It’s one thing to produce music in your spare time – quite another to be doing it full time and get paid for all your work.
But we all must start at zero. If you don’t already have a basic home studio setup, and you aren’t practicing on it daily, that would be an excellent place to start. You need to get used to the workflow and methods involved in producing great music. There is, however, so much more to working as a music producer – more on that later.
By gaining experience, experimenting, dipping your toe into a variety of genres, and taking on pro bono or low-paying work in the early stages of your career, you’ll develop an instinct for guiding musical projects in the right direction and it will become like second nature. Then you’ll start to see your paychecks and demand increase. Until then, it’s all about practice, practice, practice.
So, here are several tips on how to become a professional full-time music producer.
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Become A Voracious Student Of Music
You can’t expect to know anything about music without becoming a student of it.
This isn’t to say you need to learn the theory behind music, how to play a guitar chord, or what 3/4 time is, though all these things can help. What a producer truly needs is an understanding of how recorded music is constructed.
A skilled producer should have a thorough understanding of how different instruments interact with each other, how they should be layered in a mix, what to EQ and why, and other aspects of what makes a track work.
It’s worth studying both independent and professional music. Sometimes, independent music features incredible mixes, sometimes not. Sometimes professional music has horrible mixes, but most of the time not.
As you examine both great mixes and not so great mixes, you’ll gain clarity on how to put together mixes of your own that truly “sing”. It might offer some clues as to how to carve out your unique niche too. I’ll be sharing more about that later.
The more you learn about songwriting, recording, performance, mixing, and other aspects of the craft, the better you will become as a producer. You will become more knowledgeable and be able to capture the sounds you’re looking for.
People often say, “never say never”, but I’m going to say this anyway: Never stop learning if you’re serious about becoming a professional full-time producer. Remain curious. This will help you grow into a passionate, prolific, and skilled producer.
First and foremost, fall in love with music. If you don’t love music, you won’t be willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve desired results – both in your career and in the music you produce.
Set Goals & Create A Plan For Their Achievement
You could be a music producer in a variety of capacities. You could produce mainstream radio hits. You could produce for independent artists. You could dedicate your career to hip hop. You could start your own label or studio and become the go-to guy or gal in that space.
You know what you want to work on more than anyone else. And as I always like to say, if you’re passionate about what you do, you’ll work harder and persist longer than if you didn’t. That gives you a better chance at the success you desire.
I know you’ve heard it a million times, but I need to remind you anyway: You need to set your goals and write them down on a piece of paper. Most people don’t do this. Simply writing them down won’t make them a reality, but it will take you a step closer to achievement.
Then, you need to figure out how you’re going to achieve them. Here are some suggestions on what you could do, though you may take different steps depending on your chosen path:
- Study music. Just spend time listening to and learning about music. Look at it from all angles. Explore: Theory, instruments, recording techniques, studio equipment, songwriting, arrangements, and so forth.
- Spend time in the studio. If you can’t find a studio to hang out in, build your own home studio – it’s possible to get started on a small budget. Try recording, mixing, and mastering tracks. Experiment with different microphones, recording techniques, and studio gear. Study both analog and digital gear.
- Build connections. Meet relevant industry people and develop relationships with them. Go to open mics, concerts, industry conferences and events, and so on. Shake hands and get your name out there.
- Learn what a record producer does. A music producer’s responsibilities may include, but isn’t limited to: Coming up with musical ideas, co-writing, choosing songs, working on arrangements and lyrics, selecting session musicians, motivating musicians and bringing out their best performances, supervising the entire project, providing funding, and so on. If you’re thinking about becoming a producer, you probably know this already, but it’s worth taking time to understand what may be required of you for future projects.
- Learn from other music producers. You could talk to them, interview them, or read articles they’ve written. No matter how you go about it, it’s worth picking up on the tools and techniques of others. You can fast track a lot of your learning just by studying what the experts do.
Study How Studio Engineering Works
A music producer can have many duties. Mixing, mastering, and engineering isn’t typically part of their job description. Learning this aspect of recording music, however, can help you help the engineers and musicians achieve their desired sound.
Supervising the entire recording project from start to finish is typically part of a professional music producer’s job description, so if you don’t have a clear idea of how to prepare for the recording and take it over the finish line, you’re going to struggle in your responsibilities as a producer. That’s why studying engineering can greatly aid you in the process.
