What’s the Number One reason for learning how to be a great producer?
Have You Guessed It Yet?
No, it’s not about the limo rides to the studio every day where megastars await your every brilliant idea with bated breath (What? You don’t live like this? ;-> )
It’s not about looking at that bank statement every month, watching your royalties from all those multi- platinum albums you produced pile up so high you need to hire a helicopter to fly your accountant to the top of the heap to count it all. (I got tired of that life and gave it all away. Too many tax problems ;-> )
No, it’s way cooler than all that. And far more rewarding.
Nothing Up My Sleeve…Or Is There?
When you produce music for another artist, you get to make their dreams come true. You are a magician. A wizard. You wave your magic wand, reach inside your magic bag of tricks and presto…you show them their vision manifested as a fully formed work of art they can now share with the world.
That’s powerful stuff.
It’s so cool watching the look on the artist’s face as a finished song that was merely an idea in their head comes blaring out of the speakers and makes them smile. Makes them dance. You become their hero!
But alas, the hero’s journey is always frought with some kind of peril that they must overcome, otherwise it wouldn’t be authentic. As a music producer, before you get to dawn that superhero cape and bask in the glory, you first have to navigate the pandora’s box that’s known as the artist’s fragile ego.
Caution-Fragile Artist: Handle With Extreme Care
Oh, this is a treacherous labyrinth of deadly snakes and booby traps that you must traverse very carefully with the agility of the tiger. You must always assure the artist that any good idea was theirs. (I learned this valuable lesson while co-producing the artist, Five For Fighting with EMI president, Davitt Sigerson).
Sometimes, you have to convince them to take a leap of faith before they can get to the magic part. This is easier said then done. (Case Study #1):
You walk into a session with a band of “older” guys, who have all been playing individually for years and years, but mostly as a hobby. Collectively, they have never gone through the formal process of making a record.
They’ve been playing live gigs and have some really cool songs but they don’t have anything to give out or sell to their new fans. So they decide to finally take the plunge and record. And they want you to make it happen. Well, there’s playing the gig where you count off the song and go until it ends. No rewind button. You hope it rocks.
It’s Apples and Oranges
Then there’s making a record, which is a very different process made up of many steps that fit together like pieces of a puzzle. (i.e. basic tracks, overdubs, vocals, mixing and mastering.) You start at Point A with a blank canvas and can’t necessarily see the finish line of the completed work. To the uninitiated, this can be a bit daunting and sometimes problematic for the producer if you don’t know how to navigate the situation.
So these guys have this one song called “The Shakes” that you really like and probably the quirkiest of their fairly straight ahead classic rock repertoire. But also one of their strongest hooks. It has more of an old dance hall feel ala The Doors “People Are Strange” with very cinematic imagery. So you decide you don’t want to treat it like they played it onstage with the classic Zeppelin lineup of guitar, bass, drums and a singer. You want to make the movie of the song.
And Now For Something Completely Different
So after you get a good drum take it’s time to lay down the real bass track. Rather than the big woofy electric bass that is their signature sound, you suggest he play his upright bass instead on this one (typically reserved only for his jazz gigs).
On top of that, you explain to the guitar player, who secretly played accordian in a past life he would rather you didn’t know about, that he is about to resurrect that other life and replace the guitar part with an accordian.
Well, this leads to the four guys in the band all staring at you with that classic RCA dog-looking-into-a-gramophone expression. As in, ‘Well…that’s not how we ever played the song. How’s that going to sound?’
But That’s Not How It Goes
This is what we affectionately refer to in the trade as “demo-itis” or the fear of your song changing from its original conception into something entirely different. It’s often a difficult disease to overcome for many artists but in many cases can be the deciding factor between a good song becoming great or missing the mark completely. It’s obvious this is not going to be an easy sell with an inexperienced band.
This is where the producer has to ask the artist to just go with it and trust the process. More hesitation follows but the bass player finally picks up his acoustic bass.
After translating his part on electric bass to the acoustic and getting comfortable with playing it in a new way, eventually he begins to get loose with it. Suddenly the part begins to coalesce. Suddenly the song begins to resemble the vision you (sorry, they) had for it all along and suddenly everyone begins to smile like they had planned this all along.
By George I Think They’ve Got It!
Suddenly the guitar player becomes eager to play the accordian. He gets it! He can see the movie now. They love the direction the song is going in. They start bopping their heads when you play it back.
They called you their hero.
It’s a good day.
It’s why you do this.
Now go out there and make some magic happen!
“We could be heroes.” ~ David Bowie
Did you ever experience one of those magic moments in the studio where something totally unexpected happened and made everything better? Why don’t you share it? I would love to hear your comments.
Rock Your Story!