Last week, we talked about some of the things that can get in the way of finishing your album. This week, I'd like to show you some paths around the obstacles that stand in your way, so you can reach the top of Mt. Completion, gleaming record firm in hand.
Note: I realize that the term "album" is becoming outdated as we move away from physical media, toward more online-heavy releases, singles, and playlists. However, for the purposes of this post, we'll stick to that antiquated term to refer to any project where you are recording a piece of music and attempting to get other people to listen to it, regardless of the platform or method you use to distribute the finished work.
Once you decide to complete a project of any size, you have just become a producer, whether you realized it or not, and whether you want the job or don't. As we've discussed in other posts, a producer's job is to guide the project to its final destination.
Some guys get more involved in the music and writing, while others stay high-level and just deal with finances, hiring/firing, time management, etc. If your band is made up no one else but you, then you have 100% of the burden. If your band has more members, then you may be able to divide up some of the work. However, just like your high school or university projects, one person usually does most of what needs doing.
You and/or your band may decide that such responsibilities are better placed in other hands, and pass that work on to someone with more experience. That's a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and tons of musicians go that route. Just know that you will never be totally removed from the job of finishing your project. The producer you hired might quit, or he might suck at his job, or he might take your money and run... any number of things could still go wrong. At the end of the day, it's still your project.
What will you do in your job as a producer? Pretty much everything.
The trick of becoming a producer is owning the role. You have to know where you fit in the project, figure out what needs to get done, and then you have to go and do. What is it you'll do exactly? Well... pretty much everything. That guitar needs re-stringing and everyone else is busy? That's you. The organist's car broke down and he can't get to the studio unless someone picks him up? You may be that someone. Always remember, you do not make or accept excuses. You get the job(s) done, at any cost. Bonus points if you can do it without pissing off your friends, loved ones, and bandmates, and/or going bankrupt.
That's the overall picture. Here's some more specific aspects of your new role:
The most important element of being a producer is that of leadership. You are a captain, laying out the strategy, recruiting and inspiring the soldiers, and you are the first to charge into battle, waving the flag and brandishing your sword, fighting shoulder to shoulder with your brothers-in-arms. Entire books are written about effective leadership every year, so I'll simply summarize this massive topic with the following quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood, and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
Your job as a producer is to provide the vision, and channel the energy of those who follow you.
When people have a vision that they are invested in, they will work hard to make it real. Your job as a leader is to provide the vision, and then channel the energy of those who join you. If you yell and demand, throw tantrums, and swing your weight around like you own the place, you'll probably end up doing all of the work alone, if you even have a band after you're done behaving like a petulant child.
A good producer does not run away from conflict. He manages it. He negotiates. He barters. Believe me, there will be conflicts, even if they're only small skirmishes. No group of creative human beings can be locked in small spaces for long stretches of time without encountering a disagreement of some kind. Fires don't usually extinguish themselves, and ignoring conflicts does not lead to solutions or finished work. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
A producer makes the big decisions, and learns how to handle disagreement. He takes and appreciates input from everyone, but at the end of the day, if no one else can or should make the call, he does not hesitate. He cannot hide in the kitchen while the engineer and bassist scream at each other about bass tones. He realizes that 100% consensus is a rare occurrence, so he makes concessions and compromises. He knows that even the best leaders are usually only able to please 60-75% of the people, which of course means he is displeasing the remainder. As such, he must carefully select his battlegrounds, and when and how he will "attack."
You'll have to learn how to be sensitive, to pay attention to people's moods and patterns, and make decisions based on that information. Is your drummer frustrated to the point of a meltdown? Maybe it's time to take a break, get some food or drink in him, and BS about sports for 15 minutes so he can go back to the session with renewed energy and concentration. The drummer may be such a perfectionist that he refuses to accept this, and wants to continue to plug away, increasing his frustration, and delaying everyone else in the process. A producer knows how to talk that drummer off of his throne in spite of himself.
You have to be patient and encouraging with people who need that kind of support, and firm with people who need the kick in the ass. Every musician is different. Some people thrive under pressure, while others freak the hell out. Remember, "the red light burns." You may think you know your band members, but you will never really know a person until you see how they behave under the sinister glow of that unforgiving and soulless red lamp.
It's like Bruce Lee's character said in that campy old TV show, "be like the water." Water can crash with the strength of a tidal wave, or flow and wind with the gentleness of a stream. Like the water, you have to adapt to every situation.
You have to follow through. If you say you're going to be at the studio by 10:00 am, you are there at 9:45, smiling and holding a carton of coffee for everyone else. You told your mastering engineer you'd send the final tracks by today at the latest? You make sure it happens. Hitting or missing deadlines, even the little ones, sets the tone for the whole project, both for you, and everyone else participating in the making of this record.
A producer is knowledgeable of his music, which means he is well-versed in the genre, and has a basic, if not advanced understanding of the instruments and parts that go into the songs. He may not be able to play the bagpipes, but he can decide if the bagpipes sound good on his song, and can communicate with the piper about the parts she is playing.
