The way that I like to describe what a music producer does is that a music producer is to a recording as a director is to a movie. In other words, the producer is responsible for everything from the musical arrangement decisions all the way to working with the vocalist and session musicians to make sure they’re giving their best performances and providing the songwriting client with the sound and feel they’re looking for in their song. For songwriters with little or no studio experience, working with a producer is a great way to assure that you’ll end up with a demo that you can be confident will measure up to music industry standards. Below are a few things to keep in mind if working with a producer is in your future.

The Dos

1. Ask for any/all fees you should expect to pay for your demo

It’s a natural thing to be a bit squeamish talking about the financial end of things when it comes to your art. I completely understand but these conversations are essential. It might help to remember that you’re also a business person who has to make the financial decisions that are best for you. It’s not enough to know a studio’s hourly rate. Make sure you know what the session musicians and singer will cost and if there’s an additional fee for the engineer, producer or anyone else involved. Get these conversations out of the way up front and then you can go back to enjoying the musical process.

2. Have your producer recommend vocalists and musicians

Part of the reason to hire a producer is for their relationships with studio personnel like demo singers and session musicians. Unless you have someone specific in mind for your song, having your producer recommend singers and players based on genre/artist you’re hoping to pitch to is a great way to go. That being said, if you’re not comfortable taking a recommendation on faith, most producers can play you examples of the vocalists they recommend.

3. Provide reference recordings/songs to show the kind of sound you’re looking for

Sometimes it can be hard to explain in musical terms what kind of sound you’d like for your demo. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution. Just select a few songs you know that you feel fit the sound you’re looking for. Playing these examples for a producer is a great way to start the conversation about how your demo should sound.

The Don’ts

1. If you’ll be pitching your demo for film and TV, don’t forget to have everyone sign releases

These days, it’s not at all uncommon for songwriters to pitch their finished demos for film and TV opportunities and have them used as is. This is a wonderful thing assuming you have permission from the session musicians and demo singer to use their performances to generate income. There’s a difference between a demo (short for demonstration) and a recording that makes the songwriter money. There’s a longer discussion to be had here but, for the purposes of this article, if you’re hoping to pitch your demo that way, you’ll need to have signed releases from everyone involved in the recording process (producer, singer, musicians). As a producer, I keep a boilerplate release on hand for just these kinds of situations.

2. Don’t forget to ask for instrumental mixes as well as your regular mixes

When you’re in the studio, asking for a mix without the vocal (known as an instrumental or “track” mix) should only add five minutes to your studio time. These track mixes can be used for everything from film/TV pitches where a vocal wouldn’t work in a scene to letting a prospective artist try their vocal on your song. The danger in not getting an instrumental mix at the time is that it could end up costing more to do later or, worse yet, the studio might no longer have access to your tracks and won’t be able to provide one at all. 

3. Don’t forget to take a deep breath and enjoy the process

Hiring a producer means you’ve got an expert to guide you through the demo process. Not only is this a great way to assure you’ll get a terrific recording but you’ll also be able to relax and not have to worry about every detail. Songwriting demos, when done by professionals, can be a truly joyful process. Don’t forget to have fun.

Conclusion

Having worked as a producer for over twenty years, I can tell you that we’re genuinely here to help. If the demo process feels overwhelming or even just stressful, a producer can definitely lighten your load. Keep the above pointers in mind and you’ll be setting yourself up for a great experience.

Good Luck!

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3 responses to “What Songwriters Should – and Shouldn’t – Do When Working With Music Producers”

  1. Greg says:

    Hello,
    I was just turned on to your blog and it has already been helpful. I am going into the studio tomorrow and the production agreement that the studio wants me to sign give s him 50% of all publishing rights and includes him as the songwriter because he is getting musicians and the like… Are there any other boiler plate “agreements” I can see to figure out if this is standard practice? I always figured that if i pay for it I should own all of it. Thanks.

    • Hi Greg,

      This approach doesn’t feel “standard” to me at all. As you say, if you’re paying for the studio and the musicians, I don’t see why you’d be asked to give up ownership in your songs unless the rate is significantly reduced. If not, this doesn’t sound right at all. Hope that helps!

  2. Professional Lenders write the mortgage document they plop down in front of Amateur Borrowers for their signature. Their signature commits them to agreement with whatever might be in those 50 pages. It’s closing day. You’ve scrimped and saved to get the down payment and ‘points’ and maybe to put the house in order once you ‘buy’ it. You don’t stop to read it. You trust them. And 12 million pieces of real estate get foreclosed on and those Amateur Borrowers are up that well-known creek without proper means of propulsion.
    It used to be illegal. Repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act ‘legalized’ it, for the Professional Lenders.
    What you sign your name to, as an adult, is ‘legally binding’. So you need to read it, and you need a lawyer. They’re selling what they wrote in their contract. You need to write a contract for what you want to buy. They don’t necessarily believe your Song has hit potential. But if you do get it to market and it hits, you’ve given them ownership. All you wanted to buy was ‘arrangement’, the musical accompaniment, the vocalization of your Lyric, and the recording, a ‘Master’ that you own, free and clear.
    The musicians play. The singer sings. The ‘producer’ records. You sign a check and walk away. They cash the check and walk away.
    Your contract specifies that agreement, that they perform, their ‘consideration’, and you pay, your ‘consideration’, and that ends the contract. Your contract specifies your permission to use their performance in any way you wish. They may ask for other specifications, that you don’t use their work to release the Song to market, for radio play, streaming, Synchronization Licensing; all the uses you might have in mind. They may ask for credit, their names listed for the work they do. Only you can agree to their ‘deal’, their specifications. Otherwise the deal is only what you put in your contract to buy what you want to buy.
    You’re transitioning from avocational hobbyist, writing Songs for your own pleasure, to being a company, engaging in commerce with other companies, other individuals, and your signature commits you to agreement with whatever you and/or they put in writing. Have it your way, or not at all. They know what they’re doing. You should know what you’re doing.
    Entertainment law has nuances unique to this ‘industry’. A commercial or criminal lawyer may not know the in’s and out’s. But, almost any lawyer is better than none. (Except Saul. Don’t call Saul.)

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