Read as Eric Robinson talks about his career as a Record Producer. Find him at www.jdmanagement.com/ericrobinson and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
I am a record producer, songwriter, engineer, mixer and musician.
How would you describe what you do?
I help songwriters bring the best elements of their compositions and performances into focus.
What does your work entail?
My job can entail overseeing every aspect of a project from the budget, artistic, technical and psychological components, to just one of these areas. I am kind of a one-stop-shop for many of my clients because I have had experience in many different areas: I cut my teeth working in a big LA studio, engineered for many different producers, toured with a platinum-selling artist, played multiple instruments on lots of sessions, worked across many different genres, etc. My studio is also unique in that I can make any record from start to finish entirely in this space. It sounds great and provides a very comfortable working environment.
What’s a typical work week like?
I don’t have a typical work week. Sometimes I am utilizing my entire skill set (producing, recording, performing, mixing, writing) and working one on one with an artist. Other times I am working with an artist and the group of session musicians that I always utilize. I can also find myself mixing a record that has been recorded prior to my involvement. I engineer for several different producers at my studio and at other commercial studios in Los Angeles. I have writing sessions with one or several people at my studio. I do session work on several instruments. My work is always different and it keeps life very interesting. Work usually starts for me between 10 AM and noon, and ends between 7 PM and midnight. This allows me some time in the morning to be outside, conduct meetings, and get organized for the upcoming day. I find it harder to work long hours, focus and deliver results unless I feel great physically and mentally. Sleep and exercise are very important to me.
How did you get started?
I started playing piano when I was 5. I studied classical first, and then jazz. I started playing guitar when I was 12. Then I picked up the bass and drums. I was playing in bands when I was in middle school and started recording my songs on the reel to reel tape recorder I had at home. Being an artistic perfectionist, I was immediately addicted to the idea of doing multiple performances, picking the best one, and listening to it over and over again. My childhood friend’s father (Chris Halaby, president of Opcode at the time) had a great home studio and was the first person to expose me to the power of computer recording. Not long after that I met an amazing guy named Gary Riekes, who literally gave me the keys to his studio and allowed me to spend hours experimenting and teaching myself how to use an early version of Pro Tools. I decided to attend USC for college because I knew that Los Angeles had been the center of the recording industry for a long time and I felt like this would provide the best learning environment. When I was a freshman, I sent an email to Steve Lillywhite and asked for an internship. To my amazement, Steve replied the next day and said he was going to be out of the country for a while, but that I should start working for his engineer and meet up with him later in the summer. I spent about six weeks working at Phish’s studio in Vermont, then I bounced around some different studios in New York and New Jersey. When Steve returned to New York, I got to watch him mix U2. The whole experience was incredible and taught me so much about bedside manner. After that summer, I returned to school in LA and landed a job at Royaltone Studios. I was going to school in the morning and working my butt off until late at night. I spent 3 years there and worked my way up to assistant engineer. Upon graduation, I quit my job and went freelance.
What do you like about what you do?
I love working in a creative and artistic capacity. I love the freedom of being a chameleon. I love the option to work on the projects that inspire me with people that I respect and admire.
What do you dislike?
Not much. It can be tough to be a freelancer, but the benefits far outweigh the detriments.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I have a manager (Joe D’Ambrosio) who handles all of my compensation. Joe’s number one rule is that I am not allowed to talk about money. This makes things much easier for me because I can focus on what I do best. I go to work and then a check shows up not long after. I am blessed to have worked with Joe for 3 years now. My compensation is based on a daily rate for my services and for my studio if we are working here. For producing and mixing, there is backend compensation involved.
How much money do Record Producers make?
That is a tough question to answer because there is such a wide variation. It generally takes a very long time to make an acceptable living in this profession. You have to cut your teeth for somewhere between five to fifteen years depending on your skill set, tenacity, opportunity, and luck. If you are starting out in this business, expect to do several internships. Then you can get a job making slightly more than minimum wage. By the time you are a freelancer, you can expect to make slightly more than a public school teacher. The sky is the limit from there. Making six figures is a reality if you work with commercially successful artists or find a niche. In the last ten years, record producers have seen less and less income due to piracy, the advent of the digital single, decreased sales, inexpensive access to technology, and the near elimination of being in a payable position for royalties. Almost everyone relies on their daily rate for income these days. I feel like things are starting to balance out now. There are fewer people in this line of work now, but those who are active are very busy.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
None. Then some. Then a little more. It’s very hard to do this in the beginning without a moderate amount of either savings or external support.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
Education is not a requirement: mental acuity is. The ability to think different, on your feet and ahead of schedule is paramount. It is also highly beneficial to be a musician and understand composition and theory, music history, current trends, and a wide variety of instruments. I believe having a degree is a positive asset for anyone, however, it is not going to help you get work in this field. Very few people that I work with are even aware that I went to college. Experience is the framework for employment. I don’t think I have ever had a traditional resume: my CV is my discography.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Anticipating the reaction of my clients and adjusting my work to be closer to their vision without comment. Convincing an artist who is dead-set on an idea to be open minded. Working with someone who has limited musical or studio experience.
What is most rewarding?
Being accurately credited on a release. Also, to be thanked in public by the artist.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Be patient. Prepare to put in 10,000 hours. Don’t be afraid to fail. Be persistent, but not annoying. Figure out your strengths and develop them further. Pay attention to how your heroes and your peers operate. Show up for everything. No one gets ahead by sitting at home and watching TV.
How much time off do you get/take?
For the first 5 years that I was freelance, I worked seven days a week. Now, I try to take one week off every month or two. I almost never turn down work that I want to do, so that can influence time off in a big way. Most of my vacations are not planned, they just happen because I have a gap in my schedule.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
A lot of people think that record producers make inordinate amounts of money. The most visible producers are obviously more successful and many of them live lavish lifestyles. It’s the same with professional athletes. The majority of them don’t make millions of dollars a year.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
To keep doing this until I am old and gray. It sounds cliche, but I don’t measure my success by income or awards: I focus on personal relationships and happiness.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
Hard work and sweat equity goes a long way. When you want to give up, you will probably get your biggest break. People notice a good work ethic, timeliness, organization and positive attitude.