Should You Produce Your Own Music?

author: James Scott date: 01/06/2014 category: general music
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Should You Produce Your Own Music?
Sometimes your life changes really quickly, and the weirdest things can have huge effects that you would never anticipate. For me, an old man I never knew having a stroke 8000 miles away had probably a bigger effect on my life than any exam I took or any job interview I ever went to.

That old man was the father of my band's guitarist, and he lived in their home country of Brazil. On hearing of his father's ill health, our guitarist was on the next plane to Sao Paulo, taking with him an external hard drive containing our band's half-finished album. In the email telling us he was leaving, he promised to upload the contents for us to recover and use. Of course, we never heard from him again.

Having fired one producer for extreme laziness and another for incompetence, I was out of options. If I was going to get this album done, I had to do it myself, and do it from scratch. So I did, and in 2010, we released the album, and I had my first production credit. Three years later, I'm a professional producer. I wouldn't say I became a producer "by accident," because I could have taken other options when our guitarist left. I could have given up. I could have found someone else. But I decided to do it myself, and what a good decision that proved to be.

In the couple of years following that release, I wrote a bunch of articles basically saying "hey, if a disorganised fat idiot like me can become a pro producer, so can you!". Now I realise that I wasn't right (about the producing thing, not about the disorganised fat idiot thing, I'd pretty much nailed that one first time). A couple of recent projects of mine have involve me picking up the pieces of albums and EPs by artists who thought they could produce themselves, or, worse, had already paid a bunch of money to someone who thought they could do the job but let them down. From the artist's perspective, that sucks really hard, because they have to pay two lots of money and do two lots of work to get the album done. Some can't face that prospect and give up, or "postpone" the album, never to work on it again. I know artists who have been "working on their album" for 5 years or more.

It can also be embarrassing and damaging for an artist's reputation. About 3 years ago, a musician I know announced in a flurry of publicity that he was starting work on his album, that he was going to produce it himself, that he was going to learn as he went along and then become a great producer. He had no experience or production skills (despite being a great musician), but he had read a lot of motivational self-help books, which he thought would do instead. To this day, there's no product from this guy, and comments on his Facebook asking where the album is getting to get swiftly deleted without explanation.
So, whether to produce yourself or not is a really important decision. Having done it myself, having had to rescue the failed attempts of other people to do it themselves, and also seen other people succeed, I think I know the attributes you need to go it alone. If this isn't you, get a producer to help you.

1. You need to be a massive nerd


Production is a challenging mix of the technical and the creative. You need to be good at both to succeed in it, and that's a minority of people. Many brilliant musicians flop at production because they can't handle the jargon, the complexity and the IT-heavy work. I'm a colossal geek. I love pressing buttons and twiddling dials, and I love to spend time in the "options" menu just to see what all the settings do. If your reaction to a reverb plugin with 30 different settings is "Awesome, I want to try them ALL!" then you may be on the right path. If you'd rather chew tinfoil, maybe get someone else involved. As a guitarist, if you have a million pedals and spend hours messing about with them just to see if you can make your guitar sound like the Tardis, you might enjoy production. If you're a "just give me a Strat and a Marshall, kids today need to get off my lawn with their fancy compressors" sort of player, best leave the technology to someone else and concentrate on your playing.

2. You need the right attitude to criticism


This isn't just about handling criticism, though you do need to be good at that as well. It's more about being objective about your own progress. You need to tread a narrow path between arrogant egomania on the one hand, whereby you won't tolerate any criticism and the idea of anyone calling your work less than brilliant throws you into a rage, and self-flagellation, whereby you hate everything you create and give up too easily. When learning production, the hardest single skill to learn is to listen to your own work objectively. Even if you're going it alone, you're going to need to call in people with experience to critique your work, and listen to what they have to say. I had to cope with my early mixes being ripped to pieces and so will you. If getting criticism either makes you hate the person who provided it or makes you hate yourself, you're going to struggle. If you can roll with the punches and use them to actually improve what you do, you'll be OK.

3. You need project management skills


Recording an album requires literally thousands of things to be done, in the correct order. Some things need to be started long before you need them finished, otherwise the entire project can be held up for months. In addition, to record an album you need to manage people, even if you're a solo artist, but especially if you have a band and they all need to record their parts. Creative people have a tendency to be disorganised. If you struggle with remembering to bring all the right gear to rehearsals and gigs, or if you're always falling out with bandmates because you can't persuade them of the importance of turning up to things on time without offending them, then you're going to struggle with production. You don't need to a naturally super-organised or anal-retentive person; I'm definitely lazy and messy if left to my own devices. I was perhaps fortunate to have had some project management training in a previous job that served me well in production, but that's proof that these skills can be learned rather than being innate, and you don't need professional qualifications, just a solid understanding of the concepts.
So I hope that's useful, at least more so than the "you can do it if you want it hard enough" motivational speeches or the "you don't have a hope, pay me to do it" sales pitches you usually see on this topic.
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About the Author
James Scott is a music producer from London, UK. He works with unsigned and independent artists to get them noticed in the industry.
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