How To Become a Music Producer
Q&A - Quick Answers
These days, it seems like everyone wants to be a Music Producer. To learn what it’s really like to work with artists in studio, we spoke to several Music Producers working in a variety of genres and locales.
In this article, you’ll hear from:
- Zev Feldman (Record Producer, Co-President of Resonance Records, Consulting Producer for Blue Note Records)
- Matt Ross-Spang (Record Producer, Engineer, Mixer at Southern Grooves Productions)
- Trina Shoemaker (Mixer, Record Producer, Sound Engineer for QOTSA, Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile)
What do you do as a Music Producer?
Music Producers cover a wide range of roles. There isn’t a specific job description that applies to every Producer. I will describe what I do as a Music Producer. It is important to note that I am also the Recording Engineer and Mixer on all of my productions.
Below is a list of most, but not all, of the duties that are required of me:
- Receive artists’ demo tapes and determine whether or not I would be a good fit for this particular artist.
- Help the artist choose the songs that will be on the record.
- Work with the artist on song arrangements (i.e., if the chorus needs come sooner or if the bridge should be longer or if the solo is too long, etc.)
- Work with the artist on production arrangements .(i.e. Should there be strings on this song? Should there be electric guitar or acoustic guitar or both? Should the song be dreamy and ethereal or punchy and in your face, etc.)
- Help the artist choose the appropriate musicians to cut the record with (if the artist is not a band).
- Submit a budget to whoever is financing the record (individual or record label, etc.)
- Confirm that the funds actually exist and are ready to be dispersed.
- Determine the best location to cut the record (meaning what city).
- Determine the best studio to cut the record in.
- Determine the schedule and book the musicians and studio.
- Track the record. (This can take anywhere from five or six days to five or six months. For big records, we usually spend about three weeks in the tracking room.)
- Mix the record.
- Help the artist determine the sequence of the songs.
- Master the record and prepare it for release.
In music production, you wear multiple hats. It also depends on what genre you’re working in. Typically, like in a rap or hip-hop session, the Producer might be the guy who’s making the beats as much as playing the instruments and building tracks.
In country music or rock music, the Producer is the person who runs the session in terms of picking the studio, the players, the artist’s songs. They might do the arrangements–kind of like the final say on performances. That can change by the artist, too, so it’s not really anything that’s set in stone, and it’s changed over the years. It’s always morphing and changing a little bit.
And like I said, it depends on the artist. Some artists want the Producer to make all the decisions, and then some artists are very heavy-handed and make a lot of decisions, and the Producer helps them achieve that.
In my case, which is pretty unique, I travel the world, working with the heirs of iconic musicians of the past, and visiting recording archives. My goal is to identify great recordings that have never been issued before. Once I’ve found something interesting, something that strikes me as worthy of being released, then I work to arrange for the release of the material on LP, CD, and digital formats.
I’m a music lover and collector first and foremost. I have been into jazz since my teenage years. I have had lots of different experiences in my nearly 30-year music career and I’ve been proud to carry these experiences with me on my journey.
The term Music Producer has a lot of different meanings to different people. In the days when records were predominantly recordings of musicians playing or singing in a studio setting, it meant someone who conceives of a recording — selecting musicians and repertoire — who finds a label to put it out and then supervises the recording sessions. In recent years, with the advent of digital productions that are more heavily focused on electronics, the term, Producer, has often been viewed as more of a DJ figure or Engineer whose expertise is more in digitally manipulating sounds and beats.
I should note, both of these rely heavily on the Producer’s repertoire sense. There’s no such thing as a great record without a great song, just like there’s no such thing as a great movie without a great script. Whether the final product is a recording of live music or a digital sound creation, the Producer will necessarily be someone who puts together the deals with the artists and the labels involved.
Long story short, there are all sorts of different things a Music Producer can and does do. In many ways, people can determine their own paths to becoming a Music Producer based on their interests and strengths.
According to Glassdoor.com, Music Producers make approximately $55,900 annually. The salary range runs from $39,000 to $78,000.
How much does a Music Producer make annually?
Producers make between zero and tens of millions of dollars. I’m not being oblique. There is no way to answer that question.
But I can tell you that over my thirty-six year history in this business, my income would be averaged between $70,000 to $130,000 per year. Some years I made far less than $70k but I have never brought in more than $130k in a single year. The first decade of my career, I was lucky to earn $15-20,000 per year.
