How To Become A Music Producer
Discover the challenges and opportunities of music production in our guide to becoming a music producer. Learn what a music producer does and the skills required to make it your career.
Key to the success of pretty much every great album is a music producer. Take the work of Sir George Henry Martin, who is sometimes referred to as the ‘fifth Beatle’ – often, these figures don’t share the limelight in the same way that artists do, working behind the scenes to help realise a creative vision. This is the first bullet point in a music producer’s job description, a role that is somewhat shrouded in mystery and can take many forms.
The path to becoming a music producer isn’t a clear one. Some start as studio engineers, some as label execs or in the sales and marketing department for a big distributor, others from making wicked beats in their own bedrooms. But whilst there is no set route to becoming a music producer, there is nothing stopping anyone with passion and determination from becoming one. And those who go on to reach the top of their game can earn themselves a generous living.
Challenges and opportunities in the music production industry
Navigating your way through the music industry can be tough – it’s competitive, awash with egos and progress can feel slow at times. Breaking into the business of being a producer is no different, a discipline which takes patience, dedication and dealing with uncertainty in order to make a name for yourself. It can be a real grind when you’re starting out, earning little-to-no money producing small unheard of acts, and you’ll need to keep up the day job while you build the skills and reputation required to land jobs on lucrative projects. But, like anything, hard work will pay off eventually – if you are constantly looking for opportunities whilst remaining passionate and on the ball, people will take notice.
Is music production a good career?
Producing can be hugely rewarding not only in a financial sense, but also in getting to work closely with artists and engineers you greatly admire. There is absolutely no guarantee you’ll be raking it in one day either. Above all, it's important to love what you do over making lots of money. Ask any producer – they don’t get to where they are without being driven and constantly curious to learn and develop their skills. So unless you love music, the technical aspects, recording and working with a variety of people, it may not be the right career for you to pursue.
What does a music producer do?
There are many different types of music producers, but all essentially orient themselves around ‘making it happen’. Some have a more hands-off approach, others are auteurs who apply their distinctive methods and hacks to each project they touch.
From the creation of the music, polishing it into its final form and even being hands-on with the creative it gets released with, a producer can be involved in every aspect of the making of a single or record from pre-production, recording, mixing, mastering and post-production. This can include:
- Picking the album tracklist from initial demos of songs.
- Choosing a suitable recording studio.
- Assembling the team (e.g. guest musicians, mixing and mastering engineers) and managing the recording budget.
- Facilitating the creative process by providing crucial input on songwriting and production decisions.
- Editing, sound design and ghost production, often taking recorded stems and reworking them.
- Assisting the mixing and mastering engineer to ensure a desired sound is met.
A music producer will often take the lead on technical aspects of the recording and mixing in particular to try and create a certain sonic identity for acts they are working with. Moreover, producers are normally responsible for any kind of collaboration that occurs on a record, pairing artists with guest musicians, picking mastering engineers and even employing gurus to assist the creative process.
So having deep musical, business and technical knowledge are all very much at the core of what makes a lot of successful producers desirable to work with. This way they bring expertise to the table the artists don’t necessarily carry themselves.
How much do music producers make?
For most people, there are hours of unpaid work that goes into setting themselves up for their first producer paycheck. The vast majority of producers cut their teeth as freelancers and to begin with, you’ll probably only be working on a few releases a year, so it's likely you’ll need another solid source of income for some time.
Once you have managed to secure your first couple jobs, you’ll be charging an hourly rate, or a project fee. This normally starts at around £20 per hour upwards, or say around £200 per track. In addition to upfront fees, producers sometimes claim ownership of projects, which entitles them to collect royalties from sales and streams of the masters.
There will always be a degree of negotiation when you’re starting out, so you need to play a balancing act between taking on projects that will help further your career, whilst not selling yourself short. It’s important not to be greedy and know what level you’re at. But as you start to build up an increasingly impressive portfolio of work, you’ll be able to command higher rates. Bear in mind you’ll always have to work with labels within their budgets and convince them of your worth.
After a while, you may want to go in-house with a record label or studio, which would mean working on lots of projects throughout the year for a fixed salary. Indeed.com estimates a full time producer’s salary as being $38,208, or around £30k. Though most producers prefer to be more selective and stay freelance, this requires having a more flexible attitude to your income.
On the upper end of the earnings scale, figures are sky high. Legendary producer and label owner of Def Jam, American Recordings and Columbia Rick Rubin, who has worked with the likes of Run DMC, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Lady Gaga, is reportedly worth around $300 million USD. Whilst it's hard to say how much of this is tied into his stake in his companies, it's clear his reputation as a record producer capable of getting amazing performances out of people and emotional sound arrangements has been the central reason for his world-class status. The Swedish pop producer extraordinaire Max Martin (Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, The Weeknd) is on a pretty comparable level.
Skills required of a music producer
As we’ve outlined, producers, who are also often credited as songwriters, offer a lot of music input, so it’s important to know your stuff. You’ll be encouraging artists to play with arrangements, develop certain ideas, try out different chord progressions and even telling them to scrap and rewrite entire sections.
