Installment #2 of “The Shallow Money Trench” by Todd Robbins – point blank war stories amassed from 30 years in the music industry
There are a lot of folks in Nashville running around claiming to be “producers”. Some of them are as they claim – and they are damn good! Others only play the part.
I prefer to call the ones who are faking it “music brokers” instead.
Today, for the first time since the advent of the World Wide Web, I am going to reveal the difference between the music producer and the music broker. Read on, this is fun…
In my 30+ years in the music business I worked with some of the most talented folks you can imagine. Hands down, I recorded & mixed the best drummers, bass players, guitar players, keyboard players, string sections, multi-instrumentalists, horn sections, and singers you will find anywhere. The amount of talent in any one session was simply staggering. As a bonus, they are some of the nicest and most genuine people you will ever meet.
Steering the ship on these sessions were a group of the most talented producers on Planet Earth. I’m talking total masterminds who know how to build a soundstage, craft the tone of a project, stylize melodies and counter melodies, create hooks, and produce tracks that flow from beginning to end in a perfect arc. These guys are very hands on and involved in every facet of a project, from beginning to end. They can deftly guide each and every part that is recorded to craft their vision for the artist.
Mark Heimermann, Wayne Kirkpatrick, Phil Madeira, Chris Harris, Nate Sabin, Brandon Bee, Monroe Jones, Jordan Critz, Will Kimbrough, Phil Naish, Rob Mathes, Mark Hammond, Brown Bannister, Judson Spence, and Ben Shive are but a few who come to mind as producers I was fortunate enough to work with who possess the ability to capture magic. They are the true music producers and the most awesome guys you could ever ask to work for.
On a second tier, lurking below the gold records and the Grammy awards – below the craftsman and the vibe – lies a guy who calls himself a “producer” but he needs to be dubbed a “music broker” instead. I will continue…
The Music Broker
The music broker is not as he appears. He’s a sneaky little bastard who wears too much cologne. He drives a 10 year old BMW and likes to meet at Frothy Monkey to do business. The music broker is a charlatan, a time suck, and a money grubbing shyster of the highest magnitude. He focuses his craft on attracting aspiring artists by dropping names and flashing pictures of fancy studios on his website.
He won’t try to impress you with the projects HE has done, but he WILL try to impress you with the projects the guitar player he can hire for your record has done. He is a master at leveraging the work of others as a means to his own end.
He works within the “circle” of the music community, but only because the checks he writes clear the blank. Beyond that he lives as a musical hikikomori and is treated by such within the industry.
When the music work dries up for him he’ll be great at up-selling cell phone plans or pest control contracts. You know the type. Keep reading…
The Broker in Action
Even as you know his ways, it’s easy to be fooled by his methods. As he sets up the initial sessions he will appear to be wholly in charge of the project. He will talk a big game at the onset, but soon begin a rigorous delegation of processes for which he will ultimately take credit while doing as little work as possible.
The music broker will enter the project’s initial tracking sessions announcing he’s in charge, but he’s rarely steering the ship. Either explicitly or implicitly he will appoint one of his hired musicians a “session leader” who will call most of the shots. This is to provide cover for the music broker’s lack of confidence or competence in his craft. This “session leader” will write the charts since the music broker does not know how to. The “session leader” will also communicate direction to the band, since the music broker will get lost in musical notation and nomenclature.
Watch closely, because eventually the “session leader” will gain the trust of the music broker’s client over the broker himself. It is always awkward when this rubicon is crossed.
Often the session leader ends up producing the artist’s subsequent project. I’d always buy him lunch…
A Look From The Inside
I was on a session once where a music broker spent the entire time in the studio lounge coordinating his next project, watching Maury Povich, and drinking Diet Cokes. We recorded with little to no oversight. Someone would go fetch him when we had a track ready for playback, but for the most part he was not involved. He would literally duck an ear in and listen to maybe half a song before proclaiming, “It’s perfect! Let’s move on!”.
The piano player, who also wrote the charts, was a talented fella and ended up producing the tracks – without production credit of course. At one point the artist pulled me aside to ask if this music broker really knew what he was doing. I was honest with my answer. No, not really…
Guess who produced the follow up? Guess who recorded and mixed it? Come on guys, I’m giving you the good stuff!
The Sham Continues
After the initial tracks of a project are recorded, the music broker will hop into high gear. This is where his skills at outsourcing dramatically outpace his skills in the musical arena. He will upload the tracks to Dropbox and then send out links via email or text message to guitar players, keyboard players, percussionists, string sections, etc. These folks will download the tracks in their respective home studios and start adding overdubs.
The problem that inevitably manifests itself is no one is hearing what anyone else is doing. The guitar player is not hearing the synth parts, and the string players are not hearing what harmonic space the guitar and keyboards are occupying, and on and on.
No one tasked with overdubs knows where to voice their parts, where to lay down hooks or counter melodies, or what space to occupy in the harmonic structure of the track. To be frank, everyone is just guessing at what they should be doing. The music broker’s only direction will be along the lines of “just give me some options”.
Granted, these incredibly talented individuals will record fantastic parts, but even if you go out a purchase the finest ingredients you still need a master chef to create an awesome meal.
The music broker at this point abandons control. He is not “producing” anything. He’s not building a soundstage. He’s not controlling the tone of the project. He’s not building melodies and counter melodies, or creating hooks. He’s not producing anything – other than an invoice for his client.
