By, Wendy Day (www.WendyDay.com)
Over the past ten years, the price of equipment to make beats has come way down. In addition, the ability to upload production to the internet and circulate music quickly, easily, and cheaply has made the amount of producers and beatmakers soar in the urban music industry. And if you also factor in that EVERYONE thinks they have the perfect ear for music and knows exactly what is missing from the current music industry, you get precisely what we have today in the music industry: a glut of producers.
Producers, like rappers, have exploded onto the urban music landscape in droves. Hundreds of thousands of artists have set up web pages, social media pages, pages on beat selling websites, etc– attempting to sell their music, influence the industry, and take their shot at fame and success. What we have is way more producers than we need. What this means is that the supply far outweighs the demand, driving down the income and opportunity for all producers. The music industry is over saturated in almost every area.
Very few producers really stand out in today’s business. The ones who do rise above the din most assuredly have platinum hits under their belts. The majority of A and B list artists and the bulk of label executives seek out the producers who have a track record of success in delivering hit singles, and are willing to shell out bigger checks to secure the hits. Meanwhile, there are usually between 10 and 15 songs on a CD, leaving room for the album filler to be filled by lesser known and new producers. The prevailing attitude at labels is that maybe we’ll get lucky, and one of the $1500 to $5000 filler tracks will be the next big radio hit.
The more entrepreneurial rappers have set up production companies and signed their own production teams so that they can even claim ownership of a larger share of the music on their own releases. Very few are willing to use producers outside of their own camp because that eats into their profit margin. Many producers tolerate this by taking a cut in their publishing to get placed on a record. I’ve seen producers give up a share of their publishing to produce for mid-level and newer artists just as they would to produce a song for Jay Z, Beyonce, or Rihanna. I’ve watched platinum producers give up a portion of ownership for a placement on Wale’s last release. This is a new trend in the music business, as that practice used to be reserved solely for superstar acts with strong leverage and an almost guarantee to go multi-platinum.
At the labels (major or indie), each artist has a recording budget. The budgets are determined by a mathematical formula based on how many CDs the label projects the artist can sell either based on previous sales, or based on the buzz and hype of the artist. For example, Nicki Minaj or T.I. will have a larger recording budget than Cash Out or Yo Gotti because of their track record of success. However, Cash Out and Yo Gotti will have a larger budget than Killa Mike or Trouble because their sales track record is bigger. Plus Killa Mike and Trouble are independent (for the pluses and minuses of being independent, you’ll need to read my eBook The Knowledge To Succeed: How To Get A Record Deal [Amazon (http://t.co/SBVLWv2T), iTunes (http://t.co/8K7EV6tS) & Barnes&Noble (http://t.co/GwppwamU)%5D
An entire album must be delivered within the confines of the recording budget. That budget includes production, studio time, features, sample clearance, and often mixing and mastering costs. If an artist has a recording budget of $250,000, then the album must be delivered to the label without spending more than that $250,000. If mixing and mastering costs $15,000 and recording at a decent studio is $125 an hour, that doesn’t leave much for the production of 10 or 15 songs—especially for artists who believe in recording 25 or more songs and choosing the best 10 or 15 for the album. If the artist wants a Jazze Pha, Forty, Just Blaze, Mike Will Made It, Justice League, or Drumma Boy track that can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $70,000 depending on the relationship. It is easy to spend $100,000 or more on the production for three or four hot potential singles. And since it seems that one out of six Americans is a producer today, finding the remainder of the album filler is quite easy. The competition to sell tracks today is crazier than I’ve ever seen it. Even my mailman makes beats on the side.
The best way for an aspiring producer to sell beats is to develop a relationship with the artists and the label A&Rs who buy beats. Selling tracks is an on-going thing, because you just never know who is buying beats and when. And because there are so many producers out here hawking beat CDs, you need to have your music in front of the decision maker at the exact moment he is buying tracks. Easier said than done!
