Playing The Diplomat - How To Handle The Dynamic Artist Relationship.

09-21-2013 11:10 AM

Audio practitioners in the music industry can appreciate when I say that half the battle in the production of good records and music is handling the relationship you have with the artist, and the relationship they have within their own ranks.
Making records is never a straightforward, formulaic process. Although there are undoubtedly basic parameters etc. that apply in most contexts, to treat each artist with the same approach from project to project is not really a viable solution. We may find that our approach to handling the motivated, eager and fast paced personality of one artist will intimidate and damage your rapport with an artist of a calmer, more reserved demeanor.
With this in mind, here are some points to consider in handling the dynamic producer-client relationship, especially when starting a new project with someone:
A simple place to start with an artist is to know as much of their background as possible before meeting them. In the same way that a TV / radio presenter is obliged to research and do preparatory work for a successful and comprehensive interview, a producer / songwriter has a similar obligation to understand his/her clients approach to working before commencing.
Apart from the obvious benefits of hearing the past works of an artist and the caliber of the content, familiarizing yourself helps to set the bar for you as producer / songwriter etc. and inform you of what is essentially expected from your own production work. Artists will rightfully use their previous work/collaborations as the benchmark for a competent production, so it is very important to be aware of where the bar is when you begin. Be sure to ask them if they were objectively satisfied with the previous productions too; The artist might want to approach things very differently this time round.
Beyond the music
The best way to find solutions to problems in general is to grant yourself the most informed perspective possible. Knowing all the angles and variables puts us in a better position to advise on and make decisions that are effective and satisfying to all parties involved. The same principals apply to dealing with musicians and artists as clients. In addition to knowing the music, it is imperative to research the people themselves. If the artists has done work in the past with other producers it is worth the time contacting them to have a frank discussion about their experiences. Speaking with an artist’s friend will reveal traits and characteristics. Speaking with an industry professional will objectively reveal how those traits manifest in a studio/production environment.
Knowledge is power
Making a record with a producer is more often than not a new experience for most young artists. Most likely, they will not know much about the technical aspects of recording and production, and will not have experience in receiving objective musical input about their work. This means that although you are being paid to do something you are skilled at, there is massive scope for an artist to learn something new too that will directly inform their working process in a positive way.
If you have established a working relationship with an artist, and they are open to learning new things, then explain to them what you do to make their tracks come alive. The reality is that they will not remember your secret signal processing chain, or that configuration you used to get the piano recording sounding so powerful, but the process of openly explaining to them why you do certain things during your process (both musical and technical) is a surefire way to not only gain respect, but also show them that you treat them as an equal. Any producer worth their salt is not going to rely on any single EQ setting or a microphone placement to be competent anyway, so producers confident in their work should have no issues here.
Educating the artist will help them improve and progress the standard of their work and ultimately bring a higher level of quality to the table. At the end of a production, even if an artist knows technically how to do it themselves, they will come back to you because of your work ethic, the working relationship and the trust you have established during the entire process.
Great expectations
We have to remember that most artists (although this may be changing given the increase in electronically derived music) in a traditional sense are musicians, not technically knowledgeable engineers and producers. It is important upon beginning work with a client, that we are upfront and concise about what we want to do, what we can do, and how long it will take etc. to get it to where it needs to go.

Promising the sun and the moon to a client is not always a good idea. I am not advocating underselling your skills in anyway, but an appropriate description of what will happen is always best, because there is nothing worse than putting yourself in a position wherein the client is waiting on you expectantly because they have been misinformed about timescale and process and the end-result. It is always better to say three days, and deliver in two. Communication is key. Keep talking and updating and the relationship and mood will remain very strong.
So who is in charge here?
In every group dynamic, bands included, there will always be a character or personality that stands out. Often, this person isn’t necessarily the most prominent member of the cohort, and sometimes is the least likely of suspects in a metaphorical line-up. It is incredibly important to figure out who the top player is in a band in terms of influence and interaction. The last thing you want is to find yourself trying to please the person who historically has the least input musically or the least sway in the overall scheme of things, just because they are the most outgoing or the most present member in your immediate impression. Not only will this cause the process to lose steam quickly, but the person who you should be dealing with will become alienated and less confident in your ability to run the show.
That is not to say that working producers / engineers should ignore everyone but the person in control. On the contrary, becoming a trusted working companion and identifying with people individually, is critical to developing a long-term relationship. It is more so about the management of the time and resources you have to communicate as efficiently as possible with the artist. Ultimately we have to remember that artists are people too, and as a producer, making a friend of your client the will put you in a much better position to get to the point and get the work done.

Denis Kilty is an Irish music producer, songwriter and mixing engineer based in Dublin.