I wrote this guide in early 2016 when this was a music production blog. Some links may not work anymore but most content is still in tact, if not a little dated (no mention of Spotify for example)...
Are you tired of reading the same old “what it takes to be a music producer” blog article? They all say the same thing, and that means there are millions of hopeful producers out there reading, and following the same advice! “Buy this software, download new plugins, learn how to EQ”…
Sure, learning how to EQ may be valuable. But it’s just one tiny piece of the puzzle.
What you need to know is how to carry out the most important steps effectively, and where to find the best learning resources, from square one…
What it takes to be a music producer..
First we need to understand the process of getting from (a) to (b) to (c). This is a good general outline that encompasses the entire process, but what you need is a solid plan that you can follow until the very end…
You can use that list to highlight what’s most important in reaching your goals, and what outcomes are most desirable to you.
If you really want a realistic chance at making something out of music, then you have to have something unique to offer. You need to have diverse and valuable skills, whether that’s for producing your own music or offering the service to others. The way you develop these skills is up to you, but having a plan and sticking to it is crucial.
For example, if you wanted to compose music for games. What would your course of action be?
Study game music. Study music theory. Compose relentlessly – even when you don’t feel like it. You should also be incorporating new found knowledge and techniques. When you’re ready, marketing yourself. We’ll get to that later.
You could even set it all up in your calendar to ensure you stick to this schedule. This is a saturated market, but the rewards are great for those who succeed.
So now we have the most important foundations laid down, let’s look into the kind of mindset we need, what knowledge is most important to us, and where to find the very best resources….
1. Be Passionate About Music
Being “passionate” at first glance might sound inane and cliché, but it’s really the absolute first and most important key to your success as a music producer. Music has to be your life-blood. If music is just “background ambiance” or something you only put on when you’re in the shower, then you probably don’t have what it takes to be a music producer.
Music has to be something you rarely get bored of, if ever. If you’re the kind of person that listens to music critically and always has melodies and rhythms stuck in your head, then you’re likely to be more musically inclined to begin with, and this could be the path for you.
What exactly defines a passion for music?
- Dedicated Listening
- You never seem to get bored of making music
- Open mindedness towards genres
- The ability to feel the music (ooh, more inane clichés anyone?)
- Consistent interest in discovering new music
- It’s something you couldn’t live without
- It’s shaped who you are
These are qualities that are embedded in those who are most passionate about music, much like those who are professional in film visuals and videogames – it’s through profound experiences in your life that you’ve come to develop that passion.
Staying Passionate When Producing Music
It’s easy enough to say “be passionate” but sometimes even the most passionate of us can lose some of that fire. If you find yourself pulling your hair out trying to make a track you may have creative block.
To keep the passion alive you have to take a break, seek out music and watch videos of inspirational musicians and producers, study production techniques and music theory. There are many ways you can improve your skills outside of your DAW or instrument. You have what it takes to be a music producer.
Do research, evaluate your mind-state and life (stress and depression are of huge detriment to creativity), do a combination of activities that will help you improve for when you get back into it and the flame burns it’s brightest. Having your mental health in order is a top priority. You will not get the results you want if you are in a dire situation.
2. Develop Music Theory Knowledge (Study)
This is something that many producers overlook because they don’t think it’s important.
There are even reputable blogs out there that discredit the importance of learning music theory, despite it being just as critical as any other point. We all cut corners, but learning the basics is crucial. You don’t have to be jazz piano master. The level you study in this area depends on your priorities as outlined earlier.
People often make the mistake of looking up to successful producers who didn’t learn the music theory, but what we forget to realise is that they’ve already succeeded.
We can’t assume that our path will be the same. It certainly wasn’t NOT learning the theory that got them to where they are today, was it?
Fine! But Where do I Start With Music Theory?
There are many resources for music theory, however it can be quite confusing and disheartening when faced with the mountain of conflicting information when querying for music theory knowledge. This is what puts many people off, but I find the best way to learn is by sticking to one course, don’t take bits from here-there and everywhere until you have a solid enough understanding of the basics.
Here are some websites which offer easy to follow, comprehensive music theory lessons:
- Coursera Music Theory (free, high-quality education)
- Ask Video Music Theory ($25 p/m, excellent resource that very concisely covers all of the fundamentals from the perspective of the modern bedroom producer. If you’re looking for the easy route this is likely to be it.)
- Open University (free online course from a university with a very high reputation)
Use one of those sites and stick to the syllabus. Revise, do extra research, and your compositions will improve vastly.
If you insist on searching the knowledge out by yourself, then: scales, modes, chord types, key signatures, chord progressions and time signatures are the most fundamental things you need to learn about.
