As we edge towards the 2020s, we’re living in times where musicians enjoy increasing autonomy. Near unlimited access to the internet and the widening availability of digital audio workstations (DAWs) such as Garageband, Logic and Ableton has levelled the playing field for many people wanting to make music. You can now create, record, upload and distribute your tracks completely independently, all from a laptop at home. On the one hand, this is obviously great news for artists. More and more ‘bedroom producers’ are emerging around the world. But does this mean that the concept of a traditional record producer – as in an external person who manages the sound recording and production of an artist’s music – is becoming less relevant?
I thought the best way to explore this was by talking with an experienced producer, to break down their creative process and understand the true meaning of the role. Who better than Margo Broom, founder of North London’s Hermitage Works Studios, whose works include the Fat White Family, Catholic Action, Calva Louise, Mango, Wizard Sleeve, and SPQR. What became abundantly clear through our conversation is that the true role of a record producer is deeply integral, complex and multifaceted in an artist’s development.
Perhaps what comes across most plainly from speaking to Margo about her creative process is the emphasis on human communication. “I think isolation can be useful creatively, but not personally”, she tells me. “I hope to make my studio a creative, safe space, where people are free to fail. That isolation definitely helps, but I think people assume it means removing outside influence. I disagree, there is no self. All we know of creativity and music comes from outside of us. We are just conduits and communicators. I think all too often music made in isolation is introspective, and I find that pretty dull”.
Is it this willingness for an artist to open up to outside influence where the magic truly happens then? For Margo, it’s essential. “I believe that artists who are not boxed in by the limits of their own ability are more likely to happen upon originality or something compelling”, she said in a recent public post.
“If, as a producer, you take an artist outside their comfort zone too quickly or to a place they don’t understand, they will tend to sabotage the project, regardless of the overall outcome”.
From her experience, this is a significant obstacle with bands and perhaps why guitar music has recently faded in mainstream popularity. “With a band, there is both a greater strive for authenticity and more members to satisfy”, she says.
“It’s all about their vision, but there isn’t always a singular vision for everyone to get behind. Sometimes they don’t agree, and it’s impossible to deliver to them if they don’t know or if what they want is clouded by egos. When that happens, I walk away. It doesn’t matter how big they are”.
Does the ego have any place in the creative process?
“Not really, it makes for bad decisions that are governed by safety rather than risk and excitement. It’s so boring working with people who are afraid to take risks and make mistakes. I’m wrong 90% of the time, but being wrong and constructive helps me to be right, and do what is right for the band. My pet hate is flat criticism, especially if it’s ego led. It’s so disruptive to creativity”.
What emerges then is the need for an artist to open themselves up to creative vulnerability, allowing an external source to take influence. This collaboration of strengths is where some of the best ideas form. Naturally, it can become an incredibly personal process in which Margo almost takes on the role of a psychologist.
“I start by getting a feel for each band member’s personality”, she explains. “More often than not, a hierarchy emerges, for example, one member is the writer, or one member has strong opinions. Then I try to figure out if this existing working method is an honest and creative one. If it is, then I don’t assert that much and just try to understand what the expectation and delivery point are. If not, then I try to improve communication and discourage egos. That’s when things can get pretty abrasive, but I think I’d rather fall out with people than carry on”.
A success story from Margo’s process is Glaswegian band Catholic Action. Despite a few heated moments during the sessions, they appeared to emerge stronger and happier. In a later interview with DIY magazine, frontman Chris admitted he was reduced to tears when Margo forced him to listen to the charts on Radio 1.
“I usually present something that I suspect to be wrong for a band and then ask them to tear it down constructively”, Margo tells me. “Chris had an aspiration to be a career musician. Not a sellout, just somebody who wants to do music everyday like me. To do that you have to have at least some dialogue with the mainstream, to understand where you are creatively. That way, you can either work with it or subvert it. I needed him to stop burying his head in the sand”.
Above all with Margo’s approach is a clear emphasis on collectivity and communication, and this is perhaps what’s now kindling her interest in more electronic scenes. “Dance music is all about the collective experience, but bands aren’t as concerned with that as DJs are”, she says. “I get so bored at [band] gigs because it’s pretty rare that the audience is actually into it. But when they are it’s the best thing in the world though. Punk used to be about that, but now it’s more about showing off”.
I asked Margo if this was perhaps another reason why guitar music isn’t as popular in the mainstream today. “Yeah, I think that might be the main reason. Band music has largely become about authenticity, which depressingly is the domain of ageing white men. Dance music is really throwaway, especially this new tech house stuff. There is such an appetite for new weird sounds that people rarely play back-catalogue tunes. It can be quite disorienting and intimidating, but it’s not about authority. It’s about new experiences and freedom”.
Getting inside Margo’s creative process reveals just how integral and diverse the role of a record producer should be. Part moderator, part mediator, part psychologist and confidant, she brings these duties into a cohesive whole with the aim, if they can open up, of steering the artist in the right creative direction. Fundamentally, it’s a very human role that’s built on a trusting relationship between herself and her artists. In a time when musicians can increasingly choose to isolate themselves from others in their creative process, talking to Margo reveals that there will always be a need for a producer to challenge and push them further. Ultimately, that’s what keeps music interesting.