Want to turn your home-studio hobby into a successful producing career? Several pros reveal how to turn your dream into reality
Its a fantacy job. May be some of your friends have talked about doing it, and ten years later, they’re still talking about it. But paying your bills as a professional music producer is an actual, attainable goal. Electronic Musician knows that because we feature real, bona-fide producers who live the life. Supa Dups (Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Mary J. Blige), Damian Taylor (Björk, The Killers, Arcade Fire), and Andrew (Mudrock) Murdock (Godsmack, Powerman 5000, Avenged Sevenfold) know it because they made it happen for themselves. They weren’t born into über-rich families who subsidized their lifestyles while they “played” in the studio. They just worked on it, day in and day out.
To gather some insight on how aspiring producers can make the leap from hobbyist to professional while steadily build up their discography (and bank account), I picked the brains of Supa, Taylor, and Murdock—as well as Senior Vice President at Nettwerk Producer Management Alia Fahlborg and Senior Vice President of A&R at Warner Brothers Records Jeff Sosnow—to gain insight on how to get your business off the ground.
Gotta Start Somewhere Jamaica-born Supa Dups (aka Dwayne Chin-Quee) started DJing at the age of 11. Two years later, he won a DJ competition, the reward for which was spinning on Miami’s Power 96 radio station. As he continued to DJ, he discovered a passion for music production. Supa’s aunt saw his potential and bought him an Akai MPC3000, but he didn’t have the same immediate success he had with DJing.
“I went to a couple of influential people at the time, and they declined me,” Supa says with a laugh. “They were like, ‘You need to stick with your day job and leave music alone.’ That was a huge reality check for me. But I had this drum machine, and I developed a style of remixing that made me very popular amongst the reggae community, and after that, it exploded all over the world.”
Damian Taylor Along with five other friends from Jamaica (who are also of black and Chinese descent), Supa founded the Miami collective Black Chiney. The group churned out dancehall/ hip-hop remixes and released mixtapes. One of Supa’s beats from Black Chiney’s Volume 7 caught the ear of his future manager, Mr. Morgan, and led Supa to his first big break, Nina Sky’s “Turnin’ Me On.”
“I met him in Jamaica when I was down there for a gig,” he says. “I gave him a CD, and he was working on the Nina Sky project at the time with Cipha Sounds. They heard the track and were like, ‘Yo, this track is crazy.’ So that was my first paying production gig. It’s not like I even went out and was seeking work from it. I was just making this beat to put on the CD because I could.”
Meanwhile, as a teenager, Taylor got his foot in the studio door by doing odd jobs and janitorial work. “I was really lucky that there was an engineer who would let me sit in a corner on his sessions as long as I didn’t touch anything,” he says. “Even if you’ve got all these talents, people aren’t going to know it until you have the opportunity to show it. The downside of working in a major studio is that you’ll basically have to sit in the corner and shut up for quite a long time, but it’s a great way to learn things.”
While doing Pro Tools editing at a small studio in London—“a kind of advertisingin- the-back-of-a-magazine place where local bands would pay 25 pounds an hour,” Taylor says—was introduced to producer Guy Sigsworth. They hit it off, and for the next couple of years, Taylor assisted Sigsworth and worked on Björk’s amazing fourth album, Vespertine.
In between engineering jobs, he produced smaller bands. But it wasn’t his studio work with Björk that got his phone ringing. “It’s funny because more people have asked me to produce their records off the back of me playing with Björk live than from my time in the studio before,” Taylor says. “It was about me being at festivals and meeting lots of bands, because if you’re stuck in a studio slaving away all the time, you don’t meet many other artists.”
Murdock also ignited his production career was by meeting bands at shows, where he was working as a live sound engineer in Boston. Bands loved how he made them sound live and asked him to produce. One band he recorded was signed to Warner/Chappell Music (now Warner/Chappell) and acquired $10,000 from the publishing company to build a demo studio. When the band broke up, Murdock and the rhythm section kept the equipment and turned the rehearsal space into a studio.
In the beginning, he charged “broke bands with day jobs” $15 an hour. “They’d scrape together $400 and would want to record all 17 songs that they knew,” Murdock says. “As it went along, I started inviting in bands that I liked to record and told them, ‘Look, I’ll do two songs with you. It’s free, you own the songs when I’m done, but I’m driving.’ So I was able to barter with them the recording time for the ability for me to use them as a guinea pig.”
