Thursday, March 30, 2000

Producer's Syllabus Series

What does a commercial music producer do? –you ask. Believe it or not, more than simply choosing guitar/amp configurations. Read all about it via these key articles from the Producer's Syllabus Series*:

Producer's Syllabus

*I'll be updating the entries from time to time, adding links to external sources as I come across them.

Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Cheeky on Demand

If you'll allow me, let me toot my own horn here (pun intended) in order to provide what I think is an important example regarding the producer's role in the recording studio:

I once worked on a symphonic track (MCI "Kids In Space" :30/:60) where a sixty-piece orchestra had finished a session and its members were waiting for authorization to be released from the gig. With the clock fast counting down to the hour, we were conducting repeated playbacks in the control room, making sure we had everything we needed. Finally, with minutes to go before we ran into overtime, the agency's creative director (Mike Lee/MVBS) decided he wanted to add something ‘cheeky’ to the mix. The composer and I looked at each other: It was apparent that neither of us Americans really understood what 'cheeky' meant.

When the composer came up empty handed, it was my turn to have a go at it: I gave the percussionist some verbal direction ("hit this, hit that when I cue you...") Then I turned around and asked Larry Alexander, our engineer, to roll tape while I cued the percussionist exactly where I wanted him to add the new music design elements we had just discussed.

The result?

Cheeky on the spot, as it turns out!

To me, this is the essence of producing –being able to produce fast improvisational solutions on the spot, with tremendous economic and personal consequences hanging over your head if you make the wrong decision, or you go one minute overtime.

Call yourself a producer? Besides a turntable and a record collection, you need to have a million ideas at your disposal to solve any given problem; all of which work within an allotted budget and schedule; and you need to be confident enough to step up and demonstrate or personally execute them as required by the situation, in front of any number of people. Sure, I could have fallen flat on my face in front of half the New York Philharmonic, not to mention Messner Veter Berger McNamee Schmetterer, but fortunately, I didn't.

Thursday, March 09, 2000

Music Producer as a Cool Hunter

The general public doesn’t often realize how much music is created as a reaction to something else.

Record companies will sometimes sign a band –not because they’re ground breaking revolutionary artists– but because they sound like the another ground breaking revolutionary artist on another label's roster; or because they sound like another demonstrably successful band on the label's own roster.

In Hollywood, film composers often receive their assignments in the form of rough edits of footage upon which the director has synched ‘temp’ music. That is, he or she has 'borrowed' existing music from another source, even another movie, and is using that music as both a placeholder and a creative brief to audio artisans who might be commissioned to produce final sound.

In effect, the movie director is asking the composer to use an existing score as the model for his own score. That's why every time you watch a chase scene, you're usually subjected to a version of French Horns over Tribal Timpani drums. Because everyone is essentially being asked to follow the same model.

Commercial ad music is also created in similar fashion, and advertising professionals commonly call temp tracks 'needle drops'.

My old employer, Elias Arts, compiled playlists of potential needle drops to present to clients as possible options to model a bespoke track upon, and called those playlists 'Concept Reels'. 

However, while I appreciated the facility with which a temp track, needle drop or concept could communicate direction, I was never completely comfortable with the implication that professional composers would actually model a so-called original work using an existing work as a framework. As a producer, such temp tracks have many utilitarian uses, but as an artist myself, I still held a rather romantic notion of the independent composer.

The reality was, however, I was never going to stop the film, advertising and media industry from the practice of modeling tracks, one after the other. However, I did subscribe to the belief that I could train my clients to employ temp tracks not as models to A/B final production against, but as a lens for genre. 

As I explained to my partner at Blister Media, an Audio Style Guide was less a model and more a 'creative brief' for composers and sound designers. It was, to be sure, and idea I borrowed from watching my parents and sister, all commercial artists at one time or another, when they worked with swatches and ‘Style Guides’ as a means to establish direction.

By my measure, an audio Style Guide would indicate musical or sonic direction by providing existing musical references for inspiration. But none of the ideas are meant to be used a model, and the less one listens to the Style Guide, the better. Ideally, the client will only here the track prior to production, and thereafter A/B against his or her initial impressions of the track. The reason being is that repeated listens of any track will often create familiarity in a given work's creators, such that they become attached to the track. Therefore: listen, analyze and draw conclusions that lend themselves to proceeding forward with a creative brief. Then put the style guide away.

How did work? It worked great:

Audio Style Guides clarify verbal instruction, provide convention, genre, trend analysis and may act as a tempo map. But they are never meant to represent a blue print for composition or design.

Style Guides might also include non audio sound sources, such as trend analysis and image swatches.