3. Learn How to Master the Software (Study)
This will take some time, like anything; but you’ll get the hang of it. How much you prioritize this step depends on you, but it’s important to strike a balance between learning composition and production nonetheless. You may find that with production, you can learn a great deal by just using the software, whereas composition may take a bit more reading to grasp.
If you’re reading this guide you’ve probably already got the software, but just in case: Pro Tools, Cubase, Ableton, Logic and Fruity Loops are some of the most known and reputable software packages out there for producers.
To those who are already using software, you need to learn ALL the functions of the standard plugins. Seriously, all those knobs have functions and you need to learn them. Mix your tracks properly, don’t let them clip – develop your ear for mixing. One useful tip is to use your ears. Don’t rely on the graphics in something like an EQ, practice by using your ears only.
Understand the core post-processing effects: Reverb, EQ, compression, noise gate, delay and limiter are all core post-processing effects and you should understand how to use these tools thoroughly if you want your productions to sound polished and professional.
Top learning resources for music production:
- Lynda Audio Courses -many swear by this as the best resource for post-production tutorials, they are currently running a 10 day free trial.
- Coursera and Berklee College of Music – this is a superb resource, a short and free 6 week course provided by the Berklee College of Music, highly recommended.
- The Recording Revolution (YT) – although not a course as such, you can find some really meta-relevant and useful tips here.
There is no fast-track to success with music. Unless you get incredibly lucky, it’s going to take stacks of dedication. It will take months to make something that sounds “okay” and years to produce something that sounds genuinely professional. There will be times where you feel like giving up, you may even quit for several months – the important thing is that you keep a solid routine.
You have to believe you have what it takes to be a music producer. It’s important to stay motivated, but sometimes the energy just isn’t there. That’s why keeping a calendar of daily commitments cannot be stressed enough. Most phones have a calendar app these days. It’s as easy as a few clicks to get a routine set up on your phone.
It’s important to stress that this guide is intended for those who can afford to pursue this path. If you are struggling financially, or if it’s affecting other commitments, you should re-evaluate your priorities. It’s absolutely OK to put music on the back burner while you deal with other commitments.
5. Critical Evaluation
When it comes to producing music you can’t be passive about your productions. You have to pro-actively take action on every aspect of the composition, if the bass line is sounding a bit thin don’t assume “no one will notice”, because as awesome as the rest of the track is – it won’t sound professional without all of the elements sounding pristine.
Never neglect even the smallest details. One way to understand how your track compares to professional productions is to listen to plenty of other music, most importantly taking mental note of the post-processing effects you can hear.
You should also be listening to other music critically, by this it’s meant that you’ll be devoting your mind to the music rather than doing something else at the same time.
For example listen to this short composition and:
- Identify the dissonant notes
- Analyse the dynamics (which parts are the most intense, how do the velocity changes affect the mood?)
- Identify all of the instruments
- Identify any changes in melody and the feelings associated
Basically, listen to the overall ebb and flow of the piece, and try to understand what sounds have what effect on the listener in the overall mix.
There’s a lot of ego in this industry, to the point where it can be blinding – if you want to stay on track you have to maintain a level head, so you can evaluate your own works realistically.
6. Financial Investment
Another thing which is quite often overlooked is that you’ll have to spend money, and it’s unlikely to be a small amount. The truth is it costs money to be successful as an entrepreneur, band, whatever. You should be buying the software you use, or at least planning to. The more money you have to invest, the greater potential for returns. That’s a basic fact of the economy.
However, regardless of the rich kids out there who get a fast-track to fame, with reasonable budgeting you can use money to pay for a variety of products and services. And, you won’t look like a complete prat. Here are some of the investments you could make:
- Purchase Hardware (most importantly)
- Purchase Software and Plugins
- Pay someone to make eye-grabbing artwork for your music and pages, for the tight budget try out fiverr (unless you’re a pro visual artist already)
- Invest in an official website (reliable, cheap cloud web hosting)
- Pay web experts to optimize your website
- Use something like IMD Fastrax to gain broadcasting exposure (this kind of thing be very expensive, especially if you’re paying to get your music on big networks)
If you’re early in your music production career, education and software should probably be your first priorities. Followed by hardware.
7. Develop a Unique Selling Point (USP)
This is an important point to marketing yourself, but it may come later. USP is used both in your music and as part of marketing. The unique selling point is something that’s characteristic to your own music – it’s what we may refer to subjectively as “originality”.
Take the band Placebo for example, what is it about any Placebo song, that means you almost instantly know it’s Placebo? Most likely it’s the effeminate charm of Brian Molko’s vocal lines that really resonate in the mind of the listener, leaving a lasting impression. Other bands like Kings of Leon, Muse and Pearl Jam all all have a sound we will identify as “their sound”. Electronic artists like Brian Eno, Aphex Twin and Bonobo are examples of electronic artists with their own original sound too.
It takes time to find the balance between unhinged creativity and refined, methodical skill. The right balance between the two is what leads to appealing, original sound.
