What the hell does it mean to be a producer in 2017?
It’s 2014, and 60,000 festival attendees at Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival are staring expectantly up towards a sea of lights and a DJ board. Over the course of the weekend, they’ll watch Pharrell Williams, Zedd, and Calvin Harris light up the desert sky, but now, they stand and wait for two men whom not a single person in the crowd has seen take the stage.
Fans linger, eager with anticipation, confident they know what to expect from this ‘breakout’ group from hit releases ‘Smile’ and ‘You.’ Little do they know, they had been listening to their music for years.
Linus Eklow and Christian Karlsson of Galantis are staring back at the expectant faces from the side of the stage, taking a moment before they reveal themselves. For the past 20 years, their production capabilities have propelled the likes of Britney Spears, Madonna, and Kylie Minogue into the limelight of sold out arenas. They have created hit records, chart topping albums, and won Grammys. As they stepped out in front of a roaring crowd and a thousand lights, they turned to one another and smiled.
Now it was their turn.
For as long as anyone can remember, a producer’s job description has entailed slaving over sound boards in a dark studio and inevitably forfeiting all due credit to the vocalist. A producer was acknowledged for his or her masterpiece in the fine text of the ‘thank you’s,’ and their fame began and ended with industry stakeholders. The David Axelrod’s and George Martin’s of the world lived in anonymity despite producing some of the industry’s most well known tracks such as “The Edge” by David McCallum and “Love Me Do” by The Beatles respectively. Had Axelrod or Martin been told that being a producer would result in the excessive and public facing lifestyles embodied by the Diplo’s and The Chainsmokers of today, they likely would not have believed it.
Today’s producers are global citizens, jet setting across the world to play their music for a different hoard of fans each night. Emboldened with microphones, they are performers in their own right. They pack arenas and festival grounds with tens of thousands of fans like the pop singers of the 2000s. For the first time in the history of commercialized music, being a music producer is sexy.
The reality of our modern music landscape is that we now live in a world that has two distinct factions of music producers. There are still many traditional producers, who strictly work in the studio and behind the scenes to create music that is performed by star vocalists and bands. These producers—people like Max Martin or Rick Rubin—aren’t credited in the title of the tracks they create nor do they perform their music live.
The second faction of producers are a recent breed. They elicit their own fans who are drawn to the beats behind the songs that they create. These music producers are doubly skilled: in addition to producing their own tracks they perform their music ‘live.’ This new brand of producer is a complex phenomenon that many are still teasing out.
Up until 15 years ago, there was no option for a music producer to become a performer unless the producer was also the vocalist. As the art of DJing has evolved into a mode for producers to ‘perform’ their tracks ‘live,’ the producer’s role has evolved, too. Now the job title music producer can indicate one of two very different career paths, and because of this, there has been a dynamic shift within the music industry.
Before the rise of commercialized electronic music, music producers were virtually never credited in the title of a track. This elevation of the producer to an artist—as opposed to a fine text name at the bottom of a Wikipedia page—is something that was rarely done in the U.S. pop music scene until fairly recently. M.I.A.’s breakout hit, “Paper Planes,” for example, was both written and produced by Diplo in 2007. In contrast, 2015’s “Where Are U Now” is billed as a track ‘by’ Diplo, Skrillex, and Justin Bieber.
As producers find their own celebrity through DJing, a greater public appreciation of the craft has resulted, and they are more able than ever before to use this leverage to further their own celebrity.
This phenomenon is all too familiar to Christian Karlsson and Linus Eklow—the production duo behind the Grammy nominated project Galantis. Though fans are surely familiar with the group’s hit songs like breakout “Runaway (U+I),” less familiar are the years of behind the scenes production work Karlsson and Eklow have racked up.
Karlsson is the Grammy award winning producer behind mega hits like Britney Spears’ “Toxic” as well as a part of the Swedish Indie Pop band Miike Snow. Eklow co-produced and wrote on Icona Pop’s number one hit, “I Love It.” Karlsson and Eklow have, independently of one another, produced and co-written music with the likes of Katy Perry, Madonna, and Kylie Minogue.
“It’s important to mention that today you can be a producer and you can be an artist,” says Karlsson, though he concedes that duality is “not for everyone.”
“That’s for a few. If you are an amazing producer and you don’t have that talent and you don’t have that in you, you aren’t supposed to do that. To make it as a ‘celebrity producer,’ you need to be an artist,” says Karlsson. “It’s a totally different thing.”
Karlsson’s distinction is hardly without merit. Being a celebrity producer today is reserved for those who aspire to be an artist, just as someone like Britney Spears did. Although Djing as a method of performance has gotten it’s share of criticism from those who believe all it requires is standing on a stage and pushing a button, there is a reason why not every successful music producer has become a mega star through playing their hits on stage.