For a producer without access to a large number of artists (meaning you don’t live in Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles, or NY), and who may not be able to make the regular rounds to the record labels (meaning you don’t live in New York City or Los Angeles either), this approach can be very difficult. The next best thing would be to find artists in your local area and provide their sound—their production, hoping that they blow up and achieve some level of success. That way, when they blow up, you blow up. This worked for Beats By The Pound, Swizz Beatz, Mannie Fresh, Dr Dre, and others. Of course, it’s harder now than ever for local, regional acts to break through and secure the attention of a major label the way No Limit, Ruff Ryders, Cash Money, and Death Row did back in the 90s.
If you’re going to be the sound for your area or region, you’re going to end up wasting a ton of tracks that will never go anywhere. You will end up producing (and wasting) many free tracks until you learn that the artists who stand the best chance of success are the ones who have decent budgets for marketing and promotions. Better to not charge the artists who have money for promotions, and charge the artists who have no money for promotions–a non-promoted song is a wasted track. Also, a smart producer who gives away tracks for free would be wise to “lease” the tracks and if the artist does nothing with the song in a year or so, all rights revert back to the producer so the track isn’t a total loss. As the local underground artists begin to blow up, the nationally known artists will begin to hear the sound, and if they like it (or think fans will like it) they will gravitate towards you. If you are hard to work with, too expensive, or have an unprofessional team around you, the artist will find another producer and pay him or her to knock off your sound and make similar sounding beats, bypassing you completely.
Getting established as a new producer can take years. Sha Money XL, who manages many producers, feels the best way to get on as a new producer is to “be the man everyone goes to for tracks in your area. Work with every artist and build a name for yourself locally and then expand that. Get your name out there as much as possible. In today’s viral world that’s easier than ever! The internet is a great tool to spread the word. To sell beats on-line, you may need to be a little better known, but spreading the word is still key on-line for a new producer.”
Smylez, from Chicago, built his regional popularity by being in the middle of a beef between two local Chicago rappers. He was the producer for Lil JoJo when songs were flying back and forth between JoJo and Chief Keef. When JoJo was killed, fans naturally turned to the music for clues and Smylez gained a larger instant national awareness. The sound that Young Chop and Smylez made popular is called “Drill.” If your sound is so unique that it develops it’s own name for the style, that’s a plus. It worked for Crunk, New Jack Swing, Hyphy, Drill, Turnt Up, Miami Base, Bounce, Go-Go, G-Funk, Chopped and Screwed, etc. Usually the producer who made the sound popular benefits the most–which isn’t always the sound’s inventor. Best to check your ego at the studio door.
Newer producers also expand their reach by being active and vocal on social media (I noticed Smylez talks mad shit on his Twitter feed) and by attending industry events to spread awareness. Last week, I sat on a panel next to Sonny Digital, an Atlanta producer who blew up with a hit record a few years ago called “Racks” (On Racks). It became a street anthem in the south for Y.C. and Future, who was featured on the song. From there Sonny Digital has gone on to produce for 2Chainz and Kanye West, Rick Ross, B.O.B., Juicy J, Wale, T.I., Future, Beyonce, etc. Sonny Digital spoke in front of a room of about 100 industry folks interested in learning more about the music industry. He pointed out that producing music is a job–it’s important to be professional, not waste time in the studio, and to be able to interact smoothly with artists and their teams. “You’ve gotta be able to separate the work from the play in this business,” Sonny Digital said. “It’s all about your environment and how you set it up.” Producers who demand respect are treated with respect.
Coming Up Under Other Producers
Although production deals aren’t as popular as they once were, some producers have chosen to take the loss and give up part ownership (usually 50%) of their own music to secure a spot in a production company owned by a more established producer or artist like Jermaine Dupri, Dr Dre, Jazze Pha, etc. The thinking is that it’s better to give up half now to build a name and reputation underneath someone else. In my personal opinion, this doesn’t work out very well—just ask Sam Snead, Mellman, Butta, Ced Keyz, Carl-So-Lowe and the list goes on and on….
The upsides to working in a production company seem to be that studio time is abundant and “free” which keeps most producers working more than they could on their own (the studio time is “free” in that it’s in exchange for a share of the producer’s publishing and the production company decides who works where and when). There are more experienced producers teaching the newer producers tricks of the trade and tweaking their okay tracks making them great tracks. Often a producer working alone hits a glass ceiling when he (or she) has taught himself everything he can learn on his own. Working in a group setting allows each producer to build upon everyone else’s knowledge base. The company shops the beats to labels and artists so the producer(s) can focus solely on making music.
