Few jobs in the music industry are less well understood than that of the record producer. Not only do bands or individual musicians not understand the role of the producer, neither do a large number of people who call themselves producers. If you go into a recording studio, the guy pressing the red button is not a producer, though you may think he is, and so might he! Likewise, the guy in your band with a pirated copy of Cubase who says he will mix the band's album is not a producer either.
So in this article I'm going to outline the role of the producer, and address the ways that a producer could help you, whether you are a solo artist or part of a band.
At the top of the record industry, a producer is brought in by a band or artist's management or record company, in order to take responsibility for 6 things:
That they take responsibility for these things does not necessarily mean they will do them in particular, mastering is usually outsourced and sometimes mixing is as well. However, they do have responsibility for these areas in the true sense of the word: they have the authority to tell the band what to do, and carry the can if the result is bad. The producer becomes an extra member of the band for the duration of the album cycle, responsible for maximising the musical quality of the band's output.
At the unsigned and independent level, it often works differently. One key difference is that at this level the band or artist employs the producer directly. This puts them in the odd situation of hiring someone to tell them what to do. For the relationship to work effectively, the artist and producer need to sit down and agree (and ideally write down) the terms of the deal between them, and who will call the shots in which area.
Another difference with smaller acts is that they are less likely to hand over all six areas to the producer, usually for financial reasons. It is much more common for independent artists to mix and match areas of responsibility, only calling in a producer to help with the parts of the process that they really need assistance with. This can be a very effective financial solution for bands, but it relies on the band being mature and honest enough to assess what they're bad at. It is very common, for instance, for small bands not to want the producer involved in the songwriting, because the band's songwriter is emotionally attached to their songs and their ego couldn't cope with someone critiquing and changing them. On the other hand, a producer may be unhappy if they are asked to put their name to a record that they feel could have been better if they had been allowed to work on it the way they wanted.
A benefit of the internet age is that bands and artists can now work with producers remotely, over email and Skype. Obviously, this doesn't apply to everyone, if you intend to go into a studio to record you want the producer in there with you, but if you'll be recording from home it is more than possible to work with a producer remotely I've produced whole EPs for artists I've never been within 5000 miles of! This approach saves huge amounts of time and money for those who are able to use it.
Solo artists in particular benefit from producers in fact, for a solo artist to release a record without a producer being involved at some stage is very rare. With a band, it is possible, if the skills exist within it, to share out the six areas of responsibility amongst the members, but for a solo artist to have pro-level skills in all those areas as well as pro-level skills in their instrument is very uncommon. Unless the artist is a particularly skilled multi-instrumentalist, they will also need help with getting every instrument they need recorded.
For a solo artist, choosing a producer with the right musical skills is a really important consideration. For example, I am primarily a guitarist, I also play bass and drums and can sequence midi, but I'm a terrible singer and a worse pianist. Whilst the majority of bands I work with are guitar-based, because I know a lot about recording guitar, most of the solo artists I produce are singer-pianists. This is because I can provide guitars, bass and drums to add to the voice and piano, with no need to add any more people (with the extra time, hassle and expense that involves) to the project between us, we can be a whole band on the record. Whereas if a guitarist came to me wanting piano on their record, I'd have to get a session player in because neither of us play that instrument to a pro standard.
For ambitious bands, a strong relationship with the right producer can transform their fortunes. Not only will the producer work with them to improve their music, both on stage and on record, he or she will often be the gateway to accessing useful people all over the industry. Producers work with, or are hired by, pretty much everyone in the record business bands, individual musicians, record companies, managers, band coaches, songwriters, publishers and others, and their address book will have people who you would very much like to get to know! A producer will have a reputation to protect with these people, so they are only likely to recommend you to these people if they think you will enhance their reputation but they you do, it can get your band a long way forward very quickly.
For those who are interested in more detail on the subject, I've put together a short e-book "Producers: A Guide For Independent Artists". This goes into much more depth on: