I divide the people who make music into five categories: musicians, songwriters, engineers, artists, and producers. Part I looked at the first three. Now we explore the artists and producers – and control freaks.
Don’t let the word “artist” confuse you. In general, the use of the word “artist” in the music business is much the same as the use of the word “talent” in the film industry. It is a description of the person’s role and not a reflection of the quality of their work. As used in this post, it refers to a career recording artist. Since my book is by and large very pro-artist, I’m going to take this opportunity to dissect some of the artist’s more controversial qualities. Those who have had frustrating experiences with artists may want to pull up a chair.
I have, on more than one occasion, heard an A&R person say in confidence, “This business would be so much easier if we could just make records without artists.”
This statement is echoed by many in the industry. But why? If it weren’t for the artist, we would have no music to enjoy and profit from, yet many pros roll their eyes in frustration or hide under their desks at the mere mention of “the artist.”
To get an idea, we should consider all the problems that artists face.
Most artists start trying to get a record deal when they are about 18. Although in recent years we’ve seen several superstar artists who are younger than 18, most generally do the DIY thing for several years. They sign a deal at roughly age 21 if they’re women and 23 if they’re men. Since it’s often their second or third album that puts them on the map, they don’t start to make a decent living until they are in their late twenties.
In the new paradigm where majors are signing artists to what has become known as “360 deals” or “bundled rights” deals these dynamics are somewhat accelerated. Artists are rarely signed until they’ve shown some success independently. It’s then expected that their first album on a major will be an out-of-the-box smash, or they will be dropped. Given this, the range of when artists get signed is broadened, because they may have one or several completed albums before they are courted by the big labels, but the ramp up to success after they are signed is truncated.
This creates far more pressure than there was in the “old days” where labels expected an artist to stumble a bit on the way up. Now, there is the double pressure of trying to get signed and then trying to stay signed – by showing immediate results. In light of this many artists have opted not to even try.
Forgoing the “old model,” as they will refer to it, they will declare independence forever. But few I know would turn down the opportunity, if it presented itself, to achieve national acceptance and a hit. Something that so far, despite the achievements of the Internet, only majors have been able to manufacture with consistency.
Artists also face other complications that are dissuading. Because the industry has become so visual, artists often have to emphasize their looks to gain the attention of the pros. Many artists find these values distasteful as it instills the axiom that though love may be blind, lust is surely deaf! Compromise, to the artist, seems to translate as “selling out.” Sometimes they’re right, but often they’re shooting themselves in the foot.
I do, however, have a lot of sympathy for the artist’s position. That’s one of the reasons I’ve written my book. Often artists are being asked to compromise, and often it’s for a deal that doesn’t pay as much as they think. However, every person in a cutthroat business should understand where they sit in relation to their competition. Many young artists have embraced the business side of music with a fervor and understand the trade-offs that are inherent when art meets finance. These artists, for better or worse, stand the best chances for success.
“Producer” is a confusing term, and often when I lecture I am asked what exactly a producer does. It can be hard to explain to someone who has not sat in on the recording process.
The producer guides the artist through the recording of their record. They help select the material and determine which takes are keepers and which are losers. Sometimes they compose the arrangements and do the engineering, and they usually supervise the final mix.
Although the average record buyer thinks that the artist – the person whose picture is on the record jacket – is the one making all these decisions, they almost never are (unless the artist is a true co-producer). The producer is responsible for the sound and quality of the record. If the mix is terrible, it’s the producer’s fault. If the performances are weak, it’s the producer’s fault. (There are exceptions to this.)
A good analogy is to think about the artist as being like a movie actor. The producer is like the film’s director and editor. He or she tells the actor how to play the scene and the best way to communicate the message. More often than not, the producer will have veto power over a first-time artist’s creative decisions.
In rock and what we call “country” these days, the members of the band are the songwriters and the instrumentalists, and the producer has a more passive role, but in pop, R&B, and rap, the dynamics of the producer’s role are more intricate.
They usually write all the music and do all the arranging of the rhythm tracks. Then they find a vocalist, who will be “the artist,” to sing the lyric track. In this arrangement the artist/singer almost never has any say in the arrangement or the sound of the final product.
In terms of income, producers who are successful make over a million dollars a year during the peak of their careers, but they are rare exceptions. A typical producer gets a fee usually tantamount to 20-30 percent of the recording budget. When album budgets were hovering around $250,000, this was anywhere from $25,000 to $75,000 per album. Back then he or she might produce about three to four albums a year.
Today budgets have shrunk considerably. Only name acts get $300,000+ budgets for albums. In fact, only name acts are getting albums at all. A growing group of new artists are getting “singles deals.” Like the super-old days (1960s) labels want to hear several solid singles first. Then, once proven, they will let the artists assemble an album. So with this new formula for development, producers’ incomes have shrunk about 30% since 2006.
In addition to fees, producers will get an override on the records (about 3%). When labels shipped a standard pressing of 100,000 units, this added up to a tidy sum. But with piracy affecting sales – and the explosion of streaming, which pays a fraction of traditional sales – labels no longer do large pressings until the market demands it. This has affected everyone who participates in the royalty stream.