Murdock’s first big paycheck was Godsmack. Singer Sully Erna was the drummer in a metal band Murdock had recorded. When Erna started Godsmack, he came to Murdock with $3,000 to make a record. “I was planning on recording and mixing that record in a week, and it became obvious that we weren’t going to finish it in a week,” Murdock says. “I gave him the mixing for free because it was sounding good, it was something I thought I could play other metal bands that wanted to record at my studio, and that’s as far as I thought about it. A year later, he sold it to Universal, put a contract in place for me, and that contract bought me a house.”
Getting the Gigs “I read something that said, ‘Some people are lucky, but the harder you work, the more you’ll get lucky,’” Supa says. Rather than hustling and pounding down the doors of musicindustry execs, Supa spent extra time working. “I’m never up in their butt saying, ‘Please work with me!’ I just make my talent speak for itself.”
Part of that talent involves a lot of multitasking. “The landscape is such that people can’t afford to hire a producer and an engineer often, so you need to be able to wear a lot of hats,” Murdock says. “Ninety percent of the producers out there are wearing at least two hats.”
Years ago, Timbaland’s engineer Jimmy Douglass offered some advice to Supa: “Do you want to be a better producer? Learn how to engineer,” he said. So Supa learned how to mix his tracks and avoid things like phase cancelation and ensure that his beats sounded good on speakers. “When you learn how to structure beats so nothing is clashing, it makes you a better producer because when you play it for people, it sounds better, and they get the point more quickly,” he says. “Plus, when you give it to the mix engineer, you give them a good point of reference to work with.”
As for Taylor, he calls himself a producer, engineer, mixer, programmer, composer, performer, editor, remixer, and software designer. Lots of hats. “I was asked to work with a lot of different people because I was quite versatile,” he says. The more he put himself into different situations, the more he learned from the likes of Sigsworth, Spike Stent, and dozens of others in the studio.
But wearing multiple hats comes with a caveat. “You need to be aware of which hat is on your head at any given moment,” Murdock says. “The engineer hat and the producer hat will knock heads with each other because the engineer is like, ‘We’re done! It sounds good.’ The producer hat is telling you, ‘Yeah, the song sounds fine, but they’re not the right drum parts.’ And the producer hat should definitely win. Don’t consider it a waste of time if you’re throwing an entire recording away and starting a song over. Consider it the road to something better because if your gut is telling you that it’s not right, it’s not right. The producer in you will know that immediately, but the engineer in you will fight it and want to keep it because you don’t want to do it all over again.
Another potential pitfall about producing is the importance of protecting your brand name. “Know what you want to do, what you want your public perception to be, and accept projects that lend themselves to that because as a producer, your name is your brand, and you’re pigeonholed really fast,” Murdock says. “If you’re somebody like Colin Richardson, who is an amazingly talented rock/metal producer, and you just want to be in that genre, then go for it. Be it and own it. But if you want to be somebody like a Rick Rubin, who has produced a huge variety of people, be aware of that. The parallel I like to make is Leonard Nimoy can only play Spock. As a young actor, he took that role, and it’s become so iconic that he was stuck with that for his whole career. So it’s a dance that actors play as they establish a name on the acting landscape. It’s like, don’t do two horror movies in a row, or you’ll become the horror-movie actor.”
Hiring A Manager? Murdock, Supa Dups, and Taylor all have managers, but they didn’t start working with them until there was something to manage. “It is important as a producer manager that the client has something to run with,” says Fahlborg, whose roster includes Bob Clearmountain, Jim Abbiss, and Tom Lord-Alge. “It doesn’t always have to be a big hit, but there has to be something bubbling under to enable the manager to catch the interest of A&R people, artists, and artist managers—something to set the client apart from the many other producers and mixers out there.”
For Murdock, that time came “when the business side got so complicated that it started interrupting the art,” he says. “I found my first manager by cold-calling management companies and saying, ‘I’m the guy who did Godsmack. I’m looking for a manager.’ It was the week when Godsmack went Gold. That’s when you should look for a manager, not before then. If you get some douchebag local person who just wants to play manager, that’s a huge mistake.”
But trying to get in with a big firm can be a problem, too. “What can happen is people look at these huge producer-manager companies that have six million people on their roster and go, ‘Oh, my favorite producer is on that one. I want to try to be on that roster,’” Taylor says. “If you’re looking after a ton of established producers and engineers, there’s not much motivation to build a career for someone who doesn’t have one.”
