What does a music producer do?
There should be no confusion about the role of a music producer. Whether you are a novice, “bedroom” producer, or a Grammy winner, the main aspects of the job are the same.
The first job of the producer is to get to know the artist or band they are producing. It doesn’t matter what genre the music is, the producer must spend some time listening to the music the band or artist has created (or that influences them), and then immerse themselves to best learn and craft their sound. For me, I like to spend a week or two listening to the music (demos of the current project, too) and then sit down and map out the songs one at a time.
This means listening, taking notes, and making a list of the types of instruments that will be used, and who will play each instrument. For example, I can write a hooky horn line on a keyboard, but playing it on a trumpet is a whole different story. This list will become the backbone of your planning around this recording project. If you have many live elements you will need to set aside plenty of time to help arrange sessions for each of these various elements or musicians. This also means making sure that you or the studio and engineer are also ready to record these instruments. Do they have the right mics? Pre-amps? Isolation booth? This will all influence how you capture each element, and will directly impact the whole project.
Working with the artist or band
I tell up-and-coming artists and producers that once you figure out the recording details, including scheduling, it’s about how you negotiate or mediate with each member of the band. If you are producing yourself, it’s much easier, but when you have a group of people, and the drummer wants the drums loud, and the bass player wants the bass louder, and the guitar player wants the guitar loudest…
Well, you get the idea! Everything a producer does is to negotiate what goes in the mix and exactly where it fits in the final recording/master. You need to establish this dynamic in the beginning of the process.
These aspects are the same for everyone who calls themselves a producer. Whether you are working out of a small studio on a laptop, or a professional studio with a huge 96 channel Neve console with flying faders.
- What type of music is the production? (Rock or Jazz will have a totally different approach than Hip Hop or EDM, and a genre like Reggae uses both programmed beats and live instruments.
- Is this going to be created in the box (computer only) or in an actual studio?
- What are the main elements and instruments you or the artist or band will be using? (This is important for scheduling, budgeting both money and time and the agreements/paperwork should be a part of this aspect)
- Who gets final say in the sound of the project?
- Are you doing this as a “work for hire” for a fee, or for a share of revenue or ownership or both?
Quickly breaking down each one of these bullet points above:
You want to understand what the type or genre of music is ASAP as having 10 different guitar tracks vs recording simple Drums, Bass, Guitar and Vocal, is going to determine a lot of the various effects and equipment you might need to make the album sound great.
If this is going to be recorded 100% in the box, it will be much easier to manage, but it may sound “digital” and maybe a bit too clean. You may want to “dirty” up your mixes, or consider using live instrumentation to help enhance the sound. Again, this aspect will play a big role in how much time, effort and budget goes into a project. In the box could take just a month to make an entire album, while tracking live instruments and editing and mixing them could take many months.
Once you figure out the main elements, you will need to determine if they are affordable or possible for this production. To give an example, paying a string section or renting a real Hammond B3 with a Leslie cabinet is going to be expensive. These are aspects a producer will take into account when they are laying out the basics for an album.
Important to the overall production is how much actual say the producer has with the final mixes and overall sound of the album. In the past, a producer would have final say and the Record Label would go with their own ears and thoughts (and the label Execs too) vs today when the artist or band could likely be hiring the producer themselves and they may end up being the “Executive Producers” who have the final say. This is something every producer will encounter. There will be projects that you have the 100% final say, and often, the person who is paying you will have the final say.
How payment works
This leads to our final aspect, the money… Are you asking to be paid one lump sum (or a couple of payments) for the entire scope of your work, or do you expect to be a part owner of the finished, produced music? This is going to be up for discussion, no matter what project you are going to produce.
You will have to decide if the money is enough to cover all of the time and effort mentioned above, or that the up front money is one part of the payment, and you’d like to own a piece of the songs or of the whole project? This will be a negotiation with every project you work on… except your own of course. I will discuss revenue and royalty splits and copywriting and publishing in future articles.
Most folks think a producer rolls into a studio wearing dark sunglasses and after everything is all set up. They wave their hand or snap their fingers, and poof the song is magically produced! This is as far from the truth as any folklore in the music industry. The job of a producer essentially is that of a project manager for a song or album. Again, an artist or band can play a song 100 times, but going into the studio and trying to create a final, fixed and mixed version can take many days and weeks of preparation to come in and make it happen on the day or week of the recordings.
Start by being as prepared as possible. When I first started producing, I created a worksheet template that asked for information for each song. The sheet included the name of the song, key, tempo, length, details about solos or overdubs, additional musicians or elements and then a mini-timeline so I could work on all of the elements as part of that day’s production.
