Making a Living as a Producer
This interview was originally published in November 2016.
Paul Adams is the owner and founder of Bang The Drum, a management company that handles the careers of a select group of highly-talented producers, mixers, songwriters, and composers. Beginning as a promoter in his native Manchester, Paul went on to work as a booking agent at the legendary Bron Agency. Since 1993, Paul has been managing record producers. He moved to New York in 2001 to head up the NY office of World’s End and joined Magus Entertainment three years later, where he continued to manage producers and also represented Duran Duran amongst others before establishing Bang The Drum in 2012. Paul is also a successful DJ who has spun events for Rick Rubin, Ringo Starr, the David Lynch Foundation and Communion, among others.
Paul explained the work he does in the music business and talked about how artist development, recording and producers’ roles have changed during the past 20 years. He also shared advice for engineers and producers looking to grow their careers in 2016.
Thanks so much for taking some time to chat, Paul. How did you end up managing producers in the first place?
Managing producers happened by accident. It’s bizarre to think that accident has led to something that has been a focus for me for 25 years.
Basically, I started my career in the music business promoting gigs in my hometown, a small commuter town outside of Manchester. I’m sure a lot of people did the same thing. I got to know a bunch of booking agents as a result, and eventually one of them said, “Why don’t you move to London and become an agent?” I jumped at the chance. It was all my dreams come true.
I was a booking agent for a while, then started booking a band signed to Polydor called the Indians, an English band with an American female singer. I was hired because International Talent Booking (ITB), the large booking agency who was working with them, really didn’t have time to develop all the acts. It was sold to me to develop. The plan was that I would lose the act to the agency once it was developed. I was fine with that because I was young and just wanted to cut teeth with something that seemed like it had legs. Looking long term, I also thought if I did a great job, maybe ITB would hire me.
I booked this band a tour. Their manager offered me a job being a day-to-day manager for the band. I loved the band, and I had always really wanted to be a manager rather than a booking agent. I quit the agency and went to work with this guy.
I went off to be a day-to-day manager of this band. Almost immediately, they fired the company. I have to stress that it wasn’t because I went to work there. The band actually wrote to me directly and told me they would pay me directly to be their assistant. However, it didn’t smell right to me, so I didn’t do it.
My boss said, “You’re here now, so you should probably learn my trade.” His trade was managing record producers. If I’m honest, I didn’t know really know what a record producer was. What I thought it was, was the guy who sat behind the desk and fiddled with all the buttons and faders. Of course, that’s the engineer.
The company’s champagne client was someone called John Leckie, who came through Abbey Road. He had worked on a large number of the classic recordings that came out of those studios. He produced XTC, Simple Minds, the first Stone Roses record, Radiohead, Muse etc. My boss had a number of John Clones he could recommend when John wasn’t available or didn’t want the gig. It was remarkable, because most of the time they’d agree to it.
Did any of those additional producers end up doing big records?
Absolutely. But there were so many records being made in the early ‘90s that there was really enough to go around. That middle class of the music business was very healthy. In 2016, this middle class has disappeared. The top end and bottom end of the music business have remained virtually unchanged, and that middle class has dropped out. In the ‘90s, there were producers who hadn’t had any hits, but were good and well thought of and routinely making between a quarter-, and a half-a-million dollars per year. The business could sustain that. I managed a few of them.
I stayed in the U.K. managing producers for ten years. I left the original company after about five and then bounced around the other producer managers in the U.K. before starting my own thing. In 2001, I moved to the U.S. to head up the New York office of World’s End, which was the biggest producer manager company in the world at the time. Unfortunately for me and for them, it was right at the beginning of the very steep decline in the music industry. It really did feel literally like falling off a cliff. It wasn’t walking gradually down a slope. The middle class of the business disappeared almost overnight.
The business changed to the point where you couldn’t effectively assume the responsibility of keeping a lot of people employed as a management company, because the concept of passing over to a less well-known client that has come in for one of your hit clients went away. Record companies would rather park a project for up to a year to wait for the right guy than to go with someone who wasn’t their idea in the first place.
