Hi my name is Lucas and I’m a music producer. Don’t believe me just watch. 

If you made it :08s in to that video you probably you heard me give a nice little soundbite. You see, Philadelphians are clamoring for my nice little soundbites, because I recently co-produced the new music for Philadelphia’s oldest news radio station (one of the oldest news radio stations in the world in fact), KYW Newsradio 1060. In fact if you turn your internet radio dial right now to this station, you’ll probably hear some music I produced within five minutes of listening— I’m talking headlines, I’m talking weather, I’m talking sports, I’m talking traffic… you got a news segment? I can produce the music for it! Or more accurately, we (at Man Made Music) can produce the music for it.

Quick sidenote: If you made it to :54s in that video you heard me give a not-so-nice soundbite. I mean the sentiment is nice, but the delivery? Oof. I don’t like it. Basically I was just riffing, and I came across this phrase “This piece has got soul to it, because Philadelphia has soul!” And I guess I didn’t say it cleanly, or clearly enough the first time, so they made me say it again, and then I got all self-conscious, and it felt like I was acting, and frankly, I’m a bad actor. So I delivered it all weird and self-consciously. But they kept it in anyway. Look people, don’t make me repeat myself. I’m good at improvising and saying things spontaneously, but I am not good at delivering lines. Maybe I should take some acting classes? That sounds fun…


Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. I’m a music producer! But what the heck is a music producer? Well, broadly speaking, a music producer is someone who helps facilitate the creation of recorded music. This helping facilitate can encompass a wide range of different activities. It can be a primarily directorial role — with a producer coaching singers and musicians during the recording process to achieve their best performances. It can also be more of a project manager position —  with the producer planning and budgeting for the entire process of writing, hiring musicians, recording, mixing, mastering, registering, and releasing music. A producer may also be the writer or co-writer of a piece of music. In fact Webster’s dictionary defines a producer as… just kidding.

It is a big catch-all term, and there are as many different approaches to it as there are producers. You might be a Rick Rubin, who, among other things, acts in part as a meditation coach for the artists he is producing. Or you might be a Timbaland, who, among other things, creates tracks from scratch for artists to sing or rap over. Or you might be a Lucas Murray, who, among other things, flies by the seat of his pants, communicates with composers, sends emails to clients, arranges recording sessions, books musicians, records guitar parts, edits the music, and ultimately gives clunky soundbites to Philadelphia radio stations. That’s how you know the project is coming to a close— when you’re in that clunky soundbite stage.

Here’s a soundbite (or textbite?) for all you armchair philosophers out there: You can’t possibly know what era you are living in. This is true in any field. Its up to historians to define your era long after you and all your friends have died (easy on the looming mortality talk Lucas! Jeez!). Beethoven wasn’t writing his fifth symphony, all smug, thinking to himself “I truly am ushering in the romantic era.” But music historians often point to that symphony as the inflection point for a new era in music (or was it Beethoven’s 3rd? It’s been a while since I took a music history class. Look it up, dear readers, because you have a lazy writer who doesn’t care to fact check himself). The point is, I don’t know what musical age we are living in, but if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on this being the age of the producer.

This is a vain proclamation. Its pretty convenient that right when I become a music producer I take to my blog and tell my tens of readers that we’re living in the age of the producer, isn’t it? If someone had asked 19 year old Lucas what era we are living in, he’d probably be all like “the age of guitar, man!” Luckily no one ever asked me that. Plus the difference between 19 year old me, and me now, is I’m right and he’s wrong. I’ll go out on a limb and say unless you’ve developed a drug habit, this is true in almost any discrepancy between one’s 19 year old self, and one’s 30 year old self.

Quick side-note: I’ll look forward to my 50 year old self treating my 30 year old self with this same flippant dismissal.

Anyway, instead of just dunking on him and walking away, let me go back in time and try to prove to little 19 year old me that this is the age of the producer. Ok, so, 19 year old Lucas (I’m going to call you young Luc— obviously that’s pronounced “Luke” — read it that way). Young Luc, I’m going to ask you to do something you’ve probably never intentionally done in your life. I want you to listen to the Spice Girls’ hit song “Wannabe.” Now I know everyone overdosed on this song back in the late 90s, but they did so for good reason. This song is pure ear candy from front to back and take my word for it that it still sounds great in 2019. But why? The melody, harmony, and form are good, but there’s nothing revolutionary there. The incredibly energetic performance from the girls in this song also shouldn’t be understated. But the special sauce is the production. It is the result of people paying attention at all levels (from performance, to recording, to mixing to mastering) to the sound of the sounds.

Let me get a little professorial on you young Luc. Pull up a chair.

