By: Jessica Hopper
[Editor's Note: Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her -- confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.]
Say there is a producer the band admires--around the Mike Mogis level--or perhaps someone in a band we think we would be a good producer because it turns out she arranges all the songs in her own band despite not being the leader, or has an amazing ear for harmonies, or what have you. But we don't know them. What's the best way to ask them to produce our next record? Obviously we'd send them music, live videos, whatever they need to assess the situation. But is it fine to reach out to someone you admire, or completely arrogant/ignorant to assume they'd give a stranger the time of day, especially if they're in the middle of a successful career themselves? And if they've never produced before, when should money come up?
Producers who are on a Mogis-level, which is to say a solidly namebrand, mid-echelon producer associated with successful artists, sometimes have a manager who handles their career that you need to work through as far as gauging whether their availability and fee is going to work for you. Some folks have a website, or you may have to contact them through a studio where they normally work or network through another band or connection.
When approaching an artist, it's best to go direct if you can--email them, try to meet them at a show. I asked Britt Daniel of Spoon, who gets approached by smaller bands fairly often, what has worked and he suggested that you do whatever you can to charm the producer directly. "Their manager may not think that producing another band is worth their time and may not even forward the request." Once you have reeled them in and piqued their interest, "then you talk about money. If you lay out what you can afford right away it could be a turn off. Also, once they are interested, they might be more flexible about their fee." He also suggested that if you don't have enough money for an album now, to see if they want to produce a single. At the very least it could pave the way for a working relationship.
Before you get to that point, you need to make sure you have your money-ducks in a row. If you have a studio in your city in mind, how many days can you afford? If the producer only works at a certain studio, how many days can you afford there? Consider that you may have to pay for a place to stay, pay for gas, food, after-session drinks, your producers weed deliveries--these are the hidden costs of making an album. In the unscientific poll I conducted of a few friends and managers, you might be looking at a producer fee of $5,000-$10,000 for a name producer or indie artist at the helm. With both of these people you're not only asking for expertise but you are buying the cache and power of their name and reputation. How to bring it up? You ask what their day rate is, or if they work on a fee. Then you tell them what your budget is. A couple-few grand is a reasonable offer/starting point regardless of whether they've ever produced before.
This gets us to the primary thing to consider: Is your band in a position where dropping a few G's on a namebrand producer is going to really make an impact? Is your band in a place where you can maximize the association and get this recording out to radio, press, labels and promoters? You need to have the ball rolling. The ball has to at least exist. Pardon the extension of the metaphor, but this celeb-producer connection cannot be the thing that you depend on to create the ball.
From your letter it sounds like your main interest is what this other artist could help you do with your record, and that you think you'd be a good aesthetic match--which is the right criteria and motivation. If you are really attached to this particular artist as your producer, are you willing to wait if they aren't available for another seven months? Are you willing to take the two days they do have then? Are you willing to do those days at the barn studio in Woodstock that is the only place they are able to work at that time? If you are feeling like it's this person or nothing, you need to recognize that then it might have to be on whatever their terms are.
Is the producer's fee all-inclusive or will they expect you to cover hotel, flights, whatever gross Thai take-out they order in for dinner? Would they be okay with staying in the spare room at your boyfriend's place in lieu of a hotel--are they casual like that? I know I am slanting this towards the worst case scenario of them being fussy and upscale, but I think too often it is assumed that because so many professionals came out of punk/DIY world or are musicians themselves that we should expect them to cut a deal and do it for the love, even when it is how they support themselves, their studio, their family, etc.
Before you approach anyone about producing or book a day of studio time, you are going to commit to full on maje-labe style pre-production on this album to maximize studio time and the significant chunk of change you are laying out. Firstly: Woodshed your songs, trim the fat and work on your choruses, your pre-choruses, intros and outros, bridges. Listen to some Greg Kurstin-produced records if you need some good ideas on structuring and dynamics. No matter who this woman is and her deftness as an arranger; she is not going to be able to magically make a mediocre song into a magical one. Hammer the songs down and then just go HAM on practicing them, as a band and individually, with separate practices for the rhythm section. Put a few weeks into the process, minimum. Demo these songs and approach the potential producers with that.
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Lastly: If you cannot afford to hire them for the entire duration of your week in the studio and can only manage two or three, see if they are open to giving a considered listen and notes on the demo, then record some and give them what you've got for more feedback, then do another chunk. Or you can do a single with them. Just don't pretend like you could cram an entire albums worth of work into the three days you can afford in order to get this person's name on your album. Good luck on reeling these folks in to the recording studio!