The rise of the producer: How nerds took over the charts

The rise of the producer: How nerds took over the charts

A music producer was once a balding, middle-aged man who smelt of cigarettes, Quavers and despair. He was constantly pushed around by artists, ignored during acceptance speeches and cut out of photos. People mispronounced his first name and misspelt his surname. He was merely a cog in the machine - a nerd in the background.

Today, David Guetta, Diplo and Calvin Harris are some of the biggest names in music. With sold-out tours, residencies in Las Vegas and Ibiza and the fanfare of fame which comes with having millions of fans, it’s an altogether different existence.

Vocalists no longer pull rank on producers, who are now both the celebrities and the masterminds that pop stars are scrambling to work with. The recent hit Wild Thoughts, for instance, featured vocals from Rihanna and was produced by DJ Khaled. The former is one of the most successful singers of all time, yet the latter is the named artist on the track. So how did we get to this point?

In the mid 90s, the charts were flooded with manufactured boy bands. This was a time when the marriage of music and marketing began to change the course of popular culture. The same format extended to girl bands, of course, and brought us huge names such as the Spice Girls.

The Spice Girls, each wearing an outfit to match their chosen personality, perform to a crowd

Akin to a soap opera, characters would be chosen, their personalities moulded and a sheen of PR-proofing applied. The setup was one of puppeteering. The vocalists themselves were merely a front for a much larger operation. Though both in the background, the producer would usually receive even less airtime than the manager. Those working with the world’s biggest pop stars would be paid handsomely, but the idea of a music producer being a chart-topping celebrity in their own right was farfetched.

However, it was around this time that dance music was talking off. The powers that be had exerted so much effort attempting to police and prevent illegal raves, it only made sense that these events were given a home. Dripping in mud and beer, electronic music was brought in from the outside and into the club scene. There was a new nighttime economy - and there was money to be made.

In the breakbeat scene, there had already been a significant rise to prominence of the producer. Matt “Slipmat” Nelson of SL2, the group behind cult classics On A Ragga Tip and Way In My Brain, witnessed this firsthand. “I think it was the massive change in DJ culture with DJs suddenly making the tunes as well as playing them,” Slipmatt explained to VT.

“In my opinion, since the early 90s it’s pretty much always been the bands that have produced their own music that have shone through - the likes of the Prodigy, N-Joi, Shades of Rhythm etc from the early days when we all suddenly had easy access to samplers and DAT machines.”

Over in America, names like Puff Daddy and Dr Dre were also disrupting the status quo. Hip hop had opened up a new avenue to stardom - producing your own beats. In a genre requiring little to no vocal range, production was hugely important and those who had the patience were able to further promote their lyrical ability by rapping over a new, catchy beat. That said, there remained significant emphasis on studio time which was hard to come by.

For certain skilful producers though, mixtapes became albums and albums became plaques. For others, production was a day job while rapping remained the dream. For others still, it was a springboard - providing a platform (or an empire in some cases) from which to have their voices heard.

Meanwhile, the commodification of dance music had brought with it significant investment and in some cases, producers were stealing the show. Electronica was now neither niche nor subcultural. In September 1999, Fatboy Slim performed his first UK number one Praise You at the VMAs, where he won three awards. The millennium proved a tipping point, after which the musical landscape was set to change forever.

The noughties saw a huge increase of consumer technology and before long, home computing was no longer a luxury. Affordable software allowed for anyone to try their hand at music production and the old guard were understandably concerned.

It was around this time that a fish factory worker was making beats in his bedroom in Dumfries. This spotty Scottish teenager was part of a new breed of musician - the bedroom DJ. The dance music equivalent of a singer-songwriter, bedroom DJs weren’t as reliant on their labels as they had no need for a producer. Furthermore, social media now meant there was less reliance on corporations for distribution - and a number of independent labels took off.

Indeed, Calvin Harris’ success came not from moving to London (from which he subsequently returned) but from exposure gained through his Myspace page. The first signing of an independent management firm, he soon had representation and distribution all without a record deal.

A young Calvin Harris puts his hands in the air as he looks out at the crowd

Turntables, drum machines and synthesisers were slowly being replaced with laptops and software. Festival-goers would stare expectantly through the mist at the omnipresent glow of Apple Inc, the logo a vague hint at what was to come.

“In more recent years all you need is a PC,” explains Slipmatt, “or even a laptop, and some very cheap or even free software to make a high quality recording. There is still demand for decent behind-the-scenes producers, but we’re certainly in an era of dance music where the norm is to make the music on your own, at home, go out and play it yourself, even market the music yourself, and be the face on the artwork too.”

With the evolution of music technology came changes in style and new genres were born. From garage and two-step came dubstep, from jungle came liquid, from hip hop came trap and from nowhere came a new term - EDM.

Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is a catchall term which has come to describe performance-driven dance music. Paraded around the world at festivals and nightclubs, EDM has become something of an institution. Unlike artists such as Tïesto and Armin van Buuren who cut their teeth DJing, this movement put creation ahead of curation - providing the producer a platform the scale of which had never been seen before.

An enormous stage complete with lights and dry ice sits ominously in front of the camera

Names such as deadmau5, Avicii, Martin Garrix and Hardwell were taking over festivals - and the radio. The genetic makeup of chart music had changed dramatically. Now centred on hooks rather than choruses, vocalists became more dispensable and producers took centre stage.

However, the 2015 album Purpose, largely produced by Skrillex, saw Justin Bieber named as the artist on nearly every track. Clearly, the brand equity of a record-breaking vocalist is still a match for the power wielded by the world’s biggest producers. That said, on Where are Ü Now, Skrillex and Diplo are the named artists rather than Bieber. Furthermore, on the 2016 track Cold Water, Major Lazer was the named artist as opposed to Justin Bieber or MØ. David Guetta, not Zara Larsson, was the named artist on This One’s For You and artists such as Rihanna and Ellie Goulding have regularly lent their voices to the genre without receiving the main credit.

Consequently, the festival scene has exploded. Every year, more than 300,000 people head to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Electric Daisy Carnival. Meanwhile, Tomorrowland has got so big it had to be split over two weekends. This year, the Belgian festival attracted 400,000 revellers. (That’s nearly five times the size of Burning Man.) Perhaps even more surprising is the prominence of EDM in India where, in 2015, Goa’s Sunburn festival attracted 350,000 people.

Furthermore, continued advancements in technology are making music production not only more accessible but more dynamic. The marriage of synthesisers and keyboards into one instrument could see live performances change dramatically. Meanwhile, VR technology is making digital music production less tactile yet more physical.

Of course, there are dozens of artists who haven’t been mentioned, additional threads to the story and exceptions to the rule. Prince, for example, was both a masterful producer and talented vocalist. At the time, he was a rare example of a musician who could single-handedly create a number one hit.

The actual origin of the perceived trend is also difficult to pinpoint. The elevation of the DJ to a godly figure originated in the 80s in the Chicago and New York club scenes. Arguably, it’s when clubbers began to actually face the DJ that the movement was given legs. However, this is both a phenomenon in its own right and a divisive talking point in the music scene.

Looking back even further, it is in the African American community that we see an earlier rise to prominence of the producer. Multitalented artists such as Quincy Jones blurred the lines between performer and producer, as did various labels such as Motown Records.

Regardless, what was once the reserve of teenagers in bucket hats asking for a “pound for sound” is now a £5bn industry. Tonight, as he does every Friday night, Calvin Harris will play to an audience of thousands in a club the size of four football fields. Not bad for a fish factory worker from Dumfries.


Featured illustration by Egarcigu