My theory is that –at least with commercial clients– advertisers don’t so much want to plagiarize another piece of music (although they do sometimes), but rather they are commissioning the composition an original work that captures the popular zeitgeist of a current trend, or the hallmarks of a broad genre.

Thus, it is important for commercial music producers to keep abreast of not just music styles, but of all the aspects and manifestations of a trend.

Of course, learn the methods of composition, performance and production by which a style is created. But also explore the reasons –beyond audio cues– as to why fans are attracted to any given artist, work, or genre. That means being a bit of a cultural anthropologist as well as a musician.

Why would a style guide designed to serve as a creative brief for an audio professional include non sonic sources? Certainly a piece of music can indicate direction to a composer, but equally: visual elements can serve to inspire both composer and client, by adding culturally significant anthropological evidence pertaining to a given demographic.

To borrow a phrase, be a cool hunter.

A cool hunter is analytical in the observation of trends/fashions as they sweep through the culture. It takes neutral eyes and ears to accurately identify and analyze any given trend, much less several; and then capably communicate the applicable variables to others assigned the task of creation, so that they might inform their work with the fruits of your research.

No doubt about it, derivative creations are standard operating procedure in the media production process. But better to have a comprehensive understanding of the intended audience, than to simply rely solely on whatever first stimulates one's ears via a ‘temp track’, 'concept' or 'needle drop'.

Wednesday, March 08, 2000

Music Producer as a Brand Strategist

My professional journey began with a songwriting habit, a sound designer’s skill set and a composer's dream. What I didn't realize as a young man was that my employers would identify in me –and further develop– an aptitude for project management and a marketer's instinct. Both of these skills would serve me well when what I thought would be a recording studio career unexpectedly spilled over into advertising and media.

I anticipated a job hanging over an engineer’s shoulder. There was much of that, of course. Although I was indeed held responsible for insuring every project achieved a standard of broadcast ready excellence, my job often came closer to being a brand strategist than an engineer or composer.

Brand Strategy is the conceptual ‘Pre’ in the pre-production process. Here are just a few of the skills required for the Commercial Music Producer who is also acting as a brand strategist: When presented with a project–

–Consider the user base/consumer demographic/audience for which the work is intended
–Consider the context and technology the work will be experienced
–Consider brand, marketing and/or entertainment strategy.
–Conceive, pitch and develop a suitable musical or otherwise sonic creative direction
–Estimate cost, bid job, negotiate budget
–Review applicable legal contracts and make or suggest amendments as necessary

Also, specific to a given project:

–Analyze the platform, experience, script or storyboards
–Participate in story or experience analysis
–For venues, devices, games, kiosks and other electronic media, identify what gestures or actions trigger an audible response, and the nature of that response
–For long format video/film or multi-layer web sites, identify how the sound or score evolves (or not) as user/viewer progresses through time or layers

Of course, not every commercial project requires Brand Strategy skills from the music producer –especially since audio is often developed long after the creative direction has been established. But producers may find themselves act as brand strategists when they participate at the very conception of a campaign, or product launch.

Regardless of when one gets involved, one is certainly expected to be capable of acting as a Brand Manager on behalf of one's clients.

Tuesday, March 07, 2000

Music Producer as Marketing Director

It's surprising to some people, but in fact many professionals with the title 'Executive Producer' may not ever produce in the creative or technical sense of the word. Rather this breed acts as defacto sales representatives for the company they represent. While it may not sound as glamorous as hanging in the studio with the talent, I've found that some of the most successful companies are helmed not by great creative talents, but by great sales people. My own strength is squarely in the management and directing of a creative production, but I'm still required to collaborate with sales teams to win and close jobs.

You simply can’t be in this business and not sell. Utimately, no matter what your position, you're in sales.

Whether you work for yourself, represent a roster of composers; it often falls to the producer’s shoulders to drum up business. Here are a few of the skills you’ll need in that arena:

–Nurture a working knowledge of –and relationships with a– pool of potential clients that includes advertising producers, art directors and copywriters, TV executives, film and video directors, editors, and broadcast designers
–Attend or throw –and network at– industry events/trade shows/parties/conferences
–Participate in the creation of sales campaigns, marketing collateral and in house events in order to attract clients
–Develop presentation skills in self and nurture the same in in-house staff
–Create demo reel, and/or maintain online presentation of work
–If applicable, produce additional branded video promo for reel
–If applicable, supervise the design and packaging of all branded materials for self or company
–Make cold calls as applicable
–Conduct presentations/give speeches/write articles/conduct seminars, as applicable in order to garner client interest

Sound like fun? No, I didn't think so.

