The Bad Producer Rant

July 28, 2013 at 9:08 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 29 Comments
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Allow me to rant a little bit about bad producers.

“Producer” is kind of a weird term, because it seems to take on so many different meanings. There are good producers, and bad producers. And they can often fulfill vastly different roles on creative projects. I should also preface this by saying a lot of producer-related memories were dredged up after watching Tommy and Edmund troll an LA producer who wanted to make a Super Meat Boy movie.

The Recording Industry
During my involvement with the recording industry in Japan, I noticed that the producer was often the person who created the bulk of what made a song a song: composing all of the background music, arranging the different tracks, planning the vocal layers, etc. Often I met people who called themselves “singer-songwriters,” a term that makes it seem like they were the creative force behind their albums. In reality all they did was come up with a generic set of chords, and some passable lyrics. It was the producer who came in and turned that into a real song that people would actually want to listen to. They composed the entire arrangement, they came up with the hook, the bassline, the percussion, the vocal plans, etc. These “singer-songwriters” were not the kinds of performers who could draw crowds at a cafe with what they had created on their own; their songs were nothing special without the producers to help them.

On the flipside, I also met people who called themselves “producers” who didn’t seem to do anything at all. They had no skills, they couldn’t create anything, they were painfully ambiguous about their actual role in any project. In fact, it seemed like their entire platform rested upon their ability to convince you that they were absolutely critical to your success. Even though they wanted you to pay them, even though they had nothing to contribute to the project whatsoever, for whatever unfathomable reason they were somehow doing you a favor. These people prey upon a young artist’s desire to make a living off of their craft, by desperately trying to position themselves as being well-connected within the industry. Somehow, they were the key to your “big break.” You can also spot one of these types through the following:

*Using lots of “industry” lingo and catch phrases to compensate for their lack of an actual concrete explanation as to why you need them, and what they’re doing to help.
*Acting as though the industry has a special language that only they can translate for you.
*Upon noticing that you are losing interest, trying to somehow make you feel insecure about your abilities through subtle jabs in an attempt to get you to think you need them.
*Using terms like “win-win situations” and asking you if you are “really serious” about what you’re doing.
*Basically, a whole lot of this:

bull going to the bathroom

The Video Game Industry
When I started working in the video game industry, I noticed a huge variation in the “producer” role here as well. With small dev-team games (1-4 people for example), there are producers who actually play a major role in the development of the game. They are jack-of-all-trades types who in addition to coming up with the initial design for the game, also know how to program enough to create a prototype, understand art enough to be able to create placeholder art and effectively communicate with their artists, and maintain all of the schedules and deadlines without the need for a manager. Sometimes small teams will have a “producer” who handles a mix of legal work, schedules, and PR.

With games that have large development teams (50-100 people for example), I’ve seen producers who take on more of a managerial role. They are extremely organized, and excel at coordinating deadlines, bridging the gap between the various development departments, and handling a lot of the paperwork and red tape that often come along with large scale games. Just as with the earlier examples, they are essential to the completion of the game.

However, just as with the music industry, I’ve also seen several cases of producers who don’t really do anything. They can’t program, they don’t know how to create any sort of art, their “design sense” is more akin to throwing out random ideas at the expense of those who actually have to spend time and energy implementing those ideas… Sometimes they take on the superfluous role of managing an already self-sufficient and self-motivated team. At worst, I’ve seen some producers who actually inhibit productivity by forcing certain things on their development teams. Things like arbitrary paperwork, unnecessary meetings, and worst of all: having the team try out random ideas without any concept of how much time and resources are required to put those ideas into practice (and the subsequent effect of significantly derailing the team’s progress). The major problem with the “try my idea” producers, is the fact that they have no understanding of art or programming, so they’ll easily throw away weeks or months of time without even realizing it.

MTG indie cube_The Producer

The worst part of all of this, is that the game industry seems to be crawling with people like this. And I can understand why:

1.) They are excellent communicators, so they can easy impress people at an interview.
2.) Considering that a lot of companies see producing as being synonymous with design (when in reality, design is a skillset all on its own), producers are often hired based on their “design sense.” However, it is unfortunately very difficult to measure a person’s design sense, especially when the person’s only game industry experience was playing the role of a tiny cog in a giant project.
3.) Once they’re in, it’s very difficult to measure their competency. If the development team they’re overseeing would have created a good game regardless of a producer’s involvement, it still reflects well on the producer. But if the team’s game doesn’t turn out well, the verbally gifted producer can shift blame away from themselves and onto members of the development team.

This is why I’ve seen terrible producers that somehow manage to maintain incredible longevity in the industry. This is also why I love the indie game community. In this space, it’s much easier to have development teams that are streamlined, where everyone’s role is clearly defined and measurable. This is also why I love places like Steam and Bandcamp. They allow creative and motivated people the chance to make a living off of their craft, thus making it harder for bad producers to deceive people into allowing their parasitic kind to feed off of other’s hard work.

There are good producers, and bad producers.

