Becoming a Music Producer: Part 3 – Developing a Career and Making Money

In the third installment of his series on “Becoming a Music Producer,” Dubspot contributor Michael Emenau tackles the big question of how to make money and have a career as a music producer. Just in case you missed the previous two installments of this series, check out parts one and two.


How to Make Money and Have a Career as a Producer

This is the big question. This article looks at the situation from the point of view of someone who is just now trying to enter into the world of producing. While there are opportunities to be had, I will not be painting a pretty picture. The demise of the music industry is a well-documented subject–revenue is down, competition from other entertainment sources (video games, social media, etc.) is up, and the few existing record labels spend a fraction of what they used on artist development.

Not all is bad though. Technological advances have liberated the artist to create, release, and promote without the restrictions used to exsit. The advantage that you have coming to the music business today is that you don’t have any experience of what it used to be like. You can be open to whatever twists and turns happen, without expectations of how the system should function. In some ways, experience with the old system puts people like myself at a disadvantage–my gut reaction is still to find a label, or at least an organization that resembles a label, make/release an album, and tour it around for promotion and sales. While this model still works for some, this perspective can be a hinderance when considering new approaches.

If someone came to me and said: “We can make a digital image of your music and instill it into pre-packaged coffee grounds, and when someone drank the coffee, she could hear your music and would search you out and pay you via Paypal.” I would be very hesitant to pursue this approach as legally and ethically it seems a little dicey. I am exaggerating the coffee music to make a point that as a newcomer, not beholden to the past you can see opportunities, which will be blind to me. The only thing I can guarantee is that the future model for the music business will be dramatically different from what currently exists.

So lets look at the opportunities of trying to go on your own and produce music.

  • Produce your own tracks. This approach provides you with no money initially, but leaves you free to do what you want creatively, and monetize the music any way you can: licensing, sales on digital music sites, promotion to get paying gigs as a DJ or band, or attract paying clients. These tracks will be the calling card for your online presence, so be sure to pick only the music which best represents the music you wish to produce. This is how most of us start: we make music because we love it. In the beginning, making money is of no concern. It’s important not to lose that feeling when your passion becomes your business as well
  • Produce unknown Singer/MC/Band - This is a real source of revenue, and how one creates and negotiates these relationships will often dictate the success of the project. The challenge is that unknown artists are often convinced that they can’t afford to pay a producer, and are unaware of the skills a producer can bring to the table. It’s best to take an honest and realistic approach, explaining what you will provide and how this will be to their benefit.The artist has already invested a huge amount of time, energy, and resources by paying for lessons, instruments, recording equipment, and by spending thousands of hours working on music. However, one of the strongest arguments you can make is that hiring you will save money in the long run: the music will be created faster, and the results will be stronger than if they do it all themselves. Getting great music quickly to market means they will be able to make money from their creation sooner rather than later. In my experience, the most expensive part of a production is simply the cost of living. An occasional studio, mixer, or producer do cost money, but not as much as rent and food. When the artist considers this, they are usually much more open to paying for a producer, and seeing the value they bring to the overall creative process.

Music producer Baauer, who’s massive hit “Harlem Shake” topped music charts, is now in the middle producing his debut album.

Rates for Music Producers

When asked about rates, most producers will say something like “I need to be paid at least $1000 per track,” or “I can’t work for less than $50/hour.” Generally speaking, this is a lie. I don’t mean to shoot myself (and all other producers) in the foot, but everything is negotiable.

As a beginning producer, you need to balance the needs of the artist and yourself. Try to be very clear about the expectation of the artist:

  • Do they want you to simply record and mix?
  • Will you be involved with song development? (Royalty splits on compositions should be negotiated.)
  • Will you be writing all the backing tracks on a computer and having them perform over top? (Again, are you sharing songwriting?)
  • How long will the engagement last? (It’s best to define an end date, and specify how much time per week you will be involved.)
  • Are you providing gear/studio space?

Once this has been decided, tell them what you would like to be paid, and any expected royalties or profit sharing.  Don’t ask for an amount that they can’t realistically come up with. Doing it for free sets a bad precedent–in my experience, when producers work for free hoping for some back end payoff, they get less respect from the client. They’ll be more likely to take advice from someone they have paid, but they will also have the right to push you farther than they might with no money involved. This push-and-pull will lead to a stronger results. Remember, in this society, money is the main way we assign value to something. Your services are valuable; if you give them away, people will often assume they are not.

