According to successful freelance engineer and producer Peter Jones, the marriage between the producer and the artist is far too important to be left to chance. Here he argues the case for a more targeted approach that would allow for some interesting cross‑fertilisation.
It is obviously very important to match the right engineer and producer with the right artist, but one thing that fascinates me is how this choice is made, especially as there is often a mismatch between the artist and the production team.
What it boils down to is that producers are chosen either because they are the current flavour of the month, or because they have been typecast, and are only being asked to work with certain types of bands.
I can understand why a top producer is in demand, and equally, I can understand why, if a producer is known for a certain style of music, a band that feels it fits the same genre would want to work with him. However, I think there should be more thought given to who works with whom, because so often projects end up sounding much the same, when a different approach to production might have resulted in a more interesting end result.
Generally, these days, bands choose the producer they want to work with, and really that's how it should be. Record companies shouldn't impose a producer on the band — it ought to be up to the artist to decide who he or she works with. Nevertheless, there are times when the choice of producer is left up to the A&R man, perhaps because the band is young and inexperienced, and in these cases, A&R departments tend to pick the producer who is currently in vogue, rather than one who would actually have something interesting to offer.
A&R men are bombarded with information about producers, and they don't have time to sift through it all — they would rather go for the top ten factor and pick a producer who is a known quantity, because that will help them to market the band. It's an understandable phenomenon, but the drawback is that it doesn't really inspire creativity.
The other side of this is typecasting, which is something many producers struggle to avoid. You really don't want to be typecast because it is so limiting, yet it is easy to end up in that situation. All you have to do is produce one successful album, and suddenly you find yourself in demand from similar bands who all want to work with you. Before long, people start to assume that you are only capable of producing one type of music, and this will eventually narrow your choices quite dramatically.
Engineers coming into the business can avoid getting stuck with one genre, by finding a project that interests them, and playing around with it in their own time. You have to be prepared to work on as many different projects as you can, in order to gain experience.
I've been lucky enough to work in a number of different studios, including Marcus, Westside and Kim Wilde's own studios, before going freelance eight years ago. As a result, I have engineered and produced a wide range of music, and feel comfortable with virtually all genres. Many of the young engineers coming into the business today are not getting that level of hands‑on training, and are having to develop their own skills in their own time, because so few studios actually train their staff now.
At the moment, I'm working closely with Steve Lovell, and between the two of us, we have tackled a wide range of projects, from dance and pop through to indie and rock. We both feel it is important to maintain a wide range, but like all producers, this has to be tempered with the economic realities of a business where one is rarely spoilt for choice.
These days, with the business contracting, even highly successful producers have to take what they can get, and because of this it's not surprising that the music we are creating is often so predictable. It would be much better for everyone if band managers and A&R people experimented more with the producers they choose. One only has to look at labels like Zomba to see how interesting the results might be. Zomba was prepared to put a dance producer with a rock band and a rock producer with a dance band to encourage a cross‑flow of ideas, and introduce different styles and techniques.
A bit more inventiveness and creativity in the choice of studios would also be a good idea. Many bands would love to work in different environments, but record companies tend to channel artists into studios they know, and won't take risks, which ultimately is not good for creativity.
There are projects around that are at the cutting edge when it comes to creativity, but these projects have enormous difficulty getting off the ground, because the general atmosphere is so conservative. Take Towering Inferno, for example. Their album, Kaddish, is getting rave reviews, and is being hailed as a modern classic by the likes of Brian Eno, yet it took them eight months to get a recording deal, because what they were doing was so different. They managed in the end, and are now reaping the rewards, but it goes to show how little truly alternative music is out there at the moment, and how difficult it is to be innovative in the current climate.
Peter Jones has engineered for many major artists and producers over the last 10 years, notably Morrissey, Madness, Julian Cope and Eurythmics, and has earned an excellent reputation for his work. Pete has also produced several up‑and‑coming acts, including The Bluetones. He is increasingly in demand as a producer, although he still maintains a very busy engineering schedule, with a large number of clients.