Anyone who has spent some time in the music business would probably agree that it’s a pretty strange way to make a living.
But even in spite of all its strangeness (or maybe because of it) I can think of no better and more fulfilling way to carve out my little slice of life than helping a band, facilitating an artist’s vision, or being a supportive-yet-driving force in the creation of music.
I rarely have a problem getting myself motivated to get to work on a project. Without having any supporting data in front of me, I would guess that there are few other industries where this is the norm. I guess that means we’re lucky, right?
It’s no secret that the vast majority of professionals on the production end of music were either players or artists themselves at some point in their lives. For many of us, the desire to be on the other side of the glass, or backstage, or otherwise behind-the-scenes, became the new focus of our musical ambitions.
For this reason, most of us who switch sides have a clear understanding about what an artist wants, needs, and expects to achieve when they embark on a project. This is no small detail. It seems reasonable to assume that those who better understand these drives firsthand are better at helping an artist achieve what they want, with a high degree of success.
If you read enough interviews with successful producers, recording engineers, live front-of-house mixers and the like, you will find a common thread between them all: They listen to the artist and try to give them what they want, while taking care of what they need.
But there is another side of this “service to the artist” that isn’t discussed as often, especially not with the general public. It has to do with the strange duality that comes from working for an artist while working with an artist. On the surface, those two roles seem like they should be similar, but when it comes to your level of personal investment in a project, they couldn’t be more different.
Are Your Collaborators Working “With” You or Working “For” You?
Let me give you an example:
I still vividly remember an encounter I had with a studio manager many years ago, when my inexperienced band and I were scouting “real” studios in which to make a high-quality demo.
We had money to spend and knew it would cost a lot to do it right. We looked at several of our options, and set up meetings to discuss the rates, the recording process, and what our expected outcomes could be. We were green, admittedly, but were respectful, curious, and intent on choosing the best studio for our session.
When we arrived at one of these prospective studios for one such meeting, to put it bluntly, this guy couldn’t have chased us out the door more quickly if he’d been wielding a machete. Beyond collecting a paycheck for his services, he wanted nothing to do with us and made no bones about it. We went somewhere else.
In a nutshell, if we had booked his studio, he would have worked for us, but there was no way he was going to work with us.
This experience always stuck with me and provided a guiding principle when I moved to the other side of the glass. I felt that it was important to be engaged and interested, and to always look out for the artist’s interest if I got the gig. This sentiment had to be sincere. I couldn’t just pretend to care about their project—I had to really be invested in the project and always give them my best effort.
But this kind of deep investment can come at a price, which is where the duality comes in.
When I’m hired for a project, I always make sure that I fully immerse myself in the songs and the performances. I try to gain an understanding of the music equivalent to the level at which the band understands their music.
It’s not just about knowing the arrangement (intro, verse, chorus, bridge) it’s also about paying attention to the interplay between the instruments; paying attention to the way each musician does what they do; paying attention to what the focal point is at each part of the song; and so on.
To do, this I have to become a fan of the music and, in a way, a temporary member of the band. The proverbial Fifth Beatle. This allows me to get more wrapped up in the song, and to feel more motivated and conscious of how to get it right for the artist.
A logical byproduct of this level of personal commitment is that I will likely have strong opinions and convictions about the way the songs will ultimately turn out. I have to take ownership of the outcome of the project do my best work. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to some trying situations for the “fully-invested-for-hire” guy.
Take, for instance, when I’m mixing a song: I know it’s done when I feel that I can’t improve the mix anymore, but also when my head is bopping along with the song because it’s got me.
I need to be able to listen to and enjoy the music as a fan might. Once I reach that point, I can then send the mix to the client and await their notes and revisions with nervous anticipation.
This is where it things can get a bit uncomfortable.
Dealing with Disagreement
It’s extremely rare for a band to not have notes and revisions on a mix, no matter how good a job I (think I) did. There’s just no way to account for everything that they may want or deem to be important.
But even knowing and anticipating this, when you’ve been immersed in a song for many hours and feel a connection to it, it’s not always easy to then have that worked judged—and sometimes judged harshly.
This kind of judgment, of course, comes with the territory and anyone who does this professionally has to learn to accept the criticism, make the changes, make it right, and move on.
The duality lies in the fact that there is no way to do superior work in music without caring a great deal about the outcome. But once you’ve completed your specific task, you have to suddenly be objective and professional. Like, right now!
When you’re on the receiving end of this kind of feedback, you have to become a facilitator and operator again, and not so much of a personally-invested co-creator anymore.