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What is a record producer? Do you really want to become one?

It is probably the most common ambition in music. But many people want to become a record producer without really understanding what it means. Here's the primer...


In the course of my work I have met literally hundreds of people who want to get involved with music, recording, production and sound engineering in one way or another.

When asked what their ultimate ambition might be, "To be a record producer", or just "To become a producer" is probably the most common answer.

But out of every hundred people who want to become record producers, perhaps only one has the raw talent. Out of a hundred people with the raw talent only one will have the determination. And out of a hundred people with the raw talent and determination, only one will ever get the opportunity!

This is how difficult it is to become a record producer, and I could go on to say that only a small proportion of people who ever get a production credit go on to develop a serious and lasting career in the business.

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But if it is so difficult to become a record producer, why do so many find it so attractive? I have to say that the vast majority of people that I meet who want to become producers don't seem to have much idea of what the job entails.

They are attracted by the 'glamor' of the record industry, by the possibility of socializing with the stars, and by the prospect of a fat pay check and royalties at the end of each successful project - the three myths of record production one might say.

To take care of each of these myths in turn: The glamor in the music industry is created by a massive publicity machine for the benefit of the public at large. For the people working in the industry it is a job of work. An immensely satisfying and enjoyable job perhaps, but certainly not glamorous.

The idea of mixing with the stars may be attractive initially, but once you have met a few you begin to realize that they are mostly pretty ordinary people. They may happen to have an extraordinary talent in one way or another but the majority are still normal human beings in every other sense. (Until they get wasted on alcohol or drugs, but that's another story.) You will enjoy being able to tell people at parties who you have met or worked with recently and bask in a little reflected glory, but to you these people - apart from their talent of course - won't be anything out of the ordinary.

As for the final point about money, there are certainly a number of people who make a lot of money but most people working in music probably don't make as much as they could out of an 'ordinary' job. For instance, even if you were among the top 10% of songwriters and composers, you might still not earn enough money to call it your living.

By now I'm sure I have put off anyone who is attracted to record production for the wrong reasons, and I can take it that those of you who are still reading are serious about becoming producers.

But exactly what is a record producer? What do they actually do to earn their living and status?

I think the best way is to look back in history to a stage where a recording was seen as a live performance captured on vinyl, rather than the studio constructions that are now the norm. In those days it was pretty much taken for granted that an act that was worth recording could perform, and nothing more than the performance was needed for the record. All that was necessary was a studio, and perhaps a little musical help in the form of an arranger, musical director and session musicians.

The project was overseen by the A&R (which stands for Artists and Repertoire, or Artists and Recording in some companies) department of the record company to make sure that everything was progressing as it should.

Effectively, the A&R manager was the producer, and modern A&R departments still have a significant influence on how a record is produced.

Gradually, the process of recording became more of an act of creation in its own right, rather than the replication of a live performance. A distinct role of producer was created, and gradually, following the lead of The Beatles' producer George Martin, they split from the record companies and became freelance workers or set up their own production companies.

In essence, the role of the producer is to do whatever he or she needs to do to make a great record that sells.

Some producers handle everything including the finance, some supervise the recording process, others work directly on the music themselves.

Of course there is so much more to say, but I think this would be a reasonable starting point for anyone interested in music who thought that being a producer would be the right way to go. It is, but only if you really understand what being a record producer means.

By David Mellor Friday April 10, 2009