept that sometimes everyone – not matter how experienced or talented – will be looking to you to lead the ship through choppy waters.
It may be at the start of the project when you’re laying down some ground rules, or in the middle when people start turning up to do their parts without having practiced. Either way, leadership and diplomacy are key skills. After all, it’s your head on the block if it goes wrong.
5. Project management
In many ways, the process of recording an album is a project like any other. You’ll need established, proven workflows that will enable you to keep the project on time. You’ll need organisational skills to make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them, where people need to be, when etc. You’ll have confidence that your plan will get your artists from A to B with the minimum of hassle.
It’s here that some kind of business background will come to the fore. Anyone with experience running projects in a non-musical setting will excel here, however it’s also important to keep the right balance. Music, and the production of music, is by its nature a creative and (dare we say) fun process. Don’t suck the life out of it by turning it into a tick-box exercise, but do keep a pragmatic view of what you need to do to make it happen.
6. Self motivation
Clearly being a music producer isn’t a day job in the same way that being, for example, a plumber or call centre agent is. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ups and downs.
There may be days when the last thing you want to do is listen to your client’s ropy alt-country tracks. However, it’s imperative you approach each project with the right attitude. After all, while you’re behind the desk it’s you that’s in charge, and you have to lead by example.
It is a common thing for people who turn a hobby into a career; that they lose the reason why they loved whatever it is in the first place. Any job can take its toll on you, but it’s in these instances that a strong internal belief and motivation to succeed will carry you through.
The final trait we’ll cover involves patience. It’s quite a big deal too. You might have a pace that you like to work at, and also have time constraints on you delivering a project, but sometimes you have to accept that people might not work at that same speed.
Patience is a strong skill to have in any walk of life, but for the music producer it’s a must. Whether it’s nervous guitarists requiring 47 takes of a solo, or waiting while the band attempt a full re-write of a chorus, sometimes your reality will involve lots of waiting. And waiting. And more waiting.
As with many of the above listed characteristics, patience says a lot about your attitude to work. You’ve been hired to help an artist or group of artists fulfil something they’ve been working on. To make the sound in their heads into a reality. And while you have your own job to do, you also have to be sensitive that your real job is facilitating their creative expression. Nobody ever said it would be easy.
As you can probably tell, there is no easy way to learn how to become a music producer. It’s a hugely competitive field, but also immensely rewarding. There aren’t many day-jobs that involve hanging around in a music studio and getting paid for it.
What you’ve maybe realised from the above thoughts is that getting ahead in the production world involves a bit of ‘who you know’, a good understanding of the technical requirements, and a whole heap of personal skills. Perhaps the most important though, and it is something we touched on, is your attitude.
Chances are you won’t be working with bands, artists, even genres that you like. On those days/projects, it may at times feel like a fairly routine job. But the pay-off is when you work on something truly special. On those days, no other career can even come close.