In this episode, we‘re going to discuss a spicy topic: Ghost-producing Techno and House music. Whether you like it or not, it seems to become more and more normal to hire a ghost-producer when you want to transition from a pure DJ-career to a DJ-producer career. Why bother with learning complex tools and techniques over many years when you can simply outsource it, right? Well, it‘s not that easy…
What is ghost-producing?
First of all, let me define what we‘re talking about here: Ghost-producing is the act of composing, arranging, and producing a song for somebody else. The song is going to be released on that artist‘s name without any credit of the work of the ghost-producer. This is why he or she is a „ghost“, invisible to the public.
Ghost-producing Techno and House music is usually done with a flat-fee per song or an hourly fee for the ghost-producer‘s time. In most cases, the original composer (the „ghost“) doesn‘t participate in any royalties whatsoever. Sometimes, there‘s a behind-the-scenes deal in regards to royalties but usually, that‘s not the case.
For me, personally, it was a bit hard to come up with any „positive“ aspects of ghost-producing, so I did a bit of research. Luckily, the German version of DJMag has published an article called „Ghost Producing: Not everything‘s wrong with it“ (translated by myself to English). The author lists some hilarious points:
- Without ghost-producing, we wouldn’t have many of the great dance music hymns we‘re enjoying now.
- End-consumers benefit from higher-quality tunes.
- It‘s a win-win for both parties, the DJ as well as the ghost-producer.
I simply can’t resist, here‘s my take on these points:
- Nobody will truly miss half-hearted tunes that were made purely with a commercial end-goal in mind.
- End-consumers want to be part of a tribe and truly believe in an artist and his or her abilities. Nobody wants to be lied to.
- It‘s a lose-lose for both parties because the DJ will most likely feel like a fraud all the time and the ghost-producer will regret it when the track gets popular and someone else gets all the credit. Not to mention royalties.
But let‘s look at this in a bit more nuanced way.
The problem with ghost-producing electronic music
Techno and House music have long been driven by a strong underground movement. In the last decades, these genres have gone in and out of fashion several times. Right now, after the rise of mainstream EDM, we‘re seeing another one of those waves. Suddenly, the once-underground-genres are becoming super popular again and even niche-labels are getting their own stage on popular mainstream festivals.
With the professionalization and commercialization of underground dance music, new opportunities have emerged. Social media channels like Instagram allow upcoming artists to grow a significant following based on visual factors and storytelling rather than outstanding music (hello Insta-DJ!). Still, nothing of this works without any music at all. And this is where the problem starts.
Since the barrier to DJ-ing is much lower compared to producing your own music, upcoming artists are facing a lot of „competition“ (I hate that word…) in the Techno and House music scene. So the logical step is to move from DJing to producing. While the vast majority of DJs are truly interested in exploring the art of music production, there is still a questionable group of people who tries to game the system. They don‘t want to spend the time and energy to learn music production. So they decide to hire a ghost-producer. But can ghost-producing electronic music really give you the desired results?
Instagram + ghost-producing = instant fame?
Let me start this with a personal story that has happened to me recently. A relatively small, unknown DJ contacted my studio, asking whether I wanted to support him getting his first release finished. He‘s a nice guy (as far as I can tell from the conversation) and I‘m actually interested in helping him find his way in this industry.
I‘m going to sum up the conversation briefly for you (keeping his identity confidential, of course, and putting together several emails in one paragraph):
I‘m a DJ currently and I plan to release my first tracks this year. I‘m looking for someone to help me with this. My goal is to transition from a DJ to a legit artist and build a team around it. This way, I can get more gigs, play bigger stages, build a brand, and ultimately make it big.
Unfortunately, I don‘t have any real experience with music production, mixing, and mastering, so I need someone to produce the tracks for me in the desired style.
The level of quality needs to be suitable for labels like Diynamic, Katermukke, Parquet, etc.
Would you like to support me here?“
(Simon is not his real name…)
Here‘s the issue with messages like this: People are looking for a shortcut to success. The harsh truth is, if you want to create a meaningful, longterm artist-career, there simply is no shortcut. Especially not when it comes to the creative process itself.
