Before You Hire Your First Or Next Producer…

Popular Nashville producer, Fett explains how to choose the perfect producer and how to avoid being ripped off by sharks!


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Fett is an independent music producer and engineer, published author, music career coach, and co-founder of the Azalea Music Group in Nashville.  His diverse list of clients includes Davy Jones of the Monkees, Grammy-winning songwriter Don Henry, and international guitar virtuosos Tommy Emmanuel and Muriel Anderson.

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Welcome to our Cartne video titled Before You Hire Your First or Next Producer. Our guest today is Fett.

Part 1

Hey there. My name is Fett. Yes, one name, just Fett. I’m a producer and engineer based in Nashville for almost 30 years. And I own Azalea Studios and Azalea Music Group along with my wife, Nancy Moran. And I’m also an author of the Fett’s Mixing RoadMap book, currently in its 10th year of publication, if you can imagine that. And I do a lot of remote online stuff for people, everything from teaching courses to mixing, mastering, remote recording projects and so forth. Basically, I’m a studio geek.

Fett, what are the main things that an artist should consider when looking for a producer?

I would say that the very, very first thing you need to do when you’re looking for a producer is get a definition of what a producer is and what type of producer you want. You know, I’ve been producing for almost 40 years, and a lot of times I get the question from somebody, Well, what is a producer? And I give them my answer and they’re like, Wow, I never heard that before; I thought it was so-and-so, such and such, whatever the case may be. So to me, anyway, a producer for hire is somebody who works at the intersection of music, tech and project management. So that’s somebody who needs to be skilled in all three of those areas and be responsible for making sure that they are done smoothly and correctly in your project.

So for example, if somebody comes to you and says, Hey, I’m a producer, I want to work with you on your project, and the only thing they’re really interested in is completing your songs for you, that’s not a producer. If you’re in some genres, the word producer actually means somebody who creates loops or beats for you, and that is definitely a critical function. But you need to make sure that that’s the kind of definition of producer you want to hire for your project as opposed to that wider, more traditional definition of somebody who’s music, tech and project management savvy. Once you get that established, then you can have the conversation about how the project works and how they work, what their role is, and that kind of thing.

But until that just make sure you know what kind of person you’re going to be dealing with in terms of their role. Once you have established that you’re talking to the type of producer that you have in mind, the next thing to make sure is that you and your music are the priority. There are a lot of people out there who say they produce other people, and what they’re really saying is they implement their vision on other people’s music, and that’s not the way it should be if you’re paying the bill.

I’ve had clients in the past who certainly took my advice and, you know, it’s a very collaborative effort and what have you. But ultimately, I was responsible for fulfilling their vision. And there were some times when they didn’t necessarily know what they wanted, and we went back and forth and came up with the solution. But when it was all done, they got what they came for, as opposed to something that no yeah, that sounds great and it’s not even remotely what I wanted or remotely for my audience or my market. 

So definitely the whole idea is it’s about your music and your vision, and they take a back seat to that. There’s a reason that they say that producers and engineers are, you know, in the shadows behind the scenes, I should say, in the music industry because it’s not their job to have their name first on your project.

Now, having said that there are two types of producers out there. There are some who have what they call a signature sound. And you hire that person because their music sounds a certain way. And that’s fine. If you want your music to fit into that, that vibe, that sound, then you’ll want to seek somebody like that. Based on artists that you follow and what have you.

Then there’s the other kind of producer, who is an adaptive producer, who will modify their approach, their style, the arranging, the instrumentation and all that kind of stuff to your style and your music. A great example of that is somebody like Rick Rubin. Rick Rubin has worked with everybody from Johnny Cash to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the Dixie Chicks and a zillion people in between. And every time he works with a new artist, it’s a completely different sound from the last thing he did. And a lot of that is because he lets the artists come through and let their vision rise to the top instead of saying, I’m going to put the Rick Rubin signature sound on it, there is no such thing as a Rick Rubin signature sound, and he’s done OK for himself.

So that’s a decision you need to make. Do you want a signature sound producer or someone who is much, much more flexible and willing to do what the particular project requires? Neither is right or wrong, but they work with different types of musicians and personalities depending on what you want. 

