Music Producers: What They Do and How to Find One

My Song Coach

by Robin Frederick

If you’re an artist or band making an Indie CD or EP, or a songwriter recording a master to pitch to film and TV, there’s a good chance you’re thinking about hiring that magical, mystical creature called “The Music Producer.”

So… how does that work? What does a music producer do? How do you know if you’ve found the right one? Where do you find one? Let’s begin with the most basic question and go from there.

What do you want from a producer?

Start by asking what it is you want a producer to do for you. There’s probably a range of things. Among them, maybe you want a producer to…

  • Help you define your style and find your genre
  • Make your song sound like a hit
  • Co-write a hit song with you
  • Advise you on the music business
  • Walk your song into a record label, publisher, or music supervisor when it’s done

Is this realistic? Is there any producer who can really do these things for you? Probably not, at least not now. A producer can add to your effort but cannot replace a solid foundation, laid down by you, before you ever start looking. Without that foundation, there’s no way to know what kind of producer you’re looking for.

 Lay your foundation

There are several things you should do before you start the hunt for a producer. Unfortunately, too often we hope that someone else will do them for us. But these are a crucial part of your job as a songwriter or artist.

➤ 1. Know your market and audience

Who will you be playing these songs for? Will you be pitching them to a music publisher for established artists? Pitching to film and TV? To a label as an artist? Are you building up your fan base on YouTube? Selling this CD or EP at live gigs?

Of course, you could be doing all of these, but one or two will be more important than the rest. Think about that audience and what appeals to them right now. Make a list of  artists or bands that are successful in those markets.

Check out  Robin’s books at Amazon.com.

➤ 2.  Now, look for reference tracks in the genre and market you’re aiming for.
You need reference tracks for many different reasons. The most important one: It’s impossible to talk about music and know the other person understands what you mean if you don’t play it for them. It’s like saying to a house painter, “Paint it green.” What shade of green do you mean? The painter could be imagining a whoooole different color from the one you’re thinking of. It can be even worse with music.

A few reference tracks can show a producer what you mean by an uptempo, galloping rhythm, a distant landscape-y pad, or an edgy, contemporary vocal. You’re not going to copy these tracks, just use them as a guide and a reference for the feel and general sounds you want.

You can have reference tracks for many different things:

  • Tracks that represent your genre
  • Tracks with a rhythm groove you think will work with your song.
  • Tracks with instrument sounds or a vocal style you like.
  • Tracks for mixing ideas.

 3. Make a playlist of reference tracks.
Put your reference tracks together in iTunes or on a flash drive or CD so you can easily play and replay these songs. Then, refer to them often.

Now you’re ready to start looking for a producer.

What does a music producer do?

Brings out the best in your music: A good producer is one who exploits the unique and commercial qualities that you put into your music, one who has strengths where you don’t, and has recent, hands-on experience and extensive knowledge of the genre and market you’re aiming for.

Assesses strengths and weaknesses: A good producer should discuss your overall sound, assess your strengths, and let you know whether you and/or your band can realistically create the sound you want. He or she may suggest bringing in outside musicians to handle some of the parts.

Stretches your budget: A producer should work with you to make sure your project stays on budget. Booking studio time and musicians, getting a good rate, and scheduling the amount of time needed are all part of the producer’s job.

May arrange, perform, and mix: These days many producers are also arrangers/players/ recording engineers. They work out of their home studio much of the time and may create the entire track there. However, don’t be shy about asking the producer to bring in other musicians. If you feel the track needs a live drummer instead of programming, be sure to discuss it.

Supports your goals: The producer has to get the best possible performance from you and the musicians. That means knowing when to push you for a better take or when to let you take a break. The producer’s job is part psychologist, part musician/arranger, part cheering section, and  all realist.

Where do you find a music producer?

Local search – Check out local bands and artists. Go to clubs in your area that feature the kind of music you want to record. Or look up your local music scene on the web to see who’s playing, then check out their music online.

The big clubs will host touring acts on weekends. Look at the schedule for week nights and open mic nights. When you find artists in a style that matches yours, contact them and ask about the producer and musicians they use or look for the CD credits.

Local studios are a good hunting ground, too. Find out who has recorded there. Ask about producers. Get the names of CDs and go listen to the music. When you find the style and quality you want make a note of the producer and musicians.

Online search – A producer doesn’t have to be local. It’s possible to work long distance if you’re comfortable with that. Check out YouTube.com and Tunefind.com. Look for independent artists with songs similar to yours. You can usually find contact information for the artist on a website or send a message through Facebook or Twitter to get the name of their producer if it’s not available elsewhere.

CAUTION: Check out each recommendation carefully. There are plenty of producers who will say they can handle your style. Use the list below in the section “Is this producer right for you?” to help you decide. Try to keep the production simple, the price low, and give feedback often. Take the producer for a “test drive” on a single song.

Production & Demo studios – There are some excellent Nashville demo studios for Country songs. (I wouldn’t recommend recording other genres.) When you find a demo service, check out their music samples. Be sure they sound contemporary and professional, and they have tracks in the style you’re looking for. Check out reviews online.

Have reference tracks ready and discuss what you’ll get for the price. You don’t need all the bells and whistles. In fact, I recommend getting a solid guitar/vocal demo first. If the recording puts across the emotion and energy of the song, it may be all you need. You can add other instruments later.

NOTE: If the recording is made under the Nashville Musicians Union demo contract, you will not be able to license the track to film & TV. Be sure you understand what you can and can’t do with your demo.

Online Production Services – You can use an online music service like StudioPros.com. They will record individual instruments for you or a complete arrangement and mix. Have your reference tracks ready.  At the very least, give them the genre and one reference that are close to the feel, energy, and style you want. You can have StudioPros do the mix or you can mix at a local studio and add your own vocal.

Above all, keep the reins in your hands. After all, you’re the one who knows your music best. And you’re the one who should be learning from every session, every track, every mistake, and every success. Remember, you’ll be writing and recording many songs. Learn as you go, so you can become your own producer or the best music partner a producer could ever work with.

Robin's books This post is based on my songwriting books: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.

Reprints by permission.

Author: Robin Frederick

Robin Frederick is the author of Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV. She has written and produced more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records and Executive Producer of 60 albums. Visit Robin's websites for more songwriting tips and inspiration: www.RobinFrederick.com and www.MySongCoach.com.