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Practicing the Fine Art of Production
Record producers are becoming the real pop stars, with more power, fame and money than their predecessors could've imagined. (LA Times, 6/05/00)
By GEOFF BOUCHER
At first, the bundles of fan letters that arrived at Max Martin's recording studio in Stockholm contained only proxy valentines—"Please tell Britney I love her," they would implore, or "Can you ask A.J. to marry me?"—which is pretty much what you would expect in the mailbox of a producer who works with froth-pop stars Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.
But a few months ago a new theme appeared among the airmailed envelopes. "I started getting letters that would say, 'I'm 12 and I would love to be a producer when I grow up,'" an incredulous Martin says. "That's definitely new. When I was young, people didn't even really know what a producer was."
Martin's mail isn't the only sign that elite producers have turned a corner in the music industry and find themselves on an avenue to stardom. From Martin and Rodney Jerkins to Dallas Austin and Matt Serletic, a raft of producers is tapping into a level of power and celebrity that defied all but a handful among the job's previous generations.
This class of producers not only shapes the sound of today's biggest hits but also revives the tradition of producer as record mogul. Many run their own record labels, seek out new talent and enjoy star-level billing in album credits and ads. They also earn money that would make their predecessors dizzy—some take home $1-million advances.
"We dominate the industry," says Jerkins, the 22-year-old wunderkind of the R&B world. "Before, an artist could get deals done with labels on their own, but now the deal won't get done unless a producer brings the whole thing to the table."
It goes beyond business too, says Michael Lippman, 53, who manages more than three dozen producers, including Serletic, winner of a best record Grammy in February for Santana's "Smooth."
"Producers are now finally being recognized as being the same as a movie director—the person who is shaping the work," says Lippman, who began managing producers 25 years ago. "They are artists in their own right."
If that is the case, the artist of the year for 1999 might have been Martin.
The prolific and reclusive 29-year-old Swedish popmeister co-wrote and produced two of the biggest songs of the year—"I Want It That Way" by the Backstreet Boys, and ". . . Baby One More Time" by Spears. And now, here in 2000, Martin's team has the most ubiquitous hit of the moment, the title track to the new Spears album, "Oops! ... I Did It Again." Last month, that slice of fizzy funk merely propelled Spears to the best debut-week album sales ever for a female artist when it sold 1.3 million copies.
Martin is the antithesis of the producer model that was established during the late '60s, when a self-contained artist would write the songs and then seek out a producer to help shape the sound. Martin's approach is almost the opposite—it's the artist who is brought in near the end of the process.
Martin leads an enclave of producers/writers/musicians called Cheiron who divvy up the construction of a song the way NASA mathematicians might split up a vexing equation. They write the songs, play the instruments, engineer and mix the recordings and teach the artist the material.
On the new Spears album, for example, the six-member squad wrote seven songs and proceeded to record the layers of music before the 18-year-old singer even arrived at their Stockholm hit factory. It took her all of one week to put down vocals over the burnished pop created by Cheiron.
To fans of music representing a singular vision (say, the best music of Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder or Bob Marley) the Cheiron process may sound like a paint-by-numbers approach. But Martin says he and his team are like a band that alternates singers. And, he says, the "albums sell better with Britney's face on the cover."
It's hard to argue with the team's commercial success. It has become one of the busiest and hottest properties in the music industry.
Martin himself, perhaps ironically, started off in an old-fashioned, hard-edged rock band.
The group, called It's Alive, died after eight years of obscurity in Stockholm, but it led to Martin's meeting with his eventual mentor and business partner, Denniz Pop. Pop owned a label called Cheiron, and when he died of cancer in 1998, Martin took center stage.
"I want to be part of every note, every single moment going on in the studio," Martin says. "I want nothing forgotten, I want nothing missed. I'm a perfectionist. The producer should decide what kind of music is being made, what it's going to sound like—all of it, the why, when and how."
Jive Records chief Barry Weiss is certainly a fan. In the past year, his New York-based label has scored three of the four best debut-week sales totals in music history with albums by 'N Sync, Spears and the Backstreet Boys, and Martin contributed defining hits to each.
"The Cheiron approach is unique; it's almost like a commune," Weiss says. "I wouldn't be surprised to see other people start using the approach because of their great success."
Some music purists cringe at that idea. They worry that Martin's creative control makes him a pop music puppeteer.
Martin has heard the question they pose: Is the Cheiron sound and process so strong that the artists are merely anonymous instruments?
"This is, of course, not true," Martin says flatly. "It is true in only one way: A lot of hit songs out there would be hits for this artist or that artist. If it's a great song, it should be that way. We try to make great songs. That's what producers have always done."
The term "record producer" has created a misconception about the job. For most people the word "producer" and the Hollywood image it evokes suggest "a money guy with a cigar," as Martin puts it.
But unlike the business moguls in the film world, a record producer is part of the art—far more akin to a movie director. And as with a Hollywood director, the degree to which a record producer becomes a brand name varies by individual and by era. By no means are today's producers the first to break through the studio setting's anonymity.
