Would you feel cheated if you found out the new song you love was actually created by a completely unknown, unnamed person? Would you feel lied to, deceived? Or would you even care, because it’s still an amazing piece of art, regardless of who held the brush? These questions are more relevant than you may think, because passing off another’s musical talent as one’s own didn’t stop with the shaming of Milli Vanilli.
Such is the modern dilemma for electronic dance music fans, most of whom don’t even realize that the guy credited on Beatport may not have made that new festival banger with the sick drop that’s in heavy rotation. You bought the track, the concert ticket and the T-shirt in support of someone who is — in the simplest of terms — a big, fat faker.
The obvious question is why? Why would you pass someone else’s art off as your own? But even more curious is who? Who would sign over their art for a paycheck?
One man, whom we’ll only call “the Producer,” agreed to speak about his work in ghost production. Because of contracts and nondisclosure agreements, we can’t reveal the names of the noted DJs he’s created tracks for without the lawyers swooping in. Suffice it to say, his productions — under other people’s names — have rocketed into the Top 10 on Beatport as well as nabbing coveted spots on the Billboard charts. This is his story.
The stereotype of the struggling musician is all too familiar: slaving away at the 9-to-5, only to spend nights in the studio, honing your craft, hoping someone out there will hear it. The Producer was doing just that for many years. “I’ve always just had this pulse inside of me as long as I can remember,” he says. “I’d be hitting on cardboard boxes or the table, doing little drum loops and always listening to music and trying to take it apart. I was always curious about music.”
Early influences were East Coast hip-hop thanks to growing up in New York. A move to the Bay Area provoked a grunge/alternative phase. A course at the community college in music production sparked a savant who was quickly asked to tutor other students — plus that meant more lab time for him. Concurrently, members of his street bike crew were digging into the underground scene in San Francisco, as well-known DJs and the music brought on instant inspiration.
“I bought myself my first pair of turntables — shitty-ass ones from Guitar Center — and bought a DJ Dan record (I had no idea who that was) and just picked up random records at the store and started trying to mix all of them. I mastered it in a few months. My friends got together and bought me my first Technics 1200s and all that, and then I slowly started upgrading and eventually built my own studio computer.” The Producer thought mixing was cool enough at first, but eventually he grew bored. The idea of creating the actual music these DJs were playing was far more intriguing.
After graduation from San Diego State University, production went into the “hobby” category as corporate life began.
“I made a good living, so I had my little studio at my house, and I’ve always over the years built it and built it,” he says. “My friends would be like, ‘You can make a living off this, you can do something with this!’” But as the son of immigrants, he felt an obligation to take care of his family, who risked so much to start a life in America. “I thought I would follow that corporate path of ‘go to college, get a job, work the rest of your life, retire.’ I always held myself back with the music stuff. I would come home from work and just make music. I would release it with random labels under my regular name just for fun as an outlet.”
All that changed in 2011 when the Producer went to Burning Man. “You always hear the stories, ‘Oh, Burning Man changed my life!’” he says. For him, it provided an ah-ha moment: “The reason why it changed my life is because I went to Burning Man and I saw people create things that just were like beyond my imagination.” The Producer found a renewed inspiration from the boundless creativity he saw on the playa. “I reflected that upon myself and was like, ‘Am I pushing myself, my mind, my limits as a human being to share what I can make and might blow other people’s minds? I’m not doing that and that’s ridiculous.’” Back at the office of his internet marketing company, he told his partner he was finished and took the leap to making music full-time.
“That’s when I created [my DJ name], started releasing music, and it went really well. I had a few releases, and I was contacted by someone who was interested in managing me who also managed Morgan Page, put me on the map, and set my career on a path.”
His friends were right: His music struck a chord with DJs and producers, but it’s not like the headlining residencies were rolling in and the platinum records were being shipped in bulk. One day he got an interesting inquiry. “I was approached by ‘John Doe’ about how they were a fan of my music. They offered to compensate me to help them produce a track that was under their name.”
The desire to avoid an office job weighed heavily on the Producer. He believes that’s why some ghost producers are willing to use their skills and knowledge to benefit someone’s career who has the money and resources to have a track just produced for them.
“I was offered X amount of money to help this person produce a track for them and release it under their name, without my name on it.” Ghost producing became a means to an end for the Producer, and thanks to his quick studio skills, he still had him time to work on his own projects.
Here’s how it works: The client sends over examples of what they want, the Producer creates a concept and presents it to the client. The client then gives feedback and they go back and forth from there. Alternatively, sometimes the Producer will dig into his personal scrapbook of stems [isolated tracks] and let them choose what could ultimately become a track.
“There could be multiple reasons why people use a ghost producer,” he explains. “Some of them are at that point in their life where it’s too late to go to school for it. Or they’re simply too lazy. Or they like the label of being a DJ, but they understand that these days you can’t just be a DJ anymore to have that fame. You need to produce to stay relevant.”
Is there any animosity towards the client when the track becomes a hit? “I don’t get all butt-hurt or resentful because it was my decision to do that. I see it up there and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s cool, I made something that could be of that level’ and that’s the terms of the agreement that comes with it.”
However, dissecting popular electronic tracks to make new songs in the same vein and cash in on a popular sound has a downside. “There’s a guy, Maarten Vorwerk, and he’s like a celebrity now because somehow it leaked that he’s a ghost producer for all these guys and he just went with it. He’s written for DVBBS, Sander van Doorn, pretty much all the DJ Mag Top 100 guys. When you read that, then it starts to make sense — that’s why everything that is so-and-so, the top 100 charting, all sound the same and are cookie-cutter. That’s because it comes from the same guy.”
The Producer didn’t want to be “that guy.” He had a change of heart this year and is working his way out of ghost producing. “I’ve kind of taken a step back for a minute because the market has become so saturated that there isn’t room for people to just hire other people to make their music for them — which ultimately in the electronic music world is such a big part of your success,” he says. “In electronic music, your talent is your ability to make music, the music that you portray.
“So from my perspective, yeah, I think that these guys, if you can’t make a song and you don’t have the skills to do it, then you shouldn’t be in this industry.”
“That’s just my personal opinion. I think that the reason why you’re successful is because you have the skills to do that. That’s my outlook on it.”
Recently, the Producer’s handiwork — under his own moniker — has gone viral, with over seven million views of a remix he did.
“I’ve seen it all blow up in the last few years, and I’ve seen how much fakeness there is to it and just the smoke and mirrors. I cannot support that anymore,” the Producer says. “And it affects my career, too. For me, I take pride in making all of my own music and influencing other people. People will come up to me and be, ‘You are the reason I started producing or DJing!’ I know it’s genuine. What do you say when you’re the person that paid someone else for your music and someone comes up and they’re like, ‘Oh, your song inspired me so much!’? I’d probably feel like shit, to be honest. I think if you want to be famous and claim that fame, you should be making your own music.”
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