Age of Enlightenment: The modern state of the producer
“Musicians are like politicians. They’re the last people who should be making music, just like politicians are the last people who should be running things.”
It sounds “busy.” It sounds “layered.” It sounds “sparse.” It calls to mind this band or that band, and it sounds like something new and different.
Something integral about the sound of the music we love is often guided by the steady, or perhaps not so steady hand of one person. Who is it that’s making these decisions? While there’s no way to predict what any individual listener will hear while listening to a piece of music for the first time, however, there are ways to push the needle one direction or another (often literally). There are methods by which someone with a certain sense of foresight can influence the overall emotional feel of a song, an album, or an artist’s career. As listeners and appreciators, we demand a certain amount of agency in our opinions. Yet, we have to recognize that the overarching sonic techniques utilized by the acts that we spend our time with are all coming from somewhere, and they are being used in a purposeful way to achieve several different ends: selling records, smoothing out and homogenizing an artistic statement. The difficulty in giving an artist a signature sound, or giving the audience anchor points for reference are often completely overlooked.
So, let’s talk about producers.
Along with album mastering, the methodology of production has been considered one of the dark arts of music making. There aren’t a lot of definitions that completely capture all of the nuances and descriptions of what’s involved. The idea of a producer is something that has demonstrably changed over time, and different genres of music have made indelible marks in the holistic meaning of the term. There are some archetypes, there are some rogues, there are some upstarts, but as with most things, the best place to start, in order to gain understanding, is somewhere near the beginning.
Producers started out as exactly what the name implies, they were the makers of recordings. In the advent of mainstream record distribution in the 1950s, producers were the multidisciplined people who made albums possible. In 2017, this sounds like it’s simple in the middle of the 20th Century, however, it is anything but. In those days, records were made by corralling as many musicians in a studio as needed, and making sure that what came out of the session was a viable song or album. There was no overdubbing then, and there was very little that could be done to a recording after it was completed (beyond simple edits).
The producer was the person who made sure that all went according to plan, and that the plan resulted in a product that could go to market immediately. This was less an artistic feat, and more of a one sheer of operational know-how and the ability to cajole talented artists to show up. It required moxie, fortitude and an organizational mindset. While a musical I.Q. would have been helpful, it’s unclear how much of that sense would have actually been a prerequisite in those days.
Then, the 1960s happened. Technology began improving, and producers had more tools at their disposal to use in creating unique soundscapes. In this new era of forward motion, the first producer archetype was born: the man behind the sound. Phil Spector was one of the first (and best) examples of this (his later legal issues notwithstanding). Along with his colleagues and acolytes, Spector created what was known as the “Wall of Sound” production technique. This technique was a dense and lively saturation of instrumentation and vocals made possible by advances in recording (specifically multitracking), and the results were indisputable. “Wall of Sound” recordings jumped out of the AM radio speakers and it had a sound that people had never heard before. His success in achieving something so new and vibrant help bring about a realization to the industry; musicians of the time needed someone who could guide them through the process and use a different skill set to produce albums that would resonate. As good as the players may have been, there wasn’t a recording that would truly be great.
Without another visionary in the room, the producer would be someone who would shepherd the artists, the recording engineers, the rehearsals, and the recording sessions so that everything fell into their idea of what the statement should be. They would be the father figure, the orchestra conductor, the friendly face, and the tyrant; often all at once. Since they were usually employed or incentivized by the record company, their ultimate responsibility was to create records that sold because if they created timeless art, that would be a bonus.
Following this model, Brian Wilson made a name for himself as a producer in his own right. He singlehandedly producing the Beach Boys’ magnum opus Pet Sounds by utilizing ideas first made possible by Spector’s techniques; an album still viewed nearly 50 years later as a singularly monumental achievement in sonic wizardry. However, while he was emulating Spector’s methods, Wilson was actually inspired by the genius, George Martin, who worked on production for The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album.
Wilson was enthralled by the fact that Martin and The Beatles had crafted a cohesive album from front to back, which was a rarity for the time since singles, not albums, dominated sales as a general rule. George Martin was able to use his classical music training to push the Fab Four to new and interesting heights from an arrangement standpoint, and The Beatles kind of did the rest (because, y’know, The Beatles). As the two forces fed off of each other in the studio, Martin was able to put his stamp on such classics as The White Album and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
As the years went on, and after a very potent role in the ’60s, the “producer” role diluted a bit over the ’70s and ’80s. This isn’t to say that there weren’t amazing producers creating mind-blowing and innovative albums in that timespan (Tony Visconti’s work with Bowie is merely one example), but there were less of the “visionary” producers like the ones that had caused such a ruckus in the ’60s. In hindsight, it would seem that at least part of the reason the role diminished was that artists had a firmer grasp on what it was they wanted to present to the world. At this point in time, the artists stepping into studios had been dedicated music listeners in the ’60s, and they had a pretty good idea of what they wanted to be, in a musical and aesthetic sense; they knew how they wanted to sound. Unlike the hit factories of the ’60s, these performers were more complete artists in their own right than they were stooges who happened to know chords and had a pretty face.