So, let’s throw out a ballpark figure for a time producer with little to no track record: $2000-$5000 to make an album (10-14 tracks), and 5% of the profits from CD sales/downloads and merchandise. Time period: three to six months, but not full time. The producer will provide some gear and a free space for some of the production and mixing, but the artist will have to pay for any outside studio time and extra musicians. The producer will do the tracking and mixing, usually with help from the artist. Mastering should typically be done by an outside mastering engineer, and is a separate negotiation.

I’m sure some people will read this and say “How can I, as a producer, put in so much time for so little money? They are using my gear, and benefitting from my skills and creativity!” Conversely, an artist may say “$3500? Why should I pay someone to do stuff that I can do myself? They are my songs, and gear is cheap and easy to use!” Both sides are right: this is why negotiations for new artists and producers is so delicate. Try to understand both sides of the negotiation and find an agreement that works for everyone. This leads to the strongest results.  Remember, producers–you need to get your name out there too. It’s not just the artist that benefits from the end product. We got into this game because we love music. If you want to make a lot of money quickly, go work for an investment bank.

Contracts for Music Producers

I recommend the producer and artist write up an agreement that specifies what both sides will provide, and sign it. Whether or not it’s legally binding, having a set of working parameters clarifies the vision and lays bare the expectations of both parties. There is no need for the artist to be insulted by the suggestion of a written document; it may even create a stronger sense of professionalism. The clearer everything is during the initial “Peace and Love” phase of a production, the longer the peace and love will last. If you and the artist are both working with limited resources, it’s usually not practical to involve lawyers in the creation of a production contract. The fees to draft contracts can be greater than the entire production budget!

Bigcartel_imageThe Big Cartel of Oneohtrix Point Never (a.k.a. Dan Lopatin)–keep your eyes peeled for rare music and merchandise!

Funding a Project

So, where does the money come from? It is surprising how many albums are self-funded. Artists save up from day jobs, or maybe a family member will kick in. You’ll encounter artists with an inheritance, and ones who put on fundraiser concerts or take out loans. Sometimes it’s the job of the producer to be involved with financing. For example, let’s say an artist sets up a Kickstarter campaign to support a new release. In the overall budget that the artist presents, there will be a producer’s fee. It’s your job to have your online presence as solid as possible, so the potential Kickstarter donators can link to your site, and check out what you do.

You may also want to get your community involved in the project. After all, whatever is good for the artist will be good for your career as well, and you have people out there who want to support your goals. Give people the opportunity to believe in you!

The final responsibility of getting the money together falls on the artist. If the artist is not able to raise the funds, you’ll need to make a decision. If you don’t want to work for what they can offer, be gracious and try to help them to find someone who fits their needs. If you want to be in this business for a long time, treat everyone fairly–no attitude. You may be at a different stages in your careers, but you never know when someone who you turned down will explode on to the public stage. You want them to have a positive memory of you–word spreads fast.

When funding projects, being creative and open to new ideas goes a long way. For example, many countries have art councils which provide grants for artist development and production. Even if there is no government support available, consider what support systems might be available. If you want to produce a Nigerian born rapper, look into that community, and organize a fundraiser, or try to identify potential patrons who might want to be associated with the artist, or are interested in elevating and increasing the visibility of thier culture.

The one thing we can assume is that a record company won’t be writing a big check up front. There is no single approach–sometimes the money flows in easily, and sometimes it’s a struggle. But, each struggle gets a little easier as your network grows and you generate more forward momentum.

Make great music, and a successful career will follow!

Michael Emenau a.k.a. MNO has worked professionally as a musician (vibraphone, percussion, laptop), producer, remixer and arranger for 25 years, playing such diverse genres as, jazz, rock, drum’n’bass, salsa, techno, country, Hindustani, gospel, baroque and orchestral music. He has recorded on over 150 CDs, composed music for eight films, toured internationally, and lived on three continents. Michael was the house studio mallet percussionist for Sony Records (Japan) in the 90s, was a founding member of the award winning “Jazz Mafia” as well as working as a producer/remixer for Six Degrees Records in San Francisco, arranged and produced contemporary multimedia productions of the 16th-century composer Henry Purcell in Paris and is now writing a musical based on the life of Dionysus and dividing his time between Montreal and New York.

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