I could work on songs that needed guitar overdubs on the same day, because my sheets had the details I needed for the 3 or 4 songs with overdubs. This type of preparation helps things come together when you are on the clock.
Today, there are many tools that can help you to organize a particular project. I use one called Basecamp, which is a great online project management platform. If you’re just starting out I recommend using excel or something like Google Sheets and create a spreadsheet with the aspects and elements mentioned above.
This will be something you get better at each time you do a project. You will be able to study what worked and what didn’t and what you need to improve on moving forward. I was effective on my first project, but became much better by my 4th or 5th project I did for hire. As I got better and better, my system of project management made it easier to roll in and be prepared for any situation.
How much is a music producer salary?
What Do You Get Paid? Drum Roll Please… It would be hard to generalize this answer to apply to every producer. Of course, starting out, you won’t be paid like Quincy Jones, Dr. Dre or Rick Ruben, but you can decide what your time is worth, and, beyond the actual payment of your fee, you might want to include your total compensation.
The first step toward determining your price for a project, is if this is going to be pure work for hire where you are paid a flat fee for your services, both a fee and some percentage of revenue or ownership, or if there is no upfront fee paid (we call this “Spec” because it’s speculative) but there is a percentage ownership or revenue share in the end.
Let’s start with an easy example equation…
This first is a pure “work for hire” where the producer gets no ownership or revenue share. You start by figuring out how many hours it might take to complete this project. Include all of your planning, time in the studio recording, mixing, overseeing any other post-production (mastering), and then figure out an hourly rate for these tasks. Let’s start with the example of $50 per hour. If you’ve determined that you will spend 100 hours on this project, you can figure out your base fee:
100 hours X $50 per hour = $5,000
Now, think about a more established producer, they are likely making more than $50 an hour, more likely $100 per hour (or more) and that brings us to:
100 hours X $100 per hour = $10,000
Big name, Grammy winning producers might be closer to $200+ per hour. Now you see why producing could actually be very lucrative, depending on how many projects you can do each year.
100 hours X $200 per hour = $20,000 per project, X 10 projects per year = $200,000
These equations provide a simple example to “How much do you get paid”. Of course, it’s not as easy as that most times. Your client might not be able to pay $200 per hour, or even $50 per hour. You might need to negotiate your fee, plus an ownership interest or revenue share.
Depending on your faith in the artist or project, this could be a gamble or the possibility of more than $50 per hour X 100 hours. Let’s visualize:
100 hours X $50 per hour = $5,000 paid fee, but you could also negotiate 25% of revenue for the sale or streams of the project. This could be a lot more money in the long run if the band or artist is successful. Think 25% of $20,000 in total revenue over the life of the release and it could double the amount you are paid.
Again, this is just an example, and most producers will have a number in mind when they negotiate. If they can’t get to the number they want, the next option is to take some sort of ownership or revenue share of the project for some amount of time.
There can and should be a negotiation between the artist/band (or label) and the producer to make sure everyone is happy with the agreed-upon price and terms. The worst way to begin a project would be for either party to be unhappy with the deal (especially the money) before going into the studio.
Once you are established it will be easier to get a price that is in line with your skills and notoriety. If your name helps sell or promote the record because you are established and respected, then your price should go up accordingly.
Original scores and commissions
Original game scores, or being commissioned to do a song or original music for a film may pay even more. There are top tier producers making enough to live comfortably on a couple of big projects per year. The norm would be to produce a half dozen projects a year, making enough from each to pay for your time and skills.
Reputation will drive everything related to your price. In my first productions for other people I got $500 for 50 hours of work. It felt like I was never going to make money as a producer! On my 5th project, my fee was $5,000 flat which set the tone for my hourly rate being adequate to live, and make some additional royalties in the years to come. This speaks to the idea that a successful producer has a revenue pie that includes different streams. We’ll discuss this in a future post.
The first step is, produce a few projects, learn from each and figure out how much time you might spend, and that will give you a good idea of how much you might charge for a song, EP or a full-length album.
I hope this was helpful. Check back here in the coming weeks for more tips. If you want a real deep dive on Music Business, please check out the Indy Artist Business Toolkit, a full course that covers dozens of subjects any independent artist or producer should know.
My name is Steffen Franz and I teach Music Business at Pyramind. I have been teaching music business for the past 14 years, and I’ve been a music producer and label owner for 25 plus years.
I started releasing my own music in the early 1990s and since have produced about 20 projects for my own label, Positive Sound Massive Recordings, and about 30 or so for other people. I have also licensed upwards of 60 tracks to TV, Film and Game Scores. I started Independent Distribution Collective a music distribution and marketing company in 2004 and currently represent close to 900 artists and labels.