Many producers come from an engineering background. These producers often do remixing (the final process where all elements of the sound of the record are fine-tuned and balanced). The going rate for this service is between $8,000 and $18,000 per song, down from $10,000 to $25,000 per song (the average fees in the previous edition of my book). If a producer is a remixer, he can do many such jobs a year. Remember, however, that producers have phenomenal overhead – mostly the special equipment that they use to create their sound. This equipment will get carted around from studio to studio, wherever the job takes them. In cartage alone a producer can spend over $50,000 a year. The equipment and insurance are many thousands more.
Last but not least: control freaks
Have you ever had the displeasure of working for someone who distracted you while you were doing the very task they employed you to perform? If you don’t acknowledge what they’re babbling about, they become offended; if you screw up the job, they become indignant. You may not know it, but you were working for a control freak: someone who must, usually because of neurotic need, control every aspect of every situation all the time.
All right, in truth there is no specific person called “a control freak.” I wish they did have labels; that way you would know who they were before you got involved with them. Rather, control freaks are known by more common terms: egomaniacs, arrogant, unproduceable, uncompromising, sleazebags, very intense (LA term), and, my favorite, “someone with a bad vibe.” But no matter what you call them, their presence in the music industry is so pervasive that this particular player warrants his own section.
It’s important to point out that not everyone who wants their own way is a control freak. Some individuals are true perfectionists, and their persistence is for legitimate artistic reasons.
I’m not a psychologist, so I wouldn’t presume to comment on why these people seem attracted to the music business. Perhaps the music industry’s lack of official structure is an invitation to the control freak to “be their own boss.” If you’ve ever found yourself threatening to sue someone because they owe you money for a job, and they say, “Go ahead!,” you probably have a control freak on your hands and will in all likelihood never see that money. Control freaks are much happier paying their attorneys twice what they owe you.
- Ask many questions at inappropriate times.
- Won’t let you off the phone when you are talking to them.
- Interrupt you when you’re speaking.
- Want to do everybody’s job (write, produce, manage, engineer, etc.). Tend to be argumentative and unwilling to compromise.
- Tend to have little professional training at anything.
- Will fire (or ignore) anyone who can outperform them.
- Will fire (or ignore) anyone who disagrees with them and is proven to be right.
- Order an extra dessert when someone else is paying the dinner bill. Relentlessly complain about how much things cost.
- Often employ simpleminded and incompetent help.
- Often complain that they have been ripped off.
- Owe money to many people, especially their lawyers, and construct brilliant rationalizations for not paying them.
- Consult expert after expert until one tells them what they want to hear. Make deals they have no real way to honor.
- Think they know everything.
- Will overcomplicate situations with misleading and esoteric information.
- Harbor paranoid suspicions towards other people and often generalize with terms like “they,” “them,” and “those people” without ever clarifying who “they” are.
- Believe that everyone is entitled to hear their opinion.
- Will usually take credit for anything that they can get away with.
Counteracting the effects of the control freak
If you are trying to work with this type of person, you must be careful. What they really think of you could depend on how useful you are to them at that moment. Some typical examples are the following: a person who thinks the whole industry is full of shit, but you are the one person they will trust; the producer or manager who insists on contracts with long terms attached to them; people who are interested in establishing their irreplaceability in a project before it is even off the ground; lawyers who want to manage as well as produce an artist but have little experience with anything other than law. I think you get the point.
So how do you deal with someone like this? It’s not easy. The first thing I would suggest is to accept that there will be times when you will have to button your lip and play the cards the way they are dealt. Aside from that, there are a couple of techniques that come to mind for coping with this person.
First, always let them think that you agree with them. You can’t change their mind anyway, so just play along. Time and circumstances will usually prevail over their stubbornness. Second, never allow yourself to be caught up in their dogma. Always have a plan when you enter the employ of a control freak. Focus on why you are there and what you are getting out of it. As soon as you’ve achieved your goal, don’t hang around one minute longer than necessary. And, as a reformed control freak myself, I can tell you the cardinal rule for this type of person: Make them right. Even if it kills you. Acknowledge them and agree, no matter how absurd what they’re saying seems.
Remember an old Yiddish saying: “Never try to teach a pig how to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.”
Moses Avalon is a much-honored record producer and engineer, a top-selling author of music business books and education tools, and a tireless advocate for artists’ rights. He is an active lecturer, a popular blogger, a court-recognized music-business expert, and CEO of the Moses Avalon Company, which assists hundreds of clients in the music industry. Previous editions of Confessions of a Record Producer have been required reading for music-business courses around the world. Moses lives in Los Angeles.
The people who make music, Part I: Musicians, songwriters, and engineers
Psychology and the music producer
Behind the glass with Daniel Lanois
This is the Remix – Eight Tips on Reinventing Your Music
Who Hires Session Musicians?
The 360 Deal – the music industry’s scary monster