I would see a lot of these up-and-coming producers go and find bands to work with in hopes of not only getting those bands signed but also making sure their resume was in front of people who made records. In your experience, how did these guys get to have names?
Certainly, as a producer on your own, that is what you would have to do in a lot of circumstances. You could really work with as many bands as you wanted. But bear in mind, before the dramatic downturn, record companies were signing bands left and right, and someone had to make those records.
“The most frustrating part for me about how the business has changed is that there was a creative element back then in what I do that doesn’t really exist anymore.”
I would sit down with A&R people and have conversations about the direction a band should take. Now, the thought of a label signing a band that is a) not already attached to a producer or b) having a list of five people with five people on a reserve list already is unthinkable.
I can’t remember the last time I got called into an A&R office to ask for my opinion. In part, that’s because bands and artists getting a deal are generally more aware now than they used to be. With the onset of modern recording technologies, everyone is making the mistake I made when I was offered my fist job: They think that if they can make a record that sounds technically OK, they’re producers. Of course, this isn’t true. They just know what sounds good.
There’s also a difference between good engineering, be it analog and digital, and being a producer. A producer is somebody who has the ability to step back and look at a song from above and play around with arrangements, chord structures, suggest ideas for a bridge/middle eight – somebody who understands layering in recording. I think songwriter artists who know how to use Logic don’t necessarily know how to do what a producer actually does.
When you hear a lot of modern recordings, they might have impact, but they don’t necessarily have texture. And I think that really is hammered home when you’re going to bother to have an Internet jukebox. Invariably you’ll hear old styles of music, and every time you hear something that was recorded ten-plus years ago, it just sounds better. Technology makes it possible to make great-sounding records, but many people just don’t take advantage of that.
Can you give some examples of this?
I manage a producer called Dave Tozer who produced the last John Legend record, which included the single “All of Me,” a worldwide smash. When I heard it for the first time, I thought, “Beautiful song, great melody, lovely lyric,” but didn’t think for a second it was going to be a hit single in the modern era of urban-leaning pop songs.
Dave is the go-to guy for Apple when it comes to Logic; if they’re going to roll out a new feature, they call him and ask what he thinks. Dave gave a talk on Logic at the Apple Store in Soho and opened up the session file for “All of Me,” which to your ears and my ears is a piano and a vocal. There is so much on that track that it made my head spin. It’s stuff you don’t consciously hear, but the second it is taken away, the impact of the recording is diminished. The melody remains, and John’s vocal ability remains, which are the two things he is a master at. But the reason that track, simple as it was, managed to exist on urban-leaning pop radio for as long as it did is because it was made by an actual producer, somebody who understands layering and texture in recording.
You told me the other day that it’s really hard to be just an engineer and a mixer in the current music industry. You said it’s hard to get someone like that work. Why is that?
Think of the three areas that exist in making the recording, before people hear it: recording; mixing; mastering. Why are those things there, and why are these three unique processes involved in creating the ultimate master recording?
Let’s think about how it worked in the past. Recording’s obviously important, because you need to record it.
Why was there a mixing process? The reason is because the environment in which you recorded and the medium you recorded to was prohibitively expensive, even for big corporations. So, you would go into an extremely expensive facility where time was at a premium, recording to a medium that was expensive and difficult to change, so you want to get that part done as quickly as you can. You’d concentrate on getting a good signal to tape and on the performances.
Then, you’d give that to a mixer who would concentrate on dialing in the sounds/sonics that were already on the tape. Scientifically, they would also worry about the sonic phase, because certain things cancel other things out, some things don’t work well together, etc. The mixer needed to know about the science of it, because all these elements contributed to the overall dynamic.
Then, the mastering happened because you were taking the mixed recording and putting it on a medium for people to hear. In order to get that right within the limits of what that medium was, the sound needed to be within a certain frequency range.
