The life of a music producer

Published 10:00 am Sunday, April 22, 2012

So many people I’ve met want to be a music producer. I recently mentored a high school senior named Tom (name changed) who did, too. I asked him my favorite question: “What do you think a music producer does?” No one I’ve asked has ever had a clue and neither did my new friend. The thought he might like to be something he knew nothing about intrigued me. It sounds cool, I guess. Doesn’t everyone want to be something that sounds cool?

I remembered a scene from the movie ‘Swingers’ where Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau’s characters are picking up girls in a Vegas casino, when the girls ask what they do for a living. Favreau’s character tells them he’s a stand-up comedian. What comes next is a barrage of questions from the girls, and he’s revealed to be an “unsuccessfully struggling” stand-up comedian, exactly the reality he was hoping to leave behind on his road trip to Sin City. When Vaughn’s character is quizzed, he lies and says, “I’m a producer” to which the girls say “Cool…” They give him a pass made up of equal parts of vague admiration and “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

One of the more essential parts of my job is being an inspirer and facilitator to the creative process. One aspect of a music producer’s role was explained well by a film producer who said: “When I was a screenwriter, I used to show up every day to a clean desk with a stack of blank paper and pen on my desk and an empty garbage can.

Now as a producer, after my work is done, I’m the one staying late emptying the garbage cans.” Likewise, a record producer also puts in the extra hours to insure that everyone’s efforts lead to success — including occasional free therapy to fragile artists. “Type A’s” who aren’t driving the car for the first time usually need reassuring.

A creative force

Certain record producers are also the key creative force if they write and play the music themselves, as I often do. By the time I was 18 years old, I knew this side of things well through the study of one of my musical heroes and previous collaborators, David Foster. Foster’s work as a musician and songwriter with Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Chicago, Earth Wind and Fire and Michael Buble has made him one of the most successful and enduring record producers in pop and R&B for more than 35 years.

Following Foster’s example, I’ve been fortunate enough to be a session musician, singer or songwriter of music that’s collectively generated millions and millions of dollars for artists and record companies. Those experiences, based on my musical abilities, became the foundation of my producing career. Tom didn’t play any instruments yet so I suggested he start.

Song choice

Another key job for a music producer is choosing the songs to record. Songs are the life and death of any producer’s (and artist’s) career. Learning to write songs and knowing when you’ve heard a great one is invaluable. A songwriting producer’s collaboration has transformed an artist’s raw inspiration into hit material more times than can be counted.

While talking with Tom, we uncovered his true passion may lie more in acting than in record producing, so we talked about people skills, politics and networking.

Being a producer isn’t really all about getting into cool parties with beautiful women and making the Benjamins rain, so I might’ve burst his bubble. There’s an enormous amount of time and commitment to craft involved in being a great producer.

And, well, I guess I do get into some pretty good parties from time to time.