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last updated March 19th, 2010
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Musical Governance

Your first reaction to this title was probably “Huh? Wazzat?”.  Well, it recently occurred to me that music production and governance (as in the operations of a government) had something in common: they both involve various functions that must be balanced against each other.

You may remember from your high school class in American Government that the US federal government has three distinct branches:  the Executive branch, the Legislative branch, and the Judicial branch. Each branch has certain Powers, and the overall structure provides a system of “checks and balances” to keep any one branch from gaining too much authority. The idea is that letting any branch simply run hog wild with whatever it wants is likely to be a bad idea.

What I realized a little while ago was that in music production (I’m thinking primarily of recordings here, but it probably applies more broadly than that), there are similar principles of “governance” that apply, and similar balances that must be kept. The music production process, like the process of government, has its different “branches”. In this case, I would call these branches the Executive branch, the Creative branch, and the Technical branch.  Each has its functions, and each often sets certain limits on the others.

The Executive branch is represented by the Producer. He is the person In Charge of  the overall project. He controls the budget and how it is spent, and is ultimately responsible for deciding when the creative process is finished.  He supervises all aspects of the project until the completion of the final master.

The Creative branch is, of course, represented by the Artist.  Its functions include writing/composition and performance. It is the Artist’s job to define the overall vision of the project, and to provide the various components (music, lyrics, vocal and instrumental performances, etc.) that make up that vision.

The Technical branch, of course, is the Engineer’s job.  This is the “nuts and bolts” department, involving the selection and operation of the equipment used to make the recording. This could include not only recording and mixing equipment, but also musical instruments and even the spaces in which the performances are recorded and mixed.  The engineer makes it possible for the Artist’s work to be captured (and shaped) as a recording.

Without all of these functions being performed, no musical (or dramatic) recording will ever be made. 

This is, of course, where you say, “But my friend’s band recorded without a producer, so it can be done.”  Well, yes and no. There is not necessarily one person who is “officially” designated as The Producer, but the Executive function is still being performed. It is not unusual for these responsibilities to be divided between the engineer and one or more band members. After all, Somebody spent the money, and Somebody decided when the performance was right, and Somebody decided when the mix was finished, because otherwise the recording would never be completed.  Of course, there are a lot of projects that do not get completed (I have worked on at least a couple of these), and this is generally because the Executive function was not handled properly (often because it was “nobody’s” job). Maybe the money ran out before the recording was finished, which would mean bad (or no) budgeting. Maybe too much time was spent on one or more of the steps (like vocals taking forever to cut).   Maybe there were too many arguments with no one to settle them. Most likely, if a project isn’t finished, the Producer’s job was not properly done.

OK, so what about the musician or songwriter who records himself?  No engineer, right? Again, the fact that a designated professional wasn’t hired doesn’t mean the job wasn’t done (although it may not have been done well...).  At any rate, somebody has to operate the equipment and handle the other physical matters.

My guess is NO ONE thinks the recording can be made without the Artist.   This is, of course, obviously correct.

Now, you as an individual may be involved in any one of these “branches”, but in today’s world of independent music production, it is more likely than ever that you will be working in at least two, if not all three. Each of the functions has its own skill set, and also its own viewpoint. I personally think of myself as having an “engineer” hat, a “producer” hat, and an “artist” hat, and when I am working there are times when I consciously stop and change hats. There is a different and special way of thinking for each function, and if I do not deliberately “switch gears” as needed, one or more aspects of the production will suffer.

Each function also has its own learning process, and the learning never ends.  If the learning DOES end, that’s when your career growth and progress hit the wall.  If you are not willing to keep learning in any one of these areas, then you should be ready to have someone else take over that function, or at least help and advise you with it.

Even if you plan to wear only one “hat”, it is best to have as much understanding of the other functions as you can.  You want to be able to communicate clearly with other members of the team, and to understand what they tell you.  If you understand about the different functions, it is easier to know when NOT to cross the line between them.  After all, failing to understand and respect another’s “turf” is a great way to poison your working relationship, and there are times when giving up a little in the ego department can go a long way toward helping the work along.

There are some situations in which various members of a creative team ALL do more than one job. For example, if the engineer is also a member of the band, someone else will have to take over engineering when it is his turn to perform. It is then important that whoever is sitting in the engineer’s chair is thinking more as an engineer than as a band member while he performs that function, so that he pays proper attention to the correct details.

Perhaps the toughest task to share is that of producer.  This is especially true in the matter of the artistic judgment calls that must be made. For example, in one project I did the vocals and a friend played keyboards. When he played, I produced, giving him whatever direction I felt was necessary. When I sang, sometimes my friend would act as producer.   When he wasn’t available, I had to judge my own vocals. For the most part, I did my best vocal performances when he was there to listen and give me direction. He was actually hesitant to do this at first, but his personal viewpoint and perception proved very valuable to me.  He actually got me to interpret my own songs better, in some cases, than I would have by myself. Whoever was on each side of the glass, the “performer” always respected the judgment of the “producer”, which not only preserved personal harmony but improved the recordings as well.

In my opinion, the place where “group” production falls down most often is at the time of the mix. It is not unusual for each performer to want his own part loudest in the mix, regardless of what the SONG needs. Hashing things out with arguments can result in mixes that, in the end, no one likes.  It is generally best to have one person at least be the “tie breaker” in these situations, and it is often wise that the person with “veto” power NOT be any of the performers.

My main point in all this, however, is that careful attention must be paid to all three branches of musical governance.  Each of them should be thought out individually while the work is going on, even if one person performs all of the jobs. If you have to do all things yourself, know where to strike the balance, and when a job belongs to someone else, respect that person’s role and judgment. If you cannot give that respect, then either you or he should probably not be part of the project.


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