You need to be open and amicable to all the different ways there are to be paid for what you do, whether it’s with money or something else. There’s no guarantee of any range of money.
It also depends where you live–how big the music scene is and what genres you’re working in. You’ll often have one or two other jobs as you’re beginning your career in the music business. There’s nothing easy about it. There are no guarantees to any part of it.
This isn’t like being a Doctor or a Teacher. You’re self-employed. There are so many things about the music business that are different from other businesses.
You’ll easily work over 40 hours a week no matter what level you’re at. No matter if you’re just starting out or if you’re at the top of your game like super Producers Mark Ronson or T Bone Burnett…Those guys don’t do just 40-hour weeks. Certainly, they can afford to take vacations, but when they’re working, they’re working long and hard. And there’s no overtime.
The thing about starting out in the music business is that you’re wearing multiple hats. I’m not always producing. I might be mixing, engineering or songwriting. If you’re co-writing a song with somebody, you’re not getting paid to do that. The song might never come out, so you never see anything of it. But the song might come out, be a hit, and then years later you actually see some money from it. Or you might do a record for free just to help someone out and get your feet wet. Years later, they might call you to do another album, and then you’ll get paid for that one.
Even when you work on a larger budgeted album, sometimes it takes six to eight months to get paid after the project. It’s not like when you have a Plumber come, and you pay them right when they’re done with their job. Sometimes it’s weeks or months later that you get paid, or there are jobs you do for free with the hope that you get paid to do the next one.
It all depends on the company you work for and what kinds of projects they’re working on. It can vary greatly. But it shouldn’t be about the money. If someone asked me for a job and was only concerned about the money, I wouldn’t hire them unless they were already successful (and in a case like that, I’d probably have approached them, not the other way around).
But if it were a Producer just starting out who asked me about money, I would turn tables on them and say, “How much would you pay to do the job?” For me, I love it so much I would pay to have the opportunity to do what I do.
If you’re in this job seeking big money, you’re in the wrong field. Things naturally progress over time, and you’ll get promotions along the way and build a career, but if you’re always looking for the next business move instead of concentrating on the music, you’re never going to feel fulfilled.
How hard is it to become a Music Producer?
It’s extremely hard. It’s hard to do anything in music. It has to be your number one love. Studio recording is not only my job but also my favorite thing to do.
Obviously, I do other things for fun, but this has somewhat consumed me. I’m not at all complaining about that. I think about how a lot of people will work a nine-to-five job so they can go do something fun on the weekend, but the music business is not that. It’s not a nine-to-five job.
Sometimes you work through the night. Sometimes you work months without a day off. It’s because you love what you do. If this isn’t 100 percent your passion, it’s probably not the right thing for you.
There’s no clear-cut path. There are no footsteps you can follow. There’s no trail to get where you want to get. It’s different for everybody. There’s luck, where you’re located, how talented you are, et cetera. There’s no easy path or even hard path that you can just start walking.
You’ve just got to figure it out and really go for it. Throw yourself out there. Work hard because there’s always someone better than you, and even if someone’s not, they’re working harder than you.
It was very hard to become a Producer. I worked 10-15 hours a day for very little pay and no health insurance.
It is different now. You almost have to start in a university music program because the recording world is mostly digital and all Producers have to be well-versed with recording platforms (Pro-Tools, Logic, etc.) I started in a simpler time.
You have to make a name for yourself and be able to prove yourself. For me, it wasn’t easy. Since my experience up until that point had me only working in the sales and marketing divisions of the companies I worked for; at those companies, I had no way of being able to work on an actual production. It wasn’t interchangeable between the sides. If you worked in sales and marketing, you don’t work on productions.
So when George Klabin gave me the opportunity to produce projects for Resonance, I jumped at the chance. I enjoy my job so much it doesn’t even feel like work for me. But it is hard. So many people dream of being a Producer and there’s a lot of competition. If being a Music Producer is your goal, then first, you have to identify what you have to offer as a Producer.
And you have to constantly be looking for opportunities, you have to find ways to meet people in the business and when you meet them, you have to have something to show them that will be impressive. Above all, you have to be tenacious and believe in yourself.
How do you become a Music Producer?
I became a Music Producer by first becoming a Recording Engineer — not everyone enters production this way. Some Producers are artists and/or Writers and approached production from that angle.
When I began my career back in the 1980s, there were no recording schools or universities with music production programs. You had to start in a studio as a Runner — in my case as the cleaning lady — and learn the trade the old-fashioned way.
