Over the roughly 100 years of its development, the record industry has developed a division of labor with certain roles and specializations carved out for specific sets of skills and responsibilities. These roles are not set in stone and technological and economic changes can quickly make some roles no longer necessary or create a need for a new set of skills. In some cases, certain people have overlapping skill sets that enable them to fill two or more of these roles simultaneously or sequentially throughout their careers. Here is a basic outline of those roles and how they have developed over time.
The role of the record producer is best imagined as a creative link between the financial interests of the record company and the creative interests of the artist. As such, the producer’s job is to create a product that, ideally, will be artistically satisfying to the artist and the consumer but also profitable for the company. Erring in either direction can result in a record that may be profitable but leaves the artists unsatisfied or unable to replicate, or in the other direction with a record that might be artistically groundbreaking but leaves the record company unable to justify it in economic terms. Neither outcome is desirable, though many records likely fall into one of those two extremes. Examples of records that are both profitable and creative watermarks stand out as the acknowledged masterpieces of the industry. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is just one such example, an album that is among the best selling in history but also an example of groundbreaking artistic achievement that few would quibble with.
Until the 1960s (and in some cases, later), record companies employed their own “in-house” record producers, such as Columbia’s John Hammond or Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler. In smaller record companies, the company owner or founder might also be the producer, such as Sun Records’ Sam Phillips or Motown’s Berry Gordy. However, since roughly the 1970s, the record producer has become a “free agent” or independent member of the team. Record companies will certainly have a recommendation as to whom they think is best suited to produce an artist, but that person will often work with many different record companies and artists.
The skills needed to be a successful a record producer fall into several broad categories: musical skills, management skills, and people skills. The best producers combine these skills with an informed sense or vision of current trends in the market so as to find a musical niche that hasn’t already been filled or that offers a new twist on a style that will resonate with listeners. This last skill is often just as much a matter of intuition or luck — being the right producer of the right artist at just the right time.
Musical Skills: A good producer needs to know music and how it is made. A producer will need to have informed opinions about what songs the artist should (and should not) record; what tempo or instrumentation works best for a certain song; when the artist has recorded a definitive (or at least adequate) “take” or version of a particular song or when it needs more practice or another take; which songs should be prioritized for release as a “single” because they seem more likely than others to sell; whether certain songs could benefit from small adjustments (a key change? A different tempo? An addition of another instrument?) or even a major rewrite (the addition of a bridge, a new melody, changes in the harmony, a different groove, etc.). In some cases, a record producer might need to get into the weeds and help rewrite songs or suggest specific instrumental or vocal techniques, acting as an impromptu coach, songwriter, or arranger.
Of course, the producer’s musical skills will need to match the genre the artist is aiming for. A producer of folk music likely won’t have much to offer a heavy metal band, and vice versa. Of course, unusual genre hybrids can sometimes resonate with new audiences, but generally the producer should be able to speak the same musical language as the artist.
Management Skills: Making a record is typically a labor- and capital-intensive endeavor. Studio time is expensive, there are often at least several highly skilled and expensive employees involved in the process who must be paid high hourly wages (studio engineer, assistant engineer, additional studio musicians, piano tuners, instrument technicians, etc.). There is also often a great array of expensive instrumental and technical gear that must be purchased, rented, updated, and maintained. Putting all of those pieces together at just the right time at one (or multiple) locations requires an under-appreciated level of management and logistical skill. Multiple schedules and interests must be accommodated, and delays can be both costly and aggravating.
People Skills: The best producers know how to get musicians to give their best performances in a stressful environment, the recording studio. Any musician who has done much recording knows how alienating and uncomfortable it can be to try to give an inspired and creative performance in a studio. Knowing how to make creative performers comfortable with the recording process, and how hard to push them to achieve their best possible performance, is a special skill, and each producer has her own methods. Some methods may work for some artists, but those same methods might irritate another artist or cause them to lose confidence. Some producers (such as Phil Spector) were known for their very controlling (if not tyrannical) approach — “Here’s what I want you to sing, how I want you to sing it, and if you don’t do it my way then I’ll find another singer.” — or something to that effect. But most producers find a way to make the artist feel that they are collaborating with them, that they both are on the same team, working together in the same creative direction.
