Top 10 tips for being a music producer

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Eliot KennedyImage source, Publicity

Eliot Kennedy is a Grammy Award-winning British songwriter and music producer. Over the last 20 years he has worked with a wide variety of artists, including the Spice Girls, Aretha Franklin, Mary J Blige, Celine Dion and Take That.

He had a number one hit on his 25th birthday, won an Ivor Novello award for Picture Of You by Boyzone, and is currently working with Gary Barlow and Harvey Weinstein on the Broadway musical, Finding Neverland, due to open next year.

Here are his top 10 tips for being a music producer.

1. Watch and learn

I started out as a tea boy, which was perfect because you just get to observe. You sit at the back of the room, look after people, get them what they need but at the same time, you get to share in the experience without being responsible for it.

It's one of those industries where you just have to try and absorb as much as you possibly can. Find a way to be in a recording studio and watch what happens. Experience the psychology of dealing with artists and the practicalities of getting a performance from someone.

You can't teach that stuff, you just have to absorb it. If you've got the right sort of attitude, you can watch and learn and then practise yourself when there's some studio down time.

For someone to succeed in the music industry there's a long line of people that need to believe in that person. It's a bit like being a politician; no one gets there on their own and it certainly doesn't happen overnight.

If you're going to succeed in this business, you learn pretty quick that being appreciative of other people's time, skills and talent is the key to being successful. Being a good, kind, human being is paramount.

You're going to get the odd idiot along the way who is ego driven and awful, but those people tend not to last very long. Those that have succeeded have worked out that their success is largely down to other people and not just their own individual talent.

When artists behave badly, it is often just a defence mechanism, it's just someone feeling insecure. It's your job to get them to relax.

As a music producer, you don't just want someone to stand there and sing, you want them to transfer emotion, which means they have to be extremely honest with themselves and you.

Some people are initially uncomfortable with that, you have to break down all their barriers and so, as a result, bad behaviour comes out - we've all got our own little defence mechanisms when we're feeling uncomfortable.

It's amplified in a recording studio environment, because people aren't always willing to give you that level of honesty and go there straight away, so there's a lot of psychology involved.

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Image caption,
Eliot Kennedy is working with Gary Barlow on the Broadway musical Finding Neverland

I was about 11 years-old when I started writing songs.

My dad was a singer so he would go out and perform and I think I learned my craft as a result of sitting in dressing rooms of working men's clubs in the North of England.

I'd sit there with a bag of crisps and a bottle of pop listening to my dad singing these songs and then have a go at writing my own.

The more you write songs, the more you broaden your vocabulary and the poet inside you.

Your ammunition and your arsenal broadens when you read a lot of different kinds of literature, so I recommend reading as much as possible.

Your lyrics have to tell a story, they have so much of a job to do.

The songs people resonate most with, are songs that are just full of honesty, sound simple and get the message across.

Over the years I've learned that your most important job as a producer is creating an environment in which people want to create and express themselves and that isn't always easy.

Asking people to give an honest performance can be like asking someone to get undressed in front of you. If you're asking people to drop their barriers like that, they've got to be comfortable with you.

Try and be a good person, the best that you can be, then things will happen. Apply positivity to any situation you find yourself in, and don't linger on things that are negative, but use them as opportunities to grow.

You have to be 100% prepared to work hard.

I think it comes from being a Northerner, my dad was Irish and extremely hard working and he instilled a solid work ethic in me.

If you want to be a professional music producer, you have to sacrifice the BMX years as a kid. Those few years when, as a teenager, you would be out on your bike with your friends, as a musician, you can forget about those years, because as a musician you're learning instruments or writing songs.

I can't remember having any more than four hours sleep a night for the last 15 years. You have to throw yourself in and learn how to swim.

Regardless of what I'm doing I need to feel like I've done a day's work, you know, like I've put in the hours, otherwise I can't celebrate any of the successes. I need to feel like I've done my bit.

The truth is, a career in music isn't just your career, it's also your mistress, because you love it, you spend all your time wanting to do it, you'll spend all your weekends and nights thinking about it, you sacrifice a lot of conventional relationship time and that isn't always easy.

The reality is that if you want a career in music, it is all consuming and it isn't something you do, it's something you are.

I've always considered the songwriter and producer's role to be one of integrity rather than one in the limelight. Because I think the job of a songwriter and a record producer is to bring out the artist in the person performing the song.

Twenty years ago, I got a phone call asking me if I wanted to produce a record for Take That. Gary Barlow and I wrote Everything Changes together very early on.

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Image caption,
Eliot Kennedy worked closely with Simon Cowell when he was the X Factor's creative director for a couple of years

I had always had an ambition to have a number one by the time I was 25, that was my life time ambition and believe it or not, Everything Changes went to number one on my 25th birthday.

We've been good mates ever since and I've just been working on my first Broadway musical called Finding Neverland with Gary. It's just fantabulous and it's looking like we might have a hit on our hands which is great!

It's been one the steepest learning curves I've had as a songwriter and the same applies for Gaz. But it is by far the most inspiring and creative thing I've done in my life. It's good to have ambitions and keep challenging yourself.

I think we have a responsibility to keep educating ourselves nowadays. I play a lot of different instruments including the drums, piano and guitar.

I'm a master of absolutely nothing, but what I do have is a working understanding of different instruments and that's important because it means you can get a better performance from the instrument and the person playing it.

I try to see everyone I meet as a good person. Sometimes when you trust people in any capacity you can get your heart broken, but I think it's important not to be cynical. Try to only expect good things and when they do happen, celebrate them. It isn't always easy, I had to learn to be that way.

Maintain a sense of wonder.

I've always understood that anything really amazing was usually born out of a lot of pain and a lot of sacrifice. Because that's how you earn it, that's how things become really great achievements.

I've managed to maintain a sense of wonder of music and it levels me how powerful it is. We wield it about like a child with a light sabre sometimes and we don't know what we're doing.

You have to remember that when your music goes out there and into the world, it doesn't belong to you any more as a songwriter, it belongs to whoever hears it and it becomes part of the soundtrack to their lives.

Music transcends race and age and everything else, it's a truly universal language.

I just happen to be lucky enough to be holding a pencil the day the universe wants to write a song, because I feel like I'm a part of something much bigger than myself and I'm truly grateful to be doing what I do. I can't wait to get in the studio each morning, I love it.

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