Deconstructing Pop Culture

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Music Producers

December 16th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

Back when there was a music business, and I was involved with it at a reasonably high level, it was my good fortune to know, and deal with, a number of music producers. There are several things you have to know about them, which is the purpose of this article.

First, it is extremely difficult to ascertain exactly what they do. In principle, they (a) don’t write the songs, (b) don’t play the instruments, and (c) don’t engineer the record, in the sense of palpitating the mixing console, placing microphones, adjusting equipment, etc. Pre-1970 or thereabouts, they acted as “contractors” for the record – selecting material, hiring studio musicians, developing the artist, and similar activities. This still occurs to some extent in two limited contexts, which are: (a) in Nashville, and (b) on “commercial” engagements in Los Angeles and New York, by which I mean predominantly scoring for film and television in high-end studios or on large sound-stages. However, those are the exceptions, not the rule, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the reality of the music business today. Rather, what music producers do, essentially, is sit there and tell the artist if its performance satisfies some imaginary criteria the producer has in mind. To some extent this is useful – for example, if the performance is off-tempo, improperly intonated, words or notes are missed, and the like. However, this could be accomplished by anybody with half a brain, and you don’t need to be a music producer to do so.

Second, they are, by and large, have what might be characterized as a strong sense of their own self-worth. This originates with the indeterminacy of their job description. In the absence of performing any discernible function, they must impress the artist with the force of their personality, the decisiveness of their judgment, and their prowess and facility with composition, song-structure, lyrics, and performance. They must bewilder the artist with their superior knowledge. Because if they don’t – like the fairy-tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes – the artist will come to see they are redundant.

For example, I had the privilege for several years of working with Bob Ezrin, whose oeuvre includes middle-period Alice Cooper, Kiss, and Pink Floyd at its most insufferable – ponderous wreckages of albums such as “The Wall.” I happen to know a lot about Vox AC30 amplifiers and Marshall JTM45 amplifiers. In fact, a company with which I formerly was affiliated once owned about 50 AC30s and 30 JTM45s – of the latter, perhaps a quarter of the world’s supply. I still can speak knowledgeably about the difference sonic properties of Brimar, Telefunken, Amperex and Mullard pre-amp tubes, and the sound of KT66 output tubes versus, say, EL34 or 6L6.

For some reason I was present when Ezrin was pontificating away about these amplifiers. It was apparent that, like the Simon & Garfunkel song, he was “Fakin’ It.” He didn’t have the slightest idea of what he was talking about. Often times I find it more amusing to sit in silence under such circumstances, rather than interjecting myself into the conversation. This was one of those occasions. And, it wasn’t an isolated instance – I can remember another occasion when Ezrin was attempting to explain what ring modulation was. He stumbled through it, demonstrating with a later-model Moog MF-102. While he did a creditable job, a half-mile away, in the studio, we had several dozen others, of various vintages, capable of generating sounds that Ezrin never had heard, or even imagined. This was more ring modulation than Ezrin had worked with in his entire career, and he would have been baffled by their variety of sounds.

In the 1990s, I had the privilege of working with Ken Caillat, whose work includes, among other items, Fleetwood Mac’s execrable album “Tusk.” At the time, Caillat was attempting to develop a device that would create wider separation and spatiality between stereo musical tracks. Phase relationships between signals are critical to understanding how this works – yet for some reason I had to explain to him how this worked, when he supposedly was the expert.

Third, with the required overwhelming show of ego-force comes its corollary – a broad sense of entitlement. Most music producers feel as though it is your privilege to know them, not the other way around. This leads them to predatory utilization of other people’s resources. I must have spent a hundred hours giving Ezrin free advice about his various business entanglements. Not once did he offer to pay, and when I sent him a modest bill, it simply vanished into thin air. Caillat spent dozens of hours in the studio I mentioned previously. When it sent him a bill, he ignored it. I don’t intend this point as personal criticism of either Ezrin or Caillat. Rather, I view it as symptomatic of music producers in general. Their behavior isn’t intentional. Rather, they just can’t help themselves – it’s so ingrained into their psyche, they don’t even know what they’re doing.