Monday, March 06, 2000

Music Producer as a Project Manager

Music Production has its dry side, too. And I don’t mean searching for that elusive hook. I mean scheduling; renting gear; managing the traffic of elements; et al.

In some ways, if you don’t know how to manage your time, it doesn’t matter how great a composer or conceptualist you are, because you won’t be awarded the job.

Don’t worry if you don’t have all the skills at the outset. You probably won't, if you’re arriving from either an academic or creative background. Only experience will help you gain the requisite ability to:

–Establish and control a budget
–Establish and manage a schedule
–Establish and guide a creative direction
–Perform the multi-directional administration of artistic and technical talent for any given project; indeed for multiple projects being developed on overlapping time frames
–Manage traffic of elements (more complex than it sounds on for even a modest project)
–Keep clients informed of progress
–Arrange and conduct a presentations of works in progress at pre-agreed milestones
–Note revisions and clarify client expectations with client and creative team (make sure everyone is on the same page)
–Supervise integration and testing (of non-broadcast projects)
–Insure final delivery meets technical, artistic and contractual specifications and expectations

In-house, you'll need to:

–Maintain a working understanding of music/studio technology and make recommendations and purchases on behalf of studio
–Keep studio running at maximum efficiency and in a state of readiness for client meetings and presentations
–Keep abreast of union regulations and changes: SAG, AFM, and AFTRA
–Prepare and submit appropriate paperwork to applicable guilds and unions
–Follow Up with Client Experience
–Bill & Collect from client
–Pay talent, vendors and manage expenses
–Manage facility operations and staff

Sunday, March 05, 2000

Music Producer as a Talent Scout

As a Music Producer in the commercial arena, you may be in charge of staffing your production facility –without the benefits of a Human Resources department. In my experience, Human Resource professionals are useful staffing administration positions, but in order to fill creative positions, I had to assume the attitude of an A&R exec or talent scout, and go find what I was searching for. More often than not the best hires did not start out as a perfect match for a given position, but developed into a star performer.

You can find the people you need by simply placing ads and sifting through the responses that the ad generates. But I also went to a lot of clubs (someone has to do it); talked to a lot of university teachers; handed my card out to tons of buskers; and generally introduced myself to every musician, engineer and composer I met everywhere I went.

Here are some of the skills you need in order to scout & develop talent:

–First, you need good ears. Is this a lost art or what?
–Charm. Honestly, I don’t have a lot of this, but guess what: music is a people job. Learn to turn it on. How else will you develop and maintain relationships with artist management and talent agencies? Half your job is cultivating relationships with, and understand the individual strengths of a pool of freelance talent that includes musicians, singers, sound designers, engineers, composers, songwriters, DJs, audio producers and software programmers.
–As much as artists don't want to be to be pigeon holed, you'll need to do so to some extent in order to identify those most suited for working on any given project
–You also need to know how to solve human resource problems: You will necessarily be required to audition, hire and fire, –as much as the latter pains you.
–You must also possess a thorough understanding of the process and be a capable artist yourself, because invariably the day will come when you will need to teach someone what to do in order to accomplish an assignment.

Saturday, March 04, 2000

Music Producer as a Creative Collaborator

Collaboration. This is the fun part: Choosing the right composer; creating or suggesting arrangements; directing performances; scaling back the reverb; space flange or death flange? On such decisions are international advertising campaigns launched.

You'll pick up a lot of world class tricks working with dedicated engineers, but you'll develop your own arsenal of 'sonic solutions' working alone, usually in the middle of the night, when recording your own tracks.

In this way you'll pick up first hand knowledge regarding the mysteries of:

–Directing world class performances
–Assigning musical roles or parts to specific performers based on reading a notated score or hearing a synth arrangement
–Composing, arranging, re-arranging, mixing and remixing of tracks
–Performing musical or vocal parts, as applicable
–Designing sound effects; and creating or suggesting the use of specific samples for any given project
–The specific strengths and weaknesses of microphones, amps, drum sets, guitar set ups, and any other gear as applicable
–Choosing your team. Unlike working with a band, commercial music producers often select who is going to perform what on any given track.


Friday, March 03, 2000

Music Producer as a Creative Leader

A Music Producer working at a commercial music house is a conceptual leader who manages the creation of audio projects from conception to creation. Sometimes he or she will share the management of a creative vision with a dedicated ‘Creative Director’. Just as often they will assume the directorial role as well, especially if the music or audio being developed is based on a concept that originates with them.

As with the title ‘Producer’, the title ‘Creative Director’ denotes one in leadership position. Dedicated Creative Directors guide creative teams to meet the creative requirements of a project.

