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What it means to be a producer right now

The role of the music producer is expanding, here’s why.

A little while ago, I was chatting to Luke Hester and Lucy Hill of Dahlia Sleeps for our interview with the ambient-pop pair. We came onto the topic of production, since Hester produces most of their music, and discussed how this previously hidden world is now more open than ever thanks to advances in technology and increased accessibility. Hill stated that “It’s totally the age of the producer at the moment,” because they’ve emerged from the background and the small print credits. This optimistic discussion led me to wonder, is all change in this area positive? What this article aims to do is to trace over the aspects of what it means to be a producer right now.

Let’s start off with a standardized definition that comes from the performing rights organisation BMI: “A producer is to a recording as a director is to a film. When it comes to making a film, the buck essentially stops with the director. [..] In short, a producer provides the experience and necessary perspective to guide a recording from start to finish.” With this in mind, we’re going to explore the ways that this role of a ship-captain/director is changing, bending or indeed being affirmed by the various forms that the modern producer takes.

One of the recurrent ways that this subject comes into conversation here at HumanHuman, is when an artist handles their own production. There’s something quite impressive about this, although some suggest that self-production is now becoming the rule and not the exception. You only need to browse our collection of discoveries in order to come up with a handful of acts with self-producing abilities. Some of the more notable ones are Palmistry, Ben Khan, A.K. Paul (whose credits in single “LANDCRUISIN’” mean there’s no mistaking who produced it), Mura Masa, TÁLÁ, Astronomyy, Morly, William Arcane and the much-praised Holly Herndon.

Why are more artists than ever self-producing? Well, there’s a few ways we can answer that. For starters, it means that musicians can have a greater creative role in the whole process behind making a song, EP or album. This is something that polymathic artist FKA twigs has demonstrated throughout her work so far. Having taken the lead on everything from composition to production to direction of her music videos, Tahliah Barnett explained to Rookie Mag that “I really want to be in charge of everything creatively,” but there also comes a deep seated frustration with not being recognised for one’s own vision.

It [production and directorial work] hasn’t been covered enough and I think that’s unfortunately partly down to me being a female artist; everyone’s constantly trying to turn you into a pop star. Pop stars don’t write their own music, they don’t produce their own music and they don’t direct their own videos.
FKA twigs via Clash
FKA twigs

Correctly placed recognition is also something Bjork struggled with following the release of her Vulnicura LP, in which it was misreported that Arca produced the full album, but in fact it was a piece of co-production (something which we explored in our International Women’s Day article.) Equally, Grimes who also featured in our ‘Women In Music’ piece, is fatigued by the expectation that musicians need producers otherwise they’ll “flounder” as she calls it. As Stereogum reports, Claire Boucher is “tired of the weird insistence that i need a band or i need to work with outside producers.” In the place of these eternal contributors, Grimes relies on her home studio and a plethora of digital tools, which neatly brings us on our second point for why artists are so keen to self-produce - and that would be the technology.

In an interview with Future Music Magazine (MusicRadar online), Grimes details the digital audio workstations (DAWs) that she used for creating and producing her music, like Logic and Pro Tools, although it was the easy-to-navigate Ableton that took over for her Art Angels LP. The Canadian artist also has favourite plug-ins, like iZoptope Ozone for mastering demos and Waves’ Manny Marroquin Reverb tool, which perhaps are essential for that distinctive Grimes sound.

You can “hear” the use of Akai, Pro Tools, Logic, and other digital recording and sample-based composition in most pop music written in the last twenty years.
David Byrne, How Music Works

Morly

One HumanHuman artist who is consistently credited for her sophisticated production is Morly, aka Katy Morley, an electronic artist hailing from Minneapolis. We were first drawn in a year ago thanks to her mysterious images, dreamy soundscapes in tracks like “Seraphese” and “Maelstrom”, and the unabiding attraction of a self-producing artist. The fact is that Morly has been working on this project for six years, but as explained in an interview with Dummy Magazine, she was no child prodigy or a front woman who spent years cutting her teeth in dingy gig venues, but her first act as a musician was to purchase Ableton and Maschine. She also goes some way to answering what is means to be a producer right now: “It’s almost a euphemism for “electronic artist” or even a composer.”

It’s interesting that in a section of the music industry that is male-dominated, with female producers only making up 5% of the profession in 2014, our focus keeps coming back to the women bucking the trend. What Pitchfork suggests is that the access to DAWs has a feminist implication, as Dum Dum Girls front woman Dee Dee states “Garageband [the pre-installed Apple workstation] definitely encouraged a lot of my female friends to explore something that has previously seemed out of reach.” We can even refer to successful bands like Haim, who used a horn sound from Garageband that was set a bassy two octaves down to underpin the epic rhythm of “My Song 5”. Although, they did use a traditional studio process to complete the single.

So while audiophiles and classic rock enthusiasts might sneer at the software's humorously simple design, digital natives simply see it as making something impenetrable now liberatingly accessible.
Pitchfork

Astronomyy

However, it’s not only female bands and artists that are transforming what the role of a producer is. As anyone who understands feminism, they will know that it’s a movement of equality and anti-elitism encompassing all genders. Bringing back one of our earlier examples, the British beatmaker Mura Masa, whose own production work is well documented across the Internet. What’s so special about Alex Crossan is that he openly offers tips to budding producers, as seen in his Q&A on Reddit in 2014. On top of that, the Guernsey-born artist has also started collecting and nurturing production protégés like Bonzai and Jadu Heart under his Anchor Point record label. Another notable musician who has used self-production as a platform from which to circumvent the traditional industry routes is Astronomyy, who has used his self-taught technical expertise in order to set up his own Lunar Surf Studios, in which newest single “The Secret” was written and recorded.

