As a listener, most of us have had the experience of hearing the same song performed by various artists—all of whom didn’t quite hit the mark. And then one day, some new artist comes along, records the very same song and…whoosh! It’s a drop dead smash.
One thing is clear, it obviously was not the song that was the problem.
Now, of course, there could be a million reasons why the song didn’t find earlier success. It could be that the artist identities were not a good fit with the core message of the song. It could be that the production approach treated the song inappropriately. It could be that the artist just couldn’t nail the song with the right performance intensity. It could even be that the song was released at the wrong time or through the wrong channel.
There could be a million reasons. And most of them we have zero control over.
But we do control a lot of it. We control what song to produce, the production treatment, best vocal key and arrangement, the vocal delivery and all the other levers that help the music hold together.
This is the reason for doing multiple demos of a song prior to deciding which treatment to use. Sometimes it is completely obvious how it needs to be done, but there are many situations where the treatment can vary widely. It could be that a simple acoustical setting is just the right one for the artist you are working with. Or it could be that focussing on a different vocal range for the artist serves the song better. It could mean that the groove needs work. All of these are potential make or break for the success of the song—and therefore of the artist.
We have the opportunity to do multiple scratch versions, now that technology has provided inexpensive tools to quickly generate different musical scenarios. With Garageband, or Ableton Live or any of the professional or semi-professional sequencing software packages, we can experiment with different instrumentation, quickly change keys, play with the drum groove or change the harmonic approach. Almost anything can be quickly mocked up in a half an hour, so we can hear the artist’s voice in the context of alternative treatments.
This is a huge advantage for the producer, because it saves incredible amounts of time in the discovery process. If the treatments don’t work, there is no need to invest countless hours, costs and energy into a failed experiment. In the old days, they had to just live with the result, releasing song treatments that weren’t necessarily well suited to their purpose.
For the artist, it provides an inexpensive input into the production process, because they now can come in with scratch versions of various treatments for each proposed song. That saves time, effort, attention—and budget. And it allows the artist to participate at a higher level of artistry and be better attuned to the meaning and function of the song within their artistic context —while having a hand in the direction of the production and the project at large.
Delivering the Song’s Message
One of the things that took the longest for me to learn as a producer was the realization that the most important thing for the creative team to do was to deliver the song. It isn’t so much about the production, except how that relates to serving the unique message and character of the song. Even the artist must be subservient to the meaning and intention of the song once that has been determined by the vision of the project as a whole.
This is why one of the longest and yet most important processes is to determine which songs are to be presented by the artist and the rational for why this artist should do this particular song, at this particular time.