What exactly does a producer do?, for Many Voices

When I’m traveling, I always dread the question, “What do you for a living?” Because I’m a producer, and the second question is always, “What exactly does a producer do?” The best answer I’ve ever heard to that question was from Quincy Jones. He’s produced Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson and Miles Davis. He said that if a record comes out and it’s a failure because it has the wrong cover, it’s his fault. If it has the wrong title, if it’s released at the wrong time of year, if it has the wrong songs on it or they’re in the wrong order. And he’s responsible for the arrangements, for the orchestrations or the no orchestrations and the general feel of the song, that the right musicians are in the right studio on the right time of day or night. And if it’s a success, he says, it’s because the artist is a genius. And this is where the audience laughs, but what he’s saying is the truth. Because the one thing a producer can’t do in a session is give somebody talent or the ability to do what they’ve set out to do. But they can make sure that they don’t get in the way, that every decision made about the recording is the best one. Or, as the pink-haired shoegazer bassist engineer I love to work with at Eargasm Studios in L.A. put it to me one day, a good producer is known by the problems that don’t happen during their sessions.

But the person who put it best for me was Peter Fenner, who said to me after holding Radiant Mind in his hand for the first time, “You made decisions that weren’t in my best interests. You made decisions that weren’t in your company’s best interests. You made decisions that weren’t in your best interests, but the one thing you never did was make a decision that wasn’t in the best interests of the final product.” That’s the definition of a producer that I’ll remember, long after this job is over.

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