So, those producers back in the day at Abbey Road and other well-respected studios were involved in a very scientific process. Today, we still have those processes, but, if I’m honest, I’m not sure two of those processes and functions are as big as they used to be anymore. With digital recording, you’re dialing in your sounds as you go.
Over the years, record companies and artists came to like the sound that a mixer brought to their mixes. You’d hire a guy because you know what he does. Now, as a mixer, you are more limited. 30 years ago, it was expensive to record. In the current climate, changes are instantaneous and can be made with the swipe of a computer mouse, and you can see the difference. That climate has encouraged an environment where artists make a lot of changes, because it’s free to do so.
I think the resources technology gives us for recording music are great, but I also think music should be about feel, texture and the emotional impact of the melody and the chord structure and the lyric on top of that. When you make too many changes or make something too perfect, it becomes less about emotion and art and more about science.
I think that applies to musicians as well. You can be a decent 30-second bass player carrying a groove and be able to record. But I think sometimes it’s the flaws that makes music great.
Some of those flaws contribute to the overall character and are where the emotion is carried.
Also, with very few exceptions, I don’t think that mastering is nearly as important anymore, because it’s not like you’re putting the recording onto a limited medium like vinyl or onto cassette. You’re compressing the hell out of it and streaming it. Everything that needs to happen in order for that to sound impactful falls under the job of a mixer in 2016. Yet, most people just do what they have always done.
I think that unless you want a particular sound that a mixer brings, you have to question why you need one. You have to ask yourself whether you really need a mastering engineer for a file that is going to be streamed?
There are a lot of mixers these days that are just compressing.
What about mixing and mastering for iTunes?
That is just about understanding the limitation of your listening environment and making sure the track still has impact as a result. That just comes down to the science of recording rather than a creative decision. Mixers used to dial in grooves, sounds and feels that made a track better than it was earlier.
There are still some cases where the old process exists. The last Blur album on vinyl sounded so good, and a lot of that comes down to Stephen Street who produced and mixed it. But also, vinyl needs to be mixed and mastered, because the music has to be fine-tuned for vinyl as a format in order for it to sound its best And of course, vinyl as a format is experiencing a major resurgence right now.
So many people making records don’t understand the process of making a record for vinyl that so often I get a record on vinyl, and it doesn’t sound good. They’ve just taken what they’ve done that sounds great in their home studio and pressed it to vinyl.
I know that up until a few years ago, Sharon Jones was still recording everything to tape first, and she might still be.
People still definitely do analog recording. To be clear, I am truly not tied to the old ways and the old format. You can make amazing-sounding records digitally. You’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between great records done on tape and great records done digitally. But the producers doing this really well are thinking about the layers of a recording. Dave Tozer did “All of Me” entirely in Logic. You can go buy Logic for $199 at the Apple Store now. Sure, they use great mics and other equipment, so the signal being sent to the hard drive was as good as it could be, but it was beautifully textured.
It is true, however, that certain roles in the recording process have become a lot more challenging in 2016.
This is really important information, because I don’t think people trying to get into the business have any clue except for what they’ve seen on the TV show Vinyl. I think the public consciousness of the process is very dated.
When I moved to the U.S., I saw fairly quickly the difference between what the people in the U.K. would call a producer and what people in the U.S. would call a producer. Producers in the U.K. usually came from an engineering background. They were fantastic engineers who had worked for many years building up engineering credits and thus had become producers. Over the years, they developed the ability to understand arrangements in a way that made them good producers. A lot of great British producers wouldn’t even hire an engineer. They’d have an assistant who could also engineer.
In the U.S., producers did not usually have an engineering background and were strong on the songwriting and creative side.
“In the modern day, unless you can contribute to songwriting, I don’t think you can call yourself a producer. I wouldn’t even know how to sell an engineer-based producer as a business in 2016.”
I think there are probably a lot of engineer-based producers who have a lot of clients in their hometown and are making a livable, upper working class wage, but they will never be millionaires, and they will never work for major artists. And they’ll be working constantly. In the old industry, they’d be giving a percentage to a lawyer and a manager, so this business model doesn’t work.
