Why Producers Exists

(And what they do)

By Todd Smith

I dread the question, "So what do you do?" because then I have to say, "I'm a music producer," which is inevitably followed by this question: "Really - what does a producer do?" Then I have to try to explain, within the scope of a passing casual conversation with someone who thinks that a four-minute song takes four minutes to record, what a producerreally does.

I respond to that question with an analogy: a record producer is like a movie director. He is the creative leader, the decision maker, the person who directs the flow of work. He is the one who chooses which take to use, and how the actors will deliver their lines.

The director may not have written the script, but he has been hired by the film company to interpret it, and it is his vision that the film will reflect. The same script interpreted by ten different directors will yield ten different films. The same is true in the production of music.

Because the producer is responsible for the success of the final product, it is critical that the artist trust who they hire. It's the artistic equivalent of giving up a baby for adoption: you've done all this work to create it and give it life, then you turn it over to someone else to raise. A writer's material is his baby, and he must trust the hands in which he places it.

What makes a producer trustworthy? Track record, history, and reputation comprise his credentials, but I believe that a producer must earn the trust of his client with each new project. Trust does not come automatically with a long list of credits, and there is a period of time with each new relationship where the producer must prove himself. But after that, it's up to the artist to take the leap of faith.

The trouble comes when an artist hires a producer who is either A) not actually trustworthy, or B) trustworthy, but the artist is still unable to let go of his material and let the producer do his job.

You'll see all kinds of fireworks when one of these two scenarios occurs. The responsibility in both cases really lies with the artist, either for hiring the wrong producer, or for not letting the right producer do what he was hired to do.

I can tell you, from a producer's point of view, it is maddening when an artist can't let go of his material and let me do my job. It's like hiring a surgeon to perform an operation, then tying his hands behind his back. It's like hiring an attorney to represent you, then not following his legal advice. It defeats the purpose of hiring an expert if you just do it your own way.

So why don't artists self-produce? Oh, some try. But the list of artists who successfully self-produce is fairly short. Here it is: 1) Prince.

Actually the list is a little bit longer, but my point is the same. The reason why it is difficult for artists to produce themselves is the reason why producers exist: whoever is making the creative decisions must be looking at the big picture.

Items on the big picture agenda include keeping the session flowing, keeping an eye on time and budget, and making sure the product is commercially viable. The drummer's agenda is the drum part, the guitar player's agenda is the guitar part, and the engineer's agenda is the levels and the settings. The producer is the only person at the session whose agenda is the big picture.

The producer's focus is at once very narrow and very wide. He listens as the musician and the engineer, as the record company, and as the guy driving home from work listening to the radio. He must then consider all agendas and make the best overall decision.

The producer is your ambassador to the other side, the representative of all the objective ears in the world that will hear your performance. Let him tell you what sounds good. Your job is to keep giving him takes until he says, ok, I've got one.