Unless one is trying to convey authority as a sole proprietor of a studio, without a team there’s no point in calling one’s self a Producer or a Creative Director. Think about it: It would appear a little gratuitous if you went to an art gallery and the painter claimed that not only did he or she actually paint every stroke to produce the picture in question, but that they also ‘directed’ painting of those strokes as well.

Some artists –like Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol– who actually do (or did) command teams of other artists to execute their specific vision are exceptions to this rule.

In any case, both the terms 'Producer' and 'Director' imply one who leads a group of people delivering a creative project form conception and development to execution and delivery. Depending on the organization or project, the specific skills and responsibilities of a Producer and a Creative Director may or may not overlap.

Commercial Audio Producers may or may not also have an administrational role within a company. This role might encompass everything from managing the facility to participating in corporate strategy.

Thursday, March 02, 2000

Career Arc of a Commercial Audio Producer

My career began as an aspiring songwriter, composer and sound designer. By the time I was 23, I had not only a classical music training, but I had also mastered the Synclavier Operating System, –the Pro Tools of its day– and I was hoping to leverage this then relatively uncommon skill set into a job as a producer’s creative assistant.

Academic connections pointed me to Jonathan Elias, who was not only fresh off producing a Duran Duran album, but who staffed a music house that created a lot of music for TV and Radio commercials.

I took the first job Elias Arts offered me, which was an unpaid Administration assistant, essentially a gopher/receptionist position. From there I worked my up the ladder. By the time Jonathan left to open up a satellite office in California, I was producing many advertising projects. A year later I was promoted to Senior Producer, whereby I shared management requirements of every project with Alexander Lasarenko, the New York office’s dedicated Creative Director.

After leaving the company, I became an Executive Producer for Machine Head New York, and assumed not only Creative Directorial duties for all projects generated in New York, but also became responsible for leading east coast sales.

In 1998 I co-founded Blister Media, the first dedicated audio facility that provided coding to interactive clients in addition to the usual composition, sound design and supervision projects.

Along the way, I provided music supervision, and produced music, sound design, Foley and sonic branding projects for Television and Radio commercials, film projects, Network and Cable Channel packaging, online ads, interactive websites, electronic games, electronic devices, theme parks, in-store kiosks and other venues.

My duties included conceiving music directions and directing projects to completion; composing arrangements and directing re-mixes; creating sounds and sound design libraries; putting together music libraries for television networks; offering license suggestions and creating sonic branding filters to and for Fortune 500 clients.

In this capacity I contracted and collaborated with band members from hugely popular rock bands, members of the New York Philharmonic; and prominent engineers, conductors, arrangers and talented musicians from all over the world.

One of the great satisfactions of this job is watching talents evolve from unknowns to stars before your very eyes (and ears).

By necessity, I also estimated and negotiated bids and contracts; reviewed story boards, technologies, and venue experiences; produced creative briefs and created audio brand filters; and spent as much time with advertising professionals, brand strategists and negotiating contracts, as I did in the studio sitting at a synthesizer making music.

There’s a lot to learn, and it takes years to do so. The profession has it’s ups and downs, and can generate lean years, but it’s also well worth the journey.

Wednesday, March 01, 2000

What Does a Music Producer do?

I’m going to spend the next few posts writing about the skill set demanded of today’s music producers.

Most people hear the job title 'Music Producer' and think of someone who works for a record label and makes sure bands rock. George Martin, who I think everyone knows as being famous for being the Beatles producer, is the archetypal model of being a music producer. Martin is called ‘the fifth Beatle’. He didn’t write the songs, but a master arranger, he certainly enhanced them.

Martin also represents a classic model of music producer, i.e., one who works with an artist to create not just a good recording, but a complete entertainment experience.

I am a different kind of music producer. Call me a Commercial Music Producer. My job resembles the producer of a film score when I'm working on a TV commercial. But when trying to brand a multinational corporation with sound; produce navigational sounds for games, websites and devices; or package theme park environments with audio; it becomes something else altogether –in fact, many things altogether.

Regardless of whether one produces entertainment or the kinds of audio experiences that I work on, there are many kinds of people –with varying skill sets– that make up this professional community. Audio –like Film– is all encompassing, and while some careers are market by multi-skilled masters, most projects are managed or directed by niche specialists.

People who wear the ‘Producer’ moniker might be producers of the George Martin sort. Or they may be music supervisors, radio programmers, software specialists, artist/DJs, engineers, composers, multi-instrumentalists, sound designers, project managers –or simply, just person who owns the most gear– and more often, the person who controls the finances. Master Producers fulfill several, if not all of these mentioned roles, and then some.

Today’s music professionals may also accumulate an additional interactive skill set, and some advertising savvy; in my own case, less of the former, and much of the latter.