You may find it hard to believe, but he somehow thinks he’s still producing a record. He is able to suck the talent from others to fuel his own fantastical biosphere, where he lives and breathes as an important player in the industry.
At some point in the project the music broker will be forced to do some actual work and record the lead vocals with the artist. It’s hard to avoid this part of the record making process and still claim production credit – or cash the check. Even so, the music broker will often just have the artist sing each song around 3 times and then send the tracks to his “vocal guy”.
I’m not kidding, music brokers have “a vocal guy”. This mysterious and outsourced “vocal guy” will compile the vocals and then Auto-Tune them to perfection, and one step beyond. Once “vocal guy” is done, the music broker will send the tracks off to someone else to handle the bgvs. His work here is complete.
The artist is jettisoned back to Indiana or Oklahoma to anxiously await the final product. The music broker knows the true magic happens without his being present, so the artist is sent home. The music broker knows his artist does not need to be around to witness his lack of involvement firsthand.
As these outsourced shenanigans come to an end, the music broker will send his Dropbox link to a mix engineer tasked with downloading all the tracks so he can begin mixing. More often than not, the mix engineer is the first person to hear everything all playing at once.
The music broker will not hear what everyone has overdubbed (his “production”) until he hears the initial mix. This, of course, is after the mix engineer has done his best to decipher the cacophony.
In my previous installment of “The Shallow Money Trench” I outlined a visit from a record label minion at a radio remix session. For the first time ever in printed media, I will now reveal the secrets of a mix session with a music broker.
- First off, remember, the music broker is a time suck. Your goal is to get him in and out as quickly as possible. No Oaxacan coffee. No stories about your hot new projects in LA. Get him in and sit him down in front of the speakers.
- Chances are the guy thinks he is hip and reads Tape Op. As he takes his seat, briefly mention you just completed an interview with Larry Crane that will be printed soon. I don’t care if it’s happened or not. He’ll love it, so just leave it at that.
- You need a lot of stuffed animals and plastic toys on your console or workspace. Don’t ask me why, but having a bunch of shitty toys cluttering up your workspace will add at least 10% to your day rate.
- You need candles too, and Nag Champa.
- If you have Grammys or Gold/Platinum records, they belong in the bathroom. I know you brag about them on Facebook and Insta but they belong in the shitter. The music broker will think this is “rock and roll”.
- Dove Awards? Those are doorstops.
- Play the mix ruthlessly loud. Show him no mercy. This is a big man’s game. He should feel this playback when he lays down at night. Hell, his wife should hear the mix ringing in his ears.
The pursuing conversation will sound something like this:
- Wow! This mix sounds great! This is turning out just as I envisioned it!
- Can you solo the keys? Wow! He did some cool stuff. Dude is so talented!
- Can you solo the guitars? Wow, he did some really cool parts! Love it!
- Can you solo the percussion? Wow, I love those shakers he added!
- Can you solo the strings? Wow, great arrangement! That guy is brilliant!
- Can you solo the BGVs? Ooooh, I love those harmonies. That girl is killer!
- Can we turn up the drums a bit?
- We need a bit more bass…
- I feel like we need a touch more guitars…
- Can we turn up the strings and percussion some?
- The vocals are getting buried, can we turn them up?
- Now we need a touch more background vocal…
- Cool, this sounds really great now! Can we get just a bit more drums?
- Awesome. I feel like we need just a hair more bass too…
- Killer! We’re getting close, can we get some more guitars?
- I’m feeling it now! Let’s turn up the strings and percussion!
- Wow!!!! We’re so close now!!! Just a hair more vocal!
- Ohhhhh mammy!!!! This is great, boost the bgvs just a bit more!
- There! There it is! It’s perfect!!! I’m so glad I came by to give my input!
Oh, so you just wanted everything louder? You’re a musical genius my friend! You should do this for a living!
- Print the mix and then peace out. Tell him you have an artist showcase to get to for Capitol Records. He will understand and give way.
A music broker once sent me a link to mix with over a hundred tracks. It was a complete Charlie Foxtrot Production – a dark caldron of cacophonous evil. There’s no way any sane person would produce this mess.
I tried to put together something that was somewhat listenable, but we had drums, drum loops, bass, distorted bass, synth bass, upright bass, percussion, a kazillion guitars, a sitar, synth strings, real strings, samples from 70’s action films, vocals, background vocals, a sampled boys choir, a rainstick, and even a rapper. There was no hope. At least it was recorded at 96k so the tracks had room to “breathe”.
When the producer came by to hear the mix he brought a CD he wanted me to reference for “vibe”. It was Green Day’s “American Idiot” album – an albums literally comprised of drums, bass, and one or two guitars. Well at least the title was appropriate. Oy vey…
I smiled politely, gave him a souvenir Transformer, and told him I was not the guy. We’re done here.
For every talented person in Nashville (and there are many) there are multiple charlatans lurking about as well. In addition to music brokers these charlatans may masquerade as A&R representatives at labels, radio promoters, artist mangers, publishers, or in extreme cases c-level execs at major labels.
I will continue to expose the masqueraders in future installments. For now, let’s put the music broker on high alert! We all know him… Let’s make him known to all!
This is a true story.