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Approaching artists about making changes in their songs

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Sometimes a producer's job isn't an easy one, and one of the more challenging tasks is when you have to talk to the artist about making a change to one of their songs. Maybe it's a line that doesn't "sing well", or one that doesn't seem to make sense or fit in within the context of the song. Or maybe the song is a basic uptempo pop piece that needs to lose the incongruent and overly complicated 3 minute slow interlude they put into the middle of it. Whatever the issue is, as a producer, how do YOU approach the artist when something isn't working? How do you reduce the chances the artist will have their feelings hurt or be offended, and remain open to your suggestions?




(BTW, what prompted this thread was an article I recently read on the subject.)

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I`ve been in this situation many a time…


I was producing a songwriter a few years ago who had a really catchy tune… great lyrics, great vibe, no chorus, no bridge… the song just grooved with one verse after another. I really liked the tune but the songwriter also realized there was "something missing". He gave me the liberty to fool around with the tune which I did on my own time. I eventually was able to reconstruct the arrangement around the verses so the verses developed and even though there wasn`t an official chorus, the song ebbed and flowed. Eventually we were both happy with the results but that was an ideal situation in which the songwriter approached me about resolving an issue he was having.


I had another songwriter come in years ago who wanted to re-record a song that he wrote in the mid 90s…. the song had already been recorded at least 4 times by the time he got to me… He wanted to modernize the song, "Make is sound current!" he said… We discussed the instrumentation which was primarily piano… thing Elton John… He wanted to keep the piano. I wanted to make it more guitar centric. I wanted him to sing the song differently with a more upbeat feel… he refused… I explained that we could not modernize the sound if he was unwilling to change his approach. We ended up not working together. He went to a studio where they did exactly what he wanted and he ended up with the same song sounding exactly the same as the previous 4 recordings. Last I heard, this same guy was re-recording the same song with another band. I`m convinced he is delusional, trapped in 1994 when he wrote the song, thinking its just a matter of time before he gets the right recording! Ever heard of Einsteins definition of insanity?


Lastly, I had a female songwriter contact me one day about writing and helping her sing. She came in many times and we worked on her tunes, and her singing. She was completely open to working with me and we were able to chip away the excess in her tunes and get them lean. She had way too many things going on whereas some artists don`t have anything going on. So in her case, it was more about getting her to focus on "what do you really want to say here?" That was a common question during our sessions. So she had to trim away the fat whereas other songwriters want me to give them a sound.


Every artist is different but the ones that are the most awarding to work with are the ones that are open to idea and humble… meaning they will consider living with some of the changes I`m introducing to them and seeing if it grows on them. Some just want you to be a "yes man" and thats not a nourishing relationship. So you have to realize who you working with and if they are open to ideas. If they are not, then its most likely not going to work out. So I stay away from those artists.


Being a producer, is being part coach, manager, Psychologist, teacher, musician… knowing when to switch hats comes with experience.

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It depends on who you are working with.


Some musicians have fragile egos so you have to be gentle with them. A lot of musicians need to feel like they are in control so you have to make them feel that they are part of the process even if they don't have any good ideas.


Others don't give a flying flip what you do so long as it sounds good. They may give you free range to do just about anything you want. I've had People play their parts and leave. Then I would arrange and play most of the other parts then take them the tape when it was finished.


I've written bridges and turn-arounds and rearranged parts for people.. I've turned choruses into verses and bridges into choruses etc... I've written parts for songs that other people ended up thinking they wrote but I'm not going to argue about who wrote what if I think the song sounds good.


Of course if you are getting paid then the artist you are producing is going to have the final say. But I've done a lot of "collaborating" with musicians over the years and sometimes one or more persons may not be happy with all the final decisions that were made. But somebody has to make decisions and it was usually me because we were using my recording gear. :p




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Everyone's different but there's usually a technique that will work. Having an understanding before you even begin work is the best. It gives the musician time to think about it and prepare. If a recording session has already begun, the train has already left the station and the performer already has his juices going on a high performance level already. breaking that rhythm should create a train wreak if he's giving it all he has.


Still its up to the individual. If you're hearing what you like and have good suggestions to make it better, wait till he takes a break and tell him exactly that. " I like what I'm hearing and have a few suggestions to make it even better if you're open to making this the hit it can be"


If they don't want the input then you cant do much about it. If they do accept, then make sure you really do have answers.


I like the pre-staging better though. If they give you some kind of recording so you can at least hear the lyrics, melody and get an idea of what they are wanting to do, you can give them some suggestions before they even show up. Chances are they will make some changes and when you do hear them you give them a big thumbs up for taking your suggestions. That acknowledgement will secure a working relationship which can be taken farther when needed. Its also much better to do it in small stages. If something as simple as a single riff or chord change gets it closer to sounding right, its one step farther away from sounding bad.


Most of the people I work with know I'm quite frank when it comes to expressing ideas. I'm also just as willing to listen to their ideas. Truthfully, its how you listen and how you react to what you hear that that gets allot done. If you have the right respect from the artist they will understand you have the best intensions for them and want them to succeed. That trust needs to be earned and from there they are more likely to ask or at least take suggestions.


Thing is, people talk (and perform) when they are in projection mode. They seek a reaction/reflection to their actions (applause). If the reaction is good, they figure they did well. Very simple. The trick is to give them verbal ok's (applause) when things are going well and make it apparent gesture when its not and let them attempt to win you over. If the part stinks, simply put your hand on your forehead and ask them if they have any other options they can use there. You may know what they need, but make them come up with it. Tease them a bit. When they've exhausted their options ask them " Do you think this might work?


Sometimes I share suggestions that were made to me. I frame it in a way that fits their situation and conclude with the better results I got by taking their advice. This is usually the least invasive way of making a suggestion. Showing others you have the humility to take suggestions and explain how it wound up being a good thing, sets the stage for them doing the same.


Chances are they will be open for making a change at that point. If not, you're likely dealing with a recluse who has no ability to work with other people. You should know that from the first conversation you had with them. The best you can do is mentor them as a father and try and guide them the best you can.


Some musicians can be very difficult to work with if they are using illegal substances to fuel their quest. If they are in an altered state I just let them ride the wave and give them what they want. There's nothing as futile as trying to sway someone under the influence. I've seen people turn paranoid or just blow up questioning what they were wanting to do. To them you're supposed to know what they are doing just by their mere presence of them being there.


Questioning their sense or reality doesn't work because they aren't living in reality, they are escaping from it. They are living in an altered state and trying to find what plane they may be on for one minute to the next is pointless. I've actually ended sessions when people came in too bizarre to work with. It's a matter of professionalism. If you want to be taken seriously you have to have some standards. sets the precedence that work is work and play is play. If they want to work, I'll earn my pay. If all they want to play, take it some place.


This is probably the biggest issue working with artists and everyone knows it. Some are more competent at handling themselves and you can get work done. Others its just plain impossible unless they sober up before they come to a session.


They have to realize this is "The Place" that separates the men form the boys. If they want to show people they have what it takes to be a star they have to take the mask off and put the toys away. Celebrate after you did your days work.


Its not that you cant have fun in that process too, but there's a team of people here shooting for the stars and you'll wind up being the guy other people blame when it fails. You don't want to be that guy. You want to be the guy people point out as being the reason for the success. If you aren't ready and willing to give it 100% including working with others you have nothing to feel sorry about. You'll take it as a learning experience and do better the next time. (and maybe take that engineers suggestions next time)

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