How to Make a Living as a Music Producer - From People Who Have Done It
Featuring Philip Magee (Kodaline, Wild Youth), Auburey Whitfield (Little Mix, Charlotte Kelly of Soul II Soul) Brian Casey (John Blek), Christian Best (Mick Flannery) and Chris & Marcin of Diffusion Lab (Soulé, Jafaris, Hare Squead, FLYNN, All Tviins)
Wanting to make a living in any creative field is an elusive and gruelling undertaking - accompanied with very little guidance. It is a venture that you give your entire existence to - and no matter how overwhelmed you get or how many times you are on the verge of giving up; you always come back to it.
Wishing to become a full-time music producer is no different. Figuring out how to support yourself and build a career based on music production is an area not only plagued with mystery, but seems next to impossible. However, the only way forward in any field is to learn as much as you can from those who have become masters at what they do.
In the below article - I speak to some hugely successful music producers who share their wisdom and advice on how they built their careers. All have different stories, all have different experiences - however each are unanimous on one aspect: aside from the musical and technical aspects of this profession - the most important part of being a producer is being someone that people like to be around.
Music Producer/ Recording Engineer /Mixer/ Musician - Kodaline, Wild Youth, The Academic and Miles Kane
✅ Follow the music that you know and love
- Following the music that you know and love is one of the core principles that has lead me here.
- When I first started out I wasn’t thinking about the money - I was thinking about how I could make the best music. This mindset allowed me a huge amount of freedom to choose what projects I wanted to work on. Working like this shows in your work and speaks for itself - the only way to get another job is to do work that precedes you.
- I didn’t go and work in huge commercial studios in London- as cool as this would have been I would have just been working on random projects. I would not be able to chase down the projects that caused me to develop and hone my own signature style as a producer.
- If you hear something you like from an artist or a band do not be afraid to approach them. This is what I did in my earliest days as a producer and it is how I met the bands that went on to achieve international acclaim. In college I would work in the recording studio at night which was near the rehearsal rooms. If I heard something that I liked I would go and ask the bands if they wanted to record in the studio. With Kodaline, I was a judge in a talent show they had entered - I asked them if they wanted to do some recording. I had a small home studio that I had built and I recorded their demos for years.
- 50% of production is song selection. I get the artists I work with to send me as many demos as possible - and from here we find the golden nuggets - you can tell a lot about the magic of a track by the raw quality in a demo. My job is to bring the best out of the artist, so I try to challenge them and get them to work as hard as possible on these tracks.
- In the studio you need the artist to feel as comfortable as possible, to the extent that they feel so happy in this environment that all walls come down. Ask about the lyrics – get the artist to really open up about the meaning behind the track - this emotional honesty and rawness will show in the recorded performance.
- I leave you with this - follow what you know and love. Don’t just work on a genre because it is prominent and popular at the time if you don’t love it. When you are working on a track or album that you are deeply invested in and passionate about - you are bringing what you are good at and this will speak for itself. The harder you work, the luckier you get. Don’t be plagued by what others think - be honest in every aspect of what you do, commit fully and most importantly - trust yourself.
Brian Casey of Wavefield Recordings
Music Producer/ Engineer/ Multi-instrumentalist - John Blek, Clare Sands
✅ Have a side hustle that feeds into your developing skill
- Prior to running my studio full time - having an income stream from playing live was fantastic for a number of reasons. For one, gigging did and still does get me out into the real world outside of the studio. I could trace almost all of my studio clientele to people I met while gigging in the live circuit. It was also useful that I could invest in something like a keyboard or guitar amp from what I earned, and these had double value to me, as both a gigging musician and as a producer. However, more than anything I most valued being able to sharpen my musical chops and knowledge of arrangement, by seeing first hand what makes people respond to music etc in a live environment, all of which is more useful than any technical knowledge in my day to day work in the studio.
- Having side hustles that feed into developing skills which can be applied to the job you want to do is really important. There will inevitably be a point where you have to consciously figure out if the side hustle is becoming the main hustle, and whether that is ok with how you want to live life going forward.
- The reality of producing records definitely isn't for everyone and is probably not what many people imagined it to be starting out. I know I've had to adjust my own expectations in certain ways, but I've really enjoyed figuring out that it is all about serving the artist/song, and much less about equipment, or my own self indulgence.
- Some people wouldn't want to do this job unless they got to work with chart topping sensations or household names, but I personally find working with newer artists incredibly rewarding. I really believe its vital to work on every project as if it is the next big thing or something that will get huge attention, because it is extremely important to the artist to treat their projects with respect and care.
- So many people think about building a studio, or establishing a career based on what they have imagined these things to be, instead of looking at what is out there and at what the artists within reach really need. I'm constantly pushing to learn and I am challenged every day, more than I ever was at school or university, Aside from binging on audio podcasts and youtube channels, I put a lot of thought and energy into evaluating what our clients need, and what will give them a positive experience. For example looking into why would they and others choose to book into the studio in the future, instead of going elsewhere or doing it themselves.
