How to Rule

From Zen and the Art of Producing:
© 2012 All Rights Reserved

I think I’ve made this pretty clear throughout the book, but let there be no doubt: producing is not a dictatorship. It’s the band’s album. They’re the ones who need to be proud of the finished product. They’re the ones with their pictures on the cover, not you. The band is who is most branded by the results, not you. You will work on many albums over the course of your career, and one album out of many will only brand you if it’s hugely successful.

That said, you’re not there to cater to their every whim; you’re there as an expert—a leader who understands how to make an album. You’re beholden to a budget and you share in profits if the album does well. Your expertise on how to accomplish the best album possible for the band is what puts you in this position. Therefore, you’re not there to serve purely at the pleasure of the band. You’re there to lead them through the creative process within a structure. If you consistently yield creatively to the will of the band against your stated vision, you are no longer making the album you promised. A yes man has no value to a band, or any other creative entity, for that matter.

Whenever you work with a group on a creative project, alliances will constantly shift. It is unusual for cliques to remain unified and unchanging throughout the process.

So, how the hell do you reconcile the idea that you are hired by the band with the idea that you must maintain some control over the creative process? Very carefully.

Really, it all comes down to the setup. There’s a reason why I’m adamant that you be wholly honest at all times—it sets the tone for open and honest communication. There’s a reason why I suggest that you not only have a vision, but that you sell the band on your vision, because it puts you in the leadership position. There’s a reason why I suggest you wait until after preproduction before you even begin to talk contracts, because it gives you the opportunity to get the band wholly on board with your vision without feeling stuck. You’re the one with the vision and the plan, and once the band buys into that completely, the only way they get to hear your completed vision is to buy into your leadership.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be disagreements. It doesn’t mean your client won’t make attempts to pull you and the project off vision. It doesn’t mean you won’t have a problem band member hell-bent on putting a wrench in the works. All of those things can and will happen on occasion, no matter how clear you are in your communication. But if you were honest, forthright, and clear in your vision, if you laid out the plan—both the musical plan and the recording plan—you have multiple witnesses to this, and there can’t be much argument against sticking with a plan that everyone has agreed upon. The entire presentation system as I’ve laid it out for you is meant to force the band to stick with you until the very end, and when one band member revolts temporarily, the others will keep him in check.

Given the nature of producing, and despite the fact that you work for the band, there will be times when you must stand your ground. The temporary mutiny of a single irritant is nothing more than a test of your resolve. Stand firm. An attempt by the brainchild to involve you in a three-hour Science Experiment during the tracking session is a test of your focus. Stand firm and keep the session on track. If the singer is a terrible guitar player, yet insists on laying down guitar doubles, it’s an internal power play. Stand firm. Of course, since you’re working with a band, it’s rare that you will have to stand firm without the support of others. You can and must use this support to your advantage.

Whenever you work with a group on a creative project, alliances will constantly shift. It is unusual for cliques to remain unified and unchanging throughout the process. When the band is split evenly, it puts you in the position of tie breaker. When the band is split unevenly in your favor, you can leverage the support necessary to push through your agenda. When the band is split unevenly out of your favor, you need only sway one or two band members to your side. From the shrewd position of pure political calculation, you can use divide-and-conquer techniques to get your way all day long. The problem is that that sort of leadership is divisive in nature—hence the term “divide and conquer.” This would seem to make you the anti-producer. When you’re short on time, you may have to use these kinds of political calculations just to keep the session moving forward. But overall, you want to engage in consensus building; otherwise the alliances could become firmly entrenched.

Compromise is a part of all record-making. When you deal with a large team of people who have varying opinions, there must be some give and take from everyone involved. Again, as the leader, you set the tone. If you are seen as a compromiser, then everyone in the band will be willing to compromise. Any time a situation comes up where you can find some middle ground that doesn’t negatively affect the product, you should.

Every person on the team will compromise throughout the course of an album. The art of compromise from a leadership position is to agree when a decision makes no difference, to offer other viable alternatives when it does make a difference, and to stand firm when all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted. If your brainchild has an idea he wants to attempt, why would you want to shoot it down? You don’t want the band shooting down your crazy ideas. So don’t shoot down theirs. You must lead by example, and you will be seen as nothing short of a hypocrite if you don’t hear out ideas. At the same time, if your brainchild’s ideas come fast and furious and completely lack focus, you can’t possibly entertain them all. You have a responsibility at that point to keep the session on track, and you have the authority to keep the session focused.

You must also take into consideration the level of passion exhibited in any given protest. A drummer who is adamantly against a drum fill will likely trump the rest of the band that loves the fill. The drummer who describes himself as “not particularly fond” of a fill has essentially admitted that she will yield to the consensus of the group. That said, if fixing the fill is as easy as grabbing one from another take, why wouldn’t you go out of your way to solve the issue for the drummer no matter how strongly she feels about it? Unless the drum fill is somehow critical to the production as-is (and that’s possible), then why not help make the drummer more comfortable? The act of acquiescing in a situation that doesn’t require it will give you significant political capital later on. It sends the message that you’re not going to stand firm unless it really matters to the production. It also sends the message that you want everyone in the band to be happy with their record. These are good messages to send.

As much as the songwriter has more weight in the band, and as much as you want to give the brainchild more weight, she can’t be given carte blanche. A four-to-two majority against the brainchild and you is a tough spot to be in politically. To go against the entire band can cause feelings of resentment. Often the band will acquiesce to the brainchild, but if they’re standing firm, you would be foolish to act as anything other than arbitrator here. Placing your thumb on the scale in favor of a single person in the band is ill-advised unless the issue has to do directly with her own personal performance. A guitar player who is unhappy with his part trumps the rest of the band in regard to those parts. A brainchild who is unhappy with the guitar player’s part does not.

While it’s true that the songwriter or brainchild is the person with the power, you mustn’t ignore or discount the rest of the band. One of the more compelling reasons to cozy up to the brainchild in the first place is to help you navigate the politics of the band. It’s not so you can give yourself permission to treat everyone else like second-class citizens. The band members are just as aware of the natural pecking order as you are. Given this, you should go out of your way to give them a sense of importance. If the entire band isn’t performing to the best of their abilities, your production will suffer.

Given this, you should avoid voting positions that are not in your favor. Producing can’t be done well by committee, so don’t put yourself in a position where you only get one vote out of many. Issues will come up, and if most of the band is unhappy, you really have no choice but to find an alternative. If that doesn’t work, then you should probably defer the problem.”

Enjoy,

Mixerman

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