How To Become a Music Producer
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Music Producers, also called Record Producers, bring the vision of a recording to life. Producers are responsible for determining and leading the creative and technical aspects of recordings, whether for a single song, an album, or a soundtrack.
There are many kinds of Producers. The Executive Producer secures and manages the budget while overseeing the entire project using an entrepreneurial approach. Record Producers typically work in the studio with artists, musicians, and Audio Engineers to create and sonically shape the finished tracks. They might help choose or even write the music, hire the musicians, book the studio, manage the schedule, and coordinate the many details required to move the recording forward to completion.
Other types of Producers include Vocal Producers, who coach Vocalists to give their best performance, arrange music for Vocalists, and sometimes even sing on tracks. Some Producers are also Songwriters or Composers who produce music for themselves or for others. They might also work as Co-Producer, engineer, and perform on recordings.
A Producer could be independent or be employed by a company working on music for use in advertising, film, live shows, or for release through a record label with distribution. Some Producers are familiar names while others work behind the scenes and are not well-known by the public. Producers work in every genre of music and may specialize in one or in many styles. There are as many types of Producers as there are people doing it, and there are many successful Producers making a name for themselves in the music industry today.
Over the past years, there’s been an increasing interest in music production and in people wanting to learn how to produce music. There are many career opportunities available to talented and skilled Music Producers. To learn what it’s really like to work with artists in the 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 does a Music Producer do?
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 producing, 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.
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.
Can anyone be a music producer?
If you are physically and mentally capable of using recording equipment and playing an instrument, you can be a music producer. You just need a clear plan forward, the basic equipment, and a way to find clients and you can start building your career as a producer.
The most successful Music Producers can earn tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. They collect recurring royalties from the master rights to their recordings, which is a separate copyright from the song or composition. (For more on music licensing and recording copyrights, see our blog here.) Producers of hit songs can also command high fees for their time and services to an artist or client. There are Producers who will work on a project fee-only basis (called “work-for-hire”) but most Producers will keep some ownership of their recordings so they can collect royalties if the song turns out to be a hit.
Without exception, the most successful Producers didn’t start out earning millions of dollars and commanding high fees. They had to prove themselves first and become well-known in the music industry. For example, in 1982 music legend Quincy Jones produced the best-selling album of all time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and today he is worth about a half-billion dollars. He didn’t start out that way, of course.
After attending Berklee College of Music in Boston during the 1950s, he worked as a Jazz Arranger and Trumpeter for various bandleaders, including Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Gene Krupa, and others. He even played trumpet in the studio recording orchestra backing up Elvis Presley. Then he formed his own 18-piece jazz group and toured across Europe to glowing reviews and accolades, but went broke in the process, since the budgets couldn’t support such a large group.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that Jones achieved the first of his big breaks as a Producer, becoming the first African American Vice-President of the Mercury record label. He went on to produce many legendary recordings for artists such as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, and Dinah Washington. Later he also produced music for major Hollywood soundtracks, TV shows, and film musicals like The Color Purple, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and The Wiz, respectively. He also produced the 1985 mega-hit song featuring most of the top music stars of the time, “We Are The World,” to raise money for victims of a deadly famine in Ethiopia.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are teenagers who start out making recordings on laptops in their bedroom, learning to produce quality music before taking on any paying clients. This is now possible thanks to recording software which can accomplish on a single computer what used to require a fully outfitted recording studio. (To learn how to set up your own home recording studio, see our blog here.)
In the beginning, it’s most important to collaborate with other musicians to create a portfolio of quality work to show prospective clients. These clients will most likely be other artists or perhaps Songwriters who also need to build a portfolio of their own work. This means the budgets will usually be small or even non-existent.
Beginning Producers should strive to work as much as possible so they can build their skills and their networks. Taking pride in the work by making it as good as it possibly can be is one key strategy to increase earnings. There are many Producers earning their living producing music right now, so it is certainly possible to make money as a Music Producer. Earning larger sums of money depends on building an ever-expanding circle of music clients and collaborators, while continuously improving one’s skills and quality of work.
(According to Glassdoor.com, Music Producers make approximately $55,900 annually. However, top Producers like Max Martin can take home upwards of $19 million annually.)
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 do music producers get paid?
The two main ways a music producer gets paid are from an upfront fee and from backend royalties. Depending on your experience and skill as a producer, you can charge an upfront fee of anywhere from $200 to thousands of dollars per song. Additionally, you can ask for a percentage of the publishing rights, which would earn you performance and mechanical royalties. Your cut of the royalties can vary widely, but it’s common to get 3-4% of the royalties of a song you produced. To collect these royalties, you need to be registered with a Performance Rights Organization and a publishing admin company (which should partner with the Mechanical Licensing Collective for mechanical royalties).
Becoming a Music Producer potentially could lead to a terrific career. People who are passionate about music and technology can build and sustain a viable career over time. It’s not something that’s likely to happen overnight, however. Being dedicated and serious about producing the best work possible will go a long way toward sustaining an active and growing career in any facet of the music industry, including music production. Students interested in pursuing a career as a Music Producer are advised to study up on all that’s involved, including the creative and technical aspects, as well as learning how the music business works.
The good news is that there will always be a strong demand for talented and skilled Music Producers because there is always going to be a need for new music. Audiences and fans are never content to just listen to the songs from yesteryear, and there will always be new up-and-coming artists who need a Producer to help them realize their artistic and career ambitions.
Since a Producer has so much input into the sound of the final recording, the role is important to shaping the vision for the creative process, which can be a source of great personal artistic satisfaction. The goal of a Music Producer is to produce music that sounds good to their own ears, in the hope that others will also like it. A successful Producer is a skilled team leader, able to pull people together to achieve great things.
Having an active network comprised of other music industry professionals is an important aspect of building a solid career as a Music Producer. Building such a network takes time and effort, but is well-worth the trouble since it’s how most Producers find their work. One almost never sees a job advertised for Music Producers, so the great majority of opportunities come through having a solid network in place.
Most chances Producers get to work come through word-of-mouth. One way to learn more about the industry and role of a Producer while broadening your network is to join professional associations and attend conferences and events. The Audio Engineering Society (A.E.S.) and The Recording Academy (GRAMMYs) are good places to start.
Another way Producers get their work and increase their network is by hanging out where musicians congregate. Usually, this means being in a large city, or perhaps being enrolled in a college or university program. Visiting clubs where musicians and bands perform, finding jam sessions or coffeehouses where musicians congregate, and playing an instrument or singing in a band are great ways to get introduced to musicians and aspiring artists who may need a Producer.
Another great way to both learn and get work is by interning or apprenticing with an established Producer or at a recording studio or record label. There are also professional musicians working in church and community organizations. A Producer can sometimes make great working connections just by being around other musicians, making new friends.
While the outlook for Music Producers is very good, there is much competition, since many people want to become Music Producers. This means the Producer starting out in their career will need to be persistent and work hard to acquire the necessary skills and contacts to make it in the industry.
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.
Do producers own masters?
Producers don’t typically own 100% of the master rights of a recorded song or anywhere near that percentage. It’s common for a producer to get a much smaller percentage of the publishing rights to a song they produced, usually 3-4%. So technically, producers do have part ownership of a master, but it’s not enough ownership to have any say in where the artist or label wants to publish the song.
Many musicians further their journey of becoming a Producer by enrolling in a college or university music program, and there are many excellent programs available for aspiring Producers. Studying music is strongly recommended since it provides a foundation for understanding everything required to learn music production.
There are both undergraduate and graduate-level programs in music production offered all around the US one could choose from. If music school isn’t in the cards, studying privately with someone, learning an instrument, and getting familiar with using Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software would be a good career entry point. It’s important to be able to play an instrument (voice is also considered an instrument) and know music theory to fully understand the creative process involved with making music.
Whether recording acoustic instruments or using synthesizers to create new and unusual sounds, future Record Producers should be experimenting with the recording process daily. The more time spent “fooling around” and learning to create and record music, the quicker the needed skills and knowledge can be acquired and assimilated. Besides, it’s fun! Once a good skills level has been reached, a new Producer should begin offering their services to other musicians, even if for free at first.
As with any aspect of the arts as a career, there’s a place to start, and unless one is exceptionally lucky, they won’t be earning huge money right out of the gate. The important thing at outset is to affiliate and collaborate with other musicians to get a foot in the door of this exciting industry. Most artists, including Producers, must support themselves with a “day job” when starting out. The important thing is that a day job should pay living costs and be flexible enough, while not being so demanding or tiring that it leaves no time and energy for producing music.
Once a Producer has a certain amount of experience and has built up a good portfolio, they can begin to pursue better and more lucrative opportunities. While some people never get out of the day job routine (maybe because they like it or need benefits like retirement accounts and health insurance) many Producers can usually transition to full-time work in music within a few years of starting out.
From there, having a strong professional network that is always getting bigger is the key to getting really great opportunities. Building up a catalog of works, establishing a career and reputation as a top-notch Music Producer by working hard and constantly improving, while at the same time finding new clients and collaborators, should be a full-time job at this stage.
Some Producers work for a record company in A&R, as an entrepreneurial music executive, or hold some other music industry job such as in publishing or music supervision. Or they may even become recording studio or live music venue owners. Some Producers work as DJs where they create original music and create live mixes at raves, clubs, and shows. Many Producers have gone on to start their own record labels. Good Producers, once established, will have the choice of a variety of industry roles.
There are many paths to success as a Music Producer; most of them are unique to the individual. It may be a challenge to map out a career path as a Producer in advance, but as time goes by it becomes easier to survey the landscape for openings while understanding and evaluating the available roles. Studying the career path of other successful Producers is a way to gain a deeper understanding of the career opportunities available to Producers, and to learn how to take advantage of those opportunities.
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.