Friday, October 23

Producer's Reality Check

Article by Chris Horvath for
Life Outside The Bubble

If you have never had to answer to someone for the music you are making then it can be quite a strange feeling when encountered for the first time. It is a fact of life in the real music world and rarely dealt with until you are working on a project of some stature or financial consequence. I truly believe that composer/producers who understand this early in their career end up doing much better than the classic tortured geniuses who constantly gripe about the “tone-deaf and talentless gits” who they must deal with on every project.

The truth is that you are like a chef in a restaurant. Whether your restaurant serves 5 star French cuisine or beer and burgers (yum!) is up to you. But if a customer wants to make a substitution of a side dish or add cheese to a Chilean Sea Bass entrĂ©e (blaspheme!) you must do it regardless of how you feel it compromises the taste of your creation or the presentation of the dish. They have chosen to eat at your place because of your vision and creativity but if the experience is not good, they’ll eat somewhere else next time.

The Art of Compromising Your Art

A producer friend recently came to me with a story that illustrates how complicated it can get making decisions by committee, especially when you don’t have the last word regarding the music you are making. He had just finished an album project and the artist as well as everyone at the label was thrilled. He played it for me and it sounded awesome, especially some truly amazing mixes. Well it seems that everyone was thrilled except one VP who happened to have great influence over marketing plans and budgets. This VP felt, but could give no specific feedback as to why, that the mixes just weren’t “up to snuff” (silly me; I still don’t really know what “snuff” is, but whatever... ). He wanted to bring in a mixer he had worked with several times over the years to remix the album. Of course this mixer was an old friend with whom there was a long relationship. I also mean old as in a bit older - and probably somewhat out of touch with the music of this project. In fact, if you made a list of the 25 best choices of mix engineer for the album, he wouldn’t have even been on it. After much debate and insistence from others on the project that the mixes were great, the VP held his opinion that they could be better.

Making Your “Place” Your “Home”

Knowing your place on the project’s Totem Pole is very important. When I was scoring one of my first feature films I learned a valuable lesson about giving up control over the music I was making.

I had just finished a cue that had a very cool groove, which was driven by some heavy drum and percussion programming, something I enjoy doing and am pretty good at. I felt really great about how this cue looked and sounded against picture and was quite proud of what I had done. So the director comes by to see the week’s progress on the score and I confidently hit play and waited to see his reaction. There was no reaction. He watched it again and said “Hmmm, I like some of it but not all of it”. So I start soloing things to see if he can identify the stuff he wasn’t liking. When all was said and done he asked me to mute all of the drums and percussion. I’m thinking “Huh? You’re kidding, right?” I probably had a very strong reaction and said something like “Man, that’s like ripping the foundation right out from underneath a house, you just can’t do that. The house will fall apart!” The director looks at me and says “Well I don’t give a shit. Maybe I want to see what a house without a foundation looks like, now show it to me!”

Driving The Bus…

Tone-deaf and talentless clients aren’t the only ones you’ll have to collaborate with and respond to. Many times the very artists you are producing are of questionable musical ability but are trying to realize a vision they have for their album. Just because they are the artist doesn’t mean they have to know how to build a groove or sing and play like a studio pro. They are artists and that’s why you’re there; to bring their vision to life. You may be “driving the bus”, but it is their bus; let them choose the destination and then you figure out the best way to drive them there. If you don’t believe in their vision, then get off the bus.

When Things Heat Up

Sometimes conflicts do arise and things get testy (“In this business? Really?”). When you’re dealing with difficult people in difficult situations it’s important to stay calm for as long as possible. This is tough and I haven’t always been good at it, but I’m getting better. There will be plenty of time to roll your eyes and talk about what tone-deaf, talentless gits these people are later. Right now, you need to make them happy. If not, they will find someone who will. Of course you need to stand your ground for what you believe in and doing so in the right ways will only make people respect you more.

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