How to Work with a Producer
Published Mar 28, 2009In the days Before Digital, the process of recording, mixing and releasing music was to today's musician unimaginably difficult and cumbersome. And expensive - all that gear! To do one thing each! With all the complexity, it was the rare musician who had the skills to grasp both the technology and the finer art of making music sound good.
Since the beginning of recorded music, record producers have bridged the gap between the technology (domain of the engineer) and the music. Conversant in "studio speak," producers are skilled in the ways of composition, hook-finding, sound-creating and all the tricks big and small that turn a good song into a great recording - into a hit, even. As a result, great producers have always been in demand.
These days most of the technology required to record, mix, master and release an album can fit on a microchip so tiny you could snort it up your nose. Does that mean the age of the producer has passed?
Heck no, says engineer/producer Laurence Currie. "What a producer brings to a project is a lot of experience that a new band and even experienced bands won't always have. This includes an outside educated opinion on everything from how to spend your dollars to maximize your budget, as well as arrangements, sounds, etc. This is also a person to go to when disputes inevitably arise between band members during the recording."
Recording and releasing an album isn't just about committing your songs to tape (or the digital equivalent). It's also about defining who you are as an artist, by coming up with "your" sound. That doesn't mean sounding the same from album to album, but exploring the possibilities of your range. A great producer will push your sound toward new heights or can reinvent you altogether. Witness Rick Rubin's work with Johnny Cash. In many ways, Rubin regenerated the edgy vitality of Cash's earliest work, while at the same time introducing him to a whole new audience. It was producing genius.
Although it has become less common, producers also have a role to play in connecting artists to record labels. A producer will sometimes take on a project "on spec" and then use her connections to place the recording with a label in exchange for a finder's fee or a larger chunk of royalties. This is what's called a producer's "shopping deal."
Because producers can add so much to the creative and business process, it's important to make a clear, mutually agreeable deal with him or her before you get started. The deal may change depending on whether you or your record label (if you have one) makes the deal with the producer, but either way these are the key points to consider:
1) Location and schedule: When and where will the recording take place? How many recording, mixing and mastering days are in the budget? Will there be any pre-production time, during which the band and the producer can meet, talk about the direction of the project and the best way to achieve their goals together? Will the producer be paid for pre-production time, or will this be rolled into the whole fee?
2) Responsibilities: Is the producer also engineering? Will she or he be arranging or co-writing? Who chooses the mastering engineer? Will she or he shepherd the masters through the mastering process? How will disputes between the band and the produce be settled? Who has final creative control?
3) Ownership: If the producer helps to write and arrange, who owns the copyright of the songs? What about ownership of the masters?
4) Budget: Agree on a total budget for the project. The budget should include studio time, gear rentals, side musicians' fees, tape and equipment costs, transportation, lunches and everything else that gets paid out of pocket to make the recording happen. Then you need to agree on who is responsible for managing the budget. If it is the producer (which is often the case), what happens if the producer needs to spend over the budget? Will she or he have to get approval from you? What about unapproved overspending - who ultimately pays for that?
5) Credit: How will the producer's credit read, and where will it be located on the packaging? Will you be allowed to use the producer's name, bio, and photo when promoting the finished project?
6) Fee: How much, and is it a one-time fee? If the deal is with a label, will the fee be considered recoupable against record sales - in other words, is it a share of royalties ("producer royalties")? If so, will there be an advance paid? If on a flat fee, will it be paid by day, week, or all at once? What about overtime? Do you need to add GST or PST?
7) Expenses: What, if any, expenses will be paid on behalf of the producer? Hotel, travel, a per diem? Dry cleaning? Sometimes the biggest arguments are about the littlest things so be clear about this. Also, make sure that throughout the process somebody keeps all the receipts.
8) Points: It's common, especially if the fee is on the low side, or if the producer has some clout, for the producer to be given "points" on sales of the recording - that means the producer would be entitled to be paid a share of record sales. How much? Something in the range of 1 percent to 4 percent of what retailers pay (the published price to dealers or PPD) is standard. Will the points be calculated and paid at the same time as the artist?
9) Delivery/termination: At what point has the producer's job finished? When she or he has handed off the final mixes? Or when the record label accepts them? Here's a big one. What if the project doesn't work out and you hate the results? Do you still have to pay?
Should you get a lawyer involved? If time and money permit, it is always a good idea to have independent counsel when making a binding agreement. But as important as being able to make the deal, is picking a producer you can work with, both in terms of sound and work methods. The choice of producer is one of the most important you'll make, so do your research, take your time, and try to get to know your intended before you walk down the studio aisle.