Producers just get paid A LOT right?
August 6, 2010 12:05 PM   Subscribe

How does music production/songwriting work? For pop? For rap?

A couple things have been bugging me lately. I don't know much about them. I googled for like 2 seconds, admittedly.

Example 1: Lady Gaga. She's brilliant and a musical revolutionary and whatever. But producer RedOne is "the key to her sound." So why does she get all the credit? Does he come up with the melodies or does she? What part of the song is Lady Gaga, besides the singing, naturally, and what part is RedOne's? What exactly does he do and why isn't HE due all of the labels that people throw on her? That's just an example, but it seems to be the case for a lot of pop music.

Example 2: Hip-hop. Let's use Big Boi as an example. "Follow Us" [probably NSFW] from his latest album is produced by Salaam Remi and features Vonnegutt whose singer does the chorus. So, rap production is different than pop, right? Does Big Boi walk into Salaam Remi's office and say, "I want a beat that sounds like this," hum a few bars, and then say, "and the drums go like [drum sounds]?" Or does Mr. Remi hand him a CD from a stack he's got on his desk and say, "this one's pretty decent?" What role does Vonnegutt have in the song? Do they write their own words? Does Big Boi tell them the gist of the song, or a line he wants them to use, or write the whole chorus for them, or what?

I guess the questions boil down to who does what when it comes to creating a pop song and a rap song, and why does one person seem to get all the credit?
posted by papayaninja to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
This is a tough question to answer because there is no one set way that a song gets written and produced in a given genre. Even for one specific artist, the process could be different depending on the specific song you're interested in. Some people work collaboratively with the producer and other musicians and pretty much write things in the studio, others come in to record with songs and arrangements already set, and still others work from materials others have composed.

One way to tell which part of a song is whose is to look at the songwriting credits for lyrics and music. Remember that the music credit is for the melody, so even if the producer isn't listed there he or she could have arranged all the accompaniment and that drives a lot of what a song sounds like in the end.

As to why one person gets the credit-- at the level you're talking about it's all about the benjamins. Promoting the producer and the star dilutes the marketing budget.
posted by InfidelZombie at 12:21 PM on August 6, 2010

Yeah, it's different for every artist/album etc. But generally, if the songwriter comes in with a tune a producer will start thinking about the way to transfer what might be just voice and some chords on the piano to vinyl (I know we don't use vinyl much any more, but you get the idea.) So he/she will start thinking about the general sound (in collaboration with the engineers) the shape of the song (will there be a quiet bit in the middle -what about a bridge? does that need to be written) and, if there is a band who's playing what. If there is a band some of those decisions will be taken internally but generally the producer will advise.

Finally, once it's all down the producer might say "yeah but we need strings in that bit" and then the arranger/orchestrator comes in to so that. Occasionally a really good arranger might have some say or some creative input, but that's pretty rare. Anyway, then the arranger will get in touch with someone who can book string players and they'll be brought in to play their parts, same with a horn section if they don't have one. If there are other session musicians involved the producer would normally get them (or get a minion on it) and they might be involved much earlier in the process. That's a very general overview of how things work but, as I say, it's different for every project.
posted by ob at 12:35 PM on August 6, 2010

Remember Milli Vanilli? Everyone saw two Sexy somewhat exotic guys singing pops songs and they went, "that's great!"

When it was revealed that those songs were done by two fairly normal looking studio singers, no one cared.

Image babe, is everything.

Lady Gaga is a brand. There's Stefani the singer and a legion of people, working in, basically a corporation.

Do you think Steve Jobs is programming the firmware on the iPhone? The firmware programmer gets no praise because no one cares. Jobs is the figurehead.

Do you think everyone in Cuba is like Fidel Castro? Of course not, but we don't think of those people - we think of the guy with the big Cigar and in the 70's he was used as a villain.
posted by alex_skazat at 12:40 PM on August 6, 2010

From wikipedia:

"A music producer can, in some cases, be compared to a film director in that a music producer's job is to create, shape, and mold a piece of music. The scope of responsibility may be one or two songs or an artist's entire album -- in which case the producer will typically develop an overall vision for the album and how the various songs may interrelate."

Some producers are way more hands-on than just acting as directors, and it's definitely true that some producers area also arrangers or outright composers.

In Lady Gaga's case, I believe she writes the actual songs (as in, the chords, melodies, and lyrics), and RedOne fleshes them out, possibly arranging, and most definitely providing the instrumentation choices that are the "key" to her sound (and that's the point, really. Lady Gaga's sound is not defined by the songs, which are fairly average pop tunes, but rather by the synth-heavy 80s dance inspired arrangements).

Rap and hip-hop are different because of the extensive use of sampling and guest artists. This is pretty unique to that musical arena, and I think it further confuses the role of producer.

Rick Rubin is an interesting example of a music producer. He's hugely responsible for the critical sucesses of such groups as the Beastie Boys and Jay-Z, and equally responsible for the comeback of Johnny Cash with his American series. But Rick Rubin is not a musician. He doesn't write music. He just "knows" what sounds good and encourages the artists and technicians to make that happen. In the case of Johnny Cash, cash sent him some demos that had been recorded in his living room with a fairly basic recording setup and Rubin said: "This is what the whole album should sound like, just Johnny and a guitar and not much else." That was the kind of production that Rubin provided, and it worked very well.