So the last two things you probably want to look for in a producer are, I would say, first of all, their reputation in the industry. Now, if they’re brand new, you might look at Google and look them up and not see a lot about them. That doesn’t mean they’re not a good producer or whatever. But if you do talk to other artists, they’ve worked with other people in the industry who you trust, you’ll get a pretty good idea pretty quickly about their rep.

I’ve been in Nashville for 30 years and never in my life have I appreciated more how much reputation plays in somebody’s musical life. Word gets around really quickly in the music industry. If somebody is difficult to work with or is a shyster or something like that, you don’t have to ask many people before you find out. Reputation is your absolute number one commodity if you’re a producer or engineer or session player or anything like that. You can find out about your producer pretty quickly, by asking around. 

And the second thing after the reputation is their track record. And what I mean by that is what types of work have they done in the past? Now, again, if you’re working with somebody who’s new, up and coming or whatever, they might not have a big catalog or anything like that necessarily, but they should be able to provide for you some of the work that they’ve done.

And usually there’s some kind of a demo reel or something like that where they, in the style that you’re wanting to work in, can offer you, send you a link, whatever, an MP3, and you can listen to some of the work they’ve done. That will give you a really clear picture on how they’re going to sound. The more examples they can give you, especially if they’re diverse examples, it means the more experience they’ve had.

So I wouldn’t shy away from somebody who’s brand new or doesn’t have a lot of press or anything like that. But I would look to make sure that what they’ve done is actually up the alley that you’re looking to have your stuff done with.

Can you discuss how producers charge for their services?

When you hire a producer, sometimes you just hire the producer simply to be that project manager and run the process. Sometimes you’re asking them to produce, run the process, actually do the engineering, all the technology stuff, hire the musicians, schedule the sessions, arrange the songs, do the charts, and lots of other things. I do all of those things when I’m producing, and therefore that affects my pricing because I’m serving multiple roles.

But prices do run all over the map. And what I would do is, if you’re looking for a producer, contact at least three and discuss with them what role they play and what role you need them to play in your project. And then ask them, what they should be able to give you, even a ballpark figure of how much that would cost you.

Then do it again and then do it again, and you’ll probably get a good idea of assuming you’re looking at the types of producers that you’d like to use, what the price range is for them. But there are people out there who will, quote, produce your song for 50 bucks and people who will produce your song for 5000 bucks.

Neither of those is necessarily somebody you want to work with. The 50 buck people often are not going to be around by the time your project is finished, so that can be a problem. But they also tend to be very much the one-man-band home studio owner type people who will say, Yeah, I’ll produce your song and I’ll do the drums and the guitar, the keyboards and the backing vocals, if you happen to be singing the lead vocals and what have you, and I’ll do it for 50 bucks. It’d be pretty low, but you know, a very low price. What you’re getting there is somebody’s level of skill, the aggregate of somebody’s level of skill across all of those different instruments. That’s very, very different from hiring a band with people with the absolute top level of skill on every one of those instruments.

So while it may work in certain situations, the one man band producer approach can be limiting. And they’re not going to do every single thing 100% as well because nobody does. So that’s a big distinction to make. If you hire a producer who does want to engineer on your project, that can be a very good thing.

I’m a producer, engineer, always have been. I have assistant engineers and what have you throughout the years. But generally I’m at the console. I’m doing all the recording and mixing and mastering myself. After 40 years, I’ve learned how to kind of separate my brain into those different places. And if your producer is a really, really good musician, they may also play on your project. And again, probably in one specialized area, not everything, not all the instruments. They should be, one of the things you’re hiring for, is they should be good at picking the right musicians for your songs, for your project. That way, you know, when you get together and you have the band assembled, that you’re going to get back to you what you hoped in your head, in your vision would be, the sound you want. Then that’s a huge value of a really good producer, is knowing who to pick and having all those people in their virtual Rolodex, as we like to say.

Part 2

How do you locate and avoid the many sharks who are out there preying on artists?

So how do you locate and avoid sharks when it comes to producers? There are a few red flags that I recommend that you look for first. One is extremely high pricing. If somebody tells you they want you to pay them $5,000 to produce one song, you probably want to look elsewhere because there are many, many people who can do it for significantly less with the same high quality musicians and what have you.

