How Producers Make Music ‹ Literary Hub
Often the first question a producer asks when working on a new record is: what is the function of this record?
There is a crucial relationship between the form of a creation and the role it plays in the lives of its consumers. I consider this relationship to be “the beanbag dilemma”. A bean bag chair is a perfect example of a timeless creation with limited functionality. With its unusual shape (no legs or backrest and a foldable seat), an ottoman is not found in offices or dining rooms, although it is common in children’s bedrooms and family dens. The classic Navy aluminum chair provides a striking contrast. A Navy chair has four legs, a stiff back, and a flat seat, and is used in a wide variety of settings, from college lectures to battleships.
The more unusual the shape, the more limited the function. A record with a classic shape like Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” can usefully work throughout a listener’s day, from the morning commute to cocktail hour after work, and even the last hour of relaxation. before bedtime. Converge’s beautiful “Fault and Fracture”, while unconventional, has a narrower utility. The more limited the function, the less the market appeal, although a record with an unorthodox shape can sometimes become well-regarded or even iconic, like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
The lion’s share of responsibility for a record’s form is borne by the artists and songwriters who create the raw materials of the product: the songs themselves. Most of the responsibility for the function of a recording lies with the producer. The producer must consider how the artist’s songs are likely to be used, weighing ideas about the ideal audience, the ideal context, and the ideal listener response. Because musicians are artists, even among the pros, there is often a strong tendency to make “art for art’s sake” – and often we do – but the professional survival of the musician and producer ultimately depends on achieving some degree of commercial success. .
There is a crucial relationship between the form of a creation and the role it plays in the lives of its consumers.
When working in avant-garde styles (like noise pop or free jazz), we are well aware that, like a pouf, our record has limited functionality. If we opt for a more classic form, then, as the novelty-popularity curve reminds us, the record will be easier to market because it will appeal to many more listener profiles and can be used in many more musical contexts. Nevertheless, highly functional forms present their own set of challenges, including the biggest challenge of all: competition.
The best commercial producers make records with familiar shapes. Therefore, the consumer always has an abundant supply of such recordings to choose from. It’s easier to compete in a small arena with fewer peers than to compete in a large market of very similar things, but most rewards in the music business are proportional to market size.
When a producer considers the functionality of a record, they are assessing the ideal context in which it could shine. D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” is inspired by the timeless form of make-up records: moderate tempo, even dynamics, vocal crooning, legato performances. Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” lets you know up front that they want it blown up at all the festivities: “There’s a party going on right here….” Queen designed the famous stomp-stomp-CLAP beat for “We Will Rock You” not for consumers to listen to alone in the dark, but to engage the massive audience at their arena gigs, where only a simple, slow beat leaves eighty thousand fans playing in unison.
As we learned in the chapter on rhythm, moving and singing in a group generates a sense of community and creates a memorable social event. (That’s the function of “arena rock”: allowing thousands of fans to bond with each other, as well as with the band.) Many Grateful Dead songs, like “Playing in the Band” on 1971’s Grateful Dead album, were written to function as live concerts that supported their fans’ psychedelic journeys. As a result, some Grateful Dead songs are less appealing on records. As one reviewer put it, “[Even] the band’s live albums fall far short of capturing the band’s concert experience.
Changing the way a record is consumed changes the way it is created.
In my lifetime I have witnessed more than one major shift in the functionality of records, but perhaps most significant has been the widespread cultural shift from active listening to passive listening. As with any product, changing the way a record is consumed changes the way it is made. In the early days of radio and turntables, most music consumers engaged in active listening by sitting in front of the radio or in the room where the music was playing and giving it their full attention.
In my own generation, kids would go to a friend’s house to listen to records, usually taking a few of ours with them. We spread them out in front of the stereo and scanned the front and back covers as if searching for clues to another world, sharing thoughts on what a lyric meant or what the artist might have felt or done when the song been written. .
The peaceful world of active, community listening was rocked by the arrival of the Sony Walkman in 1979. It ushered in a new era of portable, personalized record listening. For the first time, listeners could privately enjoy their favorite records in a wider variety of everyday environments, such as the office, the park, and even the library—settings where we perform non-musical activities that demand our attention. . It required passive listening: when you’re not focusing your attention exclusively on the music but just want a background soundtrack to keep you motivated, relaxed, or connected while you’re doing other things. Most 21st century music is passively consumed.
Record producers are aware that, more than ever, their most vehement creative endeavors may fall on half-listening ears. Thus, contemporary producers must take into account the cognitive effort that their disc will require to be fully appreciated. Very new or complex records are best enjoyed by active listening, so little gems of harmonic layering or poetic lyrics don’t escape notice. On the other hand, a record suitable for passive listening and, therefore, targeting a wider audience, should use familiar shapes and fewer musical surprises.
Extract of This is what it looks like: what the music you love says about you by Susanna roger and Ogi Ogas. Copyright © 2022. Available from WW Norton & Company.