7 Fatal Mistakes Artists Make When Getting Their Songs Produced
If you’re a songwriter and you’re thinking about taking the leap to finally get your songs professionally produced, first off, congratulations! This means that you’ve already spent some time working on your craft and now you feel confident that you have one or maybe even a handful of songs that represent your best work. While an acoustic recording of your song can easily be done at home using just your voice and maybe also one or two instruments like your guitar or piano, this acoustic recording (usually regarded as a “demo” version) won’t likely be something that you can use to promote your career. Demos are great for showing to friends and family and for getting your ideas down as you continue to hash out new material, but once you believe you have one song or a handful of songs that are better than the rest and if you are looking to get those songs played on the radio, Spotify or Apple playlists, licensed to TV or Film, or shopped to record labels, generally you’ll need something more serious than just a demo version. If you’re looking to promote yourself more seriously as an artist and/or advance your career, what you’ll need is a market ready, fully produced and professionally mixed and mastered version of your song. And to do that, you’ll need a music producer. The term “producer” is a term we’ll be using a lot in this article so before we jump in, let’s begin by defining exactly what a producer is.
A producer is someone who is able to add additional instrumentation, sounds, and effects to your song in order to “fill it in” and enhance the overall sound and feel of your song. A producer is someone who can either “do it all” themselves or who can orchestrate a team of professionals on your behalf to get it all done — adding multiple instruments as needed, mixing the tracks by adding effects like reverb, delay, and compression to your vocals and instrumentation, and mastering your song (balancing and optimizing the final mix for playback across any format).
As you’ll see in this article not all music producers are alike. In fact, producers vary greatly in their abilities, skills, musical tastes and styles and each producer has their own little secret sauce that sets them apart from the pack. That secret sauce might be certain instruments that they play distinctly well or more often it is a unique way of using sound or mixing techniques that add a certain feeling to an otherwise bare bones track. Either way, a producer’s secret sauce and their ability to stand out and enhance an artist’s vision is usually the result of honing their skills and building up a personal library of sounds and techniques over time. In other words, a producer is able to lend his or her own artistry to an artist’s song due to the many years of practice making creative decisions derived from their own personal tastes in combination with the songwriter or artist’s musical style.
So all this then begs the question: If the level of professionalism and uniqueness of style can vary so greatly from one producer versus the next, how can a songwriter possibly know who is going to be the best fit for their particular song? How can they avoid picking the wrong producer and furthermore, what can a songwriter do to protect themselves, their wallet, their safety and security, and to avoid winding up worse than where they started — deflated with poor quality results? Simple. They can avoid making just a few common fatal mistakes.
Here are the 7 Fatal Mistakes Artists Make When Getting Their Songs Produced
Mistake #1: Working with an amateur and getting amateur results
When you embark on your journey of getting your songs produced, you’re likely going to be solicited by producers with little or no experience whose biggest selling point is “I’ll do it for pennies.” These producers are trying to climb the ladder just like everyone else; but, if you’re serious about your art, then you need to work with people who are serious about what they do too. Let the hobbyist producer hone their skills on the hobbyist songwriter. If you want to be a professional artist, your team needs to be made up of people who are also professionals.
An amateur producer may be super-creative or a good musician but, well, you already have those skills. If you’re only looking for someone to just bounce ideas off of, then ask a creative friend. A producer should not simply assist you in making your music but should instead take you to the next level and provide the things you lack (otherwise, why do you need them?). Two of the most important assets a producer can bring to the table is knowledge and experience. They know what works and what doesn’t work because they’ve tried and tested it in countless situations — with different artists, in different genres, and in different songs. The reason you hire a producer is to not only to do the things you can’t do but to make your art the best it can be.
It’s like asking someone to build your house. Are you going to go to a professional builder with 30 homes under their belt or someone who’s only built a treehouse in their parents’ backyard? The treehouse builder may have tons of creative ideas (and even some expensive tools) but he’s not going to know how to build a solid house that’s safe to live in.
Mistake #2: Working with a seasoned producer and getting unsatisfactory results
On the flip side, working with a seasoned producer does not guarantee good results either. If you’re a new artist, a less-than-honorable seasoned producer could easily take advantage of your inexperience and deliver less-than-professional results ( i.e. they may not put the same effort into you as they did a major artist), cutting corners figuring you won’t know the difference. Even if you’re working with an upstanding producer, whose really putting in the time to give you top results, you still run the risk of having an unequal relationship with them, either because you’re afraid to challenge them (worried you don’t know as much as they do) or because they give you less respect than you deserve, not taking into consideration your creative input — resulting in a final product you’re not happy with.
Finally, even a great producer who is fair and respects you still may not be a good fit for you and your music if the two of you don’t gel — artistically or personally. Like any collaborative relationship, there are a lot of factors that go into whether or not you’re a good team and so just because they’re a seasoned producer, potentially having worked with big name artists in the past, doesn’t guarantee they’ll be the best match for you.
Mistake #3: Ruling out producers without an impressive portfolio.
Somewhere between the veteran and the amateur, there is also the producer that’s obviously great at what they do but doesn’t have an impressive portfolio yet built up. For whatever reason (location, age, luck) they just haven’t gotten the opportunity yet to work with that one artist who will allow them to shine. Maybe their work thus far isn’t that great, but that could be due to the fact that the artist or the song they had to work with wasn’t that great. In these cases, it’s important for you to still take the time to listen to what they DO have. Pay close attention to what the producer was able to do with the songs while considering what they had to work with. Or, better yet, ask them if they’d submit a short sketch of what they’d do for your song (with no obligation). If you love it, if it sounds great, and if you gel with the producer, go with it! Maybe you both have finally found just the right person to push you both forward.
Mistake #4: Paying too much (or paying too little)
It’s easy to overlook blown-up prices when working with a producer with big-name credits. You’re excited to work with them and you don’t want to offend them by asking them to lower their rate. What you need to know, though, is that hiring a big name producer or paying tons of money does not equal or guarantee a top-notch job. As we’ve already mentioned in this article, just because a producer has a big name portfolio, doesn’t guarantee they’ll be the right fit for you or that they’ll break the same A-list-sweat for you, if you’re not A-list clientele.
Yes, higher prices may be justifiable if the producer can guarantee out-of-this-world, better-than-anyone-else-could-ever-do production for your song. However in this business a guarantee like that is usually hogwash. Most of the time anyone who is charging in the mid thousands and up for production per song, isn’t doing so because they think they are the only person who can get the job done right, they’re doing so simply because that is the price they put on their time. They likely already making a good living and have a clientele base already built up and so they don’t really need to take on new jobs here and there nor are they really looking for new artists to work with — unless of course an artist wants to hand them a great deal of money. Hence the blown-up pricing.
Now on the contrary, because at home music production hardware and software is more accessible than ever before, what we’re starting to see is a lot of people entering the market who are willing to produce songs for very low rates or even for free. But just as with higher rates, you need to also be cautious about these lower rates. As with most things in life, you do get what you pay for and so keep in mind that anybody in this industry who is offering their services for less money is likely going to provide less value. Less money offered will likely result in work that lacks skill and innovation which makes all the difference in great music.
So what is a fair price to pay for music production? Well, if you’ve spent any time asking Google or asking around to different producers for quotes, you may have discovered that the “average” price for production can range anywhere from $300 to $10,000 per song. That’s quite a range! What this means is that there currently exists no “standard” rate for production. And the reason for this might be clear to you by now: because producers vary greatly in their skills, talents, and abilities and therefore set their rate higher as they get better. Think about it. It just wouldn’t make sense to pay one producer who provided sub par results the same amount that you would pay another producer who was able to knock it out of the park, and provide innovative, quality production.
But what about two producers who each were able to give you great results — their rates should be at least similar, right? Right. At least we think so and have some evidence to back it up. After polling hundreds of professional and talented producers on our website asking them to list their standard rates for production, 100% of them listed their standard rate per song in the $600 — $1,500 range, citing that they’d be happy to keep their rate on the lower end ($600 per song) if they were working with an artist they really liked and believed in, and/or if the artist was offering royalty splits and they could see potential in the song becoming commercially viable (more on splits in #7).
So there you have it, one of the world’s greatest mysteries solved! The standard rate for music production in 2019 it seems is around $600 — $1,500 per song.
Mistake #5: Lack of pre-production or song development prior to hiring a producer
So many artists aren’t told the value of pre-production or don’t even know what that means — which is fine, because no one’s ever told you. So if you don’t know, please let us tell you.
Pre-production is the planning process usually done with a producer that outlines where you want to go with production of your song. But there is a lot of work you can do on your own before you even approach a producer that will ensure you get the best results. It may even influence who you look for in a producer. You can start by putting together an outline of what you envision for the full and final production of your song. This outline may consist of musical references (elements from other songs you’d like to emulate in your music), certain styles and genres you prefer, specific instruments you hear for your song, certain mixing preferences or effects you like, and/or certain emotions you’re hoping to evoke from the final production. Having an outline like this prepared gives your producer a better understanding of your authentic tastes and allows them to then begin applying their skills and professional expertise to match those tastes and best enhance your vision, increasing the likelihood of satisfactory results. (We believe this process is so conducive to aiding the overall production process that we’ve incorporated it as a major element of the production services we provide on our website — integrating a patented process to walk artists through crafting their vision, setting them up for a higher likelihood of satisfactory results.)
