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To the everyday music fan, music producer may seem like a career title reserved for a privileged few. The fact is, however, that for every Dr. Dre or T-Bone Burnett there are thousands of lesser-known artists all across the U.S. making their living at the mixing console. With the right training, you can join the ranks of studio engineers the world over.
But what does a music producer do on an average day? What skills does a music producer need? How much do music producers make, when they're not members of the top one percent of worldwide superstars? We'll address these questions and more on this page and give you an idea of how campus-based and online music production schools prepare their students for the realities of the industry.
What does a music producer do?
The exact duties that you'll need to perform in a music production career tend to depend on the type of music you work with and the specific project you're working on, but there are some general responsibilities that most music producers share:
- Seeking out performers and songwriters with the right sound for their production style
- Planning the recording phase of the project, including budgeting and scheduling
- Directing the artists through the recording process to achieve the sound they want
- Creating beats or other musical tracks to augment the artists' work
- Collaborating with audio engineers to refine the sound through mixing and editing
Most music producers work independently, so they may spend considerable time at the studio outside of normal working hours. Most work for producers is found in larger urban areas with roots in the performing arts, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Nashville or New York City.
How to Become a Music Producer
Although there may not be a national standard for what education is needed to become a music producer, it's often the case that producers take some type of formal training before beginning to market their services. Here's a list of simple steps that many professionals take on their way to production careers in the music industry:
- Earn a high school diploma or equivalency degree
- Complete in a college-level program in music production, sound engineering or music business
- Document your studio work to build a portfolio of finished projects to show potential clients
- Join industry associations or attend trade conferences to grow your professional network
The exact schedule of music production courses you'll take is determined by the institution where you go to learn the craft, but chances are pretty good that you'll study most or all of these common subjects:
- Audio production
- Music editing
- Critical listening
- Digital recording principles
- Mixing techniques
- Music business fundamentals
- Melody and harmony
- Music theory
You can start preparing for your music production career as early as high school, if you have the option to take music classes as electives. Digital recording and mixing programs are a big part of music production today, so computer training can be a big help as well.
Music production degree and certificate programs
There are a few different levels of study available at the best music production schools. Here's a quick primer on the three main categories of music production programs:
- Undergraduate certificates can often be completed in year or less if you attend school full time. Many music production certificate programs include training in industry-standard recording and mixing software as well as introductions to music theory and music history.
- Associate degrees from music production schools cover a list of subjects similar to certificate programs but may go into greater depth or include a broader scope of musical training. These two-year plans also include general education courses, which can usually be transferred to a university if you decide to go on to earn a bachelor's degree.
- Bachelor's degrees are four-year study plans that typically contain the most diverse variety of music production courses among the three program levels. Bachelor's degrees in music production may be offered as specializations within the general Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) programs in an institution's music department.
At some specialty institutions, master's degrees in music production may also be available. Such advanced degrees are typically designed for established pros who have been in the business for a while and want to bring in some advanced knowledge to help set them apart.
Online music production schools
Online music production schools can allow you to study the producer's craft without having to travel to a brick-and-mortar classroom multiple times a week. Some online programs use asynchronous course delivery, also, which means that you can attend lectures and complete assignments entirely on your own schedule.
Despite some persistent misconceptions, however, earning a degree online is by no means an easy way to breeze through school. You'll have to stay motivated on your own and hold yourself accountable for completing the work, which can be difficult at first. Check with your school's online advising department for tips on how to make distance education work for you.
Music producer certification
Independent producers typically don't need any specific industry certification to start producing music professionally, but there are a few credentials that can serve to demonstrate your expertise to potential clients. Media software company Avid, for example, offers certification exams in products like Pro Tools, its widely used audio recording and engineering platform.
Career advancement options for music producers
In many cases, the path to advancement in the world of music production has more to do with who you know than what you know. It's essential to have a solid foundation of audio production skills, of course, but landing popular and high-profile clients is often the ticket to the type of reputation that can bring artists to your door.
Another option for advancement is establishing a music studio brand and employing enough audio engineers and junior producers to increase the number of projects you're capable of handling at one time. Some supplemental courses in music business concepts could be a big help if you're looking to take either one of these approaches.
Skills and Abilities for Music Producers
The Occupational Information Network (O*NET) compiles data on the skills and abilities that can help people succeed in all manner of careers. Here are a few of the top traits listed for aspiring music producers:
- Hearing sensitivity can help you pick out small errors and other inconsistencies in a soundscape and detect the differences that minor adjustments create in a mix
- Auditory attention, or the ability to focus on a single source of sound while an array of sounds are happening around you, is part of what sets the best producers apart from the rest
- Time management is key in a music studio, particularly since most projects have deadlines and you're likely to be handling multiple projects at a given time
- Monitoring the progress of an individual track or an entire project is essential for music producers who want to ensure that they're making quality recordings
- Originality in terms of your recording methods or your approach to working with artists can help establish you as a producer that artists and labels enjoy working with
Music Producer Salary and Career Outlook
There are several variables that might combine to determine your salary as a music producer, including your level of knowledge, your amount of experience on the job and the city where you decide to set up your studio. Being aware of average music producer salary and job growth numbers can help you form an idea of what to expect, however -- take a look at these U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for music producers across the U.S.:
|Career||Total Employment||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Music Directors and Composers||12,160||$59,790||6.1%|
|Producers and Directors||118,630||$89,840||12%|
Professional Resources for Music Producers
Becoming a member of an industry association can bring a host of benefits to a young music production career. Here's a quick look at some organizations that work to advance the interests of music producers in the U.S.:
- The Association of Music Producers (AMP) has been a champion for the common goals and concerns of music producers for more than 20 years. Its primary chapter locations are in New York and Los Angeles, but it has member representation in a dozen cities across the country.
- The Audio Engineering Society (AES) isn't just for producers -- it welcomes recorded audio professionals from all walks of life -- but it offers a wealth of information resources. Members get online access to an e-library of text and video content as well as all archived issues of the Society's journal.
- The National Association of Record Industry Professionals (NARIP) was formed in 1998 to help music industry professionals meet and work with experts and executives. It provides seminars, workshops, symposia and webinars for members, as well as cocktail mixers and other networking events.