From sample-heavy hip-hop tracks to synth-laced pop singles, producers have played a pivotal role in shaping recordings since the music industry’s shellac days. They’re even the star of the show sometimes — as much a part of an LP’s storyline as the people singing and playing on it. That goes for everyone from Rick Rubin to Nile Rodgers.
Here’s one important question not everyone can easily answer, however: Who are producers and what exactly does a producer do?
Let’s break it down.
What Are a Producer’s Responsibilities?
If you need a breakdown of working with a producer, check out this article first. A typical producer oversees the creation of a musical work, whether it’s a tightly edited track or a sprawling album. They also command studio time, coach artists, and steer a song's ultimate sound and structure. No matter the genre, it’s a really important role.
How a producer is defined is not set in stone, however. Depending on the dynamic a producer has with their client, they may be involved in final hour flourishes once a song is fully formed or minute details throughout the entire creative process. A hip-hop producer is not the same as an electronic one, either; while the former often builds hook-driven beats for rhyme-slaying rappers, the latter is liable to write and record all of their own music without any outside input.
Complicating matters even further is how producers are credited. Some common subsets include:
Executive producers secure and manage a recording’s budget while overseeing the project using an entrepreneurial approach.
Vocal producers coach singers to give their best performance, put vocal arrangements together, and sometimes even sing on tracks.
Record producers work alongside artists, musicians, and engineers to sculpt and shape finished songs in the studio. They may help select or even write the music, hire musicians, book the studio, manage the schedule, and coordinate the many details required to complete the recording.
And then there is the distinction — often hotly debated — between what it means to be a producer and what it means to be an engineer. A particularly vocal proponent of this separation is indie rock icon Steve Albini. While he’s known for bottling the brilliance of such household names as PJ Harvey, Nirvana, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Albini insists on being called an engineer and left off the layout if possible.
“I think that my name appearing on people's records is a little bit of a distraction,” Albini explained in an extensive Sound on Sound interview. “I don't think it’s important, and in some ways, it causes public relations problems for the band, who then have to defend me or defend their choice of working with me. I understand that people want to give credit, and that’s fine. I’m not offended by it. But once I'm paid, I don't really need anything more.”
When Did Today’s Concept of a Producer Take Root?
Modern-day recordings can be traced back to the tape-captured tracks of the 1940s and the rise of electronic instruments in the ‘50s. Pushing the field even further were experimental producers like George Martin, Phil Spector, and Brian Eno, who turned knob-twiddling into an artform through elaborate techniques and otherworldly effects.
Production moved from analog to digital methods after the ‘80s, further expanding a song’s possibilities and palate. Today, DAWs (digital audio workstations) like Logic Pro and Pro Tools turn an ordinary computer into a tricked-out console even a simple home studio could handle.
With the playing field as level as it’s ever been, anyone can technically be a producer, but it’s hard not to notice the gender gap that’s hampered the profession since the very beginning. As we pointed out in a piece about how the music industry can better support women, a recent USC Annenberg report found that just 2% of Billboard’s Hot 100 songs were produced by women in 2020. The study also found that the ratio of men to underrepresented women in a production role was a staggering 180 to 1.
“Women producers — and particularly women of color — are virtually erased from the music industry,” said lead researcher Stacy L. Smith. “Only 5% of the songs in our sample spanning nine years of popular music had a woman producer. Harnessing the opportunity to showcase women’s talent and their creative contributions is essential if the record business wants to reach equality.”
Collaborating With Producers
Whether you plan to become a producer or simply want to work right alongside one, it’s important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for what a producer’s responsibilities are or how to become one yourself. For some, it’s a natural progression from audio engineering; others pick it up as they’re working on solo work.
Some of the most successful music producers can earn tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. They often collect recurring royalties from the rights to their recordings — a separate copyright from the song or composition — and may earn a cut depending on the final agreement between rights holders.
Producers can also set high fees for their time and services to an artist or client, especially if their roster includes top hits. There are producers who will work on a project fee-only basis (called “work-for-hire”) but most producers will keep some ownership of their recordings so they can collect royalties if the song turns out to be a hit.
So, as you’re working on your next song, consider working with a producer or learning the ropes from all the ones that came before you. Either way, it’s important to understand that producers are songwriters and entitled to their share of a recording’s ownership, depending on the agreement you make with them.
To learn more about ownership rights and how you earn royalties, check out our article on the Two Halves of a Song.