Beware the “Producer”. Talent vs. Marketability in Today’s Mutable Musical Landscape

If I had a dime ( that’s 10 cents for you Engleesh 😉 for all the so called “producers” that have wasted my time in the past then I’d definitely be a hundredaire.  Oh wait!  I AM a hundredaire!

What’s it take to be a producer these days?  Beats the hell out of me.  I guess I’m a producer.  I record my own music and make decisions on what should go where.  I guess I’m also an engineer, a studio musician, a PR person, and a label owner.  Now whether or not I’m any GOOD at any of those jobs remains to be seen.  I know one thing.  I can sing; and I try really hard to be good at it.  I can write; and that’s all I’ve ever really wanted to be since I was 3 years old- a songwriter.

In these days of the breakdown of labels, musicians feeling their way around in the dark, it’s hard to know where to start.  For most of us who have eschewed labels this whole time it’s a bit easier.  We’ve been managing our own careers for years.  It’s still daunting as things have changed so much how do we effectively market ourselves?  Do we go after a small label?  Do we spend money on a producer?  A publicist?  Do we go all digital or still print copies of our CDs?  The answer is YES.  There are no rules here.  You may need to do one or all of these things.  You may decide to put out 4 digital albums recorded in your basement this year and give them all away for free….you may decide to make a really great album in a studio using a producer and market it the old fashioned way.  Different things work for different people.  There is no set market strategy these days.  Whatever you do, make music you can be proud of.  Steve Lawson one said to me that if he makes an album that he loves listening to…even if it doesn’t sell well…what has he lost?  He’s still got a great album he can be PROUD of…and 1000 copies of it to give away as gifts.  Now solo-bass isn’t the most salable of all music endeavors, but it is NICHE.  And niche can be a powerful tool.  There are millions of people out there doing what I do.  It’s a lot easier rise to the top of a small niche market.  That being said, you can have twice the audience in a this kind of environment….the fans AND the players.  Before I started touring with Steve I really didn’t know much about solo bass.  I did own a Stu Hamm cassette back in the early 90’s which I loved. (I’m sorry!) But I knew nothing of Michael Manring or Vic Wooten.  Now I’m surrounded by fantastic solo-bassists all carving out their own subsets of a great niche market and doing quite well.  It’s really a community of great players and people.

If you haven’t already…you need to read through Steve’s blog.  His last big post on remembering not to let your marketing strategy be that influenced by millionaires is brilliant.  Read it here.

So, back to my original rant.  I’ve been contacted by 100’s of producers over the course of my career.  People who were genuinely interested in the tone of my voice.  In my songs.  Then the dreaded meeting.  I’ve been either too young, too old, too tall, not right, not marketable, not blond, not thin enough and on and on….Never a refusal based on them not liking my songs, or my voice.  Granted for the most part, most of the meetings seemed like an interview for a date or a livestock auction, or both.   I had hoped that people would listen to my voice, and close their eyes and listen to a genuine outpouring of my soul.  Perhaps forget that I’m 6 feet tall, a size 14, and no longer 18 years old.  The way it happens when you fall in love.  The little imperfections turn into endearments.  Those are the things that become my favourite part of someone when I love them.  Music is like that for me too.  I love the so called mistakes.  The dropped chord, the cracked voice on a note, the outburst of laughter at a show.  The beauty in being human is what I love about music; it’s what I love about people too.  Because of this, I am haunted by the things I think I should be doing….things that people want me to do.  I need to be innovative, ahead of the curve, or people won’t come to see me or buy my albums.  And this is what it is.  I’m not trying to get famous here, just trying to make enough money to live.  So when you come to see me live, or you buy a cd, it makes it possible for me to keep doing what I’m doing.  Bottom line.  You’re not making me rich, you’re not putting my dog through charm school.  You’re supporting local business at grass roots level.  And that is very, very good indeed. In turn, the biggest gift I can give you in return is to make the best music I can and part of that is making music that is ME.  It doesn’t matter if it’s quirky, uncool or outdated as long as it’s GOOD and it’s something I can be proud of.  That’s all I want to do.

