Thursday, June 07, 2001

Six Sigma Music Producer

I arrived at the Elias studios with a global perspective courtesy a childhood spent abroad, and fair amount of musical talent that included both a classical and electronic musical background.

But when I was given the title producer, I was still a novice with a bigger job title than skill set and no mentor, as six months before the production department had disbanded when its members left to start a competing company.

So, I had to find a way how to manage national broadcast audio projects, professionally, without embarrassing myself or the company I worked for.
It's true, in the 'real' world, just about anyone will call themselves a producer. But what does that mean? I can tell you that when a Fortune 500 global advertising company commissions you to produce a project for another Fortune 500 global company, you have better have some real skills to back up that title, other than spinning vinyl at parties or beat matching in your bedroom, or you're sunk.

By the time I became a producer I was certainly a master of the Synclavier, a Pre Pro-Tools computer music production system. So, I understood professional music production quite well. But where I was extremely deficit was on two fronts:

1) Dealing with clients, who I was easily intimidated by, and
2) Managing creative talent, i.e. composers, sound designers, engineers, session musicians.

Well, I had to get over that if I was going to get anywhere.

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 these studies did not reveal, however, was how one arrived at a specific direction; nor did they provide illumination regarding the psychology of audio on specific demographics; nor did they so much as mention how sound might be filtered through brand strategy. Such things I learned 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. I'll write about this development in another post.

Nor did they give any indication of how to manage other people, especially if those other people were more experienced than you. I have to tell you, nothing should scare a novice producer more than suddenly finding yourself in the position of hiring famous musicians and singers and essentially being in charge of telling them what to do, especially when you're not even producing your own track, but someone else's composition for which someone has paid a very dear amount to broadcast at the Superbowl.

Since I was green, and didn’t have a role model I could rely on a daily basis, I began constructing my own Standard Operating Procedures for the production and direction of creative projects (music, sound design and sonic branding for a variety of platforms), and creative artisans. I did this for literally every step in the process until productions of this sort became intuitive, and even after.

Some of the information I gathered, such as from the analysis and modification of legal contracts regarding intellectual property concerns, but other procedures were unique to my evolving management style. I gathered the basic tenants 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 project management and utilize (an albeit distilled version of) Six Sigma as my mantra in the pursuit of creative excellence, even if that is stretching the truth to the point of breaking. Suffice to say I had a professional project manager mentality even if I hadn't all the skills and experience just yet.

I kept a dairy and dubbed my collected notes and the resulting compendium ‘The Production Manual’, and with it established a practical foundation and reference for the production of music, sound design and sonic branding. As I evolved, the Production Manual evolved. By the time I resigned from Elias Arts (then called Elias Associates), those difficult lessons learned had become second nature to me, and even company wide protocols adopted throughout the company.

I would suggest any novice producer do the same; 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? 

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? Well, if you're an adult in this business, then I assume you already possess the commensurate musicianship to advance. But if you're just getting started with electronics and studio processes, 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 on music production. And by the time you retire, you may finally know just enough to actually do your job without referencing your notes.

* * *

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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