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The Death of the Metal Producer

So while sitting peacefully at home enjoying the fruits of my new day hustle as a security theater actor and I had a rather shocking albeit not unexpected realization about the hard rock and heavy metal world. It’s a simple sentence but it struck a deep knell in my mind:

The role of the Heavy Metal producer is dead, we killed it, and there may not be enough water to wash away the blood.

Aside from the grim nature of this statement, the word choice matters. Tracking, mixing, and mastering engineers that specialize in Heavy Metal are in higher demand than ever, however the role of the producer is almost entirely gone from the consciousness of the people making new Heavy Metal music. Perhaps an explanation of exactly the role of the producer entails is in order to really see where this is coming from.

In layman’s terms, Producers handle the overall emotional intent of the record. The mood… the “vibe” if you’re so inclined. The engineer (what the trap/hip-hop/rap world tends to call a producer) is more involved in the process of getting the tones and facilitating the technical side of making a record. In short the producer translates what is needed from the artistic world to the real world and the engineer makes it happen. Producers have other responsibilities including budget management, arranging the songs, managing parts and instruments, gear acquisition, scheduling, booking studios, musician wrangling, and on occasion also a therapist. Another difference is that they’re paid by a cut of the proceeds that the record makes rather than an hourly or per song rate, or a lump sum. Not only do they have a direct stake in the record’s success but they also steak their entire professional reputation on the success of the record they help make. This isn’t generally a lot, 10% is customary but it can go up or down depending on the producer.

So what’s the benefit of hiring a producer? Why would you give up a percent of your precious, hard earned revenue for the equivalent of an extra band member that does nothing but have an opinion and manage your record? Well the most valuable thing that they can offer you is an extra set of ears to check your ideas against their experience in the real world. Another way of putting it is that they have a musically informed outsider’s perspective on how to sweeten the song. Still again if you wanted to psychologize the role, they are open people who are low in agreeableness and higher than the average artist in conscientiousness. This means that the average day for a producer is to do everything in his power to get the record made on time and under budget. Also to make your music sound like more than the sum of its parts and not like a bunch of guys in a basement (which let’s be honest, is a possibility).

Make no bones about it, this job sill exists in other generas but there is a dearth of them in the Heavy Metal world. On closer inspection, I believe I understand why and I can lay it squarely on the temperament of many of the musicians and wives tales about the music industry of yore.

First of all, musicians as a whole tend towards perfectionism in their work and this is just as true about Heavy Metal. Not only because a Heavy Metal production requires so much heavy lifting, forethought, practice to even play the music or get it on a record, but also because their songs are rather like their children that they become rather Oedipal over. Using this analogy, the decision to hire a producer is rather like a parent’s choice to send their child to public school, private school, or to homeschool. Homeschooling has gained a lot of reasonable ground as of late and used to be a haven for children who were being badly bullied or who had special needs. With the full maturation of the online learning environment it has now become something a lot more viable than just a last resort for people who didn’t fit in. It has its drawbacks such as insufficient development of social skills, loneliness, lack of student insight as to learning progress, and the looming danger of learned parental dependency but all in all it’s a legitimate way to get started in the world. However some families are better at it than others.

In much the same way self-production has grown in popularity because more people than ever can learn the ins and outs from the University of YouTube and places like Produce Like a Pro and Nail the Mix. It has benefits like you getting to keep an extra portion of your record earnings, less confrontation, and a quicker process from demo to final master with the advent of streamlined consumer audio gear. However as before, some families erm… bands are better at self-production than others. Drawbacks are similar in magnitude and include a lack of big picture perspective on the sound and the mood, clunky writing decisions, insufficient performances slipping past notice, poor budgeting choices, shaky MIDI orchestra arrangements, and crucially, a lack of outside inspiration.

Don’t misunderstand, striving for perfection is the grandest thing one can do and if you do something better than the previously conceived notion of perfect then you can be said to have won the game. However music is a communal activity being made by those pesky, fundamentally imperfect things called humans. It becomes stale when the precise and undiscerning eye of the computer gets too involved and it falls apart when just one person becomes too involved. What this means is we need to better define what perfect means when it comes to your musical goals. This perhaps is why it’s so hard for people to learn to self-produce effectively. By defining these criteria we also clearly define the criteria for failure, which can be rather scary to do. This can hold people back in life but the same is true in music. Overcoming this fear is well worth it because we suddenly have a pretty clear roadmap for decision-making and something clear and sharp to run like hell away from. All of a sudden we know what decisions need to be made to stave off decision paralysis, the foreseeable pitfalls, and it will lead us towards our goal with the added benefit of having a fire under you. We also need to make sure that no one is becoming too much of a tyrant during the creative process. Again music is a communal activity so we need to foster that as best we can.

Perhaps what’s needed to do this is to hire someone who can clearly define what success and failure means to us as far as our record is concerned, regulate the creative process so all voices are heard out and all good ideas preserved, bring new ideas to the table so the art doesn’t only get inspired by itself, and correct the course of the record away from pitfalls so it safely sails through the proverbial shallows. Presto! That’s a Producer.