I wouldn’t even know how to manage one of these guys that have a small studio in their hometown. Record labels aren’t looking for them, and those who are have $5,000 to make a record. That’s not a big enough budget to work with.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a producer in 2016?
I would want to know why they want to be a producer. I would almost certainly expect the answer to be, “Because I am incredibly creative. I can make these amazing sounds and write tracks, but I don’t want to be an artist.”
I think that’s a great reason to be a producer. In many respects, it’s the only reason to be a producer in the modern age. But it depends on where you want your career to go. If you want to be the guy in a small town that every band goes to as a rite of passage, you just need to open a shop and hope people come there.
But if you want to be a successful producer 2016, you need to be able to write.
Would one of these guys you’re describing with a small studio be somebody who can’t exist in major metropolitan area without at least a partner without getting crushed by competition?
No. To explain, in the ‘90s, there were two music businesses: the majors and the indie world. The two worked well together, and each knew their roles. Now, we’re in the world where there are 20 music businesses, and they’re all working together as far as music listeners are concerned, because they don’t see what’s going on behind the curtain.
I get called all the time by people who I respect, musicians who were in big bands and have collected so much gear that they have studios. While they are not necessarily writers who can doctor songs, but there is still a business for these people who have built up gear; there are so many records being made each day on a budget of $5,000. These people can make those records. And they are constantly working, so it can add up to a decent living.
What you’re asking is whether or not these people who have built up a lot of gear are being swallowed up by the big boys. The answer is, the big boys are not interested in the same projects. They can’t exist in that world of $5,000 records.
I have producers who have built up strong discographies over the years and have worked on big-budget projects. All of them started out as the cheap kid on the block. Over the course of 15 years, they made some bigger records and the budgets increased. The way they made records changed, and they got an assistant who they paid a salary. And then they have an engineer who is probably managed by someone else.
When an artist they love comes in with no budget, a lot of bigger producers just can’t make the record. So often, it’s not about the inability to accommodate the deal for the producer. It’s just that it costs too much money to do, because they are in a larger facility. They have collected so much gear that they need more space and a more sophisticated environment. You don’t want to and can’t work more for less.
I don’t think if you’re the guy in your town that has a small studio, you’re in danger of getting swallowed up. It’s not the same market. And, by the way, the low-end side of the business is very healthy.
The value I provide to clients is pushing bigger deals and babysitting difficult situations. Then I take a percentage for the work I do. That’s not justifiable at the $5,000 level.
Still, if you’re an engineer-based producer, starting out with one of those small studios is the way you’re going to grow your career. I don’t see any other angle.
And would writing-based producers grow their career by doing co-writes and trying to get the attention of publishers?
Yes. I also think writing-based producers are probably more on the pop and urban side because it best fits with the nature of what they do. If you’re an engineer-based producer who doesn’t write, you’re probably going to be working with bands.
And that brings up an issue people are debating in 2016:
“Is it even worth it to start a band in the current climate? I think it absolutely is. And that’s because every generation needs a rock star.”
You can look at the charts and look on Spotify, and it appears to all be pop/urban or dance/pop. But every generation needs a sexy rock star. There will always be a market for that.
That being said, if an album one of these engineer-based producers works on happens to get the attention of someone in the industry who is looking for a bigger song from that band, they’re not going to go to that engineer to help with it. They’re going to get them in the studio with one of their bigger guys. As you know, great songs are genre-less.
For example, think about the latest song by The Weeknd, “Starboy.” That song is basically genre-less. It’s responding that way too. It’s even on alternative stations. It’s just an amazing song. It has its feet very well-grounded in the sexy, modern R&B world, but it is genre-less.
At the end of the day, I love what I do. The thing that managing producers has afforded me over the years is a wealth of hearing new music constantly. I still get a thrill out of it, and if I didn’t, I would’ve left the industry a long time ago.