Mailbag time! One of our readers writes:
I am into urban/dance music. This relies on an artist as well as a producer. I’m a producer.
Here is what I am willing to offer the artist:
-I am willing to allow unlimited free studio time as it’s in my basement. It’s not a bad setup either ($1000 mic setup alone)
-Produce a full mixtape
-Record a full mixtape for the artist (basically a demo album).
-Help write songs where I can
-And even pay for some of the promotion on certain websites.
All I ask is that the artist take my direction during the recording as I find they usually have really bad ideas (like beat-boxing over piano). I need to engineer the album properly.
At first I thought artists would JUMP at the opportunity of free production and recordings. But instead, I can’t find artists at all, and those rare ones that I do find, give a ‘who are you?’ sort of attitude. It’s like they believe it will land in their lap or are not willing to record material unless they are signed.
However, the biggest problem I have is I can NOT for the life of me find artists. All I can find is street rappers who can’t write songs. I’d accept any pop-urban artist song writer. They don’t even have to have that much skill.. just be able to write a song. Not a masterpiece. Just a simple hook and melody.
In the UK it’s a playground of amazing artists for me. They are friendly, amazingly talented, and it’s like they are successful even being unsigned. It’s almost like there are too many to choose from. But unfortunately, I am in Toronto where there isn’t much talent and people in general don’t ‘pursue dreams’ so we don’t have the numbers even near the UK for these artists. Those artists that are here in Toronto, and are ‘worthy’ for my services, believe that a demo will get them signed, rich, and then famous. They seem to have the attitude where if you cannot get them rich and famous, then they will not talk to you.
So this is where I am stuck. I have no idea where to look next. My wife is expecting and I cannot travel to the UK to record. It really is a playground there.
I wrote about the “US/UK Conundrum” in Grow Your Band’s Audience. The UK’s like Bizarro World compared to North America, isn’t it? Audiences in the UK and Europe grew up on a steady diet of new music fueled by public service radio and highly competitive weekly newspapers. But that doesn’t mean they’ve got it easier than those of us in Toronto or Toledo. It may take a long time to break a new act in the US or Canada, but it’s as easy to lose an audience in the UK as it is to gain one.
Instead, let’s look at the real issue: how you add value as a producer.
What I hear you saying is that you really want collaborators instead of clients. And it’s easy to blur the lines when you’re trying to produce your way into a band. By offering your services “for free,” you’re devaluing what you bring to the table. Serious artists might shy away from you, since they’re going to worry that you could show up on their doorstep one day claiming partial ownership of their work. So it’s no surprise that you’re attracting artists at the very beginning stages of their careers.
Experienced artists don’t know who you are if you don’t have a solid track record, and you’re already seeing signs of “pink bus syndrome” from baby bands.
If you were just trying to be an engineer or a producer, it might not really matter who’s showing up in your project studio, as long as their checks don’t bounce and they’re reasonably fun to work with. But I sense that you’re a hobbypreneur, with a full time job, a very supportive family, and the desire to just be part of something great. It’s time to focus on one of the business models you can use to make this work:
Producer as service provider. Set an hourly rate and charge it. If you’re really bringing value to your clients, you won’t have to worry about justifying your fee. The fee itself becomes a filter: artists who aren’t ready to work with you “can’t afford” you. If you’re not concerned about making money right now, you’re not obligated to collect on your invoices. Having printed them out and delivered them to your clients assures them that there’s an expected ceiling to their debts if your collaboration bears fruit. They won’t get nervous about shopping your recordings, and you can build your portfolio.
Producer as travel agent. I loved interviewing bands who hired Brad Jones as their producer/engineer. They told me stories about his exotic house, converted into a recording studio, filled with everything from vintage gear to kids’ toys. And it all got used in every recording. His only rule was that you had to come out to his house and surrender yourself to the process of locking yourself inside until something awesome came out. Toronto’s an awesome city, and I might think you’d find some folks from all over North America who’d be willing to travel out for a long weekend to hustle out an EP under similar conditions.
Producer as label. Traditionally, if you’re taking on label ownership, you’re fronting your own expenses as if you were actually shelling out cash to a third party. You’re keeping a running tab of the hours and expenses you log against each project, and you’ll collect that back against future royalties. Downside: you also have the responsibility of putting together publicity, distribution, and accounting support. Fail to make a decent effort at promoting the work, and you’ll ruin your reputation.
Producer as artist. Could you be the next Mark Ronson? Put together your own stable of collaborators. Mash up great writers who can’t sing with great singers who can’t write. It’s a process that has worked for decades, and you can be the glue that holds each composition together. Artists with big egos may not want to hand you the reins, but folks looking for fun side projects could wind up part of your rotating cast of characters.
Once you know which model feels best for you, it’s going to be easier to make an offer to artists. And if you have to look beyond Toronto, so be it. Just remember the ground rules. Sign contracts and deal memos that clearly spells out who owns what, what’s a work for hire, and how you’ll get paid (if ever).