Music Producers: How Much Are They Worth?

Before you ask, this will not be an examination of specific producers. Nor will it be a discussion of the roles they play within the music industry. As both a musician and engineer, I am firmly planted within my beliefs of the usefulness of a music producer in audio production.

Rather, this article is aimed at aspiring or established artists, who now face a seemingly difficult choice when deciding where to record their projects.

Conflict Within the Recording Industry

The recording industry has been experiencing an internal conflict for decades. That is, the competition for business between professional recording facilities and do-it-yourself home studios. The debate over the relevance of these two entities is commonly centered around the issue of production quality, and if a professional recording studio is worth the price of admission anymore?

Due to significant advances in digital audio technology, it is now quite easy for a complete amateur to begin producing music of a quality that can rival music produced in a professional studio. Many artists now cut out the middleman, so to speak, with a relatively low cost DIY set-up.

Simple home recording solution

Unfortunately, the cost of opening a professional studio is often astronomical compared to that of a home studio. One needs to find a suitable space for their purposes, spend a great amount of time and money rebuilding and/or renovating the space to the required specifications, and purchasing the appropriate equipment. Disregarding world class studios that can cost multiple millions of dollars to run, even a modest pro studio starts around $250k.

Blue Room Productions, Herndon, VA

As a result, large pro studios are seeing a decline in business, since they need to charge artists more money for studio time than home studios in order to keep their doors open. Generally speaking, the going rate for a professional studio these days is about $90/hour, and that price includes the time spent by the engineer and/or producer running the session. It is not uncommon these days for engineers and producers to be one and the same, though that was not always the case.

The Role of the Producer

Certainly, in what some may consider “the golden days” of music recording, beginning in the 50s and running through the 70s, the manpower required to run a professional studio was much greater than it is now. You needed artists relations (AR) specialists, to facilitate a healthy relationship between the recording artists and the company. You needed a team of mix engineers with strong capabilities and knowledge in the techniques and technology of audio recording. And, of course, you needed a music producer.

When the recording industry was in it’s infancy, the producer had minimal influence on the creativity and sound of an artists. They were, first and foremost, talent scouts; that is they would find the most talented musicians they could and bring them into the studio. Because distribution of music to the masses (via vinyl records, tape, CD’s, etc…) was secondary to the popularity of concerts, the main focus of producers was recording a faithful reproduction of an artist’s live performance. Producers in those days were also seen as “critics” telling artist’s what was wrong with their performances, rather than trying to help them realize a creative vision.

George Martin (center) in studio

Thanks to the rapid growth of the music industry, it did not take long for producers to begin having a more meaningful contribution to the sound of a recording. Some of the earliest producers to be recognized for their work include Phil Spector and his “Wall of Sound” technique, or George Martin for his skillful arrangements that can be heard on many of The Beatles records.

Eventually, with technological advances, producers would be able to create sounds in the studio that did not necessarily occur in the natural world, such as reverb, delay, and saturation. These effects enabled producers to become artists themselves, with the studio as their instrument.

Sadly, as a result of the aforementioned business troubles faced by modern recording studios, the multiple people required for running a professional studio and the roles they had to fill have combined. It is not uncommon to find large recording facilities run by just one person, or a team of two or three. As such, the producer now has to be the engineer and be in charge of AR.

What Makes a Good Producer?

It is worth noting that, even today, artists skilled in composition can lack both the vision and technical ability to self-produce their own records, and that is where the producer comes into play.

Good producers, i.e. those worth paying for their services, are masters of their craft. They have extensive knowledge of musical theory, composition, and arrangement. Furthermore, they are skilled in the use of recording studio hardware, including microphones, consoles, outboard effects, as well as digital audio workstations (DAW) and software plug-ins. They can also use their knowledge of music business strategies to make the best decisions for the artist during the process of recording, mixing, and mastering an album. A good producer is also highly experienced; while an artist may record once album every one or two years, a producer is working on albums daily.

And perhaps the most important quality in any music producer is their taste. Just as movie and television producers know what consumers want to watch, music producers know what consumers want to hear. The skills of producers will be forever evidenced by the records they have produced, which is why different artists seek out different producers. But on constant remains: the career of both the artist and producer lives or dies based on the producer’s tastes.

What It All Means for the Artist

It is safe to say that the music industry would not have gotten as far as it has today without the influence of producers. The work of early music producers laid the foundation for record production and the popularization of music distribution, even through downloads and streaming.

But why should you care? Why should you shell out more of you hard earned cash to record in a professional studio, with a producer, when it is absolutely feasible to achieve equivalent production qualities in a DIY home studio?

Consider the risks. You have just finished writing a collection of songs, and in your mind they are perfect. You decided to record them in a small home studio down the street run by an amateur engineer because he is charging a lower hourly rate than the well-known producer in his recording studio downtown. During the recording process, the amateur is not critical of your compositions or performance, as you are not paying him for his advice.

Then you, as the composer of these supposedly perfect songs, release them on iTunes or Spotify and wait for people to listen to them. And no one does. No one does because you were listening to those songs subjectively, as you were the one who made them, and you lacked the direction and knowledge to know if people would actually like them. If you had worked with the experienced producer rather than the amateur engineer, you would have ended up with a product that people want to hear.

It is very rare to find self-produced artists in the music industry that are as successful as artists who have sought help from independent producers. Self-producing music is something that I struggle with myself. I am constantly writing music and recording it either at home or in studios that I have access to. But I have no way of knowing if my music is actually presentable, nor would I be able to correct a problem objectively if I recognized one existed.

As a recording artist, you need to be in the presence of someone who can be objective about your music when you cannot. You need someone that does not have an emotional attachment to your songs to give you creative ideas, to coach you on how you should be playing or singing certain parts of your songs, to know how a record should sound.

Without a producer, your music simply will not sound as good as you think it does, and that’s the point.