But rest assured that everytime I get a message saying, “Hey, I saw your videos on youtube… I don’t know how serious you are about music, but I’m a producer and I can help you get to the next level,” that it’s going straight to the trash :)

29 Comments »

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  1. Hey, I saw your indie games on your website… I don’t know how serious you are about game making, but I’m a gamer and I really wish to play your game melolune

    is my post going straight to the trash… ?

  2. Whenever I get the “I know know how serious you are” line in person, I give my most disturbing gaze and say in a threatening whisper “I am DEADLY serious about my craft.”

    • I should start doing that, too, haha… just to see what sort of reaction I would get.

  3. Someone needs to keep a “name and shame” list where these vermin can be identified.

    • That’s a good idea… some way to have more transparency for those who are in charge of hiring.

      • That list I think would be very entertaining :) maybe a mug shot next to it. Ha.

  4. That is one long but exceptionally good rant. Thumbs up to you my lovely supershigi :P

    • Thanks Ken! Glad you enjoyed it, even though it was particularly long!

  5. Well, speaking as a music producer, I think what you’re saying is generally correct, although it sounds like you heap blame on the producer for producing sub-standard material, when in reality, the producer can only maximize the talent of the artist — and if that artist is less capable, less original, less interesting, then it’s the producer’s job to add as much as possible so that the end result is as good as it can be.

    Talent comes in all shapes and sizes. For example, I’ve worked with fantastic vocalists who are so-so writers. I’ve worked with world-class writers who are so-so vocalists. Sometimes the stars align and I get to work with both at the same time. It’s my job to get the artist to dig deep and come up with as good a song and production as we possibly can. That’s what I love about my job. Every project is a puzzle that involves shaping, improving, molding both the song and the production until it’s the best we can do.

    • I think you misread what I wrote. The first major paragraph specifically talks about examples of good producers. It’s often the producer that comes in and handles all of the major composition, arrangement, vocal planning, etc. in order to make the song what it really is. In these cases, it’s the producer that’s doing the majority of the creative and technical workload. So I’m by no means “heaping blame” on these people; I’m commending them. I clearly delineate between good and bad producers. And I have lots of respect for a good producer.
      —————
      In case it’s not clear, I’m a music producer as well. I handle all of the composition, arrangement, sound engineering, mixing, vocal planning, recording, etc. in addition to writing the core of the song. This is why I place so much importance on building the song (and this is why I included a semi-rant on how people often wrongly attribute the success of a song to the sub-par “singer-songwriter” as opposed to the producer). To me, the bulk of my work comes from building the song after the initial chord progression, melody, and structure comes into my head. A lot of people can write out some generic lyrics and play chords on their guitar. But to be able to take that and make it into something people want to listen to… that’s a lot harder and more unique.
      —————
      However, the “bad producers” I’m referring to don’t do anything. They try to create a job for themselves where there is none. They act as though they are coaches, or necessary liaisons to the music industry, when in reality they’re struggling just as hard to find work and connections as the new artist. I think the key trait of the bad producer mentioned in my post, is that they know they can’t really contribute anything creatively to the project (either because the artist already does everything the producer can do, or because the producer doesn’t have the necessary skills), yet they try to con the artist into believing they are critical to the artist’s success. They lie, exaggerate, demean the artist in an attempt to feed off their insecurities, etc.
      —————
      I’ve had people come to me saying things like, “who produces your music? I don’t know how serious you are about your music, but I can help you take it to the next level and make you a star.” Not only are these emails incredibly patronizing (because these folks clearly didn’t take the time to research what I do… I produce all of my own music, at the time I was the Audio Director of EA’s All Play label, I had just finished creating the soundtrack to Plants vs Zombies, a platinum selling video game), but they’re ridiculous too: I looked at their site and there was nothing they could have possibly contributed if we were to have worked together. Yet they shamelessly talked to me as if I were a fresh baby artist in need of someone to “show me the ropes” and speak the language of the industry… in reality, they were probably just producing out of their basement trying desperately to get gigs by surfing youtube. The other thing, is that a lot of these folks seem to share the dated assumption that everyone wants to be a star ala the American Idol/record company route. I have no interest in that whatsoever; I’ve walked away from million dollar recording contracts because it’s not the route I want to take. My home is the video game industry, and I love that I’m able to do what I do here.
      —————
      Anyways, these are the “bad producers” I’m referring to. I’m obviously not referring to the creative and talented ones that are actually responsible for creating quality songs. I have the utmost respect for people like Max Martin, the Neptunes, Eno, Mfo, and all of the talented folks I’ve come to know in the independent and video game industry.

  6. I’ve been working in the game industry for over 10 years and you really nailed it. Producers should be very important to any projects, but like you pointed out, sometimes there are bad producers. You made excellent examples of good ones, like the jack of all trade in small teams, or the managerial type in big teams. You also nailed it with the bad producers, which I’ve seen many!

    Big thanks explaining what a music producer usually does. Very informative and very similar to the video games industry!

    • Thanks for your comment Phuong! You’re right, producers should be important to projects, so it’s terrible to see cases where they actually derail progress or prevent the team from meeting deadlines.

