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Want to Be the Next Big Rock Producer? Buckle Up

As labels’ budgets dwindle and consumer demand drops, working in the genre is more competitive than ever before. “It’s hard to cut through the noise — the idea of ‘alternative’ itself is evolving,” says one producer

Justin Meldal Johnsen, Carlos de la Garza and Suzy Shinn.

Justin Meldal Johnsen, Carlos de la Garza and Suzy Shinn.

Christina Gandolfo; Courtesy of Carlos de la Garza; Ani Acopian

Carlos de la Garza can “count on one hand” the number of alternative rock records being green-lit by major labels right now.

De la Garza, a drummer-turned-producer who also mixes and engineers and has worked with everyone from Bad Religion to Best Coast, remembers a more lucrative time: 10 to 15 years ago, he says, record labels had much bigger budgets for rock and alternative acts. Those budgets have since shifted toward other genres — resulting in fewer album releases and fewer opportunities for rock-focused producers every year. “Everyone’s fighting for those same few records, so when you do get a record like that, the pressure is just so intense,” de la Garza tells Rolling Stone.Taking chances becomes much more of a high-risk game, and that can just lead to a spiraling effect on the ability to create something new, fresh, or inventive.”

In the last 12 months, based on U.S. sales and streaming data from analytics firm Alpha Data, no rock or alternative albums have entered the top 50. (The exception is Billie Eilish, whose music sometimes categorized as alternative.) In the top 100, there are a handful of older albums, like Queen’s Greatest Hits at #58, The Beatles’ Abbey Road at #63, and the Eagles’ Eagles at #69, above the rare new release from acts like Panic! at the Disco and Imagine Dragons.

While it’s no secret that rock music isn’t receiving the type of play it has in the past — the days of fans fainting at the sight of a Beatle are behind us — the narrow lane that rock music exists in nowadays is also limiting opportunities for aspiring producers in the genre, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of less and less unique rock music being released.

“Taking chances becomes much more of a high-risk game, and that can just lead to a spiraling effect on the ability to create something new, fresh, or inventive.”

Justin Meldal-Johnsen — who’s played bass for Beck and Nine Inch Nails, and produced for the likes of M83, Wolf Alice, and Paramore — describes the situation as a “large landscape of ‘producer types'” who aren’t getting the chance to break through. That stands in contrast with the pop genre, in which producers are becoming celebrities.

“Rick Rubin cut his teeth with really big bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers,” adds De la Garza. “Back in the day, there was Mutt Lange, who did AC/DC and Def Leppard — those are massive records. We don’t really have that [type of person].”

The roadblocks to succeeding as a modern rock producer are plenty. For one, there is a plethora of sub-genres, whose gatekeepers often take pride in serving as representatives of the particular sound they’ve aligned with. “It’s much more niche than it ever has been, even within itself,” says de la Garza. “There’s active rock, which is way different than alt rock, and then there’s country rock. There are so many different facets of it now and it’s highly divisional. Take Dave Cobb, for example, who’s in the more country-leaning alt/rock vein. In the indie rock world, John Congleton does a lot of cool records and is getting a lot of notoriety. And then Rick Rubin is still the king of the big, major-label stuff. He just did that new Strokes record.”

Many of the limited pool of aspiring rock acts are also wary of picking a newbie producer. So new producers can’t garner notoriety without big cuts — but they also can’t get the big cuts without notoriety.

Suzy Shinn is an up-and-comer who engineered the last two Panic! at the Disco albums and produced the not-yet-released Weezer album (which includes “End of the Game” and “Hero”). Shinn points out that while pop albums tend to have multiple producers for each track, rock albums usually have one producer on the whole thing, further squeezing competition. Rock producers are also expected to play multiple instruments and have a strong understanding of the instrumental work that drummers, bassists, and guitarists are all doing.

“A producer has to wear a lot of hats in today’s rock world,” de la Garza says. “This is completely the opposite of sample-based production. You’re literally recording everything from the ground up — whether it’s a drum kit, a string section, or a horn section. Having the experience to know how to do all that is definitely a huge asset.”

But even though the job requires an increasingly wide skill set, there’s less money in rock music production than ever before, producers say.  “I don’t have my own studio,” says Shinn, who moved out to L.A. from southern Kansas at a young age. “Gear is so expensive. And I want to get good gear — the sound is so important. For the Weezer album, I was driving out to Santa Monica every morning to rent out a studio space. It’s not as easy as pulling out a microphone, a laptop, and a great pre-amp and being able to program. You need to feel that the band is there and playing.”

