How To Become a Music Producer
Music Producers work in the recording studio to help artists create albums. This means more than just recording and polishing the music. Many also write and arrange tracks.
In this article, Producer/Engineer Jaron Luksa helps us understand a bit more about his role. He knows his stuff. He has worked with John Legend, Amanda Palmer, and Foster the People.
He says, “I am responsible for every aspect of my business and it’s definitely not all rock ‘n’ roll glory. A typical day for me starts with checking my Producer notes, prepping the studio and checking gear functionality. If something is broken, I’d rather have a fix or workaround figured out before anyone is in the space.
“Once the client shows up, I want my attention 100% on the artist and the music creation process. Nothing else comes first. I usually work for about 10-12 hours with lots of ear and mental breaks worked in throughout the day. While on a break, I am usually attending to phone calls, emails, texts, social media, and even accounting.
“There is a lot of work that goes into being a Producer outside of the studio such as attending rehearsals, meetings, writing sessions, and going out to shows. Social media has given me the ability to connect with more artists than ever, but in-person interaction will never be replaced. Half of producing is the music, the rest is sales…and I am the product I push.”
According to Glassdoor.com, Music Producers make approximately $55,900 annually. The salary range runs from $39,000 to $78,000.
Luksa says, “I’d say starting salary is hard to nail down. In bigger cities and music industry hotspots, the money is a little better for a per track rate, but the more you work and the more ‘at-bats’ you get, the more likely you are to have a record ‘make it’ and end up with more business.
“When looking at ways you can earn money as a Producer, take my advice and get paid upfront! Create a simple Producer’s Agreement with a Lawyer that you can edit and use over and over. (It’ll be the best $500 you ever spent.)
“Don’t waste time with points and backend troubles, you won’t see that cash anyway. If you help write songs or hooks, figure out your writers and/or publishing split for that song and confirm it via email with other Writers until a formal split sheet is created and signed. That is the backend you should be concerned with.”
Working in music production can be time-consuming, with late hours, long days in the studio, and a constant scramble to get paid work—at least when getting started.
Luksa advises, “When you first start, take any gig you can at the drop of a hat. Date with the significant other planned? Guess what, canceled. Going snowboarding with friends…not taking the call. It will suck at first, but the real people who support your dream will understand and love you regardless.
“Let other Producers [be the ones] being flakes or screwing up, [this can] be a good opportunity to prove yourself. If you become dependable, clients will start calling you first. Half the battle is just being the individual to get the job done in a timely manner. After a few years, you can start booking yourself some normal hours.
“I try to work from 10 am to 10 pm and take the weekends off, but it doesn’t always work out that way. The associated stress isn’t for the faint of heart, but it does have great perks. Working in the music industry immerses you in an environment of art and culture, allows traveling or vacationing whenever and however much you want.
“I always have backstage access and attend lots of fun events by invite. Ultimately this environment will change and shape your future, and if you are any good, you will affect the musical environment around you.”
Is it hard to become a Music Producer?
Production is an extremely competitive field. To get ahead, you need to diversify your skill set.
“Lots of little kids dream of being star athletes, but they’re more likely to win the lottery,” Luksa says. “The music industry has a similar statistical likelihood for artists and all us production folks trying to reach the top. I think Producers need to be realistic about the current and evolving state of the music industry.
“The game has changed and you have to be more than just a Producer nowadays. So many of my peers not only produce but play on records, write, engineer, DJ, program tracks or function as artists themselves to pay the bills. You have to ask yourself the question, ‘what kind of records do I want to produce?’ because you need to be in love with the work.
“There is no guaranteed financial success. Competition is crazier than ever and the current demand for free content doesn’t help. You need to pick this line of work because you refuse to do anything else. It’s a hustle, and you are constantly looking for the next gig, even while working on a current project.”
How long does it take to become a Music Producer?
Basically, it’ll take several years. You’ll learn the technical skills you need within a 2-4 year music school program but it’ll still take some time after that to connect with musicians in your area and build up a clientele. Luksa says it took him about six years to move from his early career doing live sound mixing to a music production studio setting.
His path went like this:
“I think [for] my 10th show, I ended up mixing monitors for a Bon Jovi acoustic show/live radio broadcast. My interaction with the band and Jon was professional and I didn’t screw up. After the show, I realized ‘I know what I am doing…I can hang!’ For the next 6 years, I was mixing live and interacting with all these bands on a nightly basis.
“After the shows I mixed, I would approach the best local bands opening for the national headliners and ask them to take me into the studio to make records (I told you… it’s a hustle and I figured out my angle). I became part of a scene and networked my ass off to find clients who would pay me to go into the studio with them.
“I guess that’s how I broke in. That was a good 12 years ago. Fast-forward, I have toured around the world as a Live Sound Engineer and Tour Manager for some amazing artists and built a studio, The Rattle Room, where I produce and engineer all kinds of music. Oh, and I still cruise on a tour bus and do the Rock Star thing once in a while.”
How can I be a Music Producer?
Work on your music production skills. Record your friends’ bands. Intern. Connect with other music recording professionals and offer your time.
Luksa shares some advice shared with him by legendary Nirvana/Smashing Pumpkins Producer Butch Vig: “A few years back while I was still in school, Butch Vig was quietly standing backstage at Avalon in Boston. He had performed with Garbage. I was working production but snuck over and kindly asked this same question you posed here.
“Butch told me that he and some friends got a place and gear to track some punk bands and make records. The rule was that bands supplied beer as payment. It worked because a lot of bands showed up.”
