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what exactly does a record producer do?

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Eminent Member
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This may be a dumb question, but what do producers do? I want to record an album and are not sure if I need a producer, and if I do what precentages or fees should I expect to be prepared to pay?

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Back in the 70s and early 80s I did some record production; there were three types of producers then - staff producers (who worked for a specific label) and two other types, both of which were called independent producers. I'll call one an independent producer, and the other a contract producer to keep the explanations separate.

Each type of producer makes all the decisions concerning recording. They book the studio, schedule the time, select the tunes, supervise the setup, adjust the recording mix, add/subtract instruments, keep the project on schedule/budget and deal with any ego issues that arise. Later on, they'll supervise the mixdown to stereo, and they may supervise the final mastering session as well.

Staff producers are paid a salary. A specific producer's contract with a label might also include royalties and/or bonuses. But from the standpoint of the signed artist, a producer fee is a fixed cost - the label charges x dollars for the producer's fee (whether or not the producer actually gets that much) - and it's considered part of total production costs, which are recouped before the artist receives any royalties.

Producers with a track record of making hits often left the studio payroll to became contract producers. They would be hired for a specific project, paid an advance (by either the label or the artist) and would also receive a royalty. Exact details vary in each deal, but the better a producer is, the better the chance they'll demand to be paid on all copies sold (which means the 'advance' is really an additional fee).

Other people (like me) wanted to do production, but didn't have a label or a string of hits. We did it as an entrepreneurial venture: find a band you believed in, contract with the band to become their producer, and then cover all the costs associated with the recording - the producer served as a mini-label, handling everything a label would through making a stereo master tape. With finished tape in hand, the producer would then shop it to various labels, and if a deal was made, the producer took part or all of the advance money (since the purpose of an advance is to cover recording costs). The producer would also get a royalty, with the amount depending on the deal.

What I did was take any advance money up to the point of my investment. I then got a share of any remaining advance money, as well as a share of any royalties.

Since then the playing field has changed. Most labels no longer have staff producers, and most of the truly independent producers morphed into independent labels - I produced during the declining days of the 45rpm single, which kept my risk fairly low on a project; if I'd had the money to cover the cost of whole albums, I would have probably have started doing the artwork/pressing/distribution and become a label.

Studios don't negotiate with producers as much as they used to; many studios expect the artist to do that now. There are still contract producers around - a lot of them, in fact. There are also a lot of rip-off artists doing production.

I'd say you need a contract producer if you already have a record deal. Look for someone with a track record in your genre, and get a lawyer who's dealt with a lot of producer deals.

If you're looking to make a master and shop for a deal, a producer can help.... IF they have legitimate contacts, and IF you can negotiate something fair.

In a bad situation, you've paid for a producer who doesn't get you a deal. In a really bad situation, a producer gets you a deal with a label that wants the thing re-mastered or re-recorded... and now you're paying two producers for one project. So if you're looking to shop a recording, use a producer if you're intending to sell a finished master to a label... but if you're sending a demo in the hopes of getting a deal, skip the producer; you'll hire one for re-recording after you have a contract.

If you're doing a recording for your own independent release, you're paying the tab... you need to decide if what a specific producer adds to the project will increase sales enough to justify the cost.

There are three typical ways the deal will be structured with a producer:

1. The producer gets paid a fee plus a royalty. This is the best deal for the producer; if you bomb, they get paid, if you succeed, they get paid a lot more. The big name producers all work this way, so the rip-off artists will tell you it's a 'standard' deal. It's only standard if you have a whole string of Billboard listings. Quincy Jones gets these deals... because he has 70+ Grammys on the shelf. Pete Producer doesn't, and if he tells you everybody works from a deal like this, run away.

2. The producer gets paid a fee, and after the recording sells x copies the producer will get a retroactive royalty - it's called a 'record one' deal. In this arrangement, if the record does at least a certain volume of sales they end up with the same compensation as a deal #1 producer, but if the record doesn't, all they get is their fee. Producers with a retroactive deal should have a solid track record to justify the potential big payday. A deal like this doesn't go to the average producer.

3. The producer gets paid a fee (which is part of the cost of recording), and after the recording costs are all paid for - which includes their original fee - they'll get a royalty on all additional copies sold. In effect, the producer is paid like a band member, although maybe not the same amount. The smaller the fee the producer takes, the bigger share of royalties they'll expect. Something along those lines is the typical deal, no matter what the rip-off artists tell you.

Because up front fees play such a big role in a producer's compensation, there's no standard percentage. In terms of the overall take, a producer will probably end up with 15-20% of the total profits of a very successful record, and darn near 100% of a modestly successful one. If you think you have something special going on, pay more in fees and less in royalty.

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Joined: 16 years ago
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Thank you so much NoteBoat, you have helped me more than you can imagine.