Aside from the need for creative control and access to technology, another reason for a many artists, especially the emerging class, choosing to handle their own production is down to financial reasons. Although some commentators argue that we’re in something of an economic upturn within the creative industries; for example, British music contributed a sizeable £4.1 billion to the overall economy in 2015. However, as The Guardian pinpointed revenues from recorded music fell by £3m and 21% of musicians worked for free in that same year of supposed growth. Perhaps in a bid to correct what UK Music Chairman Andy Heath refers to as the “unacceptable balance of negotiating power” between musicians and consumers, these artists have been forced to become self-sustaining.

Where does all this artistic independence leave the traditional music producer? First of all, I should clarify what I mean by a “traditional” producer, and for that I’m turning to The European Sound Director’s Association's definition as “a freelance or independent Music Producer [whose role is] to direct and supervise recording sessions”, which tends to take place in a professional studio. Securing a working relationship with these production experts comes at a cost, that’s a pretty obvious point, but it’s the variation in that financial figure that is less clear-cut. One publication, The DIY Musician, draws upon two wildly different examples to demonstrate this point by comparing the $600 that it cost to record Nirvana’s debut album Bleach and the $13 million spent on Guns N’ Roses latest LP Chinese Democracy. Yet, more numbers are thrown around by singer-songwriter (and here journalist) Michael Corcoran, who implies that “Most industry types would say between $150K and $1Million for an album.” Contrast this to a potential bottom line of nil (excluding the instruments or equipment already in the musician’s possession) for a self-produced piece of music put together on a laptop rather than in an expensive studio, and it’s easy to understand the appeal of the do-it-yourself approach.

A Music Producer has technical skills and administrative responsibilities, but as with any other artist, it is the creative ends to which those skills are employed that distinguishes a great Music Producer from the rest.
The European Sound Director’s Association

Despite the growth in DAWs, plug-ins, knowledge exchange and a trend for cutting corners, the music production sector has proved to be resilient in recent years. One place we can see evidence of this is in UK Music’s various reports on the music industry’s contribution to the British economy. Not only does the report highlight a 5% overall growth, but they also show that Music Producers, Recording Studios and Staff went from having a GVA (gross value added) contribution of £80 million in 2012 to £116 million in 2015, outstripping the Music Representatives sector who had previously been more lucrative. Equally, IFPI’s Global Music Report 2016 is positive about the direction that the music industry is going in. One thing that this international statistics hub refers to is the “dynamic album”, illustrated by their case study on Hakuna Matoma, a Norwegian producer whose living digital album is being edited, written and finalised online in order to involved listeners in the process. You’ll also notice that IFPI calls this songwriter/musician a “producer”, and thus further blurring the lines of exactly where this role begins and ends. In reflection of this, I’d like to introduce another term - the “dynamic producer”. This can be applied to anyone from an songwriter who dabbles in production to a producer who picks up an instrument. We explored this idea earlier with self-producing artists, but another area yet to probed is that of the superstar producer.

Felix Snow

Many of these recent examples first came onto our radar here at HumanHuman, such as BOOTS, who was credited with 80% of production behind Beyoncé’s surprise self-titled LP, which arguably propelled Jordan Asher into the limelight. However, our community has also been fascinated with BOOTS’ personal music, like his debut song collection WinterSpringSummerFall featuring the likes of Beyoncé, Son Lux and Kelela. Another producer with star appeal is Felix Snow, a name that has been recurrent among our new music discoveries due to his immediately audible influence over Kiiara’s hit first single “Gold” and more recently on Belgrave’s “Lift Me Up”. Staccato trap, glitchy robotic vocal samples and that rain-drop effect are all hallmarks of Felix Snow’s production work, which he has now brought to the table for collaborative project Terror Jr. Our final example is Diplo, who has been instrumental in helping artists like Justin Bieber, M.I.A. and reach number one. The Floridian DJ also teamed up with superstar producer Skrillex to present us with all the colours of dance-pop under the label Jack Ü. In a return to our earlier point about the impact of technology on the modern producer, Diplo told Spin Magazine that the affordable and user-friendly DAWs are great for the future of production globally. However, he also holds some reservations:

There are too many gatekeepers holding the keys and they all want to be compensated for being part of the process. The current big-name producers are lucky to be where they are simply because it’s harder for everyone underneath them to reach the same level and it’s going to keep being harder to break through to that top tier.
Diplo via Spin Magazine

Throughout this discussion we’ve weighed up the factors that go into being a modern producer - creative control, technology, finances, expertise and even reputation - and all come with an equal mix of liberation and limitation. So, what does it mean to be a producer right now? For some this means being the triple threat of songwriter, musician and producer, and this is a breed of artist we’re becoming much more familiar with. We’ve only really scratched the surface with Holly Herndon, FKA twigs, A. K. Paul, Mura Masa, Morly, Astronomyy, TÁLÁ, Felix Snow, BOOTS etc. As technology and accessibility continues to advance, self-production has a good chance of becoming a given rather than an anomaly, and I doubt that even an improved economy will slow that progress down. However, these dynamic producers are a threat to the status quo and they challenge the expectations of a working relationship between artist and producer, which is perhaps why Diplo forewarns us of the “gatekeepers” to the upper echelons of the music industry. For now the term producer does still apply to those directorial experts in their professional studios, but as the universe is expanding, so is the role of a music producer.

This article is written by Hannah Thacker and was published 10 months ago.

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