Communication is another critical component of this job. I've worked with a producer who was a great multi-instrumentalist that knew his genre backward and forward, but was condescending and insulting whenever he communicated with a musician or engineer. It's usually not a great idea to rip on a sensitive artsy-fartsy musician when they're under the unrelenting pressure of recording a piece of music.
Being a producer means you have to communicate in 5 or more languages. You have to become conversant in "drummer-ese," ("do the shuffle beat here"), "guitarist-ese," ("straight 8's for the verse, chugs for the chorus") and the nuanced dialects of instruments you've never even seen, let alone played. If you absolutely can't speak these languages, you need to find someone who can translate. In a band, there's likely someone who can take what you're saying and put it into musical terms for the performer.
If you get the right musicians, you'll have to do much less work as a producer, and the project will be easier on everyone.
You have to get good at casting. Woody Allen said that if he's done a good job of casting, he doesn't need to provide a lot of direction for the actors when they're filming, so he can focus on the million other things that are happening on set. As a result, he typically does far fewer takes than other directors, which saves money, energy, and time, while still keeping everyone engaged, and on their toes.
The same principles apply to recording. If you've got the right musicians in the studio, the producer has to do very little directing and explaining. There's less stress, because the musician can play exactly what you're asking without having to watch a YouTube tutorial.
As a result, the sessions and days are shorter than they would be with an amateur who's learning while your budget is draining. If you only have to do 3-4 takes as opposed to 42, and the days are 8 hours instead of 10, everyone is much happier. I have worked with rookies, and I have worked with vets. I will take vets every time.
A producer knows where the buck stops. When I've hired engineers and producers for my projects, I have made it clear that at the end of the day, I'm paying them, and the final calls are made by me and my band. They don't like the bridge we put in? Sorry, I do, so it's going in.
Making those kinds of calls is sometimes necessary, but you must remember that it is a nuclear option, and should be treated as such. Whenever possible, you should get as much buy-in as you can. Pros are typically better at handling rejection and disagreement, but everyone has feelings, and most musicians are sensitive about their art. It's also their name going on this product, so while it is your final call, don't be surprised if they fight to their last breath. The trickiest part of having nuclear weapons is knowing when to use them.
Those of us who don't have a ton of money probably don't want to admit it, but paper currency is a Swiss-army knife that solves a whole host of problems. Can't find someone to play that banjo solo you envisioned? If you've got enough cash, all you have to do is post an ad on Craigslist, and in a matter of hours, if not minutes, you'll have the next Bela Fleck in your studio. You want your recordings to sound world-class? Get enough money together, and you can lock out a cutting-edge studio and a crack engineer for months so you can work out your opus.
Cash is a Swiss-army knife that can solve almost any problem.
The problem is, many musicians are not typically overflowing with extra cash. I can't give you a ton of advice on where to find money, but as I said last week, it helps if you're willing to waste your life savings, max out cards, and stay home while your friends party so that you can afford to hire a good engineer. If you're willing to put in the work, but know that you're terrible with money, chances are that someone in your band or family is, so sit down with them and work out a budget and a plan to meet it.
When you hit the studio, the money flies out the door at high speed. Keep tabs on it! Spreadsheets and Evernote-type apps are your friend. Keep track of every dollar you spend, otherwise you might run out of funds earlier than you thought. The other side of that is what you spend may be a write-off at the end of the year, but you'll need receipts in order to claim it. Don't take my advice on this, talk to an accountant.
In my experience, most musicians and industry people prefer to deal in cash if possible. I won't speculate as to why, but I can tell you that if you give a session guy the option of "check" or "cash," 9.9/10 guys will opt for cash. This is important to know if you're planning on paying for your entire project with cards.
Most legitimate studios will accept cards, but unless you're going to take a cash advance from a card (which I do not recommend), you're going to have to have some real money for anyone else you're paying. You could also consider paying the studio with a card, and have them pay the musicians with cash, but you'd obviously have to clear that with the studio in advance.
The last thing I'll say about money is, if you're pooling funds between multiple band members, be open, forthcoming, and clear every time money is discussed or distributed. Keep records, and make them available to everyone. Map out who is paying for what, and when -- before you start your project.
There is nothing more volatile to a band than the mistrust that can arise from dealing with someone who is either irresponsible or shady with money. The old expression "trust but verify" applies here. Receipts, card statements, and communication are key. Assumptions, forgetfulness, vagueness, and mismanagement will sabotage your working or personal relationships.
I've been a creative type my whole life, which I always defined as having few or no limitations on your ideas and work. You think outside the box, you envision a better box, you refuse to accept that the box even exists. That's all true, but an interesting twist on that mentality is that limitations can be quite liberating, and freedom of choice can be restrictive. What the hell am I talking about?
Limitations can be liberating, the freedom to choose can be restrictive.
"Analysis paralysis" is an affliction that plagues the creative personality. When you believe that the possibilities are endless, you might suddenly realize that the possibilities are... endless, and you might spend so much time choosing, revising, and editing, that you never finish what you started. This is especially problematic for musicians with home studios. There are no deadlines, so there is no pressure to finish, and, surprise, you never finish. However, this applies to people with big budgets as well. The pressure of all that money that you've invested drives you to a higher expectation of perfection.
