Written by Luke Davis, as part of Commission Mission.
If you’ve ever caught an episode of The Defiant Ones, Netflix’s docu-series about the rise of legendary music producers Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine, you’d be forgiven for thinking that sleepless hard graft mixed with a controversial personality is the essential recipe for making it in the industry.
While the first component (in moderation) is undoubtedly a factor in achieving success – in any line of work – are we to believe that obsessiveness and a win-at-all-costs ruthlessness towards collaborators and rivals alike are also required?
According to those we spoke to across the UK music production spectrum it’s preparation, collaboration and creativity that actually counts.
Getting started: make the jump with an open mind
Making the jump required from studying production to the industry itself can be daunting if you aren’t prepared for the path ahead. Getting started early is the advice from Dan Lambert, a graduate of SAE London, who now runs Valhalla Studios.
“During the second year of study, I started running my studio business, which involved recording, editing, mixing and mastering,” Dan recalls. “Once I’d graduated, I also jumped into freelancing in studios.”
It’s never too early to get started in the music production industry. Seek out work experience and build up your portfolio; you never know where it may lead. Ashley Jones, musician, producer and Lecturer in Music Performance and Production at Cambridge Regional College (CRC)’s Department of Creative Industries, happened across one such opportunity while studying Music Production at the University of Suffolk.
“I was really lucky during my dissertation to work with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to do a big orchestral recording portfolio,” he says. “From there I built links in and around the recording industry.”
A willingness to explore opportunities across the music and audio spectrums can form the basis for a varied, yet stable, career. “Learn to mix as well as produce,” stresses Aubrey Whitfield, who also runs a studio in London. “Many artists and labels will expect you to include a mix as well as a production.”
Aeron Donnelly-Jackson, a freelance audio engineer, has also spread her net wide. Having studied Theatre before moving on to music, also at SAE (whose course is one of the UK’s most highly rated), she continues to work on a range of audio projects across the creative spectrum, including for The Nomad Cinema.
Maintaining a range of related interests is a common theme. Ashley runs the Rogue record label out of his department at CRC and continues to freelance as a musician, while Dan works on film and voiceover projects to complement his work at Valhalla.
Walking the talk: network on and off the internet
A generation ago, budding producers and recording engineers had to dig around to find the right resources to help them build up their skills. Dan acknowledges the role that the internet now increasingly plays as a means of constantly refreshing your skills. “We live in a world of information at the push of a button; it’s (mostly) a fantastic online resource and you can essentially learn as much as you desire.”
Aeron too stresses the value of this. “Learn as much as you can and continue to learn new technologies,” she advises. “You never know what will be useful or spike your interest.”
While online platforms can divide opinion, Ashley believes the benefits of a more digital industry for writers and producers just starting outweighs any cons. “We’re in such a wonderful age at the moment where you can upload to online aggregators – get [your music] onto Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer – relatively simply nowadays, without it being necessary to have an A&R [Artists and Repertoire] person or going through the traditional mediums.”
The Young Guns Network is one organisation of several that have dipped their toes into online networking events of late, and these can be a great starting point – especially for the more introverted personality types.
Don’t let yourself get too glued to your couch though. Connecting with people offline early in your career can lead to opportunities for collaboration later. The networking you do while studying “comes hand in hand with making lifelong friends and contacts,” as Dan says.
Overcoming barriers: stay creative and be your authentic self
All the practitioners we talked to stressed that in 2020, no one should feel there are insurmountable barriers to their success in music production. Dan considers himself an almost reluctant ‘late starter’ in music. “I wasn’t convinced you could realistically hold a job ‘in music’ without luck and pure talent. But there are so many wonderful jobs out there, and I’m so glad I pursued this as a career.”
Several of the interviewees lamented the disappointing but widely accepted estimate that only around 5% of music producers are women, but noted that diversity in the industry overall (an issue that the Young Guns Network and London in Stereo have been pushing for some time) is growing, even in the restrictive post-COVID-19 world.
Diversity and inclusion across the board is increasingly on the mind of many. “The time is now... to push [industry diversity and inclusion] forward – especially with the access and platforms we have,” says Dan. Aeron has also seen some positive trends emerging in the industry. “There are many people who fight hard for inclusivity... they won’t give up.”
Aubrey is adamant that an industry shake-up is overdue. “Diversity in the music industry has always been lacking,” she tells us. “But I am seeing more women coming through the ranks at music colleges and hopefully things will start to shift over the coming years.”
There’s a way to go, but these are encouraging signs. The Church Studios in North London recently went as far as rejecting the distinction of being a ‘female producer’ completely, choosing to showcase women and non-binary people in the industry under their #IAmAProducer campaign. The EQL Directory is another innovative platform offering opportunities exclusively for practitioners who identify as women.
Colleges like CRC are hugely important in providing resources for those with reduced access to kit. As Aeron reminds us, not everyone has access to computers, let alone more advanced kit: “digital poverty is a big issue in the industry.”
You might not even need easy access to a studio. If you have an internet connection and a laptop, there are an increasing number of free online resources available (Aubrey’s website lists several for starters). Dan also points to the new opportunities that have risen to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic: “I’ve seen a massive increase in online support for artists, live ‘home gigs’, learning and educational tools during lockdown.”
Resilience: roll with the punches and learn to adapt
With the UK still slowly easing out of the COVID-19 lockdown, Aubrey acknowledges that producers need to think hard about adapting to new working realities. “Adhering to a two-metre or even one-metre [distance] rule in a studio environment will be really challenging, particularly for smaller studios.”
Here too though, there are workarounds. Although COVID-19 has had a ‘huge impact’ on recording projects for producers like Dan, artists he works with have been reacting and learning to record themselves, before sending their files to Valhalla Studios who mix and master them. “If anything, COVID-19 has proved that engineers can indeed work from home.”
2020 May have gotten off to a shaky start for many of those seeking a career in music production, but there has been cause for renewed and often surprising optimism, from established professionals openly sharing their experience and advice, to Bandcamp’s industry activism and communities rallying around their local venues.
Dan retains a positive outlook: “It’s certainly been tough as a self-employed business owner and adapting to this ‘new world’… but there will always be music and a need for it to be heard.”
Commission Mission was created by Young Guns Network and London In Stereo to commission 20 new and experienced freelance writers to create articles to inspire, inform and entertain young people in the music industry who are struggling during Covid-19.
The supporters who made this project possible were Association of Independent Music, London In Stereo, Musicians Union, Motive Unknown, PPL, Remi Harris Consulting, Small Green Shoots, Young Guns Network, Youth Music