The road to becoming a professional music producer is not as straight-forward as most other professions. It often develops gradually as your skills and network grows. In fact, the path to building a career as a full-time producer is rarely the same for everyone, but there are two general ways the dream can happen.
The Self-Taught Path
If you read the biographies of music producers, you will find many of them, perhaps even the majority of them, took a self-taught path to their career. Even in the cases of legendary producers such as Sylvia Massy or Rick Rubin, they followed a path that went something similar to this general pattern:
- Play in a band.
- Learn sound engineering and recording while playing and recording with your band.
- Make friends with other artists and bands while playing with your band.
- Offer to record those artists and bands.
- Build a strong reputation in the studio.
- Begin working professionally as a recording engineer on your own or under an established producer.
- Begin producing artists yourself.
Of course, this is only one example of how self-taught people get into professional music production. Everyone's journey has its own peculiar twists and turns, but in almost every case it is a gradual process that starts somewhere simple and small such as playing in a band or fiddling with recording a friend's demos.
The Formal Education Path
Although it was not always the case, in today's higher education there are many colleges that offer formal degree programs in sound engineering and production. The first phase of this career path is straightforward as follows:
- Apply to a music school that features a strong emphasis in sound engineering and production.
- While learning the craft in school, begin building a professional network through classmates and professors.
- Take as many side-gigs as possible recording and producing artists and bands, even if they're local artists (and even if the first few gigs are for free).
- After graduation, continue networking and looking for gigs in the similar "organic" approach that self-taught producers take.
Once you graduate, your career journey begins to resemble the path of the self-taught producer. You're on your own. Hopefully, your time in school has given you a wide pool of contacts and a deep, impressive skill-set that will aid you in your pursuit of production gigs.
No matter which you path you take, self-taught or formal education (or a mix of both), the skills needed to succeed in producing are the same for everyone.
No matter who you are or how you get into producing, to have any kind of lasting success you will need highly developed skills in most or all of these categories:
- Sound engineering
- Music theory
- Songwriting and arranging
- Networking know-how
- Marketing and business skills relevant to the music industry
- Motivator/people skills
- Conflict management
Of course, there is always a producer who defies all the traditional categories. A producer might have zero people skills or budgeting savvy yet still succeeds wildly. In these cases, the producer is usually so strong in one category it offsets deficiencies in other categories.
The Winding Road of the Music Industry
Sometimes brutal honesty is needed when considering career paths. This is the hard truth: the music industry can be an incredibly difficult world to enter and navigate. The lack of a clear path to promotion and success means you will need a wide range of well-refined skills and determination to survive. But if you genuinely love what you do, you're more likely to persist on the winding road of the music industry until you find the open door you need.