But Karlsson’s distinction begs the question: has the rise of the celebrity producer diminished the value of the traditional producer? A famous producer can bring their brand and their fans to the table in addition to the vocalist’s. The traditional producer cannot add this value.
“The producer fee is the same, but celebrity producers are not only being paid for being producers,” says Karlsson. “They are being paid as artists, which adds another layer to their credibility.”
Stranger yet, Karlsson points out, is the that vocalists now seek out superstar producers to appear, credited as artists, on their albums.
“A singer is going to do a song, and now they are able to seek out an artist who can produce the song,” says Karlsson. “Celebrity producers appeal to vocalists because they want that brand so badly and the bigger exposure. The cross pollination of producers’ and vocalists’ audiences has resulted in new and exciting collaborations across different genres of music that we haven’t seen before.”
If anyone is familiar with this sentiment, it’s Maarten Vorwerk. Vorwerk made a name for himself in 2015 when he came forward as a ghost producer—a controversial role in dance music which involves unknown producers selling their creations outright to famous artists who then own the track.
Though Vorwerk now puts his efforts into his own creations, he enjoyed a long run as one of the most sought after ghost producers in the industry, engineering more than a few Beatport number one hits.
“Eminem tells everybody that Dr. Dre has produced his new track and the fact that Eminem collaborated with Dr. Dre is seen as a big selling point to the track,” explains Vorwerk. “Whereas, you wouldn’t see a DJ saying that this or that producer has produced his new track. From my point of view I think that you should give credit where credit is due.”
But ghost producers, he concedes, are paid outright to never be credited.
Though ghost producing is undoubtedly a very real phenomenon among the dance music community, keyboard warriors are quick to level the charge against any artist they don’t particularly like. This witch hunting can be chalked up in part to our increasingly polarized and contentious internet culture. It also reveals how little people understand just what a ‘producer’ is responsible for.
Contrary to popular belief, the producer is not necessarily the person creating the sounds and programming the track. Karlsson and Eklow explained that the role of a traditional producer does much more than simply engineering the beat of a track.
The producer is responsible for even the most ephemeral elements of music creation: to make sure everyone is hitting timelines and the atmosphere in the studio makes the vocalist feels comfortable and confident.
“You can hire anyone to program a drum,” says Karlsson and Eklow. “People think that the producer is the guy who actually programs the beat. The producer is the one who decided who is programming the beat, and what the vision for that beat is, and how it’s supposed to make the listener feel. See the difference?”
“Everything that happens in the studio—it is the producer’s responsibility.”
In this regard, producing music becomes similar to producing a movie or a tv show. The producer isn’t responsible for the technicalities of lighting and camera angles. Instead, the producer is making sure that all 200 pieces that need to come together to create a final product do so.
The more mainstream electronic music becomes, the more noticeable the discrepancy between the traditional producer and the celebrity DJ-producer. In examining where the traditional pop producer is left when there is the potential for celebrity, Galantis solidified that celebrity DJ Producers should be likened to artists as opposed to the traditional producer.
After all, they are compensated as artists, they are branded as artists, and they are celebrities in their own right.
Perhaps no one knows this tension more intimately than Andrew Harr and Jermaine Jackson. Together called “The Runners,” the duo have a staggering 17 year production history working with a star-studded list of clientele that includes the likes of DJ Khaled, Usher, Rihanna, and Justin Bieber. Harr and Jackson have a reputation for being some of the best minds in the music industry, but their reputation lives solely within the music industry itself and hardly registers at all to music fans outside of it.
Recently, Harr and Jackson have had an epiphany of sorts. In hopes of being recognized for their own talents by a newly receptive public, the duo have developed a project to push through their own original releases. With their BLVK JVCK project, they hope to drum up traction for their creative work without having to depend on the star power of a pop artist feature.
“Our dreams always were to be a Pharrell or a Timberland, but we couldn’t sing and we couldn’t rap,” says Harr. “The growth of electronic music has opened that door for us to express ourselves musically.”
“When you are working with the Rihanna’s and Ushers of the world, you are creative but you still have to create something that caters to them creatively,” continued Harr. “Now it is our opportunity to do what most producers dream of- to create something that is our own. Our own portrait, our own painting, and that is amazing. To be able to say this is my project, and this is how I’m going to do it is an amazing rebirth creatively.”
Harr and Jackson look onto the evolution of the producer’s role and star power in a positive light, but not every behind the scenes producer is clamoring to become the next Calvin Harris. In fact, Harr and Jackson could indeed be outliers in a world where many producers are still keen to stay behind the scenes and live in quiet glory.