Where a recording project is involved, time is typically of the essence. You don’t want to waste too much time, especially in the studio, because it costs too much. The musicians should be prepared, the songs should be selected, the funding should be in order, and you should have a plan for how it’s all going to come together, especially in terms of tracking, tones and sounds.
Spending time in the studio as an engineer has other benefits. More than likely, you’ll begin to grow your contact list. You’ll meet other producers, engineers, and musicians. You can learn something from everyone you meet. You’ll learn how certain people work, and how to communicate with them effectively (i.e. instead of saying, “turn that dial thingy”, you’ll learn to say, “change the compression ratio to 4:1”, etc.).
This doesn’t mean you’ll get to boss people around later. It just means your instincts as a producer will serve you well if you’ve gained experience as an engineer.
Develop Your Unique Approach & Find Your Niche
Your personal signature is something you can only develop with time and experience, but if you can leave a mark on every record you produce, you’ll make a name for yourself, and people will seek you out when they want your personal stamp on their project.
Now, the reason I say it takes time to develop a trademark is because no one is going to care to work with you if the records you produce sound awful. This is subjective, of course, but people are only going to work with you if they think you’ve got the goods.
One way to develop your approach is to find a way to capture the raw essence of a band or artist in ways no one else can. Another is to find your own signature sound. Either way, if you do it right, your fingerprints are going to be on that record, and your demand will increase. Look for ways to stand out from the crowd.
Learn from the greats – Dr. Dre, Rick Rubin, Prince, Phil Spector, Quincy Jones, and others. Study their recordings and you’ll quickly discover what it means to have a personal style.
Be Easy To Work With & Build Connections
To me, the number one thing about building a positive reputation in the music industry is being someone that’s easy to work with. Why would I say that?
Well, you could be the best producer in the world, but if you have the worst personality or attitude on the planet, you’re going to limit your clientele. Meanwhile, if you’re positive, and people like you, they’ll be willing to send more work your way. Musicians and engineers will enjoy working with you, and want to collaborate with you again in the future.
When it comes to people skills, a little goes a long way. Shake everyone’s hands and learn their names. Dress well, and take care of your personal hygiene. Say “please” and “thank you” when appropriate. Treat everyone with respect. If you can do these simple things, you’ll find yourself miles ahead of many producers.
The reality of the situation is that a lot people don’t have basic people skills. They don’t say “hi” and introduce themselves. They don’t build relationships. They don’t have good manners, and sometimes they ignore and avoid other people altogether. Trust me – most people aren’t that scary.
Please. Don’t be weird. It doesn’t matter if you’re shy or quiet. A contemplative personality can be an asset to the music producer position. Effort to work on your people and communication skills anyway. You don’t need to be the most charming or outgoing or charismatic person in the world to be liked by others.
By the way, leadership expert John C. Maxwell says your charisma is determined by your ability to care for others. Who knew it was so simple?
Treat Your Career Like A Business
If you’re coming from the employment world (as roughly 80% of people always are), you might struggle trying to become a full-time music producer. Why do I say that?
Because if you treat it like a hobby, you’ll get hobby level results. You might make a bit of money. You might have some fun. You might get a little work thrown your way from time to time. But it’s unlikely you’ll ever go full-time if you don’t take it more seriously.
If you commit to your personal progress and spend some time every single day working towards your goals, you’ll greatly increase your chances of succeeding as a producer. If you have a long-term view of what’s possible, you’ll keep your eyes on the prize and continually build towards it.
An entrepreneur understands what it means to own and take responsibility for something. An employee only ever learns to take responsibility for their little corner of the office, and even then, they might not take full ownership over their work. When you own something, you’re more invested in it, and because it’s yours, you’ll do everything in your power to make it work.
If you treat your career like a business, you’ll be more of a professional too. You’ll commit to deadlines and stick to them. You’ll take pride in your work and be a person of integrity. You’ll show up early, stay late, and give your best in between. If you do that, and you work hard, you’ll go places in due time.
Producing music isn’t necessarily glamorous, but it can be a lot of fun. If you listen to records and find yourself going, “Oh, I wish this part was this way”, or you get excited thinking about the details of recording projects, you’ve probably found a profession worth pursuing.
There are plenty of music producers out there. Competition in the music industry is fierce. But producing music is all about expressing your individuality and finding your niche. If you truly love music, it will drive you to focus on what matters most – the music. Don’t get distracted by fame or fortune. Keep the main thing the main thing.