- It can be mentally exhausting especially when working 6 day weeks etc, but I'm lucky that my partner also works in our studio business now, and having her to bounce ideas off and question all aspects of the business/our work is beyond valuable and it feels like the business takes on more personality the more it becomes a team effort. Its equally fun and frustrating to think that I've been recording and playing music for over 20 years now and am still learning more and more every day from my clients, from online sources, from friends and last but not least my own mistakes.
Music Producer/Engineer/Musician - Little Mix, Simon Webbe, Charlotte Kelly- Soul II Soul
✅ Being a music producer has a wide variety of definitions
- Before going into producing I was an artist for many years. It was during this time that I developed all the skills needed to become a successful producer - such as songwriting, completing productions in multiple genres, mixing, basic mastering, engineering and organisational and project management skills. A producer is often the most experienced musician and songwriter in the room, so it's important to be really good at all of these skills before entering a career as a producer.
- One of the most important things I did early on in my career was to get together a showreel of my best work. I used my own self-produced songs and recorded some local talent to get together a showreel of about seven really good productions. I used this to generate paying clients by scouting for artists on the likes of StarNow.com. After I had a decent amount of releases under my belt I was able to join marketplace sites such as Soundbetter.com which opened the doors to many new projects and income streams. Producing is a tough job, and there's a lot of pressure involved, but it is the best thing I ever did and I wouldn't change my career for the world!
Christian Best of Monique Studios
Music Producer/Engineer / Session Drummer - Mick Flannery, Clare Sands, Pontious Pilate & The Naildrivers
✅ Always care for the artist and be someone they want to be around
- The busiest producers are the ones that are not only brilliant at what they do – but people like being around them. When an artist comes to you for production remember that it is not about you - it is about them. Always say yes to the artist (within reason) as this is always a good thing. Care for your client – if you feel that they are slipping a bit and getting down – build them back up and address something positive they have done.
- Learn how to read and lead a room – the producer should be leading the ship for the client.
- Most importantly - look for projects that genuinely you want to do. This not only makes your work more enjoyable - when you are thoroughly invested in a project you will go the extra mile and this will speak for itself. This leads me into my next point. It is what you don’t get paid for which is what makes all the difference. If you are willing to go the extra mile on a track for an artist this is what will propel you forward as a producer. Give 120%.
- If there is a project you are approached to do but it is in a genre that you don’t have much experience in but you really want to work on it - either do it cheaper or do it for free – use it as practice.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out to people you are interested in working with.
- It might seem a good idea at the time to say yes to everything - however when you take on too much work – won’t be able to commit and deliver in the quality of if you paced yourself.
Chris Bubenzer and Marcin Ciszczon of Diffusion Lab
Music Production / Mixing / Mastering / Artist Development - Soulé, Jafaris, Hare Squead, FLYNN, All Tviins
✅ Don’t neglect the business and networking side
- Put in the hours and know your craft. 20 years of messing with DAWS and synths in my case but I’m a slow learner.
- Find the right team (teamwork is key ) Know your strengths and find people to help you with your weaknesses.
- It’s called the music business for a reason. You do need to learn the business side of things - mechanicals, publishing, splits are key to building your knowledge of the industry and giving yourself more confidence.
- Become a people person, be nice to people ( this goes a long way ) Clients will come back if you're nice and they like being around you.
- Not every client will be your taste in music - but be open and try your absolute best to achieve the artist's vision. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself as a producer.
- Never just assume that a client knows all the music and tech terminology ( This is specific to being a producer or mixing engineer )
- Always try to have a portfolio of your work ready to email or show and network as much as you can. It is all about the people you know.
✅ Don’t limit yourself - be as versatile as possible
- Learn your hard skills, then pick and master one. That being said - still be as good as possible at other stuff (ie. if you're mixer - try to learn recording techniques, producing, playing instrument(s), music theory. The more versatile you are - the more useful you are for others.
- Try to produce (mix/master/record, whatever you do) various kinds of music, don't stick to one. Also make sure to listen to all kinds of music - don't just stick to one genre.
- In the college where I studied years ago, there was a brilliant one: "It's not about turning knobs, faders, equipment, etc. It's about people". This is a people industry. You need to become a people person.
- Turning knobs (or using a mouse, or pressing keys, etc.) is the easiest part of it all.
- Remember - it is not about you - it's about the artist and the product.
- Don't quit. Take a rest. And come back. You need to recharge. Music is not everything.
- You don't need tons of equipment. Train your ears.
- You can't polish a turd, but you can learn a lot from it. And this will help you in the future.
- Make your own (mixing) templates and use them as starters, as this speeds up the process a lot.
- Never stop learning, evolving and growing.
A huge thank you to all the producers who took the time to share their knowledge and advice with us for this article on what it takes to make a living as a music producer.
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