Think of it this way: If you were getting married, would you first hire a wedding planner and give them free reign to do everything on their own, the way they wanted to do it? Or would you first start thinking for yourself about which types of flowers, designs, color schemes, and locations you like and then pass that information on to the wedding planner to add their professional expertise to further enhance and bring your vision to life? (Maybe you’re not a “planner” type person, but if you let the wedding planner do all the work without giving them any framework to go off of, then it’s likely you’ll end up walking down the aisle at a wedding you hate.)
The fact is, you could spend a lot of time, money, and effort working on your song with a quality producer, and still end up hating the results all because you came into the project unprepared and without a vision for what you wanted. You’re the one who has to live with this song and if you don’t know what you want going in, you might end up with something that’s not what you wanted at all. You’ll notice this especially a few months after you’ve completed the song, when the honeymoon stage wears off. While you may have initially thought your song ended up sounding pretty cool, one day you’ll be listening back and you’ll suddenly realize you paid for something that doesn’t reflect you at all.
Mistake #6: Poor quality recording or poor performance
There is a plethora of new technology out there allowing “anyone” the ability to record at home. This doesn’t mean though that just because you own the technology and set it up in your bedroom, that you’re going to be able to get professional results. Just like if you’ve never played guitar before, having an expensive collection of guitars isn’t going make you a professional guitarist. And it’s likely if you’re reading this article, you’ve probably already figured this out for yourself. To put it bluntly — recording at home is hard. Without the experience to know how to best use the equipment, you will likely end up with nothing but frustration and poor quality recordings. So, if you aren’t confident in your ability to record yourself professionally, hire someone who can. Even really good studios don’t cost that much for a short vocal and instrument session. You’ll be working on great equipment with someone who knows how to use it and you’ll even have an extra pair of ears to help guide your performance.
Which leads us to another important point — in order to capture a great performance, you have to have a great performance — both vocally and instrumentally. While different styles require different levels of proficiency in an instrument, if you want professional results and a professional product, you have to capture a professional performance. If you’re an artist who’s confident in your vocal abilities, but not confident in your ability to professionally play your instrument, hire someone who can. On the other hand, if you’re a songwriter proficient in your instrument, but not confident in your vocal abilities, hire a professional vocalist to perform the lyrics.
An important note about the vocal: Although some vocal corrections can be made in post-production, singing in tune is still very important. Come to your recording session with your vocals well-prepared and practiced. This includes harmony parts if applicable. And regardless of whether you yourself are singing or you’ve hired outside help to handle the vocals, recognize that the vocal performance can often be the most crucial and important piece of a song. It is one thing listeners will be waiting to critique and it’s not usually the technical vocal ability that’s up for scrutiny, but it’s instead the emotional connection that the singer has to the lyrics and how they are able to convey that emotion through their performance. In short: sing in tune, add harmonies if possible, and be connected to the song.
Finally, make sure to find and hire a producer (or engineer) who will take the time to wait with you and make sure you capture that great performance you’re looking for. Don’t ever be afraid to say “I want to do it again” (and again) until you’re happy.
Mistake #7: Lack of proper legal contracts
This can not be stressed enough. We’ve all heard of (or been trapped in) nightmare contracts that were filled with extravagant requirements (such as the artist having to over-perform or over-market the release or sell x amount of units prior to getting paid) and/or contracts that took more rights and money away from the artist than was justified. We’ve also heard of (or been) people who have been seriously taken advantage of because a contract was vague or there was no contract at all, causing disagreements between the artist and the producer and/or management or label, resulting in the work being forced to halt half way through, to go unfinished, or to be pulled from shelves (or the internet) after completion. To avoid these disagreements and potential heartbreak scenarios, prior to collaborating with your producer (or prior to signing a deal with someone who will be setting up your production sessions on your behalf like a manager or a label) put the terms of the project in writing, and review the terms together before signing.
EVEN IF YOU COMPLETELY TRUST YOUR PRODUCER, a contract saves so many headaches by laying out clearly what is expected of each of you. If, like many artists, you’re really bad at confrontation, know that having a contract that clearly lays out the parameters of how much you will be expected to pay for the song upon completion, and whether or not there will be any royalty splits for the song or any responsibility for either party to market and promote the song — will save you from having to fight later.
What are royalty splits?
Royalty splits is a term sometimes added within an agreement that outlines if and how any income that is generated from the song will be split between collaborators (artist and producer). Sometimes artists do not offer any splits at all to their producer, and sometimes they do. If they do, it is typical that the artist will offer a certain percentage of the sound recording royalties (not the co-writing/publishing royalties, unless the producer has written part of the lyrics or chord progressions) to the producer — usually around 5%. Basically, if the artist agrees to splits, they’re saying they agree to share a percentage of the money earned from the song being downloaded (such as on itunes), streamed (such as on Spotify), or licensed (such as for a film placement). If a producer tells you he’s interested in splits, that’s a good sign that he or she believes your song could become successful and also gives him or her a vested interest to make your song the best it can be.
