Debate: What’s The Role Of The Producer?

If you were to corner five professional house painters individually and ask them what their job entails, you would more or less get the same answer from each of them: They paint houses. But in the world of the record producer, the job description isn’t always so clear. If you asked Steve Albini what he does when producing a record, you would be told that his duty is to “capture” the band’s performance as honestly as possible. If you asked Dr. Dre, he would likely respond by writing you a beat and giving the “okay” on the font used in the liner notes for your debut album.

What a producer’s exact role is defined as varies greatly not only from producer to producer, but also from producer to artist. Different artists demand different treatment and, moreover, different artists need different treatment. Fred Gaisberg, who ran the first recording studio in the 1890s, was responsible for guiding opera singers closer or further away from the gramophone’s horn to match the dynamics of the score. The stereotypical Hollywood big-wig “fabulous, baby” producers from days of yore, when not chewing cigars on plush leather couches, oftentimes were responsible for everything from talent-scouting and band development to management of resources and mediating contract disputes.

Major hip-hop producers of today are key creative figures and vessels for product marketing. But, though the definitions of “producer” are constantly changing, there exists a huge semantic dispute within our industry as to what the definition of producer should be and, even, to what degree is it ethical to position yourself in the musical process.

Grammy-nominated producer Jeff Glixman (Kansas, Bob Marley, Ludacris) says, “A producer is like a movie director. The musicians are the actors.” Cameron Webb (Social Distortion, Limp Bizkit, Monster Magnet) tells us, “My role as a producer is to take the artist’s vision and expand on it, to make it bigger and better than they ever imagined’ while Mike Plotnikoff (Aerosmith, Cranberries, My Chemical Romance) claims that his role as a producer is to “guide the artist with an unbiased opinion.”

The Wizardz of Oz (Ricky Martin, Boris, Jason Mraz) claim their duty is to evolve along with the artist: “We hate hearing ‘that sounds like the Wizardz’; we love hearing ‘the Wizardz did that’?’’

Sum41 member Greig Nori, who has become a sought-after producer in recent years, working with every one from Iggy Pop to No Warning, has adopted a traditional stance: “I feel the role of a producer today should be a throwback to the role a producer had in the ’50s. Be a musician first. Then you will have the talent to find good bands that know how to write, develop, and record to world-class standards.”

Multi-platinum producer Keith Clark (Snoop Dogg, The Eastsidaz, Master P) agrees with the orthodox approach. He tells us, “A producer should develop their artist even if it takes years. They have to teach them the business of music.”

Thom Russo (Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Audioslave) sums his job up as “being the voice of perspective.” Jeff Trott, known for writing some of Sheryl Crow’s biggest songs, labels himself “a psychologist” and Ron Aniello (Barenaked Ladies, Guster) expounds on that view: “My job to inspire the artist to do his best work; to reflect back to the artist his strengths so they can hit their potential; to fill in the gaps, whatever those may be; to save him from himself . . . when necessary.”

It’s clear that, as the music industry rapidly changes, so does the producer’s job description. Lately, it’s not uncommon to see producer’s assuming duties traditionally held as lying in the record label’s hands. As one producer, who wished to go on the record anonymously, out of fear of negative career consequences while he finished work in his preparatory phase, says “I’m trying to get unsigned artists I know labels are pushing me to work with into my own production company, to sign development deals so I can distribute them myself. Now, labels are unnecessary, and we shouldn’t have to work for them. I want to cut out the middle man, and give us both bigger slices of the pie.”

Though they all may define their jobs differently, one aspect is crucial across the board to their success: They have to possess the skills to produce good-sounding music. This common thread notwithstanding, the current debate as to who is and is not a “producer,” and is what that “producer” does really “producing” can ultimately be summed up in one “hilarious-because-it’s-true” joke:

Q: How many producers does it take to change a light bulb?

A: I don’t know, what do you think?