Fourth, no matter who they are, they always are available to help you make your record, especially in this day and age. Inexpensively. With the exception of less than a dozen music producers, most of them in rap or hip-hop, all of them are desperate for work. It doesn’t matter how “big” a name they have (that is, they think they have), what their alleged rate of remuneration is, or who they’ve worked with in the past. Nothing cracks me up more than to see producers like Ezrin giving interviews on “Behind the Music” or various long-form retrospective DVDs, extolling the virtues of their work. But who, for example, is Kula Shaker, and how many records did they sell? For some reason, artists like these never are mentioned.

My guess is that if you want either Ezrin or Caillat to produce your record today, you could get them to do so for about $1,000/day, plus expenses – a far cry from the $25,000/track they would like to pretend they could charge. In fact, recently, Caillat’s biggest claim to fame is a record he made for his daughter, Colbie Caillat. It was dead on arrival. Old-school record production and business philosophy, of which Ezrin and Caillat are stellar exemplars, has nothing to do with the reality of MySpace, YouTube, and the current environment for promoting and marketing records.

I once collaborated with a New York financier named Basem Y. Zakariya, who had companies with impressive-sounding names like Structured Capital Group, Inc. and Structured Finance Group, Inc. Zakariya’s business was selling securities in the film industry, and syndicating movie participations. Once he excitedly exclaimed to me that the noted film composer Hans Zimmer had agreed to work on a soundtrack for his next hypothetical film. He presented this as though it was the biggest inducement to investors that ever had happened in the history of the world. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this was Zimmer’s business and that, for the right amount of money, he’d be delighted to work on just about anything. I know that because he’d been over to the studio a couple of days previously, laughing with me about how naïve Zakariya was.

Fifth, by and large, music producers have incredibly poor financial judgment. The basic economic structure of music producing is that the producer typically is paid a flat fee to work on a record. The producer also typically earns a royalty percentage. While of course this varies, it typically is in the range of 1.5% – 3%, calculated on the same basis as the royalty paid to the artist.

The producer royalty, however, rarely materializes. The amount of money paid to the producer is treated as an advance, which then recoups at the contractual royalty rate. A lot of records must be sold in order to recoup, particularly with such a miniscule royalty percentage. An even worse deal is when the total amount of advance paid to both the artist and the producer has to be recouped at their combined royalty rates. This means not only recording costs, but also all of the other advances the record company enjoys adding into the recoupment base, such as tour support, music video costs (perhaps half of that amount), third-party promotional and marketing support (perhaps half of that amount), etc. Most artists are unrecouped with their record companies by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Their income is derived, to the extent it is, from music publishing rights, touring and merchandising. Since the producer’s royalty participation is derivative to that of the artist, the producer is in even a worse spot. Both Ezrin and Caillat were mystified by this dynamic. Once they learned I was well-informed about these issues, they frantically wanted me to track down various royalties they allegedly were owed by various record companies, which did not then exist and never will exist at any future time. I mean, how many copies of “The Wall” and “Tusk” now get sold per year?

Perhaps it is this frustration with royalties that turns music producers into poor business people. Ezrin, for example, headed up a failed CD-ROM company in the mid-1990s, just as Internet I was taking off. Almost nobody today can tell you what a CD-ROM is, much less how it works or what it does. Ezrin then went on to co-found an Internet radio company with which I was involved, called Enigma Digital. He missed several opportunities to sell it at a premium, just as Internet I crested. Investors were lucky to emerge by the skin of their teeth, as the market for Internet I companies (Digital Entertainment Network, toys.com, etc.) precipitously tanked.

The basic principle with all of these deals is to accept the first credible offer that comes along. I know this from hard experience in the film industry. Illustrating my own stupidity, I was in Cannes and turned down an offer for media rights to a property in a certain territory that was, say, $100K shy of what I was looking for. No other offers materialized – I should have taken the original one, which was approx. $500K. The next offer that came around was for $250K. This dramatically illustrated to me that you’ve got to “strike while the iron’s hot,” because once a property’s been on the market, its perceived value begins to depreciate rapidly. I never made that mistake again.

In conclusion, while I have had many pleasant experiences with music producers (including Messrs. Ezrin, Caillat, and numerous others), my advice to anyone considering using a producer is to be extremely cautious. At best, they will be “business friends,” and couldn’t care less about the artist they’re producing, much less your personal welfare. This is dissonant, because they are ingratiating, and make it seem like you’re going to be best friends forever. In fact, they’ll stiff you – financially and emotionally – then swim on, like sharks in the ocean, looking for the next school of fish upon which to dine.