Many professional producers will have a standard contract they use but don’t be afraid to ask to add something. If there’s anything that makes you uncomfortable — even a little — do NOT be afraid to ask about it or even add your own wording. A producer who is defensive when asked about a contract might not be the most trustworthy person or at least might not be the easiest person to work with. For whatever reason, clear contracts equal smooth relationships. And don’t be afraid to have a lawyer look over the contract. It’s not that expensive and mentioning that you always have your lawyer look at contracts prior to signing, can help keep people honest.
BONUS: 3 More Fatal Mistakes That Artists Make When Getting Their Songs Produced !!
Mistake #8: Not being flexible with the vision
We’ve talked about being prepared to come to the table with a vision for the pre-production of your song, that will help steer producers in the right direction towards your particular tastes and styles. This doesn’t mean, though, that your producer has to simply be a robot, or that they should always stick too close to your outline. Producers are artists too and they bring a lot of visionary creativity to the table, along with an extensive toolkit of sounds, effects, and musical possibilities you might not even be aware of. So be open minded. A good producer might think of something completely different than you would but that is also still an authentic reflection of you. Just as sometimes your friends or loved ones know something about you that you don’t realize about yourself, a producer may see and be able to accentuate strengths and unique characteristics in you that you didn’t previously see in yourself. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
Mistake #9: Not quality checking the mix at the end of the job
Once your producer has finished your song, make sure to quality check the mix before signing off on the job. You have to live with this song for the rest of your life, so listen, listen, listen. Listen with headphones. Listen in your car. Listen with DIFFERENT headphones. Play the song back to back with a song you love by one of your favorite artists. Is your song just as loud? Does your vocal track pop out enough from the music for the words to be clearly made out? Does anything sound too muddy or cluttered to you?
Q: What is a muddy or cluttered mix?
Answer: A muddy mix has too many low-end frequencies while a cluttered mix has too many different sounds stepping on each other. Both problems lead to a lack of clarity and/or definition and can be fixed by properly attenuating frequencies and spatial placement of each instrument and sound.
It can also take many years of practice to become skilled enough to mix at a professional level. But mixing is also an art form, and differs for different genres, styles and artists — so there is no set standard of how a mix should sound. Some artists prefer a “dirtier” or grungier sounding mix, while other artists like a “clean” and crisp sounding mix. Never be afraid to ask your producer (or mixing engineer) to change something about the mix (or production) that bothers you. This is your song not theirs and you’re paying them for quality results. At the same time, remember to be reasonable too. If you’re just being indecisive, don’t make the producer’s job harder than it already is. At some point you have to know when to trust someone else and, if they’re a professional, they probably have really good reasons for what they did. If the producer tells you something cannot be changed, hear them out — and if they have a good reason for the way something is, maybe it’s something that should be let be. Also note that sometimes if you’ve listened to the song over and over, you may have fallen victim to something that’s called “being too close to the mix”, which means that you’ve spent so much time excitedly listening to your newly produced and mixed song, that you’ve began to make up and create phantom issues that are “wrong” with it. Give your ears a rest, come back later and listen again with a fresh perspective. You’ll probably notice that you don’t hear the “problem” any longer — but if you do, ask for it to be fixed.
Mistake #10: Trying to produce and mix it all by yourself
When it comes to getting your song produced, maybe you feel like you can do it all — pre-production, production, recording, instrumentation, vocal performance, mixing and mastering. And maybe you’re actually good at it. Great — you might not need a producer. On the other hand, sometimes having someone you trust who has been doing this for a long time can provide just the right amount of outside feedback and assistance you need to go from good to great. Different artists need different levels of help. Even if you’re able to perform, record, produce and mix it all yourself, at the end of the day you may still want to bounce it off someone else who’s an expert with longevity in the field. While you may believe your abilities put you on a professional level, you might be surprised about how much better your song could sound if you just accepted the help of someone with a few more years of experience, with a different set of skills, and who could lend a different take on your style.
Music production is all about enhancing the underlying message of the song in the best way possible, by starting from the bare bones of the instrument and the vocal and riding the wave to see in what magical direction it takes you, while always staying true and authentic to the artist. To easily bypass all these common fatal mistakes, and get the best possible production for your songs, head to ItyDity.com — the leading platform for fostered music production.
Originally published at www.itydity.com on April 2, 2019 and co-written by ItyDity founders Emily Satterlee and Jonah Brockman