The role of the producer in music develops alongside technology, continuing to change as the nature of recording changes. The producer is correctly perceived as a liaison between artistic and technical aspects of recording, with a healthy dose of business sense thrown into the mix. Producing is a boys' club, and changes to the role have not yet lured many women to the top of the profession.
The Emergence of the Producer
Magnetic tape changed the music business in the 1940s and 50s, after replacing direct disk cutting, which limited options for sound reproduction and manipulation. The flexibility of tape brought the need for both technical and creative skills in the control room, from which came the engineer and producer. Producers were generally drawn from the business side of a record company to take care of financial and administrative details, such as managing budgets and copyright registrations. Previously, they were artist and repertoire men, a music industry job title for those who took care of the business of making records.
The British Invasion and the 1960s
The Beatles and producer George Martin largely started the trend toward creative involvement for the producer's role. As head of A&R with Parlophone Records, Martin handled the business side of recording, searching for suitable material for the Beatles to record while leaving the technical details of recording to EMI engineers. However, presented with a group that wrote much of its material, Martin began inputting creative suggestions from the earliest days, drawing on his own background as a musician and developing into a creative collaborator who played on and orchestrated many of the Beatles' songs.
The Producer as Artist
At the same time Martin and the Beatles were revolutionizing recording, producer Phil Spector and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys became known for their production styles, bridging the gap between artist and producer. In the 1970s and beyond, creative producers took on celebrity of their own, most notably Alan Parsons, who rose through the ranks as an EMI engineer, working with Pink Floyd before creating the Alan Parsons Project, perhaps the apex of producer-as-artist achievements.
Women in Music Production
The top level of the producer's game is dominated by men, but throughout the history of record production, there have been women who figure prominently. Cordell Jackson started Moon Records in the 1950s and is considered the first woman to produce rock and roll music. Sylvia Robinson ran Sugar Hill Records, and Leanne Unger produced and engineered seven albums for Leonard Cohen. Women are more often found engineering than producing. Even then, producer Trina Shoemaker is the only woman to win a Grammy for engineering. Most women undertaking the role are self-producing artists, such as Christina Aguilera.
The Evolution of Producers
The music industry continues to evolve in the digital era, and with it changes the producer's role. The 1990s saw producers co-writing songs with their artists, partly as a way to make money on a project, since publishing royalties can be lucrative. Urban and electronic music introduced programming of synthesizers into the recording toolbox; and, particularly in the urban music context, those who create "beats" are often referred to as producers. While business sense remains an asset, producers are nowadays generally regarded as creative contributors.
A full-time content creation freelancer for over 12 years, Scott Shpak is a writer, photographer and musician, with a past career in business with Kodak.