Updated: Jun 27, 2019
How Many Music Professionals Does It Take To Screw In a Lightbulb?
In today's musical world, there are more options open to musicians than ever before. We have access to DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) where we are able to create our own small-scale project to full fledged professional music creation, recording, and mixing studios in our own homes. A DAW often offers MIDI capabilities, with other synthesis, and audio capabilities as well. (See my MIDI article for more on MIDI. An article on DAWs is coming soon.) We can even take our music creation, recording, and editing tools on the road with a laptop, a MIDI controller, and a USB microphone or to the stage with software such as Ableton Live. We can even use a smartphone or tablet with apps such as GarageBand for iOS. With all this freedom comes a lot of choices and decisions to make.
Every music composition, from a three-minute pop song to an 45-minute multiple movement symphony to a three-hour long film score, is made up of a lot of components. Sometimes there are many people working on a single piece; sometimes it is down entirely DIY by one dedicated musician. According to a 2017 article by DigitalMusicNews.com, the average pop song in the 2010s has had four songwriters and six publishers. That's not even including the instrumentalists, singers, engineers, and other professionals to work together to bring that three-minute song to life! And, your favorite film score, there may be only one composer listed, but there are many, many people involved to assuring that the composer's musical ideas provide the appropriate mood for the scene. Check out Hans Zimmer's team of past and present and you will see many professionals, including 71 arrangers!
The following is a list (by no means exhaustive) of many of the roles that it takes to produce a piece of music for sheet music, recording, distribution, and/or live performance. Whether you are an inspiring or professional music, no doubt you have had some experience with more of these roles than you might think. I have divided the roles into four categories: the Creatives, the Engineers, Other Music Industry Professionals, and Even More Supporting Professionals. For our purposes, we will focus on the first three.
With today's technology, it is very possible to fulfill many of these roles yourself, however, a word of caution (to you as well as myself), it's important that we remember to step back and let our peers step in when needed. Know your strengths and use them to help fellow musicians as well. We are in this together.
A Note on Music and Computers
In music departments at many universities and colleges, there are often two departments that fall into the category of "music and computers." At my alma mater, we divided them into Computer Music (which I was in) and Audio Engineering. People from outside these departments would often ask what the difference was. After all, they would see us all clicking away on our Macs and creating amazing music. We even took many of the same classes, such as Acoustics or Synthesis Theory. We would explain the difference by saying that Computer Music is focused on the Creative side of music. (We worked in Logic Studio and other music creation softwares, while Audio engineers worked in ProTools/Avid. More on this when we discuss DAWs.) We were composers, performers, and researchers who were primarily interested in using the computer as a tool for generating musical content or understanding how computers and technology can be used to help others learn, understand music, or quantify the benefits of music in some way. While my classmates in Audio Engineering were focused on using computers and technology to capture the live, real-time experience of music.
I mention this because I think it illustrates how many of these roles do overlap, but there are unique roles that each of these professionals fulfills. It also shows that not every DJ is a producer, and not every producer is an engineer, and not every singer is a songwriter; although many musicians are a combination of those things. Again, it is important to note that all of these roles are important and all work together to create a finished product whether that be for commercial release, the concert hall, or simply to share with our family and friends.
Music Producer – A music producer guides a performer to artist through the process of creating a music recording. This includes preparing for the recording process and during the process itself. This may be for only one track or full an entire album's worth of tracks. Sometimes the producer is also the artist, is the writer or co-writer, and/or engineer of the recording as well. They make many of the executive creative and financial decisions, and they are responsible for the final product. It is the producer's role to take the initial concept of the songwriter or performer, often vague, and bring it to fruition.
Songwriter – A general term for anyone who writer lyrics or composes musical compositions for songs. Sometimes the term is used interchangeably with composer.
Lyricist – A songwriter who specializes in writing the words for songs.
Composer – A composer is a creator of music, including songs; however, "composer" is often used to describe writers of classical music or film scores specifically.
Arranger – Reimagines a previously composed musical work adding changes such as reharmonization, changes in phrasing, or structural changes.
Orchestrator – Reimagines a previously composed musical work but does not change the harmony, phrases, or structure. An orchestrator is limited to assigned the existing musical material to different instruments, such as taking a piano piece and orchestrating the existing harmonies, rhythms, and melodies for string quartet.