It’s never all bad. I’ve worked with some great people too.  Producers and engineers that have turned into lifelong friends.  They make up for all the wasted time, all the bogus physical assessment.  I hope as the independent musician continues to manage their own career in this very exciting future, that we’ll see more and more of what has been hidden from us in the past by people pushing marketability.  Beautiful voices and beautiful songs that don’t need to be attached to something pretty.  Maybe then people will stop trying to make themselves into something they’re not.  Maybe then we can all just concentrate on making music.  Can you tell I’m an idealist?  xo

7 Replies to “Beware the “Producer”. Talent vs. Marketability in Today’s Mutable Musical Landscape”

  1. Not surprisingly, I agree 🙂

    I think in general we underestimate the ‘mainstream-ness’ of our own taste – the format might be odd, but I like tunes, I like hooks, I like all the elements in music that ‘most people’ like – so I trust my own taste and make records for me. I’ve no idea how to second-guess a particular market, so I make the music I want to listen to.

    I’m lucky enough to get to listen to you experimenting a lot, and I’m utterly amazed by some of the incredible stuff you come up with when you’re just messing around – if you can capture that on a recording, all worries about ‘what’ it is will go out the window, cos it’ll be be ‘fabulous’ 🙂


  2. I really enjoyed reading this. The timing of it was weird as I had just gotten off the phone w/ my gf having been chatting about how I find the whole ‘trying to get noticed’ thing depressing. When we make something, we want to share it, because music is so personal, it’s something that is bigger than our individual selves – so to be able to contribute back into that landscape is a wonderful feeling.

    But to have to make a commodity of ourselves is distressing. It takes us away from the music.

    Anyway I appreciate your underlying thesis – that the goal is to remain true to what our artistic voice needs to be, first and foremost. Be authentic, and let that be the reward, regardless of who or how many end up hearing it (we’re all needles in a haystack).

    Anything else is McMusic.

  3. Thanks Steve! You always make me feel great about what I’m trying to do; and help me acheive more than I ever thought I could. Thanks for being such an amazing role model. 🙂

    Lovely Scott! So nice to see you here and thanks so so much for your comment. I forget sometimes that men suffer just as much from from this whole musical identity thing. Mainly because of hanging out with Steve so much….he’s the most confident person in the entire world. It’s a bit scary at times. It’s hard being a musician, and even harder finding the balls to go against the grain. Anyway, I think your music is fabulous and innovative and very much Scott Lanaway. I totally agree with you about the sharing thing. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of sharing new work with an audience. I’d still make music even if no one else was interested in listening to it…but I’m really glad that some are! 🙂 I hope all is well in Canada. I really miss it! xo

  4. I have the notion of ‘personality types’ in the forefront of my thoughts of late, and it makes me think after reading your post that the “politics” of promotion are best left to someone who isn’t an artist. Scott said it himself: “to make a commodity of ourselves is distressing. It takes us away from the music.”

    The concept of a producer is a good one, since it should be about a personality type who’s good at finding niches or matching artists to niches, etc. But one of the rewards to the producer is financial and thus most will probably orient their strategies along those lines, for their own interest. It reminds me of those Rush lyrics from Spirit of Radio:

    All this machinery making modern music
    Can still be open-hearted
    Not so coldly charted; it’s really just a question of your honesty.
    One likes to believe in the freedom of music
    But glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity

  5. Yes, yes, yes and …. yes. I am in total agreement with you. I have never felt comfortable with describing myself as a producer when producing someone else’s material… I preferr “collaborator” or perhaps “co-conspirator” for times when I’m feeling a little saucy.

    I think the reason is that I don;t want to be “tarred with the same brush”. So many producers, and especially labels, want perfection… not a perfect capture of a highly artistic moment, but sterile, sanitised “pap”.

    I couldn’t agree more about capturing and relishing the mistakes, the “humanness” of music… in fact they named a whole genre after it… they aptly named it “soul”.

    Such a shame then that it is now a badge for everything that is soulless.

    There… I feel so much better now!


  6. I love reading your blog, L. Lifts my soul and plants my feet all at the same time. I wish you lived next door to me. I do. Have I said that before?

  7. Hmmm… Some random thoughts… Firstly I’ll start by agreeing that there are a lot of bad producers out there. A lot. But there are also some good ones. What do good ones do?

    1. They made sure stuff happens. Let’s just say that us creative types aren’t always finisher completers. A good producer is a not so quiet voice that nudges the musicians to create a finished product.

    2. They are an independent set of ears. Just as a good writer benefits from an editor. Someone who isn’t quite as emotionally invested in the material who can give an outsider view on what should go and what should be worked.

    That said, many producers end up as go betweens for the labels… However, in the post-big-label world (should there be one!) I think there is still a role for the producer. However, in this social-media-fueled world, a musician can get a lot of that for themselves from their fans/followers and community.

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