  7. By your description the challenges sound similar to what I see with software development teams in general. It seems uncommon to find a really good project manager. I think the type of person that enjoys a leadership role is often the same type that is unwilling to respond to concerns expressed by the team. And when this person lacks any knowledge of key skill areas, not listening can lead to trouble. It’s also a big personality problem in an industry where individual team members usually count themselves as people with thoughts worthy of consideration and who care about the end product.

    • That’s a really good point about how it’s harder to find a person with leadership qualities, who is also willing to respond to their team’s concerns. I’ve seen a lot of folks in managerial positions who haven’t yet learned to control the negative aspects of their alpha personalities.
      —————
      I think it’s really important for managers to be on the same page with their team… I agree that the best leaders are good listeners, and genuinely care about the the people on their team.

  8. wow. its cool that you took the time to reply every single response including mine

  9. That was a really interesting read. Even as a gamer instead of a designer i found it insightful and slightly sad that many producers are manipulative scum whose favourite video game is office politics.

    Hope you have better luck if you ever work at another big game company!

    PS: have you ever thought about modding games instead of making them from scratch?

    • Hehe, I like that line… “favourite video game is office politics” :)
      —–
      While I personally prefer to make projects from scratch, I had a lot of fun making Starcraft mods back in the day. They were usually silly ones that I’d have my friends play^^

  10. Fantastic blog, shigi! It sounds like the bad music producers you are running into are merely investors. They probably have connections in the music industry to actually fulfill the ‘producer’ role while he sits on the toilet reading the news.

    Gonna watch the trolling video now. haha

    • derp… i meant Managers, not investors lolz.

    • Haha, yeah I think they were hoping to position themselves as middlemen. I hope you enjoy the video, it totally cracked me up XD

  11. I always had the impression of something wrong with certain “producers”, now i have a more clear idea about it. Some are a bunch of liars indeed. That’s why i also like the indie game community, it seems less capped by those people and creativity and good ideas can pop up more easily. Thanks dear Shigi, very useful reading. And not exactly a rant, just the truth

  12. Hi Laura,

    I’m in my final year studying at the University of Auckland and I am doing a research project about your music in PVZ. I was able to find piano transcriptions of some pieces but I was wondering if there was anyway I could get the music score, or even a plan of the sound design or anything like that? They would only be for reference about the compositional processes. Sorry about contacting you through the comments, the email function on the contact page was not working for me

    Thanks

  13. Great read. Not too long ago I worked for a startup company where the so called “CEO” was exactly as you described as the bad producer to the tee, and this was a mobile apps/consulting/???/services company (yikes). Long story short, everyone but him had strong teamwork and sense of where they wanted to focus their efforts but in the end he says what goes and what doesn’t. He was like a child at a candy store. Except he owned the candy store. It was awful.

    I guess my point is that you’re not alone, and its not just bad producers; its incompetent leadership and management in general who are plaguing the industry because it seems that in the end, the ones with the money and/or good BSing skills tend to get what they don’t deserve. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to link this post to my ex-coworker so we can rant about how bad that company is together :P

  14. In my experience, I see “most” producers as opportunity seekers. Sitting back, rarely contributing to the creative process and thinking of new and clever ways to insert themselves into your business. Unfortunately, especially for newbies, it’s easy to convince someone to pay you when the “talent” still has stars in their eyes.

    However, with the “collapse” of the music industry, it seems like being a warm body producer is harder to pass off. Which is good.

  15. Hah, similar experience here. I’m on a small-ish team (less than 50 people) and you’re pretty much on with your observations.

    As with the film industry, a video game “producer” can mean anything. A producer can be someone who takes an involved role in software development, someone who coordinates multiple teams (“project director/lead”), or someone who just invested a lot of money in the project.

  16. A very interesting and well written insight into inner-game development mechanics. I agree completely. I especially love the Indie scene as well because the teams tend to be smaller, allowing for the fans to communicate and follow their work more easily.
    With huge game developers (such as Blizzard, Bioware, etc.) one has to dig very deep to know anything about the employees that work on these companies’ projects. I remember being so disappointed when I talked to a friend and found out the dev team for Diablo II had all been let go, and D3 was being developed by WoW developers, etc.
    With indie devs, there is no concern about this. If someone leaves a project on a 2-10 man team, it’s kinda noticeable, and a big deal. Moreover, the people are *typically* working together because they are friends, not because they were hired by a huge company. That is important to me!

    But I digress. In short: I think you’re spot on. Moreover, I think these sort of people can only exist because of huge publishers and their share-holders who care about money and guaranteed return on their investments, as opposed to caring about the actual games and consumers.

    God bless Steam, Kickstarter, and everything else that is giving Indie devs a chance to challenge the soulless giant companies with their publishers.

    Great read! Thanks for posting. :)

  17. It isn’t just game developers who have to deal with those misfires. These sociopaths invade every single productive industry on the planet. The process would click along just fine without them, but nobody seems to believe it.

  18. Listen Laura honey! Video game desigher of the decade! Adored by millions of fans worldwide! You wont be able to go the super market without hearing or seeing your name! See, I’m gonna make you a star! I just need to know how interested you are in ‘leveling up!’


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