How To Become a Music Producer
What Exactly Does a Music Producer Do?
Music Producers write, arrange, produce, and record songs, whether they’re shaping the sound of another artist’s album or creating beats or songs for their own projects. With the growth of home recording technology and boutique recording studios, many Producers find themselves pulling double or triple duty as Studio Owners and Sound Engineers, as does the Rattle Room’s Jaron Luksa. 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.”
Production is an extremely competitive field, and advancement comes as a Producer builds and diversifies his or her skill set or works with more prestigious artists. Some begin their careers while working out of a home studio before generating a buzz and being invited to work on big budget projects. Luksa puts it this way. “Lots of little kids dream of being star athletes, but they’re more likely to win the lottery. 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.“
Education & Training
“Yes, 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, btw pretty much involves eating cereal and watching a stupid amount of YouTube videos on “how to” in pajamas.”
What skills do you need to be a Music Producer?
When it comes to necessary experience and skills, Luksa says, “there is no right path or specific skill set that will make you a great Producer. 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!”
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.
So what kind of person would be successful as a Producer? Luksa says the ideal candidate is “organized, assertive, artistic and a great communicator. Someone who can lead the pack and rule with love, even when getting evil with some Norwegian death metal band. In the studio or rehearsals, artists look to you for answers, so you need to be thick-skinned and even-keeled. 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.“
Working as a Producer 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…nope 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.”
So how does an aspiring Producer land that first gig? Obviously, it isn’t as straightforward as submitting an application or a resume. It’s about taking advantage of networking and learning opportunities. Luksa says, “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.”
Luksa started gaining experience early on. He says, “I attended Berklee’s Music Production and Engineering program, interned with a bunch of Live Sound Engineers and was offered a job mixing monitors for a Live Nation venue in Boston (Axis). 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 Much Does a Music Producer make?
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 up front! 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.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
Producers aren’t unionized, but networking and community are vital for success. Luksa advises fledgling Producers 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. You don’t have to buy those records, but give them a listen. I really dig Sound On Sound, Tape Op, Mix Magazine, and Gear Slutz forums (especially when I have software or hardware questions).”
- “Find an artist and start, even if you have to do it for free. 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.”
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?
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.
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.”
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, and Dustin Boden and the Grownup Noise.
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). You can take a behind-the-scenes tour of his studio setup through Vintage King’s Make Your Mark series.