As the decades wore on producers mainly just needed to help artists define their vision in realistic terms, and shepherd them to realize it in the recording/mixing process. While the brevity of that sentence makes it sounds dismissive, what this did was pave the way for a new kind of producer in the 1990s; the man behind the board.
Grunge/alternative rock began noncommittally in the late ’80s as a reaction to mainstream rock’n’roll, which at that time was comprised of straight White men obsessed with looking (and sounding) like straight White women. “Hair rock”, as it was known, certainly had a sheen to it. It was glossy, it was flamboyant, and it was just far enough over the line that it managed to retain the rebellious spirit of rock while not alienating suburbanites. Bands like Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden drew from the sounds of the ’70s, and utilized hyperspecific lyrical styling that didn’t shy away from heavier subjects like suicide, drug addiction, and existentialism. Within just a couple of years, this dirtier, more massive, edgier sound soon became the new paradigm. Perhaps out of all the bands of this period, Nirvana benefitted the most from having the right producers.
Nirvana’s Sub Pop debut, Bleach, showcased a new kind of raw talent. Here was a band that could sludge it up with the best of them, but had a knack for catchy hooks, and went about their work with a true “punk” mindset. When it came time for the follow-up, 1991s Nevermind, Geffen Records knew it had to find the perfect person to smooth out the raw power of the trio into something that could get radio play. Butch Vig, who went on to an illustrious production and performing career afterward (he plays in the band, Garbage, and he lent his genius to what I consider the pinnacle of ’90s production with Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream), brought a razor sharp focus to Nirvana’s work on Nevermind. Buffing the sharp edges off of the riffs and mellowing out the vocals with overdubs, essentially making the overall sound much less jagged; therefore, much more suitable for radio play and MTV success. Unlike the old guard, Vig didn’t have to come up with a new roadmap for Nirvana’s sound; he only had to tweak it slightly and make it more palatable. Similarly, Steve Albini (another absolute master in his own right) didn’t have to sell Kurt Cobain on any “new” techniques when he helmed the band’s final album, In Utero. Albini came in with a long list of successes, a style that had already been developed and was well-known, in the respect that all he needed to do was show up on the day and apply his technique to Nirvana’s new output.
Where Nevermind is smooth and dense, In Utero is a scrappier, rawer, and much more of a dynamic album; it is more in line with the band’s DIY ethos. The band knew what they wanted, they just needed to shop around for a producer who could give it to them. Enter one of the most influential and prominent producers in the last three decades, the Dalai Lama of sound, Rick Rubin.
Having cut his teeth in the East Coast punk scene, the ’80s saw him veer toward hip-hop and create iconic works with the likes of the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC. The ’90s were when all hell broke loose; Rubin got into Metal, Comedy, Alternative Rock, Industrial, Country, and other genres. During this time, he developed a reputation for being able to do anything, lending him a sort of “guru” status in the music industry. Having his name on a record meant sure-fire sales and/or credibility. Still true today, with Rubin involved in recent projects by James Blake, Lady Gaga, Kanye, Wu-Tang, and Ed Sheeran (just to name a few). So, using the timeline as laid out above, we can trace the evolution of this role from someone who is the undisputed mastermind of an album as well as its sound into someone who engages with the band, and lends their expertise to sculpt the work into a finished product that both parties can claim ownership over.
In rock music today, bands and labels tend to seek out producers who best fit a particular band’s motif, and can bring out the most active elements of their sound. There is a known stable of producers who each pop up every year or two (Dave Friddman, John Congleton, Nicolas Vernhes, and others). However, with more and more rock bands electing to take on their own production duties, rock producers are more of a hired guns situation, moving from project to project. Nigel Godrich being the exception. Godrich has exclusively produced Radiohead’s albums since the early 2000s, the George Martin figure to a band many consider to be the only contenders to usurp The Beatles’ “GOAT” status, but this arrangement is definitely not the norm. Interestingly, pop music has maintained a bit more of the Spector model as time has gone on. Superstar hitmakers, like Max Martin and Ariel Rechtshaid, have become the new progenitors of this dictating arrangements, and enjoying total control over much of the recording process.
