Here are 14 important tips to consider when choosing a record producer. Not every point applies to both “signed” and independent recording artists, but this is information you can benefit from regardless of your status.
The most important thing to a musician is the music you create.
You’ll probably spend years developing a distinctive sound and style before finally getting the opportunity to record your first album professionally. Be warned, all the hard work you’ve put into creating your sound may not be enough to create a successful record. Producing a great album is an art form in itself, and it will likely require the expertise of an experienced professional producer. A producer can actually make or break your career.
The right collaboration can take you to creative places you never imagined, but the wrong one can be a nightmare. Understanding a few things about how to choose the right record producer can therefore be vital to your career.
Below are 14 important tips to consider when choosing your record producer. Not every point applies to both “signed” and independent recording artists, but this is information you can benefit from regardless of your status.
1. Establish your needs
Before even thinking about looking for a producer, be crystal clear as to what you’re expecting to get out of the relationship. Do you have a well-defined vision of what you want your album to sound like, or are you going to rely on your producer’s insight? Are you a proficient vocalist and/or musician, or are you going to need assistance getting the right performances on tape? Knowing these things ahead of time is important for both you and your potential producer to know and agree upon at the outset.
2. Make a wish list
Once you understand what you’re looking for in a producer, begin making a wish list of at least five people with whom you’d like to work. This especially proves useful in the likely case that your first-choice producer is unavailable, too expensive, or simply uninterested in working with you. If you’re an unsigned artist, your choices are probably going to be limited to local producers and word-of-mouth recommendations.
Start out by asking some of the best independent artists in your area where their albums were recorded, and then listen to the production of these recordings to see what you think for yourself.
3. Record a demo
Demos are important, but the quality may not be as important as you think. Producer Tom Weir of Studio City Sound says, “Don’t worry about the quality of the demos you send to producers if you’re an unsigned artist. As long as you have decent songs and the money to compensate him or her for costs and services, your demos won’t be overly scrutinized.”
As for signed recording artists; they usually send the same demos that got them a label deal; which are typically good quality. Nevertheless, producers aren’t just enticed by demo quality, it’s the buzz about the band in the industry, the support the record company appears to be giving the group, and the songs the band writes.
4. Spend time
Once a producer has expressed an interest in working with you, it is extremely important to meet with him or her to review songs and to get a vibe for whether or not you can successfully work together.
Mikal Reid, producer for Ben Harper says, “It’s important that the artist gets a feeling of trust with a producer before ever choosing to work with him or her. Take the time to get to know your producer first so that there won’t be any surprises or conflicting situations in the studio later.”
5. Prepare questions
When meeting with the producer, get a feel for whether or not he or she truly ”gets” your vision by preparing a list of questions. Nard Berings of Freshbeat Productions in Venice, CA suggests, “Ask him or her what type of record he imagines you making. Will it be a slick, commercial-sounding album with a lot of sequencers and samplings, or raw and in-your-face? Does the producer imagine your band recording together in one room to achieve a more ‘live’ sounding record, or will the tracks be layered one musician at a time while using a click track?”
“If there are too many opposing opinions regarding how your album should be recorded,” indie artist A Girl Named Jaen concludes, “you’ll know right then that he or she may not be right for you. The last thing you want to do is to have the recording process turn sour mid-way through a project!”
6. Choose “right” before “might”
Don’t just pick a producer based on what he’s done, but rather on what he can do for you, advises Arif Mardin, who’s produced numerous big-name artists including Aretha Franklin, the Bee Gees, Chaka Chan, and Norah Jones. “Surely, a producer with platinum records on his walls proves he has talent,” sys Mardin, “but you don’t want to sound like his other hit artists; you want your record to be unique to you. That said, no matter how well-known a producer may be, never be intimidated to ask questions and voice your opinion when first meeting with him. Always remember that it’s your record you’re talking about, not the producer’s record.”
7. Check out the studio
Consider the vibe and technical aspects of the studio your producer suggests using by doing a walk-through. “The studio is where the artist is going to live” Arif Mardin stresses. “The comfort level of the lounge, whether there are televisions, whether there’s a coffee maker, etc., are all important factors to making a good record. At the same time, the artist must be willing to make compromises in these areas based on whether the studio sounds great, has great equipment, and is reasonably priced.”
Don’t forget these technical considerations: the size of room, the musical instruments available (Hammond B3, vintage drum kits), the recording gear (analog versus digital), the processing gear (i.e., the limiters and compressors which effect the sound and texture), and the collection of microphones. Lastly, make sure there’s a reliable source for which to back-up your digital recordings or otherwise they may be lost. “No matter how good the studio may be,” warns producer Tom Weir, “all systems eventually crash.”