And it’s not all about price at that point. That’s the first thing. The next thing is there are lots of different terms that people use. But the bottom line of it is producers who want to take your publishing. And we could do an entire discussion about what that means. But publishing, your rights to your songs that you’ve created, is an asset, is a value.

And if you did all the creating of the songs and you don’t have a publisher who normally would take 50% of the entire income from publishing royalties of the song, you get the other 50%. If a producer says, Sure, I’ll produce your project and I want your publishing, which means they want to publish your share of your royalties, the question then would be why. If they’re not actually serving the role of a publisher and pitching and placing your music in as many possible scenarios as possible, then they are not your publisher. And they don’t deserve your publishing. 

What a lot of producers will try to do, shady producers, is take co-writing credit for your songs, when they don’t really do any writing on your songs. If they change a word or two here in a couple of lines in the song, or they change one chord to a six minor chord because it has a little bit better sound against the vocal melody, that is not songwriting. The melody and the words of the song are the song to some extent, maybe some musical riffs and chord structures are part of the song, but if they don’t significantly change any of that stuff, they are not co-writing and they don’t deserve any of your publishing as a result of that. 

Another thing, unfortunately, we do have this in Nashville, I hate to admit, but there are some people who love to talk big name players: Oh, I’ve got the drummer for such and such, a big touring act that I can get you for a price or I’ve got the bass player for so-and-so who’s had ten hit records and all this kind of stuff. If you’re in a place like Nashville, virtually everybody has those kinds of credits. All of the core session musician type people who work in this town, they all have bragging rights, they all have credits.

I mean, some of them could literally not stop talking for a solid week just listing the credits that they’ve had. But what you’ll find interesting is most of them don’t talk about that stuff. It doesn’t even come up unless you ask them. And then after the session’s over, they happen to mention that they played for and worked with X, Y, and Z, and you’re like, holy crap, really?

And then you get into a really good discussion. But if somebody is trying to offer their services, a producer or a producer engineer and says, Oh, yeah, I got all these big players, all A-list triple A, you know, triple scale type people, in Nashville, we just all kind of yawn over that because that’s completely the norm. So that should not be the reason that you choose the producer and B, the reason that you pay exorbitant amounts of money for your project.

Those really, really great A-list players will charge very, very reasonable rates for what they do, just like the other people do. Be really, really careful with the pricing structure that they have. I offer most of my stuff on a per song basis. So if you want to produce a song, that’s the price. If you want me to mix a song that you’ve recorded, that’s the price per song.

If you want me to master a song that you’ve mixed it’s that much per song. It’s not by the hour. And the other thing to really look for is nickel and dimers who: Oh, you wanted me to master your song, but if you want me to put it on a CD for you, that’s an extra $25. Whatever the case may be, there will be all these surcharges kind of sprinkled within their price list or not at all. They kind of come up and you end up paying, you know, 25% or 30% more for your project than you had thought you would in the first place. I do things by the drink, by the song and by the project, and that’s because I’ve been doing this for almost 40 years and I know what it’s going to cost.

I can tell you ahead of time the range for the musicians that you’re going to need and what have you. So even if the producer gives you a price range for things, that’s much, much better than saying, Oh, I’m going to charge by the hour and kind of see how it takes. And it might be triple the price depending on who I can get to play guitar and that kind of thing. You don’t want to go there with them. Simple pricing so that they know what they’re getting and you know what you’re paying is definitely the way to go. 

And I guess the very last thing I would say about looking out for sharks is people who claim they can do any kind of song in any genre for you. So, Oh yeah you want to do traditional country, I can do traditional country. You want to do hip hop, I can do hip hop. You want to do classic rock, I can do classic rock. You want to do modern pop, you want to sound like Katy Perry, I can do that, too. Most producers specialize in genres that they’re really, really good at, have worked on a lot and have a reputation for. And if you are an artist who is looking for neo soul do you really care if they do bluegrass? Probably not. So if they’re trying to sell you on, I can do any style, I just need your money and you pay me to be your producer, they’re not putting the priorities in the right order. They might have worked in a lot of styles.