Phil Spector, for instance, was dubbed the Tycoon of Teen for the dazzling success of his trademark "wall of sound." Spector's lush layers of arcing music scored a chain of hits in the '60s such as "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes and "Unchained Melody" by the Righteous Brothers. And Sir George Martin, the professorial muse of John, Paul, George and Ringo, became known as the fifth Beatle for his vital contributions to that seminal band.
For the record, what is it exactly that producers do?
The uninitiated might envision an engineer fiddling with rows of buttons on a studio console, but the job goes well beyond that. The producer makes fundamental decisions about the tone and style of the music; coaxes, cajoles or inspires performances from the artist; and guides the project from plan to finished product.
Spector and George Martin represent two distinctly different approaches to the job—the auteur versus the facilitator.
Spector was the controlling craftsman who assembled his songs so completely that the singer was often just another instrument—a tradition followed by Max Martin and Jerkins, whose clients include Whitney Houston and Brandy.
George Martin was more of a guide and occasional co-pilot or mentor. Some of the producers who follow in his tradition, such as Jon Landau with Bruce Springsteen or Rick Rubin with the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, concentrate far more on themes and song concepts than the meticulous focus of the Spector school.
For 30-year-old Matt Serletic, the balance is between letting the artist shine and maintaining a firm leadership role. "I have to be an authority," Serletic says, "but at the same time my greatest success is when the artist feels I'm part of the band."
Some producers, such as 14-time Grammy winner David Foster, say the intensity of their contribution varies from artist to artist and song to song. "Sometimes you're like a surgeon, and you have to get your hands in there and do what needs to be done," says Foster, who has worked with Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion and Michael Bolton. "Other times you need to know when to lay back and just let it go."
Pulling back can be hard. Foster says he was "slagged" by Rolling Stone magazine about 20 years ago for his work with the group Chicago. "They said I was putting too much of my stamp on the sound of Chicago by playing the keyboards and bass. So after Chicago I found myself trying not to make that 'David Foster sound.' You can get a bit lost. And there's this desire to get in there and make every note your own."
Just as worrisome are young producers who desire to make every hit song their own, says Dallas Austin, a star Atlanta producer who has written and produced music for Michael Jackson, TLC and Madonna.
Austin says the music business hunger for hit songs can create a quick swirl of stardom for a hot young producer, but he also sees many in the new generation churn out and burn out. He also says a growing number of producers view themselves, not the artist, as the central figure in the studio.
"We're not car manufacturers," says Austin, 29. "Some producers totally get in the way. Madonna shouldn't sound like Boyz II Men. If a producer makes a bunch of artists sound the same, when that sound gets tired, so do all those artists. If you make them anonymous, they won't have careers."
Many of today's top producers point to Quincy Jones as the bridge between the world of traditional star producers and today's landscape of producer-moguls who work in an even brighter spotlight. Besides producing most of the colossal hit album "Thriller" for Michael Jackson, Jones has also worked with a gallery of stars including Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles. But it was his sweep of the Grammys in 1990 (he took home six trophies) that introduced a global television audience to the concept of the producer as sonic auteur.
"That's when it began to click with people," manager Lippman says. "The producer doesn't write songs necessarily, doesn't play instruments, doesn't sing, but he is a key person who brings it all together."
Austin points to another music moment: the appearance of celebrated producer duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in the video for Janet Jackson's "Control."
"The sound was so hot and then the video put a pair of faces to it and added another element," Austin says. "Around then it started becoming important, even to fans: Who's producing this? Is that Jimmy Jam?"
The shift in perception has resulted in a greater market value for producers, says Lippman. The average royalty for a producer is 3% of the album's retail price, but has climbed as high as 6% for some A-list talents. That percentage is usually pulled from the artist's slice of the money pie (which most often ranges from 12% to 25% of the retail price), Lippman says. In actual money, a producer who handled every track on an album can expect to make $350,000 for every million copies sold, Lippman says.
Advances can climb as high as $1 million, and a busy producer can complete two or three albums a year.
"And now," Lippman says, "people know their names."
To veteran producer Foster, however, the attention showered on today's producers is more a function of expanding media and an emphasis on entertainment news than anything else.
"There used to be three channels and now there are 500," says Foster, who has piled up 41 Grammy nominations in his 31-year career. "They may be more well-known, but they're still doing the same job."
Well, yes and no. Foster, hailed by his younger peers as a role model, is changing the nature of his job. Teamed with songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, Max Martin and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, Foster is among the founders of Tonos, an Internet venture that promises to put aspiring musicians directly in touch with a "music insiders network." The Web site is part "Star Search," part industry primer and part music teacher.
But it is also a way for the assembled producers to find new talent and sign them to their labels, providing another example of the mind-set of today's producers: It's not just about the studio anymore.
"My first job [with Tonos] is to find a star for Warner Bros.," says Foster, 50, a senior vice president of the Warner Music Group.
Tonos, which has scooped up the industry-famous gossip Web site Velvet Rope and has an impressive war chest, is being closely watched by music executives who can't help but be impressed by the talented producers assembled. "This is the dream team of producers, and they're at the center of everything now," says Bayer Sager.
To hear Rodney Jerkins explain it, today's producers are nothing less than the glue holding together the music industry.