So what’s a newer producer to do?
The good thing about the glut in the marketplace is that only the truly dedicated will survive. The folks doing this because they think it’s easy, or because they think they can make a quick buck, will give up quickly and leave. When they see how hard it is to survive, they will move on. Only the folks with music in their blood and souls will be able to withstand the bullshit. The guys who got into producing solely for the money, fame, or glamour will see that there is no quick money to be made, little glamour, and no real fame and leave the industry. Also, the producers who don’t take time to learn the business will grow tired of getting jerked and move on.
I’m not a fan of the beat websites like SoundClick.com because I see too many artists stealing beats from there, or licensing beats for a cheap price only to discover a bigger artist has licensed the same beat and already burned it out. But I’ve met producers who are very Internet savvy that make a quarter million dollars or more per year licensing beats from those beats-for-sale websites.
Also, there are many levels of producers. The key is to figure out where you want to fit in and go for it. Not every producer needs to be a Dr Dre. There are many underground producers in the ‘hood selling beats for $100 to $500, and perfectly content to be that underground go-to guy. Fearing my article was sounding a bit pessimistic, I put in a call to the ever positive Drumma Boy for advice. His opinion is that “this industry has always had a lot of competition making beats. Right now is no different…just the numbers have changed. It’s important to figure out what level you want to be on as a producer, and go for it. Opportunities open for those who are prepared and talented. Always have your beat CD on you. I’ve made connections with artists at the airport. They might not buy a beat then, but they’ll remember me.”
I asked Drumma if he was a new producer today, what he’d do to sell beats. “It’s still all about getting to the artists. I’d pop up at studios every night. If I were in a smaller town, when the artist came to do a show I’d be at the club with my beat CDs. I’d still do what I did to get on…pop up on the artists. If Jeezy is performing, I’d be at the club pressing a CD into Jeezy’s hand– not anyone in his entourage if I can help it, but Jeezy’s hand. After doing this over and over again, they’ll at least know about you at some point. They remember the tracks that bump. Every artist wants the hot tracks. Eventually they’ll call if your beats are hot enough.”
What else should a newer producer do?
It’s important to focus not just on the creative process, but also the business side. Making hot music is necessary, but so is understanding how the business works. The price a producer quotes for his beat is really an advance against backend royalties. Depending on the budget, and depending on how badly the artist or label wants your track, a new producer is usually paid $500 to $5000 by a major label, and $100 to $3000 by an indie label for a track. A preliminary agreement called a “producer dec” is usually circulated, prior to recording, between the lawyer for the artist or label and the producer’s lawyer (yes, you have an experienced entertainment lawyer who is well versed in production agreements on your team).
A producer gets paid half of the advance upfront BEFORE GOING INTO THE STUDIO TO RECORD, and half after delivering the track (that second half is usually paid when the album is released, if it’s a major label). The “backend” royalty is whatever you agreed to accept while negotiating, usually somewhere between 2 points and 5 points (3 points is average). Those points come out of the artist’s share, and artists rarely recoup. That means there isn’t always a backend, but be sure to negotiate it just in case there is. If you don’t understand what points are (they are percentage points) and how they work, there’s an excellent explanation in Donald Passman’s “Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About The Music Industry.” At the very least, read that chapter on points and royalties in your local Barnes and Noble store.
And if you remember nothing else about this article, remember this: keep your publishing! Any track you create gives you 50% ownership of the finished song. Keep 100% of your publishing! Any agreement you make to give up part of your publishing comes out of your 50% of the song. If you choose to sample, monies will be withheld from your backend and from your publishing to pay for the sample. That is why more experienced, business-minded producers rarely sample anymore. Avoid any and all agreements that ask you to sell your beats as “work for hire.” They are fcuk boy contracts.
Even though the production side of the urban music industry is over saturated, it is possible for producers to eek out a nice living. If you have the talent, and the drive to succeed, you will. If not, make sure you have a back up plan. This industry can be ruthless.