I mean, I’ve been at it for decades, so I’ve worked in a lot of different styles, but there are definitely styles that I don’t do. And I tell potential clients right up front, Nope, you know what? I’d like to recommend so-and-so for that project because I think they’d be a better fit for you. Usually if they say they’ll do any kind of style, they’re more interested in your money and they’re acting out of desperation than experience.

Should an artist and a producer have a written agreement or a contract?

It kind of depends on where you are and what your relationship with them is. I work in Nashville. There are surprisingly few written contracts on most projects. It’s very much a reputation based town. And so over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of clients, thousands of songs, and I’ve probably done maybe a dozen, 15 actual contracts before with anyone I’ve ever worked with.

Now, having said that, what I do like to do is that it is a necessity for a project, and sometimes it is, I like to do an informal letter of agreement. So instead of a big legalese thing that’s 50 pages long that says, where to the parties, undersigned here in, you know, and all this stuff that nobody can understand. I like to say this is an informal letter of agreement between myself, Fett producer, engineer, and client name, songwriter, artist, whatever the case may be. And basically what I do is I outline in there what the expectations are of both of us. So here’s what the client will be required to provide / show up for. Be ready for.

And here’s what I will show up for and be ready for and provide. And it’s all in plain English, it’s two or three pages, and that should be enough. And it’s legally binding, that should be enough for both parties to feel very, very comfortable. I’ve had people who hired a lawyer and paid a lot of money and brought me a production contract that’s 15, 20, 30 pages long and all this kind of stuff. And it’s designed to protect them from me doing things like trying to take their publishing and stuff, which I totally understand. But all of that can be put very, very easily in a letter of agreement, and I put that in my letter of agreement. One of the most important things that you do want to include in any relationship you have, whether it’s a formal letter of agreement as well, is the whole notion of work for hire. If you work particularly in the sync, the film and TV world, the music supervisor, music library, the music editor, whoever happens to be the consumer of your music on a particular project, will not even consider using your music unless everyone who participated in that recording has signed a work for hire agreement.

And what that means is that person was hired one time for that one purpose on that one song to do a specific job and was paid a specific amount. They have no claims at all to any future income from that song. The reason for that is if somebody writes a song, records a song, has a bunch of people play on it, and then somebody falsely decides later on to bring some kind of a lawsuit or whatever: Hey, I played, I sang backing vocals on that song, and now it’s in an ad for Pepsi, and I want my whatever percent as a backing vocalist that I would normally get from after a blah, blah, blah. And man, they’re going to go after the person using the song, not you. And it’s going to cost them a ton of money and get them into a lot of really bad legal battles.

So if you’re doing a film and TV project specifically, but I recommend this for anything because you never know when you’re going to use your songs for that purpose, everybody signs a letter of agreement or rather a work for hire contract. And it’s less than a page, it’s very, very simple, plain English. I have a template that I give my clients when they don’t have their own and it just keeps everybody covered.

Now, having said that, I pay good rates for my musicians and they get paid if they’re willing to sign a work for hire form, then they’re there. They can work with me. If they’re not, they can certainly work somewhere else. But I expect myself and the client to pay them a really good rate for that. So as far as contracts go, that’s the one that you always want to have, especially for film and TV sync stuff. You’ve got to have a work for hire signed form from everyone.

Does that prevent you from using union musicians?

That’s a gray area right now. Fortunately, the union in Nashville is a very active one, and it’s run by Dave Pomeroy, who is a really really good, upstanding, not only musician, but also person. He has worked tirelessly for many years now to allow musicians to work under very, very different circumstances than they could before. If this was ten years ago, you could not sign a work for hire form as a union musician. The two were completely mutually exclusive.

Now, there’s ways that musicians can do work for hire stuff. They can work from their own studio and do parts for people remotely and all that kind of stuff. None of that structure existed in the union before. So it’s moving definitely in a positive direction, mostly because of Dave Pomeroy, and he’s had a lot of influence nationally and internationally on musician’s unions to make those situations much more tenable. But you’d be surprised that outside of major music centers like New York and L.A. and Nashville, 90% or more of the musicians aren’t in a union. So it’s not an issue for them. They’ve chosen specifically to work as independent people, and they don’t either need or want to be in the union and that issue won’t come up for you.