I set deadlines religiously, much to the annoyance of my bandmates, producers, and engineers, but I do it because that's how stuff gets done. I am my own record label executive, barking at myself and my band that the record has to be done on time, and within the budget. These deadlines and targets may need to move, or you may not hit them all. But the one project that I did not set any deadlines for is the one that took three years to complete. The worst part is, the record doesn't sound like it took that long.
When you start a project, you need to create a map. Where do you need to go, when do you need to arrive, how will you be traveling, and how much do you have to spend? Almost no adult would set out on a roadtrip without answers to these questions, but many of those same people announce to the world that they're going to record an album having never considered when it should be done, and how.
It's never pleasant to say "I'm sorry, I can't wait for you anymore," but you will most likely have to say it more than once.
This also may mean that you have to make some sacrifices, and change your plan at the last minute. I cannot tell you how many times I've had to say "I'm sorry, but I can't wait for you anymore" to another musician. It's never a pleasant conversation to have, but you'll realize that other people simply may not share your priorities. Sometimes, it's very difficult for us to accept that.
You as a producer are the captain of a ship that leaves the dock on schedule. Those on board wanted to sail. Regardless of what they might say, anyone who didn't make it to the dock on time had other priorities that kept them on land. This means you may not get that vocalist you wanted. You may have to drop a band member. You might have to compromise your precious vision. It happens. Do you want to sail, or don't you?
By "sailing," I mean, do you want to finish your project? Then you must remember, there are no excuses. You may have some real and challenging limitations placed on you. Oh well. Producers are resourceful, and can work with, around, or through anything that stands in their way.
You might be surprised just how empowering it is to have someone tell you "no," "that won't work," or "it can't be done." I don't know about you, but I love proving people wrong, especially when it has to do with my creativity. Don't accept rejection as a statement of who you are, or what you can or can't do. Take it as a dare to do what you set out to do, and to do it better.
The plague of perfectionism is a different strain of the no-deadline virus. Creative types are editors by nature. We see the flaws in everything, especially our own work. We have taste, a creative vision, and high expectations, so when our product doesn't meet those expectations, we can often short circuit and shut down.
If you say your album will be perfect, I will know you've never actually made one.
A large part of making an album is realizing that your work is going to have some flaws. Some parts will never sound quite right, some performances will not be up to your standards, and some songs won't live up to your expectations. You may even have to deal with a flub or two. "Not on my album!" you say. "I would never let a mistake get by me." Sure you wouldn't, junior. Talk to me when your record is printed.
I won't lie, this aspect of production sucks. But so many things go into a recording that it would be impossible to be happy with all of them. You may never come to terms with that drum tone. Live with it. Lean into it. Laugh about it. Learn from it. Those harmonies may grate on you for the rest of your life. You may play that song much differently now than you did when you went into the studio. This stuff happens.
Part of growing up as a musician is realizing that you "cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the finished." I don't know where I picked that quote up. After some googling, it seems to be one of those sayings that's been around in different forms for thousands of years. It's stuck around that long because it's true. Here's a more polished and profound-sounding version from Confucius: "Better a diamond with a flaw, than a pebble without."
I'm not saying you should walk into the studio unrehearsed, throw down some sloppy takes while chugging a beer and expect to fix everything in post. Far from it. Rejecting the idea of perfection is not an excuse for laziness. Rehearse to the point of injury. Demand excellence from yourself every day. Practice the most difficult musical passages until you can't stand to hear the song anymore.
When the big day arrives, charge into the studio, clear-eyed and full of passion, and nail every performance with the hammer of diligence. Then, get comfortable with the fact that something, however small, is going to slip by you, and your engineer, and your band. It's going to happen. Come to terms with it now, so it doesn't sting as much later.
If you want to lose weight, don't start out saying that you want to lose 100 pounds. Start with 5. I've lost over 100 pounds, and kept it off for over a decade, so I know of which I speak. In losing those first 5, you will start to see what works and doesn't work. You will feel satisfied and accomplished. You will stoke the fire that drives you to greater success.
You can bring that mentality to recording, particularly if this is your first trip to the studio. Maybe don't aim for a full album at first. Try an EP of 3 songs. Try a single. Get to know the system. Fail a little. Figure out what works. Get a sense for how your band behaves in the studio, and what your final product sounds like compared to your vision. Then, once you've gotten a better handle on things, you can take a swing at a bigger project.
Finishing a project is its own reward. Even if everything went to hell, and your album totally sucks, you've summited a mountain that has bested many other climbers. You will have learned things about yourself, your work, and the people you work with, things one can only learn from experience. You will have completed your job as a producer. You can say to yourself and others, "it sucks, but at least I finished it."
Finishing an album is its own reward.
There are few greater feelings than hanging a framed album on your wall. It may not win awards, it may not get the world's attention, but you did it, and no one can take that away from you.
If you gained some knowledge or insight from these posts that led to a finished work, and you want to share it, I'd love to hear from you. I wish you way more than luck with your projects.
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