Taylor’s working relationship with his current manager, Liz Hart, is symbiotic. She finds creative ways to help him with his career and negotiates great deals for him, and he fosters relationships to makes her job easier. For example, he once gave The Killers an open invitation to work with him, and four years later, they called upon him to help produce their latest album, Battle Born.
“Liz and I have a very collaborative relationship,” Taylor says. “We do a lot of brainstorming together, and the last year has been super busy, so it’s been more a case of trying to keep me afloat,” Taylor says. “With a good manager, it can be a very creative relationship even though it’s specifically about the business side of what you do. You’re discussing strategy, the right people you want to be talking to, which projects you’re interested in, and how one step can affect the next step.”
Fahlborg has a similar relationship with her clients. “My most successful clients realize that the keys to the kingdom are in an active partnership where both the client and manager are working together to achieve their goals,” she says. “Every client has a different comfort level in dealing with industry people, and it’s important to work with those individual preferences but to always realize that relationships are extremely valuable in our business. I’ve seen clients put themselves out of business ignoring that reality, and I’ve seen others experience immense success by making it Rule No. 1—after making great music, that is.”
Although Supa gets along with many people in the industry, he knows when to step aside and let his manager, Mr. Morgan, handle the dirty business. “If I don’t want to do something,” he says, “when I’m not telling people no directly but my manager is telling them no, they’re not really mad at me. They’re mad with manager even though I’m the one who’s saying no. So it’s a kind of good cop/bad cop situation.”
Getting Along With A&R As part of her job, Fahlborg oversees her roster, negotiates producers’ deals, and builds relationships with A&R and artist managers, attorneys, and publishers. Her team also tracks budgets, books musicians and studio time, arranges travel, takes care of invoicing, and tracks royalties. “A great deal of time is spent chasing, tracking and analyzing royalty statements and Sound Exchange payments,” she says. “That is an extremely tedious process but does yield tens of thousands of dollars of otherwise lost income for some clients.”
But while producer managers take on a lot to serve their clients, producers still need to interface directly with A&R managers, which isn’t always easy. “They’re the people who hold the purse strings, and they’re important to the project,” Murdock says. “But frankly, they often have ideas that are counterproductive. They have good ideas, too, but it’s another relationship that needs to be massaged. And that’s the huge part of being a producer: massaging relationships with singers, the rest of the band, the manager, and the A&R guy. There are a lot of political waters to be tread, and I’m not a very political person.”
Supa plays the game diplomatically. “Not everybody is going to like you, and you’re not going to like everybody because at the end of the day, some people really aren’t good in the business,” he says. “But you have to be cool with everybody: A&Rs, studio owners, interns…. Most importantly, you have to just remain humble, not hard-headed.”
Taylor is glad to have the outside perspective of A&R managers in a project. “I really appreciate their fresh ears,” he says. “They don’t have to sit there telling you what kind of hi-hat sound to use, but they can give you a reaction outside of the people in the band, which can be really useful.”
Sometimes, an A&R manager can pinpoint something that a producer or mixing engineer misses. “I remember one time when I was working with Eric Valentine on the All-American Rejects’ third album, we had delivered a rough that Jimmy Iovine loved,” Sosnow says. “But when we played the mix, there was a sort of molasses-like feel that slowed down the song “Gives You Hell” a hair. The groove wasn’t the same. After a thorough process of elimination, Eric deduced it was a gear issue—turns out the tape machine wasn’t working properly. It kept getting gummed up, and we had to pull up stakes and just mix in the box.”
The Changing Landscape Just like producers’ ideas need to be fresh to stay relevant, producers need to keep up with the evolving music business to survive. “With the changes in consumption of music and other factors forcing the consolidation of our business, there are fewer projects for everyone and there’s less money with which to do them,” Fahlborg says. “That creates stress, especially for veteran clients, and can easily make day-to-day life in the music business difficult. My outlook and advice are summed up in one word: adapt. We encourage our clients to stay positive and focused on the great music out there, while finding ways to be more efficient in record making.”
Taylor created that efficiency—and avoids a ticking clock—by opening his own studio in Montreal called Golden Ratio. He found a goodsized place in a great part of town, which would have been difficult to achieve in London, where he worked for years. “It was very important to go to a big country to make the connections,” Taylor says. “But where I am now, I can send multitracks around the world for pretty much every project. We can communicate with each other so easily. It’s cool because it means that your lifestyle can change.”
