Thursday, June 07, 2001

Six Sigma Music Producer

I arrived at the Elias studios on the third floor of 6 West 20th with a global perspective courtesy a childhood spent abroad, and modest but then eclectic musical talent because it included both a classical and electronic musical background.

Two years later, Scott Elias promoted me to Senior Producer, but I was still a novice with a bigger job title than skill set and lacked a production mentor at a critical time in my professional development. Six months before, the production department had disbanded when its several members left to start or join competing companies. How was I going to manage what had once been the responsibility of a department?

In short order, I had to quickly find a way how to manage national broadcast music and sound design projects without embarrassing myself or the company I worked for.

Anyone of any skill level can call themselves a producer. But in the world I inhabited, a producer was the first and primary point of contact between representatives of a Fortune 500 brand, a global advertising company, or a film studio, -and also the person who translated those incoming business or communications problems into creative assignments. And those people -the clients and the creatives- were generally seasoned and experienced experts with little patience for people who were not. 

So, how did I level up? By the time I became a producer I certainly understood professional music production, but I was extremely deficit on two fronts:

1) Being green and an introvert, I was often intimidated by people I perceived as important.
2) Being a producer at a commercial production facility requires not just an understanding of music theory or audio gear, but a comprehensive understanding of intellectual property law and film production.

I still recall managing my first recording session and having to work up the courage just to nudge the famous record producer and recording engineer, -Josh Abbey- that he had 15 minutes to wrap a mix. He turned his head, and gently swatted me away like a fly on a hot summer day.

Well, I knew I had to get over treating important people like important people if I was going to get anywhere. I had to see them as ‘us’, and realize we were working together for a common purpose, and for our mutual benefit. 

I also needed to become as good at my job as our clients and creatives were at there jobs. 

It was a tall order. I had to become a knowledge expert and be able to comfortably talk shop with advertising executives, brand strategists, lawyers, film directors, editors, composers, famous actors, musicians and singers (and later, game developers and software engineers, too). It wasn’t easy, but I wasn’t the first producer in the world, -other  done producers had done it. In fact, all producers do it. Not to mention that working for a busy facility meant I had many role models among our clients, partners and colleagues. So, it was a solvable problem, and this is how I did it:

First, in order to advance my understanding of how a music or sound design project is managed, I scoured archived boxes of job folders and studied every single job for the four or five years prior to my appointment. I reviewed whatever creative specifications might be still be available; I then compared the brief to bids; and compared the bids to contracts, invoices, AFM, AFTRA & SAG contracts. As a tandem exercise, I followed the paper trail with digital audio and Video Recordings from demo to final. In this way, I learned a great deal about the production of all variety of commercial audio projects.

In short, I learned to connect the dots between the creative and the business.

What the documentation did not reveal, however, was how one arrived at a specific creative direction; nor did they provide illumination regarding the psychology of audio on specific demographics; nor did they so much as mention how a communications mandate might be filtered through a brand strategy in order to inform an assignment in sonic branding. I learned those things by way of actual experience, on actual jobs and working alongside people who were experts in their respective fields, and whom I was fortunate to have access to. In this regard, Alex Lasarenko provided me with an excellent education in film music and aesthetics, and played a significant role connecting my ears to my eyes. I already had a long-standing interest in semiotics, but Scott Elias and Audrey Arbeeny helped transform my thinking from towards a brand mentality. I'll write about this development in another post.

As for management: I have to tell you, nothing scared this novice producer more than suddenly finding himself  in the position of leading a project for which a monolithic brand has paid a very dear amount to broadcast on the Superbowl.

If only there was a text book I could have referred to learn music and post production management. But since I didn’t know of any, I wrote my own. And I did this by cobbling every little bit of advice I received until I could systemize my own set of Standard Operating Procedures for the production and direction of creative projects (music, sound design and sonic branding for a variety of platforms).
It helped, I must confess, that I had already gathered the basic tenants of project management from my father who was  a project manager for General Electric, and who had managed the construction of Desalinzation plants, Power Plants and energy facilities around the world. As a result I like to think of myself as the world’s first music producer to understand Critical Path method, and I utilized (an albeit distilled version of) Six Sigma as my mantra in the pursuit of creative excellence, -that is, I made every attempt to minimize imperfections. Suffice to say I had a professional project manager mentality even if I hadn't all the skills and experience of a music producer just yet. 

When I eventually found myself with two large three-ring binders full of organized notes, I called the resulting compendium ‘The Production Manual’, and with it I established a personal and practical foundation and reference for the production of music, sound design and sonic branding. As I evolved, the Production Manual evolved. And by the time I resigned from Elias Arts (then called Elias Associates), all those once complicated or difficult lessons had become second nature. Not to mention that protocols I developed had been adopted throughout both of our offices in New York and Los Angeles, and continued to support the organization for some time thereafter.

I would suggest any novice producer do the same as I did; a sentence or two every day is enough: who did I work for, what did I do, what did I accomplish, what did I learn? What went right? What went wrong? Is there a process? 

If you can manage it, your production manual will also serve as a collection of the legal and business paperwork you receive from clients that can be used as boiler plate documents for future projects, and commonly referenced items, such as basic union rules governing the hiring of musicians and singers.

What else goes into the professional journal? The project specifications, the creative brief, a list of internal and external personnel and a post-mortem –essentially a synopsis of how the project concluded, problems or obstacles and how they were resolved, and lessons learned.

What gets saved to your computer? Every single digital document and electronic communication regarding the project, from both internal and external sources.

Sound like a lot of information to keep? It is, and you'll be adding to its volume for the length of your entire career.

Did you notice I haven't mentioned anything about music? If you're just getting started, I recommend another notebook altogether which you can use to keep notes on actual studio production.

In essence, you're writing two text books as you proceed: one is on the business of music production, and the other is for tracking your creative and technical development. And by the time you retire, you may finally know just enough to actually do your job without referencing any of your notes. Bonus points if you also can share this knowledge with others you meet who want to walk down the same path you did.

* * *

By the way, if you really have no experience producing music at all, I recommend buying and beginning with Propellerhead Software's music production program REASON. It's the closest thing I know that teaches traditional studio signal path. What that is and why that's important would probably sound nonsensical to you right now, but in lieu of interning in a recording studio, REASON is as good a place as any to start.

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