"It's all about the producers, that's how things get done now," Jerkins says. "The deals, the music, finding the talent. . . . Producers are stars now, too. A kid who is 15 to 18 years old, the generation of today, they know me, they know my name. If they go in a store and see my name on an album, they're going to check it out."
Jerkins and others say producers are now key figures in A&R (industry shorthand for "artists and repertoire"), the traditional job of finding and fostering new talent. As industry consolidation has narrowed the number of major distributors to four (Bertelsmann, EMI, Universal and Warner), many industry observers have bemoaned the erosion of A&R efforts in a bottom-line business that rarely gives artists time to grow or stumble.
To Serletic, who enjoyed a dream year in 1999 with Santana's smash "Supernatural," the onus on producers to find talent and shape projects has made them outside "creative vendors" of sorts for the major labels.
"The producer is now making larger, grander decisions about the direction of the artist and their careers," Serletic says. "As the business gets more compartmentalized, the producer becomes more and more relevant."
The record labels are distant and slow to move, Jerkins says, so producers take up the slack.
"Producers are in tune with radio and the street more than the record companies," says Jerkins, who is working on a new Michael Jackson album. ("I can't say anything about it, but it's the greatest experience of my life," Jerkins says.)
Jerkins says the current state of the producer world has made for "the most exciting music ever" and he only sees one downside—his peers such as Timbaland who "take themselves out of the game."
"Producers who want to be artists," he says wearily. "They go on tour, they get all into making themselves a star. But they lose that heat, that streak as producers. They should stay in the lab, stay hot."
Nowhere is this more true than in R&B and hip-hop, where producers wield the most power and fame with fans. The genres are so beholden to studio effects, samples and electronically crafted beats that the producer is the star. An album with Timbaland or Dr. Dre listed as the producer has instant street credibility and can help a disc by a relatively unknown artist sell briskly out of the gate.
That's why Jerkins, with the cocky tone of a professional athlete, describes himself as a "franchise player."
The blistering work pace set by Jerkins and other in-demand producers makes Austin shake his head. He worries that some among them will sacrifice quality for quantity with a strip-mining mentality toward their own careers.
"It's a new age of producers and the game is to flood the market, get as many songs as you can put out," says Austin. "It's getting pretty hard for any of these guys to last 10 years. And there are a new crop of producers coming every day to take their place."
The newest model of producer is a tech-sawy studio magician who probably owns more computer keyboards than the musical kind. An example is Serletic, who made a name for himself producing Matchbox Twenty before striking Grammy gold with "Supernatural."
What was Serletic's path to fame?
As a master's student studying music at the University of Miami, Serletic was living in a spartan apartment in a high-crime area. He played piano and trombone in infrequent gigs with local orchestras, but his prospects looked limited. Then he borrowed $20,000 from his grandmother to buy a nest of computer gear. Suddenly the classically trained musician was able to mint recordings that were professional quality.
His dabblings with a band in Atlanta seem raw and shoddy to him now, but those sessions with Collective Soul yielded an album that went platinum.
In the years since Serletic's grandmother helped him buy a mini home studio, the gear has become cheaper, faster, better. Around the world, amateur musicians are creating music that just 10 years ago would have required a major professional studio.
"I'm a child of the whole revolution," Serletic says, "I had a classical training background, but not everyone has to be like that. Someone who is completely untrained can get ahold of these things and in a short period of time create new, unheard-of music."
That prospect may not sit well with the many within the professional music community who already see technology changing the long-familiar ground rules. "You got guys who think if you put the music through the right machine and get the right vibe you can make a record," Lippman says. "If that's the future, we're in trouble."
But Serletic sees a new frontier, not a minefield.
"When the piano was new, Bach hated it," Serletic said. "Things are changing for everyone. The new producers, the technology and everything going on the industry will change things even more. The most important element has always been, and will always be, the song. Everything else is a trend that may come and go."
The record producers interviewed for this story are among the elite in their field and have crafted some of the biggest hit songs and albums in recent years.
Dallas Austin, 29, Atlanta
President, DARP Entertainment
"It's So Hard to Say Goodbye," Boyz II Men
"This Time Around," Michael Jackson
David Foster, 50, Santa Monica
President, 143 Records
"I Will Always Love You," Whitney Houston
"Un-Break My Heart," Toni Braxton
"Unforgettable," Natalie Cole
"We've Got Tonight," Kenny Rogers
Rodney Jerkins, 22, Pleasantville, NJ.
President, Darkchild Records
"It's Not Right but It's Okay," Whitney Houston
"If You Had My Love," Jennifer Lopez
"Say My Name," Destiny's Child
"The Boy Is Mine," Brandy & Monica
Max Martin, 29, Stockholm
Leader, Cheiron writer-producer team
"I Want It That Way," Backstreet Boys
"... Baby One More Time," Britney Spears
"That's the Way It Is," Celine Dion
"I Want You Back," 'N Sync
Matt Serletic, 30, Atlanta
President, Melisma Records
"Smooth," Santana with Rob Thomas
"I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," Aerosmith
"3 A.M.," Matchbox Twenty
"Shine," Collective Soul
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