One way Supa has adapted to changes in the industry is by using Soundcloud as a testing ground for his ideas. “In one day, I can let almost 15,000 people hear something that I put online, and then it spreads like a wild disease,” he says. “Years ago, for a track to get any kind of play, you had to print a million CDs, or you had to give it out to the right A&R that believes in it and wait. Now, there is no waitin’.”
But although producers can release music instantly, some aren’t taking advantage of the technology. “I strongly suggest to anybody who’s starting out to just start doing it,” Murdock says. “So many people talk about it or go to school for it and don’t really do it. It sounds like such a simple thing, but it’s a big step to get over and just say, ‘Okay, we’re doing this project, and I’m driving.’”
Although Murdock didn’t go to musicproduction school, he teaches audio engineering at the LA Music Academy and believes it’s the right path for those who need structure to succeed. “I feel like I’m giving the kids I teach something really useful,” he says. “One of the biggest skills is to learn how to say something negative in a positive light. Learn how to criticize without ridicule because if you’re going to produce somebody, the first thing you’re going to concentrate on are the things that you think need to change. And it’s really easy—I’ve been guilty of this myself—to pull somebody out of their comfort zone and put them in a place where they can’t deliver anything to you.”
Murdock believes that producers will get better performances out of artists if they feel comfortable and ready to take risks. “I made an amazing record with a band called the Riverboat Gamblers, and when they came to me, they were sure they were a punk band,” he says. “They wanted everything to be, ‘Punk! Punk rock! Punk! Punk Rock!’ I just helped them realize that what a band is in reality and what a band thinks they are almost never agree with each other.”
Alia Fahlborg Clearing Hurdles In the ’90s, Taylor worked with Martin Virgo from the London-based band Mono, who offered some career advice. “He said to me, ‘The first stage [of your career] is that no one gives a sh*t who you are or what you’re doing,” Taylor says. “The next stage is when people notice, but that basically means you have to be taken advantage of for a few years until you’re at the point when you can start to put your foot down.’”
Now that Taylor is calling more shots, the challenge is balancing work with his personal life. “My life is the studio, but I’ve got a beautiful young family, and it’s a constant struggle just to try to be a good dad and husband and also love making records. I think if you’re happy to lock yourself into a studio for the rest of your life, then you’re going to love it, and if you don’t, you’ll know pretty soon and you should probably go do something else.” [Laughs.]
Of all the many jobs Taylor’s done in studio— from tuning vocals to tending to multitracks—it’s always been labor of love. “All I can really say is just absolutely follow your bliss and what’s most exciting to you,” he says. “In my own case, it’s been quite a long process to get here, but I’ve not been afraid to immerse myself in whatever the situation was at the time. But it keeps you busy and you meet people, and all those skills come in handy.”
But while being busy is good, Murdock suggests listening to your gut before agreeing to take on a new project. “The biggest black eyes in my career have been projects that felt wrong from the beginning but I said yes to anyway,” he laments. “Anybody in their early career is going to have embarrassing projects that they did because they needed money because everybody needs the work. But at a certain point, it’s a delicate dance between accepting projects for the money and becoming Christopher Walken who appears in bad movies but who is actually a really good actor. My first barometer on whether I’m going to accept a project is, number one, do I like the music? And number two is, are these people douchebags?”
Once you move forward on a project, Murdock insists that trust is key. “I discovered that if the band doesn’t trust you, nothing is going to happen,” he says. “There needs to be some kind of give and take that establishes a trust. Otherwise, the entire project is going to feel like an awkward first date. Two things need to happen at the beginning: I need to present an idea that the band isn’t sure of at first but likes later. And I also think I need an idea that I push hard for and then abandon because I realize that it’s not working.”
As for Supa, one of the biggest pitfalls to producing is forgetting about your finances. “When you finally make it, pay your taxes!” he says. “Save your money because this is not a 9-to-5 job where you get paid every two weeks. Sometimes you only get paid twice a year, and the work you do this year dictates how much you get paid next year. So if you did a lot of stuff last year, got paid this year, but didn’t do no work… guess what? Next year, you’re going to be broke again.”
But there are a few attributes a producer needs before the government will care about a share of their earnings. “What’s most important is determination and drive,” Supa says. “Make sure you have the right attitude and remain humble. And always try to improve. Don’t ever feel like you have arrived or that you are the ‘ish.’ Because the way I look at it, from the day you are born until the day you die, you are constantly learning.”
Kylee Swenson Gordon is a writer, editor, and musician based in Oakland, CA. In addition to making music with her indie-pop band Loquat, she’s a frequent collaborator Sandy Vee with EDM producers.