The great thing about Tennessee and Nashville is it’s a work for hire state. So if somebody does not want to be in the union and wants to work with me, and I have many, many people like that, and wants to be able to sign work for hire agreements and stuff like that, they can do that. They’re not breaking any laws or anything like that. So the industry and the union are moving ahead now and realizing it’s a very, very different world we work in and it’s getting better all the time.

Part 3

Some producers ask for points on the back end. Can you explain what that is and when it is or isn’t appropriate?

So something that might come up in the pricing structure that you talk about with your producer, in addition to whether they want your publishing or not and a lot of other things, is whether they’ll take points on the back end. And what that means are points are a percentage of royalties, mechanical royalties, from your recording. And it’s a practice that’s been around for a really, really long time and how a lot of very, very good, very, very famous musicians made their careers.

In fact, a lot of times they would do the entire album project on spec, which means for free basically. But they had a legal agreement that said based on the number of units sold of this album, and this is back when it was physical albums, CDs and what have you, they would get so many points, percentage points, of every sale and it was in the order of 1%.

Well, if you have a 6 million selling record, that’s a lot of pennies at 1% and it really adds up. There’s one very dear producer friend of mine who had various types of arrangements with people, getting very successful, producing some really, really big records. They were happy to pay him points on the back end. And one of the albums he did, he got a $10 million advance on his back end royalties.

So they knew they had a good thing going and they would have no trouble making that 10 million and quite a lot more on the back end. But you as an individual are not dealing with a record label, typically, in the indie market or what have you, and that’s for you to decide. I’ve never taken points on any project I do.

I like the whole notion of a work for hire. They extend beyond just the musicians and people working on the session, but to the whole project, I would rather charge a little bit more and get paid upfront for the work I do and then relinquish you from the need to keep records and go to Harry Fox or whoever it is to get the reports and pay me however many times again and again and again.

I don’t need points on your record. If I do a really, really good record for you and you have success with it, you’ll come back and hire me again. That’s worth way more than points to me. So points are a much, much less common thing today than they used to be, especially in the indie world. But if that’s something that you and your producer are both comfortable with, and you don’t have the funds to hire them upfront for an outright price without points, you might negotiate something like that. That works great for both of you. There’s nothing illegal or bad or wrong about it. It’s just not as common as it used to be.

What should an artist expect to receive at the end of the project?

So I’ve unfortunately heard some very sad horror stories of people who have gone into a quite reputable studio with a reputable producer, engineer and everybody on the project, and they’ve done a recording and they’ve gone away with the mixes from the recording, or maybe the master, depending on how much, you know, steps in the production process were done. And then after the fact they decide they want to do something different with the music. Anything from as simple as a different version of the lyrics on one of the songs or maybe let’s have an instrumental bed version because I now would like to use the song for film and TV pitches as a background cue and not have singing in there because it gets in the way of the dialog, very different animal. Or whatever the purpose may be.

And they come back to the producer or the studio. The worst thing that happens is they say, Oh, we don’t have any of that stuff. We erased the hard drive and put somebody else’s stuff on as soon as you paid us and got the results that we agreed on. The project was done and we erased everything. That happens, and shouldn’t happen. I’ve never, ever thrown away a single file of any project I’ve done in 40, almost 40 years, and I’ve got dozens of multi-terabyte hard drives to prove it, plus backups online. But the other obstacle that you run into is that they say, Oh yeah, we can, we can redo all that, but you’re going to have to pay us again. And they name some exorbitant price to do something simple.

I have situations. Well, first of all, let me backup. When you go into a studio and you make a recording, you own that recording. That’s what you’re paying for. That’s the master, right? So when your songs or all the tracks are done, all the vocals are on there, all the overdubs are finished, the mixes get done, the master gets done, the songs get released, you own that intellectual content that’s been recorded, that’s been captured. You don’t own the project files that the digital audio workstation software used or the plug in reverb that the producer or engineer chose to use on your vocal, etc. But you do own the raw material. So if you want to have all of the audio tracks that went into your project, you have a right to those.