Secondly, musicians have a tendency to repel possible confrontation, conflict, and criticism to such a degree that it’s almost comic. I’ve seen this especially in the metal world and it’s no surprise to see why. The ethos is that it’s made by outcasts for outcasts and outcasts have a certain way of doing things. Notice that it’s not necessarily the confrontation, conflict, or criticism itself (although it’s not unheard of for them to do just that). In fact once they’re in the arena I find metal musicians tend to fare a little better than most. Rather it’s the possibility of such things coming to pass. This presents two serious problems that conflict directly with the role of a producer if they are allowed to fester. The more obvious of the two being a scenario where the producer criticizes a decision the artist made and the artist can’t handle it, feels personally affronted, and reacts accordingly. Not being able to handle criticism is one issue that both producers and artists can work around, however there’s a deeper problem. Musicians unable to handle conflict or confrontation combined with a sensitive nature can lead to a number of situations that can lead to bands reconsidering whether or not they want a producer in the first place. This decision leading invariably to the pitfalls listed previously will result in a lackluster release.

Imagine if you will, the same situation where the producer raises an objection to a decision the artist made. The artist speaks up and the producer listens but the producer believes the decision would weaken the album so cannot allow it to make it onto tape and perhaps is a bit more adept at conveying his point of view so adeptly out-argues the musician. The musician now feels unheard, perhaps a bit resentful, and like a part of himself has just been axed from existence. He knows however that the argument is “won” and rather than face a bit of conflict (which would invariably lead to a compromise of some kind), he bottles it up. He feels the song or even the album is being corrupted so may be more volatile on other decisions down the line. This leads to more producer-led corrections, leading to more of the album they resent. Even if the release goes great and everyone loves the record, they may still feel like there was more they could’ve left on the table and may think twice about whether or not they need a producer on their next release. See previous pitfalls. Result: lackluster release.

Thirdly musicians, especially modern musicians, have been spooked for years about the scum of the record industry latching on to them and leaching them dry. Such stories (while many are embellished somewhat) are a potent and rather scary reality although the fear is a little fallacious and let me explain why. Taylor Swift, The Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Prince, Lead Belly, The Temptations, Elvis, and Queen are just some of the acts that can tell you horror stories about legal chicanery leading to the rights to their songs and by extension their royalties being snapped up and leaving them destitute. It’s very reasonable that when someone comes up to you and in essence says: “give me 10% of your earnings and I can make you sound great” some alarm bells start ringing in your head. After all, if it can happen to them, it can happen to you!

Well there are a few nuances to consider here and we need to think about this logically, and use some knowledge of the industry to our advantage. First of all, managers and record labels are the ones who are doing the screwing 9/10 times. When the producer has done it, it’s when they try to overstep to more of a managerial position or they have a malicious clause in their contract, which should be a MAJOR red flag to any who reads it. In fact producers of that nature count on their client’s not reading their contract and (in some cases in the early days of recorded sound) not being able to read their contract at all. A manager doesn’t work at all on the music. They manage press, publishing, image, labels, the band’s calendar, gigs, tours, merch, and they advocate for you to the label. This means while they are endlessly useful they have a lot more room to work in some legal skullduggery involving your rights than the average producer does.

To make an analogy, the mayor and the city planner don’t know the ins and outs of water and sewer maintenance, they hire a contractor for that. The contractor chooses and works with the foreman of the jobsite and he’s responsible for working with the laborers to make it all actually happen. The contractor is responsible for overseeing and delivering the project back to the mayor or city planner on time and under budget. You dig? It’s possible for any one of those links to screw each other but when the mayor and the city planner do it not only is it devastating but it also affects everyone including the contractor, foreman, and the laborers.

So reasonably, producers don’t have nearly the same opportunities to screw you over as managers and labels do. Can they overcharge, mismanage the production, over promise and snap up your rights if you aren’t careful? Absolutely but it’s a lot more obvious at that stage and the free market, and good managers, labels, and lawyers tend to sort those kinds of producers out quickly. Additionally, as something to keep you up at night, if you know about these kinds of horror stories, chances are the industry knows you know and (if they are trying to swindle you) they won’t use the same trick twice. Don’t watch the eyes, watch the hands. Look ahead, live presently, and learn from what’s behind. Et cetera.

Conclusively, we’ve covered some of the reasons the role of the metal producer is dead/dying and why they’re needed more than ever but the thing I’ve neglected to bring up until now is the consequences to all this. Who’s paying the cost of this loss of outside perspective before the red light turns on? To an extent it’s the bands but moreover it’s the listener. It’s gotten to the point now where I can listen to a local or even a semi-professional band’s release and predict where the cracks are going to show. Specific cracks include things like odd tempo changes, lack of novelty and contrast, and songs becoming less through-composed compositions and more collections of riffs separated by Portnoy-esque drum fills or pauses. Even on higher-level productions I see bands getting inspired by themselves, or what their fans seem to want versus what they really want to make. The cracks are less obvious on these sorts of things but if you sit down and think about why certain parts of an album don’t quite gel for you, you’ll find them. Metal, as much as I hate to admit it becoming stale because of this and it’s no stretch to say it’s a noose around the neck of a community that has been stuck roughly between the years of 1982 and 2013 for the better part of the last half-decade. There’s a way out and a way to better music but it requires a team effort. Do yourself and your band a favor and seriously consider as a group why you’re trying to self-produce and ask yourself “how can we make our record better than the last one we did and how can we avoid the pitfalls we encountered?”

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