It is important to remember that back then, there was no such thing as digital recording and no one had studios set up in their homes—there was no internet. It was an analog world.
There’s not just one way to become a Music Producer. A lot of times Producers are musicians, but for me, my entrance was a little different than for most. I’ve always had passion for music, and dreamed about making records, but never knew how to get there. I spent the first 14 years of my career in music as a Sales and Marketing Executive, dealing with merchandising records to end up in the retail marketplace.
In 2009, I began working with George Klabin at Resonance Records. Mr. Klabin was surprised to hear that I had never produced records before, considering that I had such a deep knowledge of music history. He made me a proposition: if I could find music that had not been out before and he liked it, he’d allow me to produce it for the company.
I did a lot of research finding individuals who inhabited this world of archival jazz recordings, and it was propelled by my self-interest. Again, these were things I had dreamed about, but didn’t know how to get there.
I got into music playing guitar, and playing guitar got me into the studio one day. When I saw the guy recording everything, I immediately knew that’s what I wanted to do. Then I became a Recording Engineer, interned, and worked my way up.
As you are working in the studio recording, you work with different Producers. Bands would bring in Producers, or they wouldn’t bring in a Producer, and you realize how important a Producer can be. There are times when the artist is doing everything themselves, and they don’t need a Producer. I saw all that.
For a long time, I actually had no interest in producing. I just really liked recording, but it got asked of me more and more. Then there were times where someone didn’t have a Producer, but they obviously needed someone to have their back in the way a Producer would, so I would step in that role.
Now I get called for that just as much as I get called for engineering, and usually, when I’m producing, I’m also engineering.
How long does it take to become a Music Producer?
Again, there’s no exact answer for this question either. In my case, it took a long time — about 15 years — since I had started out on the sales and marketing side of the business. I had never worked on an actual album before then. But everyone has their own trajectory.
It took me ten years to go from an Assistant Engineer to the Lead Engineer and another ten years before I started producing records.
I don’t think you’ll ever wake up one day and go, “I’ve learned enough to be a Producer now.” A lot of times you throw yourself into the fire or you get thrown into the fire, and that never goes away even once you’ve established a career. You still need to continually push yourself and learn new things.
You’ll never stop learning. Hopefully, you never stop paying attention, and you grow as well as your career. I learn something new at every session. You can’t cookie-cut a production and apply it to different artists. With every artist, record, or even individual song, you need to approach it differently. Sometimes you don’t find that out until you’re a couple days into a session.
I still love recording and working with other Producers because I see what I like and don’t like about how different people approach different things. You can apply that to your own workflow.
You really need to be a people person. You really need to be a good listener. And you really need to gain people’s trust and make them feel at ease.
You can know Pro Tools inside and out, have perfect pitch, or know every bit of music theory there is, but if people don’t enjoy being around you or trust you–or you don’t know how to talk to people–you won’t get called.
Experience & Skills
What skills does a Music Producer need?
- Playing an instrument
- Writing music
- Studio engineering
- Time management
- People skills
Education & Training
Do Music Producers go to school?
Some are self-taught. However, music school will help you learn the best way to use recording software like DAWs and VST plugins, get a handle on the business side of the music business, and make industry connections.
These days, colleges, universities, and trade schools across the country offer degree programs in music production and recording.
What else do you think aspiring Producers should know?
The great thing about the music business is that–because the money isn’t great or guaranteed–most everyone is in it because they absolutely love what they do. In our business, that is awesome because you’re helping to make people’s dreams come true. It’s an amazing good karma thing. You build up these amazing relationships in short periods of time, and most gigs come by word of mouth. It’s artists who enjoyed working with you who tell the next person about you.
The best advice I can give is to do your best on every single thing you can, and say yes to as much as you can. Be the best person you can be at all those gigs because you never know when the one gig you do for free turns into something big or who was at that gig who’ll call you later. And the more you can leave ego out of this job, the better you’ll be for it.
If you go to Nashville, pretty much every major label has offices there. There are Songwriters, Publishers, Managers, and Booking Agents. It’s the same in L.A. and New York. Those are great places to go to get into multiple areas of the business, but they’re also oversaturated with so many people with the same dream. Whereas in a city like Memphis, there’s much less of the business side, so it’s people who just do what they love. But it’s also a harder path to get to higher levels of the business.