In another example, check out this wiki article about Fiona Apple's most recent album, Extraordinary Machine. The short story is that it was originally produced by Jon Brion but the record label didn't like the sound so they made her re-record it with a different producer named Mike Elizondo.

Jon Brion is a very "indie-artsy" composer and producer, and Elizondo is more of a hip-hop producer. I've heard both albums, and even though the songwriting is basically the same, the sound is completely different. Different beats, different instruments, different musical styles altogether (I still prefer the Jon Brion cut).

And of course the star gets all the credit and fame because, well, they're the star. That's the point. No one really thinks about all the writers who make Jon Stewart's witty banter so, well, witty. It's Jon Stewart! He's funny! Right? (well, yeah, he's funny just like Lady Gaga is a pretty good singer and songwriter, but neither of them are doing it all on their own).

And of course some artists also produce their own albums, which is a lot of work, considering the sheer logistics of it all.
posted by jnrussell at 12:41 PM on August 6, 2010

Best answer: Might be obvious, but a news article linked from that Wikipedia page describes the writing process for certain songs -
So for example, how was ‘Just Dance’ written?

I started with the synth sequencer line, “du du du, du du du du du…” and then put the chords on top and then of course the drums. She was constantly singing while we were building the track.

We put in pieces of melody here and there and started working on the verses. Then we were thinking, what should the chorus be like? And we were singing the “just dance” lyric. We came up with a melody, but didn't have any lyrics to it. When the label guy came in he said, “No, don't change anything. It's perfect like it is, it doesn't need lyrics here just leave it - do, do, do … just dance!” The funny thing is that the song was written in just one hour - it was magical.
posted by tmcw at 12:56 PM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine works for New West Records publishing division, developing material for their production team. Her job is basically to manage a stable of songwriters (almost none of whom are performers) whose day job it is in turn to pour their heart and soul into the Next Big Thing. They then resign themselves to a credit way down the list while some huge pop star takes their hard work up the charts.

So in that realm it works like this:

New West hires songwriters to churn out material. At this stage you get a lot of super basic recordings of the songs, basically demos, by studio-rat nobodies.

The best songs are culled, vetted, and promoted to agents/performers/film and TV producers/etc, who can then license the material for re-recording and distribution.

The licensors in turn push the material on their performers, who record it and perform it for profit (a chunck of which makes it way back to the original copyright holders, New West Records).
posted by carsonb at 12:58 PM on August 6, 2010

Yeah, I should add that sometimes producers write bits/most of a song, sometimes they don't. Some producers are traditionally schooled musicians, some can't read music, some are hands-on engineers, some aren't. So as much as it depends on the artist they're producing and the demands of the project it also depends on the type of producer.
posted by ob at 2:04 PM on August 6, 2010

Best answer: Watching videos of people working might give you an idea of how at least some songs are written. Here's one you'll recognize. A lot of times, producers will have a whole bunch of beats they'll play for artists. Then the artists bitch that the producers aren't playing them the best beats. Then the artists will buy the beats and turn them into finished tracks with the producers. Jay-Z is famous for like, hearing a beat, going to stand in the corner for a minute and mumbling to himself, and them coming back with all the lyrics written and memorized. See the part when Tim says "alright you made your pick". The artist is like, "ok, I want that one." and then they pay the producer for that beat, out of the album's budget. What about all the other beats the artist/whoever else was in the room heard? No one pays shit for those, and consequently, people argue over that all the time: accuse people of jacking beats they heard someone else play and so on.

To your pop question, here's a video of a different working method. Pharrell is basically writing this song while everyone else, artist included, sits around and watches. People have really different styles of writing songs, but LOTS of people write songs like this: fragment of a groove, maybe some chords, idea for a melody, singing nonsense words to get the cadences, trying to fit in real worlds, adjusting the rhythm, chords. A lot of pop & rock writers work this way: McCartney woke up with 'Yesterday' chords & melody in his head but sang "Scrambled Eggs" for weeks.

Anyway, this is two producers working on two tracks: one hip hop and one pop, as per your question. There's like eight zillion videos like this though.
posted by jeb at 2:40 PM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

As Chuck D says, "Hip hop is not music. Hip hop is rapping over music." Generally, the music is written (or sampled) by the producer and the rap is written for the music by the rapper. I feel like producers get a lot more credit in rap than in other genres. They're often name checked on the track. It's still the rapper whose name is on the CD though.

This goes back to the way hip hop worked before it was on record. At a dance party DJs played music on their sound systems and MCs would rap over the instrumental breaks.
posted by chrchr at 3:21 PM on August 6, 2010

Best answer: Here's a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Queen's "One Vision." Reinhold Mack is the producer, but you can see that Freddie Mercury also has a lot of input.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:38 AM on August 7, 2010

Response by poster: Those videos are super-interesting and are something I didn't even think might exist. Thanks a lot! The other responses were great, too!
posted by papayaninja at 12:18 AM on August 8, 2010

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