Although the position of record producer seems like a modern aspect of the record business, the job has been around from the beginning of recorded music. Through the years, the profession has become more refined in terms of responsibilities, but the job has become more complex as well. To illustrate the evolution of the music producer, here's an excerpt from my Music Producer's Handbook that breaks the profession into three distinct eras which we’ll call “the early record label era,” “the mature music era,” and “the independent era.”
"The Early Label Era
Although recorded music goes as far back as 1857, it wasn’t actually turned into a business until around 1900. Because of the primitive nature of the recording equipment, the recordist acted as more of an archivist than a producer in that he (it was almost always a man) was just trying to capture the music onto a medium suitable for reproduction. The composers, arrangers and band leaders of the day had final say in regards to the direction and style of the music, just as many do today.
Several pioneers of the era including Ralph Peer and Lester Melrose (more on them in a bit) began to record less accessible and popular forms of music in an effort to target specific audiences with the music they were recording. The “producers” of this period were part talent scout, part entrepreneur, and part technician, sometimes going on location and holding massive auditions until they found the music that they thought to be unique. They were also some of the people who eventually gave the music industry and record label executives a bad name by stealing copyrights, not paying royalties and stereotyping groups of people with terms like “hill billy” and “race” music.
The Mature Music Era
As the music industry matured, record labels began to employ men (once again, they were almost always men) specifically to discover talent, then shepherd that talent through the recording process. These were know as “Artist and Repertoire” men or “A&R” men that were in fact, the first vestige of the producer that we know today. Unlike the A&R men of today who are mostly talent scouts and product managers, A&R people of that era were usually well schooled in music, being talented composers and arrangers themselves, and were in charge of everything from signing an artist to finding songs to overseeing the recording, just as today’s producers do.
But producers began to have more control over production as magnetic tape became the production media of choice. Now it was easy for multiple takes, and as two, three and four track machines became available, the ability to separate instruments brought a whole new palate of possibilities. First the first time, the producers role became as technically creative as it was musical.
Still, producers off the era were little more than label employees, sometimes not even receiving a bonus despite being directly responsible for the success of the labels artists and their sometimes massive amounts of label income (such as the case between EMI with George Martin and The Beatles).
The Independent Era
As the technical possibilities continued to soar, so did a quiet rebellion on the business side of production. Even though independent record producers existed going back to the 50’s with Sam Phillips (of Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis fame), Phil Spector, Creed Taylor and Joe Meek, they all had their own record labels and it was lot easier to be in control as a producer if you were the label owner too.
The true revolution began when George Martin left music giant EMI to go independent in 1969. Until then, producers were little more than salaried staff with no participation in the profits they had such a big part in developing. After having to fight for a small bonus after The Beatles literally made EMI a billion dollars, Sir George decided to use his considerable leverage to obtain a piece of the action by leaving his EMI staff position and going independent. Soon many other successful producers followed, being able to cash in on large advances as well as a piece of their best-selling artist’s pie.
Figure 1.1 Sir George Martin in a Session With The Beatles
But fortunes turned, as they so frequently do. After a while, record labels began to see producer independence as a bargain by being able to wipe out the overhead of a salaried position by turning the tables to where hiring the producer became the artist’s expense instead of the label’s. This meant that the label could afford the best production talent in the world and in the end it wouldn’t cost them a dime as long as the record sold.
As time went on, the producer took more creative control, becoming everything from a coach to a guidance counselor to a psychiatrist to a svengali. Some producers like Holland-Dozier-Holland at Motown and Stock-Aitken-Waterman used a factory approach, where the artists were interchangeable and subordinate to the song. Some, like Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, had a grandiose vision for their material that only they could imagine until it was finished. Some like Ted Templeman, Tony Brown and Dan Huff, Moby and Dr. Dre changed the direction of a style of music. And some like Quincy Jones, saved the music industry from itself and started the longest run of prosperity it would ever see."
To read additional excerpts from The Music Producer's Handbook and my other books, go to the excerpts section of bobbyowsinski.com.
Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.