The problem starts with the goal-setting process. When your goal is to „make it big“, you‘re not choosing the path of an artist. Yes, the music industry is an „industry“ and there‘s nothing wrong with earning money from your art. The question is how you do this. Ghost-producing electronic music definitely isn‘t a great option if you care at least a little bit about that scene and the people who live and breathe it.
Think a little further here. You might enjoy the daydream of playing big festival gigs and releasing on respected labels. But how would it actually feel, playing tracks with your name on it that haven‘t been written and produced by you? What happens when somebody finds out that it wasn‘t you who wrote these tunes? What would your true fans say?
Mainstream-Pop is more honest than the Techno and House scene
Even if ghost-producing Techno and House seems to become the new normal, even in the league of high-profile DJs, there‘s a fundamental problem with it: Lack of honesty.
In my opinion, your fans deserve to know whether you‘ve truly written that song or not. If you haven‘t, and you‘re open about it, some of those fans won‘t care. They simply like you as a DJ or artist-personality, they love your sets and for whatever reason, you inspire them. The ones who do give a damn about who produced the song will walk away and be more interested in artists who genuinely compose their own music.
From Motown records in the 1960s to Rihanna songwriting camps
Let‘s take commercial pop music as an example. Artists like Rihanna, Justin Bieber, or whoever is the latest starlet most likely don‘t write all of their music alone. But at least they‘re honest about it. Original writers and producers get credited and participate in performance royalties. One could argue that the deal isn‘t always super fair, but that‘s a case-to-case discussion.
Back in the 1960s, Berry Gordy and his famous „Motown“ record label pioneered the way hits get made today. Lock a bunch of super-talented, professional musicians in a studio, switch players from time to time, and get as many great tunes of the session as possible.
Today, a Rihanna songwriting-camp looks pretty similar. In a BBC article, pop music starlet and Rihanna-songwriter Raye describes the process like this:
“They book out a studio and they basically get a couple of really, really good producers in three different rooms and they just send writers that they love in, to write for the Rihanna project. It’s really fun but you know it can be difficult because you’re just thrown in with people you don’t work with before.”
Rihanna still gets most of the credits, of course. Her fans don‘t care who she worked with in the background. But you know what? At least she doesn‘t lie to her fans, pretending she had written and produced everything on her own.
The three big downsides of ghost-producing Techno and House
If you‘re a DJ, trying to build a reputation as an artist & music producer, please don‘t try to game the system by hiring a ghost-producer to write your tunes. There are many potential downsides to this approach and I‘m now going to walk you through the three major problems with ghost-producing Techno and House.
1. You will feel like a fraud for your whole music-career
Ghost-producing Techno and House music usually works like this: You hire an experienced producer to create tracks in your desired style. In the beginning, you might feel like you‘re in creative control of the project. You‘re kind of a big-shot now, building a professional team, outsourcing work.
Hell, you might even lie to yourself and feel like a „creative director“ of the project. In the end, you‘re the one who decides in which direction the track goes. You provide reference songs, give feedback, and work closely with the ghost-producer to find the right approach.
“What if someone finds out?”
But then comes this awkward moment when other artists, who genuinely produce their own music, want to talk to you about things like songwriting, music production, arrangement, and mixing. For superficial conversations, your knowledge might be sufficient.
But what happens when you go one level deeper? What if someone finds out that you have no clue what sample rate and bit depth mean? What if you sit down with another artist in front of an Ableton session and you don‘t even know how to switch from session view to arrangement view (even if you‘ve stated before that this is the DAW in which you produce all your tracks)?
I can‘t imagine anyone who would enjoy this feeling over the course of an artist career. It‘s most likely going to feel like having a corpse in your backyard. Someday, someone will find out. And then, you‘re screwed.
2. You‘re missing out on massive PR and promo-opportunities
If you‘re considered a talented music producer and you have a couple of good releases out on respected labels, magazines and blogs will start to knock on your door. They would like to ask you about your production process, what pieces of gear you‘re using, and what inspires you to write these awesome tunes.