It may cost you a small fee, simply for the time it takes for them to export each track as a stem or as a track, either a stereo system or a mono track, and assemble them in some form and upload them to the Internet or put them on a drive or whatever. A small fee for that is very reasonable, but you own the core content of your production. What you don’t own is all that interim stuff that has their own artistic, professional, technical decision making and skill applied to it. So for example, if you recorded in ProTools or Cubase, let’s say, your engineer or your producer is not obligated to hand you all the ProTools projects or all the Cubase files. First of all, it’s almost a non-existent possibility that if you opened up those files that all of the plugins and other things that were used in the project would even be there on your hard drive.

They’re external third party stuff that gets read into the project when you do it. But as far as any kind of modified works, if you’d like an instrumental version, they should do that for you. And if they do it for a fee, a very small fee. If you want high quality MP3s of all your WAV or AIFF files, they should do that for you. Maybe for a fee, maybe not. If you want a TV mix, as it’s known, which just has the backing vocals and all the instruments, but no lead vocals, the name comes from people singing to tracks on TV. They should do that for you. Those three things: the TV mics, the instrumental mix and high quality Fraunhofer MP3s, I include for free with every project. That’s part of what you’re paying for. But you have a right to have any number of future reworks done on your music that you paid for because you own that music. So here’s the key to making sure all of that works: before you leave the studio and before you do the final payment over the Internet, or send or hand them the check or whatever, make sure that they have given you your entire project on some kind of a drive.

And for most projects, the entire thing will fit on a thumb drive nowadays. So you leave the building, or you know if it’s a remote thing, you’ve got the files that have been uploaded and downloaded from the Internet, before you pay the final bill. Because they are not obligated to store your stuff in perpetuity. And they do reuse drives and they do try to cut their costs, but there’s nothing wrong with you coming back in six months or two years or whatever the case may be, and say, Hey, I want to redo songs one, two and three using x, y, z, and just send them the files again.

And I will send my project files to my clients when I do that. They can’t really do anything with it because it’s got all my stuff attached to it, but at least if I need them back and heaven forbid, you know, all my multiple backups have gone up in smoke, they’ve got a copy of it. And any producer or engineer or studio worth their salt should have no problem doing any of that stuff.

So the bottom line is you need to know what you need, what you want, what you expect before you get involved with the producer at all. That way there are no misunderstandings or challenges.

You’re absolutely right. All the stuff we’re talking about right now is exactly why I have a letter of agreement with my clients that says, here’s what’s expected of you and here’s what’s expected of me. Because it’s actually an educational thing. It’s in my interest to say to the client, I expect you to have all of your songs in a work version, if that’s what we decide ahead of time, so we don’t have to figure the song out on the fly in the studio and kind of write it in the middle of the session. I expect you to pay this segment of the project at this point in its life cycle. You should expect from me to have rights to all of your files, all of the intellectual content. You should expect me to provide you with the finished, high quality, full resolution files, not just MP3s and that kind of thing.

So the letter of agreement is actually a good way for both parties to get educated. And my philosophy in writing a letter of agreement is to bullet proof their role in the project as much as mine. The old days, the way contracts used to be done by publishers, managers, publicists, record labels and all this stuff was designed to minimize anything for the person who was signing the contract and maximize everything for the company that was doing it.

And I don’t think in the independent music world in particular, that serves anybody’s interest anymore. So I put it all there in black and white, and it’s a great way to get a conversation started. And then they say, what is a wav or AIFF full resolution audio file, what does that even mean? What’s a project file? What’s a Fraunhofer MP3?

And I can explain to them what all these components are and why they’re important to them. I mentioned things like, all musicians on the project will sign work for hire agreements and that kind of thing. It just puts everything up front and kind of gives everyone the same minimal level of education, not only about the project specifically, but about how the music industry works nowadays.

And I can name on one hand, out of at least seven or 800 clients I’ve had over the years, I’ve ever had a problem with anything like that. And that stuff was earlier on in the years when I didn’t have as much stuff in the letter of agreement and what have you. So it’s just a way to make everything rock solid for everybody and just avoid tons of mistakes, potential mistakes anyway, and allow you to focus entirely on the music, which is ultimately what it’s all about.

That concludes our video titled Before You Hire Your First or Next Producer, we want to thank Fett for sharing his invaluable experience and expertise with us.

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