The manager is a position most people seem familiar with — the hustler who gets an artist gigs, helps them negotiate a record deal, helps them with marketing and selling merch, etc. Ironically, the manager is also the position that is least well defined in the music industry and one that has no credentials or other educational path to success or even landing a job. One reason for the nebulous job description and career path of a manager is that the job is almost unbounded in the type of skills it might require. Managers essentially do whatever an artist needs to have done and can’t do themselves (apart from actually making the music). The list is nearly endless: find gigs for the artist and negotiate pay with the venue; help with band personnel issues (or find backup musicians); help with gig logistics (sound, lighting, security, etc.); tour planning and promotion; general marketing and promotion; social media; design, order, and distribute merchandise; help with any legal issues that might arise; help the artist with any psychological or health issues that might arise; plan a long-term strategy for the artist’s success; manage the artist’s finances; etc. Given the broad range of possible skills a manager might need (legal, financial, business, marketing, etc.), there is no defined “career path” to this position. Managers are generalists who typically learn on the job. The qualities good managers seem to have in abundance are typically matters of personality: good mangers are persistent, outgoing, and resilient. Managers are task-oriented and typically will not take “no” for an answer. They know how to get what they want from people, either through charm or intimidation, and sometimes a combination of the two. Mangers typically get paid a percentage of an artist’s earnings (10%-20%).
Because they are often in control over an artist’s total finances, managers also find themselves in a position of fiduciary responsibility. Consequently, there have been more than a few instances of highly successful artists later claiming (rightly or wrongly) that their managers have taken advantage of their positions to embezzle funds from the artist. Two highly publicized cases of suspected embezzlement or unethical behavior by managers were Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and the manager for the boy band NSYNC, Lou Pearlman. Each of these cases were explored in highly regarded films, both of which I recommend as examples of the dark art of artist management: The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story (2019) and Elvis (2022). Another noteworthy and surprising story in artist management involves Pat Corcoran, who became the manager for independent rapper Chance The Rapper in 2011. Corcoran helped Chance create one of the the most notable early examples of a successful independent career for a rap artist without any involvement with a traditional record label. Corcoran had very little experience as a manager when he met Chance, who was himself also very inexperienced, so their mutual successes as artist and manager came from a remarkable trial-and-error process that turned the conventional wisdom of how to succeed in the music industry on its head. Unfortunately, even this feel-good story ends with incriminations of financial wrongdoing: In 2021, Corcoran and Chance both sued each other over allegations of breach of contract. An extensive interview with Pat Corcoran on YouTube provides an excellent portrayal of what is involved in artist management and in particular how those skills are learned on the job.
Movies, television shows, documentaries, and live theater will often employ someone in the role of “music supervisor,” the person whose responsibility it is to choose, record, license, edit, and synchronize music that will track with the narrative of the project. The music supervisor does not typically write or perform any of the music in the project, but rather will help decide which composer or performer will be hired to do so. In projects that use pre-existing music, the music supervisor will assist in selecting the musical selections and then arrange for any licensing or “synch” rights to that music. The role of the music supervisor can vary widely according to the project, from a very creative role where choosing the musical style can have a significant impact on the success of a project, to a a more technical or even clerical role where the project has a small music budget and the music supervisor can only choose from very limited options within a style already predetermined by a director or producer.
The recording engineer is responsible for creating the technical conditions necessary to capture the specific recorded sound desired by the artist and the producer. Typically, the engineer does not have any creative control over the choices of just what sounds get recorded, but rather translates the desires of the artist and producer into the available or chosen technology to achieve those sounds. Obviously, the role of the engineer has changed drastically over the years with changes in recording technology. But throughout all those changes, the engineer’s success has consistently been to make sure the technology does not become an impediment to creative progress, but rather transparently contributes to the creative product. If an engineer cannot create an inspiring sound from the available technology, the artist and producer will become frustrated, time will be lost, money will be wasted, and the recording session will frustrate everybody involved. The engineer’s job may consequently be the most stressful and demanding of all the jobs listed here as she will be held responsible for any technical problems, but will not get much credit for the result if things proceed smoothly.