Guess what, there‘s no chance you can accept these PR-opportunities if you‘ve worked with a ghost-producer (unless you want to totally embarrass yourself).
And what about your own social media channels? Yes, you can sit in front of an Ableton-session somebody else has produced for you and throw your fists in the air, pretending you‘ve done all the work. But is that an interesting „look behind the scenes“?
Artists who produce their own tracks and live-stream the production process, do Q&A sessions with their fans (like Kyle Geiger does a lot right now). Isn‘t that much more powerful compared to ghost-producing Techno and House?
3. You‘re running away from a chance to grow
Yes, learning music production is a long and sometimes difficult path. But it‘s also an incredible chance to grow as a person and as an artist. If you‘ve been DJ-ing for a couple of years, then stepping into the producer game is the logical next phase of growth. You can still become a better DJ, of course, but production-knowledge is even going to boost your growth as a DJ.
Hiring a ghost-producer for your Techno or House tunes means you‘re running away from an opportunity to grow. And that‘s a mindset problem. If you aren‘t willing to accept a challenge like this, what else are you going to run away from? The artists who are most attractive to music industry professionals are the ones who invest in their growth and are ready to overcome any obstacle.
It might take months to create your first decent-sounding 8-bar loop. It might take a year until you feel like you‘ve put together something you can call a „full song“. And it might take another year until you‘ve created something you‘re so proud of that you want to release it. But you know what? That‘s absolutely okay. It needs to be that way, otherwise we‘d be swamped with even more mediocre music that nobody wants to listen to.
Co-producing instead of ghost-producing electronic music
Since I believe that ghost-producing Techno and House is not a viable solution for anyone who wants to launch a serious artist career, the question remains whether you can speed up things a bit. I‘ve thought about this a lot and here‘s what I came up with.
I think that co-producing can be an option. With that I mean either working together on tracks with a producer-buddy who is more experienced than you or hiring a professional to take your song sketches to the next level. This is only an option under the following criteria:
- You are at the level of writing a full song and have a basic understanding of at least one DAW, which qualifies you as a serious collaboration-partner.
- Your goal is to learn and become better, and ultimately to write and release your own, authentic material.
- If you work with a professional, pay a professional rate. If you work with a buddy, make sure that person benefits as well from the collaboration.
- Fair split of royalties and no shady behind-the-scenes agreements are mandatory.
- All work gets credited properly on the release as well as on promo material and social media.
In the end, nothing‘s wrong with your desire to grow your artist career faster. But you have to be willing to invest in your growth and be fair with your audience as well as any collaboration-partners.
Putting it into action: Honesty instead of ghost-producing electronic music
This might have been a controversial episode but I stick to my view here: Ghost-producing Techno and House isn‘t an option if you want o build a meaningful artist-career. There‘s no shortcut to creating great art and I can‘t imagine anyone would really enjoy living an artistic lifestyle that is based on lies and secret agreements. So here are my three action steps for you:
1. In case you‘ve considered hiring a ghost-producer: Forget about that plan.
- You‘re not going to do yourself any favor with this. You don‘t want to lie to your fans and also, you won‘t enjoy feeling like a fraud for your entire career.
- If you subscribe to my view here, make sure you openly express that ghost-writing shouldn‘t have a place in electronic music. We need that open debate!
2. Invest in your composition, arrangement, and production skills instead.
- If you‘re doubting your skill-level, start to invest in courses and coaching.
- Set aside a specific timeslot every day to work on music. Our episode on time-management for music producersmight help you with that.
3. Consider the option of co-producing instead of ghost-producing.
- If you feel stuck and wish you‘d see more progress, try collaborating with a producer-buddy or hire a professional producer/ engineer at a realistic rate. You will be surprised about how much you can learn this way.
- Make sure you credit the work properly and split royalties.
Alright, that‘s it for this week‘s episode. Now I‘d like to hear from you: What‘s your opinion in regards to ghost-producing Techno and House? Is it a legit way of moving forward in your artist career or should it be dismissed as an option?
Let me know in the comments, I read everything!