For almost the entire musical history of mankind, how music sounded boiled down to some pretty simple questions:

  • who is playing it?
  • what instruments are they using?
  • what piece of music are they playing?
  • where are they playing it?

Correct me if I’m missing something, but that’s pretty much it. Then with the invention and continued advancement of recording technology, the influences on the sound of music have expanded exponentially. In addition to the questions above, we now must ask: what kind of microphones we’re using, are we recording digitally or analog, are we replacing or augmenting any sounds, do we use auto-tune, how are we going to equalize this, how much compression do we use on each instrument, are we using any samples, how much and what kind of reverb do we use, are we adding effects and which ones, does this need any editing, etc… etc… etc… Oh and who is going to do all of this? Well, young luc, the producer is the one who is going to at least need to have a vision for all of this, if not outright do it herself.

Now I’m not ready to say that production is unequivocally the most important influence in making a song great. Called me old-fashioned, but I still believe you need to write a good song (ya know, one with a good melody, good harmony, good form, good groove, and good lyrics). However, I believe that most if not all of the musical elements that are new in our era, fall broadly under the domain and responsibility of the producer. And that is why this is the Age of the Producer. What do you think about that young Luc?

He’s speechless.

Last week was the Little Rock Film Festival (May 11th-17th) — the annual event in which the city’s cultural movers and shakers come out to socialize and see independent films. I put my normal routine on hold (as I am wont to do) so I could attend a handful of the festival’s films and parties, justifying it as a networking opportunity. Though I probably just wanted to get out of the house and see people, I did in fact end up meeting or reconnecting with a number of writers, musicians, actors, directors, program directors, and venue owners who were eager to talk about their craft and mine; cards were exchanged, facebook invites were sent, and gigs were offered. Little Rock is a small pond— if you want to get plugged in to the music and arts community here, it is relatively easy to swim around and meet the right fish. I can’t expect for my music to be supported unless I too am supporting the arts and investing time in meeting my audience and potential collaborators. So in the spirit of mutual support I’d like to express my appreciation for a handful of things I experienced during the festival:

  1.  The short film “The Dealer’s Tale”— a sleek and enjoyable adaptation of a story written by my friend Frank Thurmond.
  2. The short film “Monotony Broken”— I had no prior connection to this two person silent film, I just sincerely liked it and ended up having good conversations with both the director JC Cocker and the male lead Kristof Waltermire (it wouldn’t hurt my feelings to talk to the female lead either).
  3. The KUAR radio program Arts & Letters— I met the host Brad Minnick at the premiere of the previous two films, and he told me all about this wonderful radio show which features local artists, musicians, and authors.
  4. Cache Restuarant and Lounge— the location of the film festival’s opening night party, and consistent host and supporter of local musicians.

But most of all, I just want to talk about punk rock.

On Monday I saw the documentary Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-1990) at the Ron Robinson Theatre. True to it’s title, the film documented the rise of such DC punk bands as The Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Government Issue, Scream, Void, Faith, Rites of Spring, Marginal Man, and Fugazi, most of whom released their records on the local independent label Dischord Records. Some people sitting in the theater with me were audibly nostalgic, greeting certain people, pictures, and comments in the film with warm knowing laughter; many of them lived through the period, collected the records, and perhaps even saw some of these bands live. I on the other hand, having neither lived through this time (I was born in late ’88) nor listened to the music, approached the subject as an outsider eager to learn about a musical culture different than my own.

One thing struck me as encouraging: the idea that anyone can and should play music if they want to. The punk scene allowed young people a new avenue of musical expression that didn’t require one to conform to the pop-music standards of the time; you didn’t necessarily have to be an adept musician to play in a band or make a record— the DC scene offered a community of support for anyone who wanted to get on stage and make some noise. Furthermore, if you didn’t want to be in a band, you could make a fanzine, or engage with the band at shows— there was a way for everyone to actively participate in the music and lifestyle. One former punk rocker in the film insightfully pointed out that it is common in most musical cultures throughout the world for everyone to play or participate in music. In this sense, punk rock is perhaps more in line with the traditional communal functions of music than other Western music genres which essentially adorn certain musicians as untouchable genius superstar gods. I too believe that everyone should be given opportunity to play music, and any community or genre that allows for that is certainly doing something positive.

