*Declaration: The author of this book is a member of the JARP editorial board.
Addressing production in book-length form parallels confronting the multiple options provided by a large multitrack recording console or digital audio workstation. Determining which elements should assume priority in the final mix, and how the primary components can best be integrated to achieve a satisfactory overall result poses enormous challenges for which no uniformly stable template exists. Now in its fourth incarnation, The Art of Music Production by hit producer Richard James Burgess attempts to pinpoint “the essence of music production” (Burgess: 2013, p.xi), providing factual and conceptual illumination of an area often shrouded with mystique from the general public’s perspective. Burgess aims to bring clarity to the mix of ideas surrounding the processes, protagonists, and product. The adjustment of his book’s title from its original form as The Art of Record Production reflects the transformative changes in the music industry and with associated digital technologies since the first and second editions were published in 1997 and 2001 respectively, and then for the first time with its present title in 2004. This version with a new publisher acknowledges that the relentless pace of change has led to significant restructuring from the book’s third edition. The text is now divided into two distinct segments respectively representing theory and practice, each with internal subdivisions. Burgess’s “concern is the minimization of the broader range of essential musical, interpersonal, behavioral, managerial, legal, financial, and business skills” (Burgess: 2013, p.3), dimensions increasingly overlooked when the producer’s purview is probed. There is ample exploration of the psychological, philosophical and more nuanced human dimensions of record production, interjected by professional observations from established producers, engineers and label personnel. This panoramic perspective greatly contributes to the book’s insightful analyses, underscoring Burgess’s thematic contention that the art is achieved not merely through studio activity, but also through the organization of crucial human resources, effective communication and incisive execution of business aspects.
Burgess appropriately designates the book as “an auto-ethnographic work” and confronts the somewhat unenviable task of deconstructing an area characterized by many intangible and often unquantifiable facets. The author possesses his own significant long-term credentials as the producer of hit albums and singles beginning in 1980 with Britain’s Spandau Ballet. That phase of his career was also preceded by a successful stint as an in-demand session musician in the U.K. which included a pioneering role in introducing the electronic Simmons drums to the musical mainstream. The multi-genre scope of his production work ranging from the early independent label dance releases of New Edition and Colonel Abrams through to the major label international urban finesse of Living in a Box and Five Star reinforces the value of his critique of a pursuit seldom perceived as an art form. The author is consistently frank about the complications experienced during his own career and the consequences arising from those circumstances. Such experiential narrative components separate the work from more detached articulation of production realms, lending a distinct flavor of vital authenticity to the proceedings. Despite Burgess’s necessary regard for the ethics of non-disclosure, there are however many moments in which the curious reader hopes the veil of descriptive anonymity concealing the identities of parties cited in various situational examples might be lifted. The Art of Music Production applies cross-cultural analytical scope, concisely establishing several of the theoretical parameters framing academically-targeted works such as the broadly encompassing essay anthology The Art of Record Production (published in 2012, and unrelated to Burgess’s work with the same title) edited by Simon Frith and Simon Zagorski-Thomas. Whereas the latter text is aimed more squarely at academics, Burgess attempts to bridge the gap between the studious and the casually curious, infusing his writing with analytical breadth without alienating the uninitiated reader. The author negotiates a balancing act between thorough, clinical dissection of the subject matter and accessible articulation of ideas and their multifaceted implications.
Decidedly emphasizing the practice over the theory, The Art of Music Production also provides frequent reminders that the production process which we now take for granted arose from humble technological and methodological origins, rapidly evolving via magnetic tape, multitrack recording and creative intuition to become arguably the most postmodern of artistic enterprises. With its unprecedented manipulation of time and space and the simultaneous rendering of musical parts recorded in isolation as well as in collaboration in the studio, it’s remarkable that the broader academic attention that production is now receiving had not occurred sooner.