A successful engineer will typically be a very detail-oriented and highly organized person. The engineer must be able to quickly locate, set up, and operate any piece of musical or recording equipment needed for a recording session without delay. No excuses will be tolerated in a recording session for delays while an engineer tries to find an essential cable or adapter, consults a manual to remember exactly how to configure a piece of equipment, or finds that an instrument or device in a studio doesn’t function properly because of deferred maintenance.
A good engineer will also be a repository of practical experience generated over thousands of hours of practice, as well as practical knowledge of just how previous engineers created the iconic sounds in earlier recordings. Engineers will need to know how to reproduce almost every sound ever recorded, so when a producer says “I want that piano sound that Elton John had when he recorded Captain Fantastic, the engineer will have an idea of just what microphones were used to get that sound and how they were placed. The variations on these sorts of demands are almost endless and the engineer will have to come up with some sort of practical solution based on experience or insights gained from historical knowledge.
Artists and Repertory (A&R):
The A&R executives at record companies are responsible for finding artists who have the greatest chance of being signed to a contract and subsequently making successful records with the company. As such, A&R executives have a great deal of direct contact with the recording artists and are thus more visible to the musicians and their fan base. When we say that an artist was “discovered,” it is often the A&R executive that was responsible. The skill set of a successful A&R executive is much less technical than most of the other jobs at a record company, relying more on intuition, people skills, and a gut instinct for style and trends. A&R executives need to be in a position to hear upcoming artists, so they need to be comfortable hanging out at clubs, bars, social media, or wherever else unsigned artists tend to go to display their emerging talents. And they need to sense when an artist has potential to translate and scale up their success from a local level to be profitable on a national or even global stage.
There is no degree or other formal education for the skills required for successful A&R work, as they are almost entirely based on social and musical intuition. Only an extremely small percentage of musical artists will become commercially successful recording artists. Picking which ones will be able to make that transition, having the confidence to stake one’s professional career on those judgements, and convincing the artist to put their careers in the hands of the company you represent, requires a rare blend of intuition, experience, and “street smarts.”
Marketing and Promotion (PR):
In many ways, a record company’s success is dependent primarily on its ability to market its products. If the potential fans of an artist don’t know about them, no amount of musical talent will overcome that handicap. This is one of the major reasons why it makes sense for an artist to sign a major record deal rather than trying to go the “independent” route. Big record companies have the resources, personnel, relationships, and experience to make sure that the information about a new record gets pushed to the radio stations, news media, social media influencers, trade publications, etc. to maximize a record’s potential. Not only must the information get out quickly to the right sources, but it must have a look and tone carefully crafted to appeal to the intended audience. Marketing a singer-songwriter, for example, requires a very different approach than marketing an EDM artist. The marketing team has very little room for error, as once a product is mis-marketed with an approach that fails to attract positive attention, that opportunity is gone and it will be difficult to catch up after an artist has failed to catch on. Few record companies are willing to “throw good money after bad,” so successful marketing from the beginning is critical to an artist’s prospects with that company. When a record fails to sell, the marketing effort is one of the first targets for blame and scapegoating, while the credit for any success will rarely be attributed to a good marketing campaign.
As you will soon realize when reading this book, if you don’t already, the music industry has been built upon a scaffolding of extraordinarily complicated financial and legal relationships. There is a reason that many of the most successful music industry executives got their start as lawyers — through their training and experience, they have an advantage in seeing that legal structure and how it shapes the chances for and level of commercial success in the industry. Clive Davis, the legendary President of Columbia Records in the 1960s, founder of Arista Records in the ‘70s, and now Chief Creative Officer of Sony Entertainment, got his start as a young lawyer with Columbia Records in the late 1950s and moved up the corporate ladder to president. He has no musical training or experience, but has nonetheless earned five Grammy Awards and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A lawyer in a business setting essentially operates as a risk manager. Lawyers employ their training and knowledge to minimize the risk of financial investments through well-written contracts, focused negotiations, and remedial actions (lawsuits) when the inherent risks of business relationships emerge as open conflicts. Because the music industry involves inherently risky investments in unproven and unpredictable creative products, governed by an intensively complex system of laws and regulations, lawyers have become an essential part of the process.