Advanced musical theory isn’t strictly necessary, though having a basic understanding will definitely help you argue your point and make decisions regarding structure, melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre and lyricism. On top of that, having a deep catalogue knowledge to reference and look to for inspiration is a big plus and only requires studying by listening to loads of music!
When you’re trying to achieve a certain sound, the question you’ll need to be asking a lot of the time is how to get there. This is where your technical skills come in.
Producers are constantly working closely with recording and mixing engineers (and are often doing a lot of the recording, editing and mixing themselves), fine tuning material to make it sound as slick and interesting as it can. In order to understand the implications of the equipment and tools you’re using, its important to have a fundamental understanding of music production and audio engineering. That way you’ll be able to answer questions that may arise such as:
- What’s the best microphone for x?
- How much compression should we apply to this part?
- How can we get this to sound a bit more aggressive?
- Shall we push this back in the mix with some more reverb?
- How to master a song so it sounds more like x?
For anyone who is considering becoming a producer, it’s important to have a solid understanding of how the music industry works, particularly if you plan to play the role of an executive, as well as creative producer. This would mean being responsible for delivering a release within a budget. Knowing specific personnel who have worked on records you want to achieve a similar sound to will stand you in good stead here.You’ll be hiring musicians, sound and mixing engineers, paying for studio time and handling all the logistics that come with recording the music, so it’s important to know their worth and work to deadlines in order to prevent overspending.
Financial limitations can be useful in that once you’re out of money, that's what will determine the finished product. But you need to make sure you get to a point where artists are satisfied with what they’ve got, otherwise you’ll have to go grovelling to the label asking for more, which won’t always go down well and can leave you with two dissatisfied parties.
Finally, one of the real challenges in becoming a well-regarded producer is the ability to get across to artists what you’re trying to achieve in order to extract the best performances from them. There is no right or wrong way when it comes to how to make music, everyone has to find their own approach and what their ear is drawn to most. Doing this in a collaborative manner requires effective communication.
Developing your own communication style is very important. You may find your rapport is naturally better with certain artists than others, but the best producers have an ability to establish a method of working towards a common goal with a variety of acts. Having strong musical, creative and business knowledge will certainly help you in being able to confidently and effectively elucidate a creative vision, as well as coordinating between artists and engineers working on a project.
Equipment you need as a music producer
Not a great deal of fancy equipment is needed to set up a music production studio and create amazing music these days, which is why teenagers can make hit songs in their bedrooms. As a producer, you should have a basic home studio setup, comprising:
- A computer installed with a DAW of your choice.
- An audio interface.
- Monitor speakers and headphones.
- MIDI keyboard.
- Condenser mic.
Of course, you can’t do quite as much in a home studio vs professional studio, predominantly because in a home studio you’ll mostly be working solo. But a lot of the time, you’ll be taking work home from the recording studio to tweak and refine. Indeed, with modern DAWs you can get a lot of rough ideas down at home ahead of going into the (expensive recording) studio to get the golden take, which can save a lot of money.
How to start producing music
As mentioned, there are many routes into producing – a talent that requires a serious breadth of knowledge. Many start out as musicians themselves before developing the necessary technical skills required. Others start with the studio skills before learning how to work with a variety of musicians. Whatever the case may be with you, widening your skillset as much as possible will give you confidence working on different projects, so the list below is by no means exhaustive:
Develop musical skills and knowledge
Listening obsessively seems to be a key trope for producers and the main way you’ll find what you’re drawn to working on. If you have yet to go to university, consider doing some kind of music degree, be that a more traditional music course which will teach you to perform, score and compose, a technical course such as audio engineering, or a music business degree. Of course, there are plenty of ways you can develop skills and knowledge without formal training too – many of the most successful musicians and producers are self taught.
Learn to play an instrument
If you’ve always had an itching to learn the oboe or the sitar, why not start taking lessons? Get a solid idea of its notation and its limitations. Whilst you don’t have to master an instrument, it will come in useful when communicating with musicians and you’ll be able to offer better input.
Learn how to use a DAW
This is a must. All recorded material eventually makes its way onto a digital audio workstation (DAW). So it’s important to be comfortable navigating and utilising at least one preferred industry standard DAW - Ableton, Logic or Protools, but ideally you should have working knowledge of all three. Teaching yourself the basics on how to edit audio in all three is doable using their free trial period. Moreover, any producer comes with their preferred plug-ins, which they have become very accustomed to over years of use.
Learn technical skills
From recording techniques to mixing and mastering, it's important to be familiar with best practices for each discipline, as well as develop your own unique approach to each process which sets you apart from other producers. Even if you aren’t doing the bulk of the mixing yourself on a project, having a solid understanding of how to mix music will help when working alongside a pro engineer. There’s an endless supply of free online tutorials and articles from which you can gain a load of insight. You may want to exploit technicalities down the line, such as to create a lo-fi feel on a record, but do be sure to do this with intention rather than accidentally.