Feature Performer(s) – Singers, rappers, instrumentalists, or a band
Session Musicians – Hired musicians who are not part of a regular band who are hired to play on a recording.
Recording Engineer – Audio expert focused on capturing sound for the purposes of creating an auditory record of the performance. This often includes amplifier, microphone, and auditory monitor selection and placement.
Live Sound Engineer – Audio expert who specializes in creating the best aural experience at a live concert or event. This also may include amplifier, microphone, and auditory monitor selection and placement.
Mixing Engineer – Takes recorded audio tracks and adjusts them to create a cohesive "mix." The mixing process includes adjusting relative volumes, pan (right or left) of the sound, the adding plug-ins, effects, etc.
Mastering Engineer – Takes previously mixed audio and prepares it for distribution.
Other Music Industry Professionals
Promoters (Marketing) – Provides strategies designed to increase awareness and sales of music.
Sound Designers – Curate and create audio material, including foley noise, sound effects, and dialog.
Synthesis Experts – Design digital or analog electronically generated sounds.
MIDI Specialists – Creates MIDI data for a recording or live performance; this may include drum/percussion or lights programming.
DJs/VJs – Create live mixes of audio and/or visual material for entertainment or art purposes.
Booking/Talent Agents – Are responsible for booking live performances including concerts, individual shows, tours, and broadcast performances for musicians.
Distributors – Get music to listeners.
Record Labels – Market music recordings.
Performance Coaches – Specialize on preparing professional musicians for public performance.
Vocal Producer – Guides a vocalist on how to use their voice to best for the purposes of recording
Publishers – Are responsible for ensuring that creators receive payment when their music is used commercially. Many composers also serve as their own publisher.
Performing Rights Organization (PRO) – ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, GMR – These organizations protects their members' copyrights by monitoring public performances of their music, broadcasted or live, and compensating them according. Performances include online performances, such as a live stream concert or as background music in a YouTube video.
Assistants – Producers, composers, performers, engineers, and many other may have assistants to delegate tasks in their various areas.
Even More Supporting Professionals
Venue Owners – Own theaters, bars, restaurants, concert halls, and other performance spaces.
Graphic Designers – Create a visual concept used to promote a music project.
Videographers – Capture video of performance for live streaming or promotional purposes.
Waitstaff, Bartenders, Security Personal
Stage hands, Roadies, Drivers
Dancers, Actors, Live Painters
Entertainment Lawyers – often act as liaisons in the industry.
To sum up, I think it's crucial that we stay mindful as musicians. It is important that we know what our goals are and to have direct in our musical paths. (Though we should also remain open-minded and adapt our plans when needed. It's your own course, you can always turn around!) To stay mindful and plan, I feel that it is helpful to ask ourselves questions and to reflect. Questions we ask ourselves may include: Which of these roles do I feel comfortable in? Do any of these roles NOT interest me? Are there roles that I do not yet comfortable taking on but would like to? What can I do to excel even more in my strongest areas? What can I do to improve in my weakest areas? Who do I know that is an expert in a role that I do not have expertise in? What networking opportunities are there in my area? What mentorship opportunities are there?
One last thing, it is important to work with people with whom you trust. When you meet someone who claims to be an experts in any of these areas or makes you any too-good-to-be-true promises about your musical career, be sure to ask questions. If you do not feel comfortable working with someone, don't feel obligated to do so. Your gut may be trying to tell you something.
As always, we want to hear from you! What questions do you have for us? Feel free to sign in and comment below or comment on Facebook, or tag us on Twitteror Instagram. You can always email us at firstname.lastname@example.org as well.
Digital Music News: The Average Hit Song Has 4+ Writers and Six Publishers.
Hans Zimmer's Team, Past and Present
Perennial Music and Arts: What Is MIDI?
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound healer and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. Visit www.PerennialMusicAndArts.com for more about music lessons and www.JanaeJean.com for more about a variety of wellness related topics including tea, sound healing, and recipes. Contact her via email@example.com for questions about tea, ceremony, music composition, sound healing, writing, photography, or other relevant topics.
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