As you will learn throughout the rest of this book, the flow of money in the record industry is very complex and highly contested. From tracking copyright royalties, to artist advances, the record industry presents a unique challenge to the accountants who must track all of these payments, set up systems for accurate reporting and payment, and contact artists to ensure that everything is as it should be. Every industry needs accountants, but the record industry seems to need more of them. As with any other industry, at the top of the accounting chain of command sits the Chief Financial Officer, who oversees the group of accountants in a company and who translates the data into policy recommendations for the Chief Executive Officer.
In the following chapters you will learn about the various copyright licensing systems that govern the rights to sell and use recorded music and the money that flows to the copyright holders from those uses. Record companies hold the “master rights” to the records made by their artists and their publishing companies administer the song copyrights to the songs written by their recording artists. Publishing companies administer the copyrights of independent songwriters and recording artists. There are many jobs associated with administering and tracking the licensing rights and associated royalty payments. Licenses must be negotiated and tracked, and royalties collected and paid out to the individual songwriters in accordance with their publishing agreements. Requests for “synch” rights from video producers must also be fielded and any agreements negotiated, documented, and tracked. So, record companies and publishing companies typically have a staff of licensing professionals who know every detail of copyright law and licensing practices. Licensing staff do not have to be lawyers, but they are often led by a lawyer who makes sure the company’s practices track with the ever-changing field of copyright law and how royalties are calculated and negotiated.
Record Company Chief Executive Officers (President):
At the top of every company in every industry sits a single person, typically with the title of Chief Executive Officer or President, who is responsible to the company’s Board of Directors and shareholders for successfully managing all the parts of the business. The music industry is no different than others in this respect, with the possible exception being that there may a more widely varied set of career paths to this top spot than in some other industries. That is because the skill set required to be a musician has very little overlap with the skill set required to be a good manager. In fact, those skill sets may often be quite antagonistic to each other. While there have been successful musicians who also successfully managed large record companies (Herb Albert of A&M Records is one example), that is the exception rather than the rule. Most chief executives rise up the ranks from one of the other career areas mentioned in this chapter (A&R, marketing, legal, accounting, licensing, etc.), because the practical knowledge of the industry gained in those careers hones and rewards the skills required of an executive manager. Musical skills are rarely required or rewarded at the executive level.
For examples, let’s look at the current CEOs of the big three record companies and how they got to those positions:
- The current CEO of Warner Records, Aaron Bay-Schuck, gained experience working in the marketing and A&R departments of different labels under the Warner umbrella (Interscope and Atlantic). He has no musical experience or background and was a political science major at Columbia University in New York.
- Doug Morris, the current CEO of Sony Music Entertainment, was a professional songwriter for a music publishing company in the 1960s. He wrote the Chiffon’s 1966 hit “Sweet Talkin’ Guy.” He eventually started his own record company, Big Tree Records, which was eventually purchased by Atlantic Records. He also eventually became President of Atlantic Records after it was purchased by Warner. Passed over for the CEO position at Warner, he left to become CEO of Universal Records in 1995. After being replaced in that position in 2011, he jumped ship again to become CEO of Sony Music. So, Morris has held upper executive positions at each of the three largest record companies in the world! Morris attended college at Columbia University, where he majored in sociology.
- Sir Lucian Grainge, the current CEO of Universal Music Group, has been named in four different years by Billboard magazine as the “most powerful person in the music business.” Grainge’s early career was spent in the music publishing business, where he worked as a publishing A&R executive, finding songwriting talent for various publishing companies. He eventually became the director of RCA Music Publishing company, then A&R director for MCA Records, and eventually CEO of Universal Music Group. Grainge did not attend college and is not a musician.
So, for the three top executives in the recording industry, not one of them had a career as a recording artist, and only one had any musical background at all with only a brief career doing anything directly related to making music. Not one had any formal education or training in anything related to music, or even the business of music. All of them worked their way into their leadership positions primarily through entry-level publishing, marketing, or A&R positions.