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Are the days of the record producer numbered?

About the author

Miranda has been a feature writer for The Observer for almost twenty years. She is the paper’s radio critic and writes regularly on pop culture. She is a presenter for BBC 2’s The Culture Show, specialising in contemporary music, art and theatre.

(Copyright: Thinkstock)

(Copyright: Thinkstock)

With the record industry facing changes and cut backs, Miranda Sawyer looks behind the scenes to find out how this affects the role of the mysterious figure behind the mixing desk.

The music business, like many businesses, is shrinking. Jobs that were once vital are deemed extraneous: every artist does everything for themselves, whether that’s booking the gigs, doing the PR, or finding the audience. And, of course, recording their own album. Who needs a producer when you can do the whole thing yourself on your laptop, in the comfort of your own bedroom? What does a producer bring to music?

“No one knows what a producer does,” says Ben Hillier, who happens to be a highly respected one: he’s worked on albums by Depeche Mode, Elbow, Blur and The Horrors. “That’s because you can do the job in lots of different ways, from recording everything, helping write the songs, playing the instruments, to just setting the band up with good assistants and engineers and walking off to have a long lunch.”

Dan Carey has produced artists as varied as Bat for Lashes, Lily Allen, The Kills and Kylie Minogue. “How do I do the job? That depends. With acoustic or indie bands, I might turn all the lights off, put on a smoke machine and a laser, just to get them to play in a different way. It’s a lot to do with the experience of playing, a feeling that produces a sound.”

Production line

In times past, such techniques never fell under scrutiny. Bands used to hole up with a producer for a few months, often at a residential studio, and be left to their own devices – and vices – until they came up with an album. (The classic example is the two and half years, two studios and three producers it took for The Stone Roses to record Second Coming). But in these busier, more penny-pinching days, that’s rare. Instead, an artist will work with a producer for a week or ten days, before being snatched away to go on tour, or do promotion. A month or so later, they’ll come back.

“I’ve made albums in a fortnight,” says Carey. “No one wants to pay for weeks and weeks of studio time any more. You can’t mess about, you have to decide what you’re doing, do it and it’s done.”

But shorter working periods mean less time for band and producer to get into the zone, that special space where surprises happen and true creativity can fly. It’s hard to be truly experimental on a time-is-ticking shift. Added to which, jumpy record companies will now demand to hear tracks long before they’re finished – which, says Hillier, can be a disaster. “The biggest fear in a record company is a failure and people have a remarkably narrow imagination. If someone hears an unfinished but really exciting idea, a rough mix, they’ll say, ‘Hmm, not enough bass drum’. And that kills confidence, which is what music is all about.”

In the 80s and 90s, there would be an A&R [artists and repertoire] department to protect the band from such interference. A&R men - they usually were men – were big characters, minders-come-PRs who ‘got’ the artist and sold the idea of their album within the record company before it had even been finished. Now, says Hillier, the producer has to do that. “You have to cue up a track, explain why it’s exciting, what’s so amazing about it before you play it. If you do that, then it will always get a better reception.”

Multi-tasking musicians

These days, artists can sell themselves, if needed. They can fight their own fights. And they can certainly create their own sound. Demos, those scratchy tapes of scrappy acoustic ideas, are almost dead, especially for artists who make electronic music. You don’t need to make a demo when you can produce the whole thing yourself.

Carey acknowledges that many electronic artists turn up to work with a near-finished piece of music on their laptop. “They want you to redo it ‘properly’, but you have to be careful,” he says. “You might kill what’s brilliant about it.” Often, he says, a producer’s help is needed for the vocals – “they need re-recording” – or to take out the more generic sounds that come from producing on computer software. “They might not know that there’s been about ten other records that have just come out that week that use exactly that sound.”

And Hillier points out that, with a first album, a musician has the luxury of time. “An artist can sit at their laptop with a mate and work up a not-great recording into something amazing through post-production,” he says. “But with the second album, they won’t have that. They hit a brick wall because their mate doesn’t know how to get the sound they want when there’s only a few hours to get it down.”

So, it seems, the record producer is not out of a job just yet. And unlikely to be so, even if there is less money to spend. Artists are strange characters, happy to noodle and experiment until the cows come home, and the audience moves on. Bands are an on-going argument (usually between the singer and the guitarist). A producer is the person who makes sure that the band is arguing about their music, rather than their girlfriends. A producer stops the jamming and says, “Do that bit again.” A producer keeps the suits away until they’re absolutely necessary. A producer is the person that gets the record made.

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