Here are some practical ways we can start to develop music with an original twist…
How do I develop my USP?
- Experimentation – don’t be afraid to get “messy” and be unconventional. This is art not medical science.
- Blending Genres – what genres do you listen to most? allow them to influence your creative process
- Incorporating different styles – throw in specific elements from various genres
- Using particular samples or instrumentation – e.g. having a certain “tone” on a guitar or having a recurring sample in your tracks manipulated in various ways.
By repeating successful blends and experiments, you’ll come to develop a unique sound that will set you apart from the rest.
8. Marketing Knowledge
Another useful and sometimes overlooked point. If you want to be a successful music producer then you can’t overlook this aspect of the process.
In fact, this is understandably a critical step. You could produce the most incredible, revolutionary sounding masterpiece in the whole wide universe… but no one would ever hear it if you weren’t promoting it.
In the age of modern production, unless you’re paying someone else to do it you have to consider online marketing strategies such as SEO and copy writing, especially if you have a website offering music production services.
It’s never too early to start building potential fans and connecting with people online, even if you don’t have much or any music online yet…
To do this you can create accounts on popular social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter, which are probably the best places to gain followers. However, Facebook is still by far the most widely used social network, so it’s up to you to try them all out. Either way , any popular social network is acceptable and it’s good to be on a couple, but don’t go too crazy. If you like taking artsy pictures of your gear Instagram is a great place to be.
Some rules and guidelines for what to do and what not to do on social media…
Don’t spam follow random people
Not only will your feed be filled with content that doesn’t interest you, the people who follow you back will be disengaged with your content and may not even understand it. All you get by doing this is numbers, not engaged followers. Do not do this.
Do search for blogs/users that have similar interests and follow them
This is the correct way to gain the right kind of followers. Send them a question, and engage with their posts by reblogging or commenting.
When it comes to online marketing via social media the following information is important:
- Keep the content mostly relevant to your niche
- Follow industry leaders like Ableton, Spectrasonics, Avid etc.
- Use Hashtags
- Post Regularly
- Respond in a civil manner
- Don’t flip out at people, it looks unprofessional
- DO NOT copy other people’s content, reblog it
- Think about how you are perceived by others
If you’re just posting all kinds of random content, people will unfollow you or be confused by your content so won’t follow you at all. It’s also important to post your own content as well as reposting others. If you’re using Twitter you can utilize the @ function to tag relevant, big name users/brands in your post which can sometimes give you much more exposure.
When it comes to the rest of the marketing:
It’s important you have a clear plan at this stage, so you need a to know where you’ll be putting your music, if you’ll be charging money or giving it away with purchasable extras – or just entirely free. You’ll need to have developed artwork, too.
If you’re offering production services or your own music there will always be competition and it’s up to you how ethical you want to be in that respect. If you’re offering music production services you’ll want to consider whether to use penetration pricing, creaming (in this context creaming would be charging a high price to show that you are offering the “best” services”) or some other strategy based on your competition.
Building a Brand
Oh lord no! Not that kind…
There are really two ways you can go about this, you can either:
1. Use your own name.
2. Make up something else.
I’ve experienced the dilemma myself on which path is best to take, but there’s really no right or wrong answer. If you have a common name, it might make sense to think of a pseudonym. When I originally created this website it was called “Tom Williams Music”, but the problem with that is – there are millions of people with the same name, several of whom also produce music! If you want a name that will more easily be number one in Google, then coming up with a unique brand name makes a lot more sense.
You should then go about putting your brand everywhere you can, on images (that you own), on business cards, album art, web pages and social media.
Spread your brand name with relevant imagery/audio to build up positive brand association.
There’s really a tonne of information about marketing on the internet you should be checking out.
Some of the most effective marketing strategies I haven’t already mentioned are:
Blogging – writing about your experiences in the industry might be useful to other people, especially if you’re particularly skilled at some aspect of production. You can use this as one of the ways to grow a loyal fan base.
Public Relations – this means getting your name out there, for example on other websites. One way to do this is by guest blogging. Other methods could be; getting in touch with local radio, local media, newsletters.
That about wraps everything up…
Well, that pretty much wraps things up. This must have been a colossal read, yet there’s plenty you’ll still have to research yourself. Reading guides can only get you so far, and you’ll have to put your own, original spin on the information you’ve found here to work best for your own projects. Hopefully you’ve been taking notes!
It can’t be stressed enough how much you need to keep a routine. Produce and market your music any way you can. Study theory, production techniques, ask experienced producers to share their knowledge. You have to be enthusiastic. If you don’t study; your tracks will sound mediocre and not get any better, if you don’t market; nobody will hear your music. So at the very least, you now have an outline to follow moving forward as a music producer.
Thanks for reading this guide!