Burgess provides clear exposition of what a producer does, is, and what it means creatively, artistically and in some cases financially. The discussion is not focused on the technical details of recording, instead taking a more holistic view of the creative process and the business and interpersonal dynamics interwoven with it. As the author demonstrates, technological advances have had direct consequences for production recruitment as few neophytes now advance through the once compulsory apprenticeship system; consequently, the interpersonal human characteristics that the job requires are often missing (Burgess: 2013, p.31). The Art of Music Production transcends perfunctory description of the job’s assumed roles, venturing into many of production’s less well-defined and less readily identified areas. While the book is clearly not a history of production, historical frameworks play crucial contextual roles throughout, discussing interaction between individuals and the technologies they employed to propel major changes in the production process. It should be noted, however, that emphasis on production’s historical aspects occurs in Burgess’s separate companion text, The History of Music Production, first published in 2014.
Much of The Art of Music Production discusses career establishment and subsequently survival strategies, and it might also have included a pointed warning that its portrayals may be harmful to any illusory perceptions. The cited producer examples cover virtually every decade since the invention of commercial recording technology inclusive of the twenty-first century hybrid superstars. However, despite the undeniable centrality of production aesthetics and techniques in popular music, Burgess’ account underscores the producer’s paradoxical outsider status manifesting itself in the absence of any statutory legislation to standardize or protect producer payments (Burgess: 2013, p.170). Consequently, matters such as producers’ fees and royalties can usually only be broadly estimated in the book due to wide ranging conditions under which the negotiations and the work itself may be carried out.
Section One: The Theory
The introduction tackles the inevitable problems surrounding taxonomy and the ambiguous use of the word “production” in the context of the industry. Even when the contextual scope is specifically applied to the individual creative decision-making that largely defines the role, there often remains an acute lack of clarity about the functional details and the inherently non-musical aspects. The identification of production typologies in this section is quite important, as is descriptively qualifying production roles since activity in a given studio scenario case does not necessarily equal the type of participation defining another instance: as Burgess asserts, “[f]unction in the studio does not consistently align with background skill” (Burgess: 2013, p9). Veteran producer Arif Mardin (1932 -2006) is one of the many first-hand sources cited in the book, and some of the producer types he describes to Burgess (Burgess: 2013, 20) are also among the six categories he identifies in the 2013 DVD documentary The Greatest Ears in Town: songwriter/producer, engineer/producer, musician/producer, music lover/producer, arranger/producer and absentee producer. The author’s clinical approach also addresses Functional and Subset Typologies, recognizing that polyfunctional producers span the designated categories.
Section Two: The Practice
The majority of The Art of Music Production is devoted to the area’s practical working realities, conveying its multilayered psychological, sociological and creative complexities. After outlining “eight core routes” to becoming a producer, Burgess unequivocally emphasizes that “[t]he producer’s role is to realize the vision for the artist, manager and label” (Burgess: 2013, p.60), subordinating most other considerations to the fulfillment of these goals. However, he establishes that the artistic and commercial validity of a production does not solely rely on its technical accuracy or its alignment with record label and management objectives. Burgess notes that even the best conceived project will collapse without “[g]ood communication skills, negotiation, and diplomacy” (Burgess: 2013, p.138), balanced decisiveness, mediation, and recognition of each participant’s roles and personalities. In addition, “Producers consider the end users and construct the track to survive its competition” (Burgess: 2013, p61), recognizing the buying public’s determination of whether the production meets the goals of the parties concerned.
It becomes rapidly evident in Chapter 3 on ‘Becoming a Music Producer’ that no single formula exists for achieving producer success, and that in fact an entire series of factors beyond the individual’s control continually impact on career prospects regardless of talent, determination and industry networking. Furthermore, the range of examples from early 20th-century proto-producer Fred Gaisberg to the currently trendy French DJ David Guetta dispels myths of singular archetypes occupying the studio helm. The chapter reaffirms that the art of music production does not merely involve rumination and decision-making on aesthetics, but it also encompasses the producer’s dichotomous consciousness making effective business judgements that contribute to successful outcomes for all of the principal parties (Burgess: 2013, p.86). The politics of contract negotiation and budget submission are among the rarely examined working practices, and while these tasks can be and often are shared or delegated to others, the ultimate responsibility lies with the producer. Burgess emphasizes that the value of the varied producer skillsets including musical knowledge, technological familiarity, and interpersonal experience in groups and/or studio environments is relative to the circumstances that bring the producer, artist, A&R person, and record label together. Chapter 3 also dissects each stage of the production process from the first meeting to the final mix, illustratively considering the respective pro and cons associated with different approaches.