In hip-hop, production has a definition that is paradoxically larger and smaller than anything discussed above. Typically, the producer of a given track is the artist who creates the beat. In this way, they are directly responsible for the vibe of the song, and often all of the music the audience hears. However, (some outliers notwithstanding), they are typically not as involved in the production of the vocals, which means that the overall feel of the song (after vocals and mixing) may not retain as much of their stamp. I don’t want to minimize their role here, but in many ways, the beat is the primary component of the track (or multiple beats primary to the aesthetic of an album). So, it’s hugely important. As proof of this, many producers have become known as full on artistic acts in their own right without the need for a star behind the mic, based on their ability to consistently create great tracks (see: J Dilla, Clams Casino, Timbaland, Swizz Beats). Also, others have gone on to have success as rappers, singers, and/or moguls (see: Kanye, Pharrell).
Therefore, why the evolution of the label of “producer” from a person running a recording session and overseeing everything from concept to product? I would argue that this was a necessary adaptation, a sense of “production” distilled down into a more entrepreneurial base. Hip-hop had its genesis as an iconoclastic form of expression, and its heroes weren’t artists who had multimillion dollar recording studios on speed dial. In that respect, artists had to be ready to produce themselves; the less outside resources needed, the better. Why hire someone to oversee something that they didn’t even understand as an art form (at the time)? Why let outside opinions (that would almost certainly) dilute the outcome? It makes sense for hip-hop to have made its own meaning of “producing” because it broke plenty of other barriers and conventions during its rise to absolute domination.
Then, of course, we can’t forget about the youngest genre of music to gain cultural notoriety, EDM. In the electronic world, a producer can be synonymous with artist (as is the case with Daft Punk and Disclosure), or it can be a label for the “cult of personality” (type figures that do make music themselves, but are just as, if not more adept at drawing other artists to collaborate with, as is the case with Diplo, The Chainsmokers, and others). EDM producers can be more known for their own output, or for the cadre of artists they associate with. In a technical sense, these producers don’t significantly diverge from the hip-hop meaning when it comes to the music-making; they tend to create tracks that are designed for all night playback or for singers to design lyrics around.
Behold, the evolution of producers in the modern era, but what does it all mean? Where are we going from here?
Q: Should we expect the role of producers to continuously fluctuate as do the myriad ways of consuming and appreciating music?
A: I think we should expect that artists are increasingly more educated about how to get what they want out of their sound, and this is true in a universal sense. Even when a particular artist isn’t terribly knowledgeable about the required technology and methodology. Not only that, but more is riding on their image and output than it ever has. This primarily is due to the speed of distribution and consumption. If they don’t make a splash quickly, they are liable to be written off by the media/audience, which can be devastating. Outside of pop music, it is increasingly less likely that artists will be willing to gamble on their vision by entirely handing the reigns over to someone from the outside. There’s no need to, really, because record labels are no longer the ones pulling strings for new recordings; that function has all transitioned to the artist/band.
Q: Do music creators need an intermediary at all?
A: Again, this is increasingly less the case. Whereas a specialist would have been necessary for the past to facilitate any kind of “signature” sound on a recording, these days artists tend to know what they want. In that respect, they don’t need a coach, they need an auxiliary player. Someone who agrees with them on their vision, and can do their part of navigating them towards it. Also, one could successfully argue that another ego in the room while recording is the last thing that anyone needs.
Q: Does the audience have an opinion on this?
A: While speculating about the opinion of billions of people is tricky. I think we can surmise that the decline of the “superstar producer” over the past 30 years has pointed pretty emphatically toward “No.” In the same way that book sales are less generated by the name of the author and more by the mass media (i.e. NYT Bestseller List, Oprah’s Book Club, GoodReads, etc). The pioneering producer just isn’t something that sells a lot of records. (The literary world provides another comparison here when you consider that in the ’40s and ’50s; it was not abnormal for authors to rise to fame and for their books to be read by nearly everyone. At this point, most people would be hard-pressed to name five working authors off the top of their head.) That said, there will always be a selected group of kingmakers in this arena that will command the respect of parts of the audience on the basis of their name or history. Witness the newsworthiness of The Strokes attempting to work with Nigel Godrich on their second LP in 2003… and then the furor caused when Albert Hammond (the senior) said that they were working with Rick Rubin on a comeback album just this year (spoiler: they weren’t, but it remains a possibility for the future).
In the end, the producer’s future may be innately tied to the future of the album as a music delivery system. Many artists are beginning to get out of the 45-60 minute “album” as a staple. Some are going the route of themed EP’s that can be individual or meant to be taken together, and other artists put out singles regularly that aren’t attached to anything more substantial. It’s possible that the producer, in the recording sense, still has a significant space to occupy whenever there needs to be a level of cohesion in order to hold a full album together. Although the story of the album is not yet written, its evolution (or devolution) remains to be seen.
While we can’t know what will come of all of this, we can agree that we have been lucky enough to have producers showing us the way for many of years. As an audience, we didn’t always know what we wanted, and there were times when we received things we were not ready for, or could not have otherwise imagined. For their ability to shock, surprise, thrill, devastate, and move us, the producer has been the hero we needed, and the hero we deserved.