Also, the business is different nowadays than it used to be. The Producer wasn’t the Recording Engineer, but now it’s very normal for a Producer to be hands-on in the studio. Music Producers need to know Pro Tools and the technical side of the business as well.
The best place someone can go to learn is The Blackbird Academy in Nashville. It’s run by Mark Rubel. It’s a six-month course, but they do even two-week classes for high school students. Students can go for two weeks and see if they still want to be an Engineer or Producer.
Then they can do the six-month course. They’ll be in this huge studio where they might run into Kenny Chesney or Kings of Leon. They all record in this studio, and students get to sit in on some of the sessions. They have amazing guest speakers and travel to other studios. It is one of the best schools you can go to. If working in a studio is specifically what you want to do, Blackbird is perfect. They’ll help find internships for you, too, if you work hard.
Then there are video series. There’s Puremix that shows the workflow of bigger Engineers. You can download multi-tracks from Green Day or someone else they’ve worked with. You can watch them mix it and play with the files.
But I think the problem sometimes with people who watch those websites is that they try to emulate these people. You need to find your own voice. But it’s good to watch multiple people and how they attack things.
If you want to become a Music Producer where would you start?
Start by learning how to use your DAW of choice. Once you’re feeling comfortable with the DAW, start producing your own tracks and tweaking those. Ask for feedback from your fellow musicians.
When you feel ready, it’s time to start looking for your first collaborators. Talk to them about their expectations and what they’re looking for sonically. Keep working together until both parties are satisfied.
Keep in mind, you might be working for free as you continue to hone your Producer skills. After you’ve built up enough confidence and experience, it’s time to set up a website and start spreading the word about your services in your local scene.
Try posting on Craigslist or putting up flyers at local music scene hangouts like record stores, practice studios, and music colleges.
Does a Music Producer make beats?
Nope! A Beat Maker makes beats. A Music Producer can make beats but that’s not their primary role and often isn’t even part of their artistry. Instead, Music Producers handle the creation of an album or song from beginning to end. They work with artists in the studio to put everything together — so they have a much more active and holistic much job than simply making dope beats.
Music Producers connect artists with Session Musicians, help artists get the production sound they desire, and have a hand in recording, mixing, and/or mastering.
How competitive is music production?
Music production is super competitive. With so many more students attending recording and production degree programs, there are now more qualified individuals than ever vying for success.
It can be tough to find an opening at a recording studio, if you’re looking for in-studio work, or to build up a reputation and work with enough successful artists to raise your profile. Music production is quickly becoming a career field akin to acting, singer, or playing an instrument — many people dream of “making it” in these careers but very few will actually become household names.
That said, you can build up your own clientele and make a living working in music production. You will have to hustle and you may have to diversify your income streams. Very few people can expect to become the next Max Martin or Calvin Harris.
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“’What is the biggest personal reward in producing?’
Seeing or hearing your name mentioned in association with a record you believed in and loved makes it all worthwhile. Everyone who works a ‘normal’ job and receives a paycheck every week also craves recognition for a job well done. We are human and full of emotional needs, regardless of the situation.”
Zev Feldman is an internationally recognized, independent Record Producer and the Co-President of Resonance Records in Los Angeles. He is also a Consulting Producer of archival and historical recordings for Blue Note Records. Over the last 25 years, he has worked for PolyGram, Universal Music Group, Rhino/Warner Music Group, Concord Music Group, among others. He won DownBeat Magazine‘s International Critics Poll for “Rising Star Producer” in 2016 for his work on a staggering 26 historical jazz recordings that year and was called “the Indiana Jones of jazz” by Stereophile Magazine.
In addition to his lauded work at Resonance, where he works closely with the estates of jazz icons such as Bill Evans and Wes Montgomery, he’s also involved with various other labels covering jazz, blues, and rock including Elemental Music, Sunset Blvd Records, Real Gone Music, Reel To Real Recordings and others.
Zev is one of the Co-producers of 2017’s highly acclaimed Thelonious Monk discovery, Les Liaisons Dangereuses on Sam and Saga Records, and another highly lauded Monk discovery, Palo Alto, from 2020 on Impulse! Records. Feldman is a native Washingtonian who grew up in the DC area, and is currently in Los Angeles where he’s resided for the last 15 years.
