So many artists want instant gratification: to shoot to fame before working hard to create something meaningful. It’s understandable, musicians today are forced to compare themselves to artists who have won a certain level of “overnight success.” But even those overnight-success-story artists have probably put in a ton of work behind the scenes over the years in order to achieve fame and fortune. (Check out this article from The Pudding for some great statistical insight on how artists “made it big” in NYC in recent years.)
Part of “making it” in the music industry is working with better and better producers. That’s not to say going the DIY, home recording route isn’t worth it, or that a young, aspiring producer with modest equipment isn’t able to create a hit record.
Nine times out of 10, unless a producer really, really digs you and is really, really connected, he or she isn’t going to change your life. On the flip side, however, working with a visionary record producer can be an incredibly creative and rewarding experience, unlike anything a band could accomplish without him or her.
However, you don’t want to waste your time, money, and energy pursuing a producer when your band or project is simply not ready. To ensure you’ll get the most out of working with a professional on your next record, here are four points to help determine whether or not you’re ready to take that next crucial step.
Will your music actually sell?
This question is critical, if only from the financial side of things. Why would you want to shell out big bucks to record with a producer, master the recording, and hire someone to do the artwork if your music is just going to collect dust?
Unless you’re made of money, you’re going to want to recoup those expenses. The best way to do that is to be able to make money off your music by selling records, downloads, and tickets to live shows or through direct-to-fan subscriptions and projects.
It’s a matter of building a solid and supportive fanbase, and if you don’t really have that foundation in some form or another, it may be wiser to wait until you’ve built it. No doubt a producer will appreciate your business mindset in that regard.
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Do you know your fanbase?
Having a fanbase and knowing your fanbase can be mutually exclusive. One-hit wonders often find a sweet spot with their music, win over tons of fans, and make tons of money, only to then lose all support with a follow-up song that sounds completely different.
Say you’re a metal band with a devoted following. How will your fans react if your producer thinks you’d sound great acoustic, or that you should cover Britney Spears, or insists that layering in synth bagpipes will enhance your sound?
It might seem like a great idea in the studio, and you might be tempted to follow the advice of someone who knows what he or she is doing, but will your fans abandon you as a result or join you in your exploration?
If you know your fanbase, you already have answers to some of these questions. Sometimes, artists make strategic decisions to move into another genre — and that’s okay (think Bob Dylan going electric).
The point is, try to make intelligent and informed decisions wherever possible, and the end results will often end up in your favor.
Do you know who you are as an artist?
This is another important question. Some producers are willing to work with artists from the ground up and take over a project entirely, and that’s fine. But you wouldn’t want to get halfway through recording a pop album before realizing your heart is more aligned with jazz or neo soul.
Alternatively, if you don’t have a strong sense of self, you might find yourself with the wrong producer altogether. Whether you like it or not, a producer’s input will leave an imprint on your sound, so you better know the limits of how far you’re willing to bend and where to draw those lines.
Good producers will enhance your sound and bring out aspects that may have taken a backseat before. They will also sit down with you and discuss your vision, as well as where they see you fitting in the musical landscape.
Hopefully, these aspects will gel, but the artist is a key part of establishing that vision. It’s a give-and-take process, and you need to know who you are as a musician to be able to fully participate.
Can you afford a producer?
Your producer will expect payment in one form or another, whether that’s an upfront fee by the hour or song, a piece of the pie if you get a record deal, or for a portion of your publishing rights.
Nobody is going to record you for free, especially high-profile producers.
They may do pro-bono work in very unusual circumstances, i.e., for a family member or close friend, or to repay a favor, but generally speaking, it simply doesn’t happen. Plan to budget for their fee, or be prepared to negotiate terms.
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There’s a difference between thinking you’re ready and actually being ready to work with a producer. If none of these factors are in place and you still want to go forward, talk to those in the business who have been around the block a few times and get their perspectives.