Debate: Mental Manipulation

There is no denying the fact that psychology plays a huge role in the producer/artist relationship. By way of years of experience with the mentally unstable . . . um, I mean, musicians . . . the industry’s most successful producers have learned that sometimes the best way to facilitate an artist’s success is through the manipulative approach. But to what degree is this ethical? Where does one draw the line that differentiates between keeping the sessions productive and behaving in a way that merely satisfies self-interest?

Take this example: Just last night I started the first rhythm tracking session with a new band as their producer. The band is decent — neither my best nor my worst. On one hand they are young and inexperienced, but on the other hand they have the drive and ambition that it takes to possibly make a living in this industry. They just got a development deal with a decently sized indie, and the pressure is on them, and me, to come up with a good product. So we call in a top engineer, a great drum tech, and fly in some wonderful equipment. We had spent some time in pre-production making sure the parts were worked out, so we spend the first hours getting good tones. By the time we’re ready for the first tracks, even the headphone mixes are sounding awesome. All we need to do now is get that perfect performance. So we dial the click in at 116 BPM, press the big red button and scream “rollin!”

And everything falls to crap: The drummer has somehow forgotten how to count, the bass player is trying to follow the drummer, and everything else falls over behind them.

“Is everyone’s headphone mixes right?” If they want an excuse it’s available for them now. But they say they are okay, and we do two more terrible passes. And then two more after that. And then the drummer informs us that he can hear the click, and that means he’s off — and it also means that he’s playing out of the pocket because he’s concentrating too hard, and only getting more uncomfortable/frustrated by being put on the spot. It’s a sick cycle.

“Don’t worry, I can always edit the takes together if we can’t pull it off,” I tell them. But I’m lying. The takes suck, but letting the drummer know that is only going to make him psyche himself out.

And, tonight, that’s my job, not his.

So we start rolling again. And they start sucking again. But they don’t realize it, they think it’s really getting better. So this time I tell them, “Great job, guys. I think you almost nailed it. We’re going to keep that take, but I want to get one more just in case. That’s a great song you got there.”

And this time they really do nail it. And it isn’t a bad song after all.

I don’t consider myself to be a liar, but last night I was. I’ll justify the ends by the means this time around though. I’m sure that they wouldn’t mind that I was f^$#ing with them when it was to their benefit.

But is it right? There are many successful producers out there that swear by the “documentary” approach. And this isn’t because they are bad liars, but because they are humble enough to assume the role of documentarian — to document the artist’s music in an objective manner. Such producers would consider my bias unnecessary, even counter to the good of the band. These producers would trust the band when the band thought their take was good, and would consider it unethical to lie to the artist just so that they would perform in a way that pleased the producer. Music is subjective, right? Who is to say that “my take” was better than “their take?” They are the artists; they would know better than anyone else if it was right or not. They don’t need their creative process interfered with, their performance hi-jacked by some producer eager to put his stamp on something.

Then again you could argue that due to their relative inexperience the best thing I could do for them was to hold their hand a bit. How beneficial is it, really, to scold a child the first time they try something and they fail? That’s not exactly good parenting. This band wasn’t mature; they weren’t even ready for the studio! This wasn’t a chamber ensemble; it was some “technical emo” band that wanted to record 80 tracks per song.

So I’m in the right, right? Now excuse me while I inform my five-year old that, next week at preschool, it’s not okay to tell the teacher that his daddy lies and manipulates artists until they give him what he wants. Tell them he’s a doctor or something. Hell, tell them he works for the IRS.