Photo credit: Zak Shelby-Szyszko
Matt Ross-Spang is a Grammy Award-winning Engineer, Mixer, and Producer. At the age of 16, Matt started as an Intern at the legendary Sun Studios and eventually worked his way up to Chief Engineer. During his time there, he endeavored to bring the recording studio back to its origin by finding, installing, and using the same period equipment that Sam Phillips engineered with in the 1950s. Matt and Sun were featured by Lester Holt for NBC’s Nightly News and the Today Show. NPR also highlighted his work on All Things Considered.
In 2015, Matt left Sun to venture out on his own as an Engineer and Producer. His first project was engineering and mixing Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free for acclaimed Producer Dave Cobb, which earned him his first Grammy. Around that time, Matt also engineered, mixed, and co-produced Margo Price’s debut album, Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter. Third Man Records released the record in 2016 to much critical acclaim.
Over the years, Matt’s worked with a variety of amazing artists, including John Prine, Jason Isbell, the Hi Rhythm Section, the Drive-By Truckers, Margo Price, Luther Dickinson, Lori McKenna, Anderson East, Elle King, Al Green, and more. In 2017, he engineered Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s critically-acclaimed and Grammy-nominated album, The Nashville Sound. He also co-produced and mixed Margo Price’s All-American Made. Matt’s home base is the newly renovated Studio B at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis, TN.
Trina Shoemaker was born in 1965 and raised in Joliet, Il., about 45 minutes southwest of Chicago. There was nothing she loved more than listening to her dad’s Hi-Fi stereo and comparing it with the other systems in the neighborhood. They were all good, some better than others. Her dad’s was the best and it was loud! By 13 Shoemaker knew she wanted to record albums, whatever that meant, and by 19, she had a little apartment in Los Angeles and an entry-level job at Capitol Records.
It would be a long road finding her way to a console. Her rather circuitous route to recording began in a basement studio in a London flat with artist Hugh Harris, then wound through Rancho De La Luna in Joshua Tree, and further on down to the Mississippi River Delta, where she began by cleaning studios in New Orleans. Eventually, she found her way to Kingsway, Daniel Lanois’ famed studio in the French Quarter where she was hired as a Tape Op and Second Engineer in 1991 and quickly became the House Engineer.
During those early Kingsway years, Shoemaker worked on Iggy Pop’s American Ceasar, The Throwing Muses University, Giant Sand’s Glum and Emmylou Harris’ iconic Wrecking Ball, among many others. In 1995, after completing Wrecking Ball, Shoemaker decided to leave Kingsway and strike out on her own. Within a few months she was hired by Sheryl Crow and over the next year recorded Crow’s breakout self-titled album featuring the hit songs “If It Makes You Happy” and “Everyday Is A Winding Road”.
They followed it up with The Globe Sessions in 1998 with Shoemaker winning two Grammy Awards® for Rock Album Of The Year and Best Engineered Album Non-Classical, making her the first woman to win the latter. During the late ’90s and early 2000s, she recorded Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia at Dreamland in the Catskills, Queens Of The Stone Age’s Rated R at Sound City in Los Angeles, Victoria Williams’ Musings Of A Creek Dipper in Joshua Tree and Something For Kate’s Echolalia in Australia.
In 2001, Shoemaker and Crow reunited for her fourth studio album C’Mon C’Mon, where Shoemaker was once again nominated for the Best Engineered Album Grammy Award®. In 2003, Shoemaker mixed several tracks for The Dixie Chicks and in 2004 she won her third Grammy Award® for her work on Steven Curtis Chapman’s album All Things New.
After Shoemaker lost her New Orleans home during Hurricane Katrina, she moved to Nashville along with her husband and 7-month old son. During her 5 years in Nashville, she produced, engineered, and mixed dozens of albums including Sunset Man by James Otto, which featured the #1 Billboard Country hit “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”. In 2010, Shoemaker and her family moved back down to the Gulf Coast where she built a mix room at her home and partnered with Jake and Luke Peavy, opening Dauphin Street Productions.
Trina was again nominated for Best Engineered Album Non-Classical in the 2013 Grammy Awards® for the album The Moorings by Andrew Duhon, in 2015 with Brandi Carlile’s Firewatcher’s Daughter (Best Americana Album), in 2017 with The Secret Sisters’ You Don’t Own Me Anymore (Best Folk Album), and took home her 4th Grammy® Award in 2020 for Tanya Tucker’s While I’m Living (Best Country Album).
Trina lives with her husband, musician Grayson Capps, their son Waylon, and a mess of dogs, cats, and horses on Mobile Bay in Fairhope, Alabama.