She continues: “Let’s say you move out to L.A. with nothing except a laptop. You get your first publishing advance and it’s twenty grand. You’re gonna be like, ‘Oh no, I have to survive.’ You’re not gonna be like, ‘Let me buy this $4,000 drum set and let me get $10,000 in pre-amps. Recording acoustic instruments, recording bands, and working out of the box is expensive — especially for young kids.”

De la Garza points out the lack of a farm team. (In baseball, that’s the minor league team that provides players as needed to an affiliated major league team.) It’s imperative for producers to “have the working knowledge, experience, or relationships in place” for any situation that arises, he says. “There are definitely going to be a lot of people left behind because they don’t have that experience.”

“Who’s going to take the reins?” de la Garza asks, adding that the process of tracking live instruments feels like a dying art. “Nobody even has any interest in doing some of that stuff any more. So, is everything going to be sample-based eventually?” And in the age of DIY, bedroom studio setups, the ability to enter any professional studio space and immediately know how to get to work is becoming more and more uncommon. That ability is a huge asset, though, as is evidenced by his experience flying to Nashville to work on Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams’ recently released solo album.

Data shows that the vast majority of young people simply don’t listen to rock music as much as previous young generations did. And if that key demographic — which keeps the music business afloat — doesn’t care, then neither do the labels. The streaming business has also created what Meldal-Johnsen refers to as a “democratization” of music creation, meaning that artists have more control of their releases and can release more frequently. While this is exhilarating in some respects, it also means there’s more noise to cut through. He cites a “seismic shift in the increased output of music” that has created “a glut of records to listen to.” De la Garza adds that because labels also now have to compete with independent routes — e.g. self-releasing songs on Soundcloud — they are rushing to pay millions for new voices while tightening the purse strings for rock acts already on their roster.

“The zeitgeist has shifted, and the interest of music consumers has shifted and shrunk,” says Meldal-Johnsen. “Guitar music is always going to be there. It’s just lessened in its import. There’s not really a lot of room for hero-building or public personas. That kind of fame doesn’t really exist anymore.” It doesn’t help that the edgy shock factor that made punk rock what it is has now migrated to trap recordings and gothic pop.

But producers are trying to elevate the genre again by re-engineering their own sounds and attitudes toward work. There’s something to be said for being willing to incorporate pop and hip-hop elements into rock: The reverse is already happening — just take Lil Nas X and that Nine Inch Nails sample — so why is it more frowned-upon in rock and alternative spaces?

“You have pop artists appropriating bits of something that’s been under the rock umbrella, such as shoegaze or goth. Shit is so competitive that every producer is looking for an angle.”

“You have pop artists appropriating bits of something that’s been under the rock umbrella, such as shoegaze or goth,” says Meldal-Johnsen. “Shit is so competitive that every producer is looking for an angle. I think they dip into alternative music so they can appropriate aspects of it as their own gimmick.” He says many peers are saddened by today’s hitmakers “picking through the rubble, the scraps, and the bones of a style of music that’s gone into the sunset,” but rock’s next generation of producers might just need to be willing and open to plucking from pop and hip-hop — at the very least, to get noticed, so that they can start to build a discography that allows them to rise. Andrew Watt, for example, brought together Ozzy Osbourne and Post Malone, and is now in high demand.

Shinn encourages fellow rock producers to have a strong social media presence — arguably a younger person’s sport. A lot of rock’s veteran players are not used to Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. But “I think if people did have more of a face, or more of a brand, 110% they would get more opportunities,” she says. “My Instagram is so tiny, but surprisingly, I get so much work through social media. I produced and wrote Andrew Yang’s podcast theme song, and it was just through Twitter. The Internet is wild.”

Shinn can talk at length about the work of Rich Costey (Muse, Interpol, Death Cab for Cutie), Jake Sinclair (Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy), and Butch Walker (Green Day, Avril Lavigne, All Time Low), but she also loves what Doc McKinney does with The Weeknd, and she pays attention to the more mainstream sounds of Dua Lipa or Cardi B.

“I want to know what my nephew’s listening to and I want to love it just as much as he does, and for the reasons he does,” she says. Perhaps it’s that kind of openness to new opportunities that will keep the small competitive world of rock production alive — even if it doesn’t sound like what it did in the past.

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