Build a network
This can take years to do, but the wider a network of industry contacts you have, the more likely opportunities are to come to you. Getting producer jobs when you’re starting out are generally by word of mouth. Make sure to go to gigs, particularly for up and coming artists you’re excited about. If possible, reach out and try to meet the label, management and rest of the team around them to make it clear you are keen to work with them.
Gain hands-on experience
Go out and get the broadest studio experience possible – hit up any engineers you know and ask to shadow them. Work with a variety of artists to get an idea of what it's like to work with musicians and engineers across different genres.
Market yourself as a producer
How are people going to know you are a producer without you putting yourself out there as one? Be sure to get a portfolio of work together so you’re prepared to show people what you’ve done and make yourself visible online. Once word starts to get around and your list of credits starts to accumulate, you’ll find jobs start to come to you.
Things that make you stand out as a music producer
Standing out as a producer is about developing your own sound, which can end up being highly sought after.
Take someone like Dan Carey, whose Speedy Wunderground imprint is designed to eliminate fuss:
"The track is always recorded (and often written) in one day, it’s quickly mastered and sent to be pressed before anyone has the chance to object, and each player is only allowed to overdub one other instrument, with no exceptions. Generally, there is no lunch (“It’s quite good when everyone is hungry”) and, importantly, a good time should be had by all."
On top of this approach, his incredible technical knowledge and unique studio techniques has led him to working with the likes of Fontaines D.C., Slowthai and Kae Tempest.
Education and training
The best place to start looking for music production tips is the internet. On top of the numerous free resources and Youtube tutorials available on the internet (check out Andrew Huang, Future Music and LANDR), there are many great institutions offering music production courses such as Point Blank, SAE institute and Abbey Road to name a few. You could also checkout sites like Masterclass and the companies that make your DAW, which always offer paid courses for beginner to advanced levels. Finally, there are loads of producers out there offering personal tutoring lessons which can give you a great and tailored introduction to producing.
How to get a job as a music producer?
As mentioned, getting work as a producer mainly comes via word of mouth. This is why it’s so important to build up a solid network within the industry. You never know where it will come from - a studio engineer you assisted for a while, a label manager who liked you when you met at an aftershow, or a friend you used to jam with who has signed a fresh record deal. Increasing your contact list increases the chances of opportunities coming your way.
What is the difference between a music producer and a recording engineer?
Sometimes, a producer also plays the role of a recording engineer. If this is not the case, such as on a larger project with bigger budgets, they play distinct roles. A recording engineer, often having deeper specialist knowledge of the recording hardware attached to the studio itself.
What is the difference between a music producer and a composer?
A composer is someone who will generally provide input by writing or notating ideas to be incorporated into the music. They are rarely involved in the technical side or the recording process itself.
What is the difference between a music producer and a DJ/producer?
A DJ/producer tends to be a term applied to DJs who also make their own dance tracks, rather than work on other artists’ projects. Rarely do they end up collaborating, though some do crossover as music producers.
Is it difficult to become a music producer?
Yes, it’s a competitive industry with a large pool of talent keen to work on exciting projects. Don’t go into it thinking it’ll be an easy path!
How long does it take to become a music producer?
There is no fixed answer to this question. Building the network and skills required to become one does take years, so don’t expect it to happen overnight. As with a lot of things, once you get your foot in the door and have a few successes under your belt, things can snowball.
What is the difference between a hobbyist and a professional music producer?
Arguably, the main difference here is that a hobbyist is working for free whereas a professional gets paid to do the job.
Is a university degree necessary to become a Music Producer?
Not at all, though as we’ve established, certain music-related courses can help open doors.
How to become a music producer without school
None of the most successful music producers got there because of their schooling – the best way to get stuck in is with hands-on experience. So spend time in the studio and get out there meeting people.
New technology in the music production industry
Over the past years, some incredible plugins have been introduced, compounded by increasingly affordable gear, this has completely reshaped what’s possible to do with a small studio setup. This development shows no signs of slowing down, with advances opening doors for enhancing creativity and assisting technical workflows – pitch-correction, smoothing out harsh frequencies and analysing stereo fields.
The next frontier is going to be no different to any other field: AI. There are already a number of plugins employing AI, a tool that can be applied to many aspects of the process – taking some musical input and generating multiple ideas based on this (e.g. Google’s Magenta), automatically mixing and mastering (check out Soothe, Neutron and Ozone), as well as writing entire songs in the style of X (e.g Botnik Studios’ emulation of a Strokes song).
Does this mean producers are going to be out of a job soon? Personally, I don’t think so. As with all new technologies, particularly in the creative field, how you apply them to your process is going to determine whether they will enhance your ability to produce amazing music, or otherwise. At the end of the day, as humans we like to ascribe success to other individuals and create idols out of our favourite artists. So as long as you remain the one making decisions and don’t become over-reliant on AIs, it’ll still be you calling the shots.
How to get started?
Given that there is no one way to go about starting a career in production, the best way to start is by focusing on aspects you find particularly interesting, be that the business side, the recording process or producing tracks in your bedroom. There's nothing stopping you from opening your DAW, picking up your guitar or reaching out to artists you really want to work with. Remember, you’re only at the beginning of a long and fascinating journey.