Behind the Scenes of Pop

December 15, 2015

Producers don’t get enough credit

In the simplest analogy, a director is to a movie as a producer is to an album. Producers don’t simply produce the song itself; they’re also responsible for overseeing the entire album production process, from start to finish. This includes everything from the more technical aspects of filling consent forms and booking studio time to the artistic, creative control of shaping each piece down to each chord progression to make a track into a hit. Despite this, the face on the album cover gets significantly more recognition than the producer— recording artists are given too much credit for the songs they sing, with no mention of the producers who pioneered the project. A common misconception is that a track is the recording artist’s brainchild, but in fact, the producer often hires a recording artist after a large portion of the song has already been written.

Producers are paid up-front for producing each track or album by the artist and recording company. They generally earn some sort of base salary or charge a base fee and gain additional royalties depending on the number of record sales. Some are classified as the staff of a recording label, while others work independently as freelance producers. As producers prove their consistency at making hit tracks, they can charge higher fees and work with more prestigious recording artists, thus climbing their way upwards financially and wielding an even larger influence upon the music community.

Producers such as Arca and Boots become celebrities in the music community while remaining relatively unknown to the general public. Despite this seemingly behind-the-scenes lifestyle, music producers often have arguably more influence on the hit tracks that we know and love than the artists themselves.

The recording artist is not much more than a pretty face and a melodious voice. The producer is the one who is truly the pioneer of the project, the captain to the ship that is an album. Despite their endurance of the long and tedious process to produce a product, producers simply don’t get enough credit for their work. We see pictures of Beyoncé, of Rihanna, of FKA Twigs. Who is Arca? Who is Boots? There is little to no recognition for the big-name producers that truly shape the entertainment industry outside of the music community.

Boots: Aquaria

While music fans may only be just getting to know Jordan Asher (better known by his pseudonym, Boots) by name, they’ve been hearing his music for a while. Just two years into his career as a producer, he’s worked with big names such as FKA twigs and Beyonce, and is beginning to emerge as an artist himself.

Asher’s story is really one of a climb up the proverbial ladder. A sort of renaissance musician, he learned to drum, sing, rap, and play guitar in his early days as a frontman of multiple smaller indie bands such as Blonds. In 2013, he took on his stage name and signed on to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation entertainment company as a producer. His most well-known work came on Beyonce’s self-titled fifth album in 2013. Estimates on how much of the album was Boot’s creation range from 80 to 90 percent. He penned four of the songs (“Haunted/Ghost,” “Jealous,” “Heaven” and “Blue”) while providing many of the backup vocals and nearly all of the instrumental parts.

His identity as a largely unknown figure behind the scenes allowed Boots to make music creatively without any real expectations from the public.
“I’m free to make whatever sound comes to my head,” he said in a 2014 interview with Vogue. “I’m free to release it however I want, to whoever wants to hear it. And that was really, really invigorating. Most people don’t get the choice to do things on their own terms, especially in the Internet age. I didn’t court this ‘mystery’ idea, but I’ll go with it… because it allows me really interesting opportunities to release music and art in an unconventional way.”

Now, Boots, whose Roc Nation page bio reads only, “Boots was born in the mouth of an 808,” is trying to emerge from the shadows. After a year of dropping singles every few months, he released his first full album, “Aquaria,” on November 13.

Most of the songs of “Aquaria” carry a sort of dystopian, experimental R&B sound. He layers a minimalist acoustic drumbeat over a simple baseline and minor synth, letting his vocals (both singing and rapping) take center stage. This works better in some cases than it does with others. When he focuses on rapping, and sticks to rapping like in “Brooklyn Gamma,” the track is left monotone, without any melodic variation, and it never really gets off the ground. The other issue with such a consistent style is that while there are minor changes in the beat, many of the songs lack any sort of melodic footprint, and tracks run together.

That being said, there are plenty of good points to the album too. While his singing is nowhere near Beyonce’s level, his voice is quite good, and the songs in which he exhibits it, like “I Run Roulette” are, for the most part, great. The most critically acclaimed song on the album, “C.U.R.E.” is a fast-paced, loud warning of the evils of a capitalistic society (along with a nightmare-inducing music video to boot), and is probably the best style Boots can make for himself. He will never be Beyonce, and the tracks on “Aquaria” show that he can both write music for her and for mere mortals.

“Aquaria” is nowhere near a perfect album, but it showcases Boots’ obviously expansive musical and production talent and the high ceiling that he has. If he keeps climbing up the musical ladder, pretty soon the who music world will know Boots by not only his music, but also his name.

Arca: Mutant

The software we use to create electronic music is just an instrument, but we tend to forget that. For all the innovation that supposedly goes on in the electronic scene today, the majority of popular artists and listeners have gravitated towards the formation of a genre and a common identity that has resulted in stagnation. In doing so, these musicians have placed limits on an artform that promised to be unlimited. Arca is here to change that.

Born Alejandro Ghersi, the Venezuelan producer burst into the public consciousness with his production on four tracks from Kanye West’s “Yeezus” in 2013. He quickly followed with work for indie favorite FKA Twigs and co-produced the entirety of Björk’s “Vulnicura.” Arca works like a chameleon; his work takes on the colors and styles of his collaborators while retaining his own ambitions. Where Kanye and Twigs gravitate towards the earthly and material, Arca orients himself towards the astral, allowing his collaborators to reach into those less defined spaces and create music that is distinctly alien.

“Mutant,” the successor to last year’s “Xen” and his 2013 mixtape “&&&&&,” hones in on these spaces without the shackles of the vocal or the recognizable. Where electronic’s ability to quantize and loop has led to a reliance on constant tempos and repetition, Arca ignores the idea of constant tempos entirely, creating an atmosphere that is both uneasy and extremely natural. And where much of traditional electronic leans on a synthetic, sample-based aesthetic, Arca brings the mentality of the production scene — which encourages the impersonation and improvement of analog sounds — and innovates in directions that extend far beyond the reach of his contemporaries.

The music takes on the textures of one’s own voice or a click of the tongue, both impossibly big and invitingly soft. Rattling, soft drums and warped organ samples oscillate between the delicate and the aggressive; the album seems to take listeners on a journey through nature, stopping along the way to goggle at strange landmarks and waterfalls.

The pioneers of electronic music pushed primitive synthesizers to their limit in order to create what they believed would be the music of the future. In a way, their descendants have carried on that tradition over the years, building upon the structure of 4/4 and buildups, releases and breakdowns with new and strange sounds and production techniques. But the pioneers were dedicated to constant innovation, the creation of sounds that had never been heard before and avenues for composition that did not yet exist. The electronic game needs to remember its roots before it can instigate progress.

If the big names of Arca’s collaborators can bring him sufficient attention, he may be poised to carry the torch.

Intentionally or not, Arca’s work always manages to feel like a living, breathing creature, constantly morphing into new shapes and sizes in a way that few other artists can muster. Trying to explain it himself, Arca always comes back around to his use of music to mirror his queer identity: “One day you wake up feeling masculine, and one day you wake up feeling feminine,” he said in a recent interview with Pitchfork. “The flickering in between those two states is what’s most fertile for me.”

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Miranda Li, Print Managing Editor

5'4". Black hair. Actually a lizard. When she think's no one's watching, spends time calling dogs pretty, watches videos about garlic bread in space...

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