“Find an artist and start, even if you have to do it for free,” Luksa suggests. “Trial by fire is the best way to get your hands dirty. You will learn more from your mistakes than your successes. This applies to not only creating the music but the business aspect as well.”
Experience & Skills
What skills does a Music Producer need?
- Playing an instrument
- Writing music
- Studio engineering
- Time management
- People skills
“Some folks will get into producing by way of helping a friend record while playing/writing on said record, others will just be crushing tracks out of their bedroom and word gets around, while others might come to produce because they are engineering and start helping bands get through the tracking process. There is no one single magic solution to launching your career as a Producer. Play off your strengths and fake the rest!” Luksa says.
The two things that are essential are passion and a diverse skill set. He says, “As a Producer, I contribute with engineering, playing, writing, arranging and creative guru skills. I approach listening to songs, bands, and artists from a fan’s perspective. I aurally digest music CONSTANTLY.
“If a great track comes on, I get a rush of dopamine from my brain. I truly am a music junkie. That being said, I think it comes down to my tastes and how I am able to listen to music like a multitrack machine, focusing in on each element at will.
“I can objectively give feedback to the artist, regardless of what I would do or my musical influences. I try and produce according to that project’s genre and most importantly who the artist is artistically and how I think fans might react.
Can anyone be a Music Producer?
According to Luksa, the type of person who’d do well in music production is:
- A great communicator
- A leader
He adds, “Artists bring enough drama, insecurity, and emotion into the sessions; [there’s] no need to add your baggage, so keep your BS and ego at home.“
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.
“Formal music education is a must (know the rules before you break ’em),” Luksa says. “This industry runs at lightning speed as far as technology goes, so learn the basics from trade schools, or music schools with recording arts/music engineering and production programs.
As you learn to use new gear or software, you can use that formal education as a platform to grow on. Next, apprentice with someone who is respected in the part of the industry you want to work in. You need to follow production trends and methods. Which, by the way pretty much involves eating cereal and watching a stupid amount of YouTube videos on “how to” in pajamas.”
Music production professionals aren’t unionized, but networking and community are vital for success. Luksa advises up-and-comers to “register with a PRO [Publishing Rights Organization] so you are prepared for writing and publishing royalty collection.
“Go out to shows and become part of your local scene, make friends and create contacts with Session Musicians, other Engineers, and Producers. Keep that part grassroots.”
Online, he says, “There are so many resources out there, it just depends on the music and scene you want to be a part of. Stick to where your clients might hang their interactive selves or follow other Record Producers or Engineers you respect. Always follow trends within your project’s marketing demographic via Billboard or other reporting.
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 single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Be yourself and go with your gut. This is art. It should be fun, inspiring and just fly by the seat of your pants crazy. Go make real music!!! If it catches on like Amy Winehouse, Black Keys, Jack White, Adele, Liam Bailey, etc., then you actually served a purpose in producing real art and we need more of that.
“Back in the day, we had music industry gurus that decided what was good music and what people should listen to on the radio. Unfortunately, those folks have all left this earth or stopped making records. Even worse, they have been replaced by marketing and accounting personnel.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“We don’t need more Producers making tracks for pop bands. The sounds have become so uniform, I can’t even hear a voice or any resemblance of artistry on the track. To be honest, I can’t even distinguish who it is sometimes. If your plan is to make ‘hits,’ realize that you are making the Coca-Cola of music.
“It has to appeal to the largest audience possible and ends up pretty bland. That’s not to say that there isn’t good pop music, but the pop market is so oversaturated. No one buys that music anyhow and the record companies have had to shift how they make money. The big record companies serve the purpose of content creation for commercial applications, selling movies, soda, cars, and other products.
“It’s just not my bag because I care about the music more than the money. I’m not trying to put down the folks who do this work, I just want to inspire more people to produce out of love, not for the bling.”
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.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“Who is my favorite Producer or who do I look up to?
“Rick Rubin. The dude is a big weirdo, but he launched a hip-hop scene, produced true gems like Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, created a record label that supported huge acts like Slayer and System Of A Down, revived careers of bands like The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Johnny Cash, Black Sabbath, and Metallica.
“I feel he is one of the last Producer/label/A&R people that can create with a sense of artistic integrity and still achieve commercial success.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Jaron Luksa is a Music Producer and Sound Engineer who owns the Rattle Room, a private professional recording studio in Burbank, CA. His recent studio engineering and producing credits include John Legend, Amanda Palmer, Fifth Harmony, Foster The People, Andra Day, Zoe Boekbinder, The Gitas, Space Lemon, and Dustin Boden and the Grownup Noise. You can check out Luksa’s discography via Discogs and Genius.com.
A classically trained percussionist, he studied Music Production and Sound Engineering at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
He has also provided live sound and/or toured with The Dresden Dolls (Monitor or FOH Engineer and Tour Manager), Angelique Kidjo (Monitor Engineer), Secret Machines (Tour Manager and FOH), Amanda Palmer (Tour Manager and Monitor Engineer), Zoe Keating (FOH Engineer), Margaret Cho (Tour Manager), Collective Soul (FOH or Monitor Engineer), Connor Oberst (Monitor Engineer), Dawes (Monitor Engineer), Alabama Shakes (Monitor Engineer), and Barns Courtney (Sound Engineer). He served as Audio Mixer for the mini-documentary An Evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer.
You can take a behind-the-scenes tour of his studio setup through Vintage King’s Make Your Mark series, with video tours via Daily Motion and Vimeo. You can also read more about Luksa and his studio via Fast and Wide and Pro Sound Network.