For experienced readers of mainstream literature on producers, the core of The Art of Music Production between Chapters 5 and 12 delivers the scope of discussion and information usually absent from other works on the topic. Books such as Howard Massey’s two volumes in his Behind the Glass series and Richard Buskin’s Inside Tracks are decidedly more focused on the application of aesthetic sensibility and sound-enhancing technologies, utilizing the interview format to project the viewpoints of the respective producers/engineers. Other works are broad historical chronicles such as Mark Cunningham’s Good Vibrations (1998), or anthologies of biographical narratives in the case of the multi-authored Encyclopedia of Record Producers (1999). While these books achieve their stated goals, issues surrounding producer career sustainability, financial survival, and the intertwined business relationships are not foregrounded, thereby creating a niche for Burgess upon which he has persistently expanded since 1997’s first edition.
Beyond discussion of the mechanics of the producer’s roles, other segments – such as Chapter 5: ‘What Can You Expect from a Career as a Producer?’ – encourage a long-term perspective. Burgess proposes a variety of scenarios representing different stages along the career journey, even consciously addressing the often overlooked branding and marketing angles (Burgess: 2013, pp. 116-118) which inevitably affect the industry’s perceptions of the producer’s body of work. His discussion may be a revelation to those outside of the music industry (and to some within it), likely unaware that successful producers also need separate general and business managers, and that they are therefore subject to the same types of income subdivision as artists, having to pay for essential administrative and legal services from negotiated fees.
The raw economics of producer survival are more comprehensively tackled in later sections. The discussion of ‘Lawyers’ in Chapter 8 delivers an unflinching appraisal of the pros and cons of retaining legal counsel to negotiate contracts. Chapter 10, ‘Success and Money’ shatters any lingering financial delusions about the producer enterprise. The applied examples demonstrate in particular that while contracts are essential, the benefits perceived may be undermined by less obvious clauses which reclaim money seemingly granted by record companies in other sections. In a sobering reflection upon the sharp decline in producer income, Burgess concludes that securing legal advice is no longer automatic due to the relatively high costs of such services (Burgess: 2013, pp. 146-147).
Burgess’s reflections on an inherently unstable business subject to changing trends and practices query the fairness of existing financial profit splits that work against the producer, sometimes creating conflict with the artist (Burgess: 2013, p254). With the proliferation of new digital distribution formats, such issues assume enormous significance for the future of producers. In his assessment of popular music’s intangibilities, the author states that “Producing is a complex combination of science, art, and interpersonal skills” (Burgess: 2013, p.50). Consequently, many questions surrounding the field cannot be definitively answered. However, in The Art of Music Production Burgess effectively magnifies the producer’s vital role as “[t]he author and/or editor of the recording, in control of the many nuances – sonic and musical,” also observing that the resulting “creative work exists on a scale from complete aural fiction to a nonfiction snapshot in time” (Burgess: 2013, p.216).
Buskin, R. (1999) Inside Tracks: A First Hand History of Popular Music from the World’s Greatest Record Producers and Engineers. New York: Avon Books.
Cunningham, M. (1999) Good Vibrations: A History of Record Production. London: Sanctuary Books.
Massey, H. (2000) Behind the Glass: Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft the Hits. San Francisco: Backbeat Books.
Massey, H. (2009) Behind the Glass, Volume II: Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft the Hits. Milwaukee: Backbeat Books.
Olsen, E., Verna, P., Wolff, C. (eds.) (1999) The Encyclopedia of Record Producers. New York: Billboard.
*Conflict of Interest Policy
A book submitted for review by an editor or editor’s publisher will be handled by one of the other editors. The other editor will select referees and make all decisions on the review. The decision process will be handled in such a way that the submitting editor does not have access to information or correspondence relating to the submission that is not meant for authors.