8. Know expectations
It’s not only important to discuss the things you expect to get out of your producer, but also what your producer expects to get out of you. Producer Dave Darling says one of the major expectations he has for his artists once they make a commitment to working with him, is that they maintain the highest level of trust. “I like to push my artists to reach new creative heights and to get recorded performances they never thought possible. It’s hard work but it has to stay fun at all times. A positive working attitude is a must.”
9. Establish the fee
The producer’s compensation varies depending on your career status and the producer’s expertise. If you’re an unsigned artist working with a local producer, the fees may consist of an hourly studio charge plus an additional charge for production.
The exact rates you can expect to pay at this level of your career are actually difficult to nail down, but studios can cost anywhere from $20 an hour into the hundreds. The producer’s fee can range from $50 into the hundreds per track. If you’re willing to work off-peak studio hours from 12:00 AM to 8:00 AM, or if you have a flexible schedule and are willing to work sporadically (i.e., whenever the producer is free from working with other clientele and can fit you into his or her schedule), you may be able to negotiate a lower fee.
Production costs are an open market, admits Tom Weir. “You simply have to do your research and make calls to get the best possible fit with your economic means.”
10. Pay a record royalty?
Unsigned artists are typically not asked to pay a record royalty for sales – unless the producer is working dirt-cheap or for free in return for a piece of the future pie. Signed recording artists, however, will almost always be responsible for assigning a record royalty to the producer.
Most recording deals are “all-in.” This means that out of the royalty rate you negotiate with your record company, the producer’s royalty must be considered. Mid-level producers can receive up to four percent. Thus, if your label offers you a royalty rate of 14 percent, and the desired producer for a project requires a royalty of four percent, you’re now left with a “net royalty rate” of 10 percent. So before writing home to your friends and family about the whopping 14 point royalty you have, remember that you must always consider the producer’s share first.
11. Sign a production deal?
The record producer may also be part of a production company. In other words, the production company will sign and develop you and record your demo, and then enter into a recording contract with a major record company on your behalf. The record company then pays the production company a royalty for sales of the album, and the production company in turn pays you around 50 percent of the money it receives.
Entertainment attorney Stan Findelle warns, “The so-called production deal scenario, as loosely described above, is one of the most potentially dangerous to a young artist’s career. Here is the situation where your recording rights are sold for a pittance to a scoundrel with a label in his garage. The so-called producer can then wholesale you to a major label and keep most of the profit. Always make sure to talk to an attorney before signing anything.”
12. Give up publishing?
Whether or not your producer is entitled to publishing rights depends on what capacity he or she was involved in the songwriting process. When Alanis Morrisette joined forces with producer Glen Ballard, the two co-wrote songs that not only helped land Morrisette a major recording deal, but the album Jagged Little Pill sold over 30 million copies. In this instance the producer clearly owns a share.
But other instances may not be so clear. “All producers will make modifications to the arrangements of your songs by adding or dropping four bars here and there, re-writing a pre-chorus, etc.,” says Arif Mardin, “but they’re hired and paid a handsome fee to do so and should not ask for publishing. Be leery of producers that are overly insistent on taking a piece of the publishing or getting involved in the songwriting process. Your publishing income can be the very money you live on long after your career is over.”
13. Watch for hidden agendas
Though it’s the record producer’s role to oversee the recording budget, musicians may still have to be aware of how he or she handles recording expenses. As illustrated in Moses Avalon’s book Confessions of a Record Producer, the producer may be able to arrange deals with side musicians, tape vendors, and record studios, bill the expense at a higher cost, and then receive a payment in the form of a kickback. In other words, besides earning a fee for his or her services, your record producer may be able to scam additional money from your recording budget under the table. Though no one likes to think this, it’s been known to happen!
14. Get it in writing
Always get the terms of all business agreements in writing. This will clarify the expectations of each party and provide protection in case there’s a dispute; people often forget what they promise. Even with a producer you trust, a written agreement is an essential tool for establishing a professional relationship and its importance should not be underestimated.
Don’t use the excuse that you can’t afford an attorney. There are a number of great resources available on the market today that provide everything from comprehensive legal advice, actual contact forms, and the phone numbers and addresses for some of the best attorneys in your area who may be willing to work on commission. Check out the Music Business Attorney, Legal & Business Affairs Registry (www.musicregistry.com), or Music Law (www.nolopress.com). You’ll be glad you did!
Image via ShutterStock.com.
The contents of this post are © 2015 by Bobby Borg BobbyBorg.com. All rights reserved. Not to be posted, printed, or used in any other way without proper attribution to Bobby Borg and Disc Makers.
Bobby Borg Is the author of The New Book Business Basics For Musicians: The Complete Handbook From Start To Success (Hal Leonard) available at www.bobbyborg.com/store. Limited time special offer – get the book, CD, and DVD for only $21.99 (a $70 Value)!
Getting the most from your entertainment attorney
A record producer’s pre-recording prep work
Different types of record producer deals
How to choose a recording studio
You’re in the music business, so act like a business person