One thing struck me as interesting: almost every band member interviewed in the film defined themselves against someone or something else. There were few if any actual affirmative definitions of the music and lifestyle, but a multitude of “I am not them” definitions. Early on in the film, the first wave of punks defined themselves against the musical and societal norms of middle-class America. Henry Rollins, then front-man for the band State of Alert, recounted a belligerent confrontation with a muscle-car driving jock-type who was “probably listening to Boston or Kansas.” The implication was that this was precisely who the punks were not. As the punk scene evolved, bands began to define themselves not only against the music and behavior of society at large, but even against other punk bands. Ian Mackaye, founder of Dischord Records and then front man for the band Minor Threat, famously wrote a song called “Straight Edge” in reaction to the heavy drinking and hardcore drug use in the punk community— exclaiming in the first lines of the song that “I’m a person just like you, but I’ve got better things to do, than sit around and fuck my head, hang out with the living dead.” Yet shortly after the “Straight Edge” movement spread throughout the DC punk scene, other bands in the scene such as Black Market Baby arose in opposition to the straight edge movement, claiming the title “Bent Edge,” representing their open indulgence in drugs and alcohol. This trend of counter-definition (and subsequent counter-counter-defintion), continued as mini-movements like girl punk, positive force, revolution summer (1985), and emo ebbed and flowed throughout the DC punk scene; punks consistently defined themselves by what they were not.

This style of defining oneself and one’s music is ultimately neither good nor bad. Surely it can sometimes be counter-productive to be overly invested in trying not to be something, but deciding who you are not is a useful step in uncovering who you are (whether musically or personally). Furthermore, if you think beyond its capitalistic, religious, or cathartic purposes, Western Music has essentially been a progressive dialogue about what is possible in and good about music. Original music can either affirm a tradition or challenge and expand it; this has been happening throughout music history. So many of our culture’s great musical icons have engaged in defining themselves and their music against the trends of the time and were made greater for it (Beethoven bending the rules of the classical symphony, Bob Dylan adopting the electric guitar, etc…). And sometimes the greatness of an oppositional musical act is not measured in personal fame, but in the endurance of that act; e.g. the relatively unknown Grand Wizzard Theodore utilizing the turntable as an instrument rather than merely a passive audio player by inventing the technique of scratching. Music evolves through challenge and opposition to existing musical forms and methods. The DC punk musicians, with their many schisms, were simply continuing to do what countless composers, musicians, and artists have done or tried to do throughout the ages: challenge and expand music and art.

Either that, or they were just being punks. Which brings me to the one thing that struck me as problematic: most of the music was pretty bad, and some of it bad by design. In saying this, I do realize that musical taste is subjective and that many people sincerely enjoy what I am deeming “bad”— yet to me there are certain qualities that make some musical performances better than others (i.e. rhythmic accuracy, correct pitch, dynamic range, melodic and harmonic variety, etc…) which seemed to be lacking in most of the songs I heard in the film. So often drummers sped up past the starting tempo, guitars were out of tune, band-mates were not synced up rhythmically with each other, and there was essentially no dynamic variation (abrasively loud was the preferred volume). It was a deep breath of fresh air when the film explored the punk fascination with Washington DC Go-Go music, and I got to briefly listen to danceable grooves and accurate melodies. I understand that punk is deliberately rough around the edges, yet I disapprove when some members of the scene deliberately eschew technical proficiency in music. One former punk band member stated in the film that “there was this idea during the time that you had to be like Jaco Pastorius to be in a band. Well we knew we weren’t very good, and we didn’t care.” This statement does partly articulate the inclusionary nature of the punk scene (which above I claimed was a positive trend), but it also ignores the legitimacy of trying to improve at the craft of music. I am not indicting punk as an entire genre; of the DC bands featured in the film, I do really enjoy Fugazi. Yet I don’t think it is a mistake that they became the most famous and successful of the bunch; musically they were the best band. Their bass player and drummer (Joe Lally and Brendan Canty respectively) each had great musical chops and locked in with each other to form the tight rhythmic foundation of the band, and singers/guitarists Ian Makaye and Guy Picciotto were veteran punk rockers of over half a decade when Fugazi was founded who each wrote and performed songs with catchy hooks and dynamic changes. Some punk bands may embrace shoddy musical performance, but those are not the bands which succeed. Regardless of the genre, if you want to be a good band, you have to play music well.

As I said at the beginning of my philosophical foray into DC punk territory, I am an outsider. I’ve attended some house parties with punk bands, and even briefly performed with a punk-ish band, but I’ve never been immersed in the community. I admit that my opinions on this issue do not come from a place of deep experience or emotion. It is clear to me that punk rock is meaningful to a large number of people, and I invite any of those people to talk to me about what they feel I’ve missed or misunderstood about the scene. I don’t mean to temper my stance too much— I still believe everything I just wrote is true and am ready to defend it, but I recognize that my education is incomplete. I would love to hear from anyone with different theories about punk— feel free to drop me a line.