How to become a freelance music producer

Ever dreamed of becoming the next George Martin, Trent Reznor or Rick Rubin? Find out how to become a freelance music producer, and you might end up working on the classic songs of the future.

Modern technology means music production is more accessible than ever before, allowing you to work remotely from a home digital studio and collaborate with artists around the world at a lower cost than ever before.

And music production includes a lot of areas beyond aiming to create the next hit record. You could also specialise in live and virtual events, adverts, films, radio, film and more. If something needs a quality audio soundtrack, there’s an opportunity for a freelance music producer.

 

What does a freelance music producer do?

You’re able to tailor your career to specialise in the areas that you want to focus on, especially as you become more successful. But in general, a music producer can cover everything from the early stages of planning a recording or event, to helping with marketing and promotion.

The overall job of a freelance music producer is to be the project manager for the audio process, making sure it meets the end goal of the client, whether that’s an artist, record label, radio station or anyone else. And that means achieving the right sound.

This is how the production role evolved beyond that of a sound engineer. A freelance music producer will spend their time recording instruments, collecting samples, and then applying effects and fine tuning to achieve the desired results. But since the 1950s and 1960s, they’ve evolved into a more senior role, potentially leaving others to handle microphone placement and sound levels.

General tasks for a freelance music producer can include:

  • Listening to demo tapes and working with artists/clients to decide on the overall vision of the project.
  • Composition for original projects, or for contributions to existing songs
  • Choosing studios and equipment.
  • Sound engineering.
  • Sound mixing, including operating a mixing desk and other audio equipment.
  • Identifying and securing samples
  • Working with artists and musicians to secure the right performance, including mentoring and direction where needed
  • Sound design and audio editing to achieve the right final recording in post-production
  • Working with artists, venues and organisations to plan live events
  • Planning venues, schedules, timings and performances
  • Ensuring all required facilities are in place, from catering and toilets to insurance.
  • Supporting the marketing and promotion of live events or recordings.

Obviously, some of these tasks will depend whether you choose to focus more on studio and home recordings, or producing live events. And your personal style, and reputation, as a freelance music producer.

You may become known for a particular style or genre. For example, Mutt Lange, who produced the likes of Def Leppard, AC/DC, Foreigner and Bryan Adams. Or Bob Rock, who has worked with Metallica, Motley Crue, Aerosmith and Bon Jovi.  Whereas Rick Rubin has produced hip hop artists including Run-DMC, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys, heavy metal with Slayer, and even country music with Johnny Cash and the Dixie Chicks. And with the rise of electronic dance music and remixing, the line between producer and performer has become more blurred than ever, from Daft Punk to deadmau5.

As with many freelance creative careers, there’s an opportunity to devote more time to your own musical projects alongside client work.

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What skills of qualifications do you need?

You don’t have to be a virtuoso professional musician to become a freelance music producer. But you’ll need to be able to play instruments including drums, piano and guitar to explain and demonstrate your ideas and what’s required for a song (or to occasionally fill in for musicians!).

And you’ll also need to have trained your ears to recognise pitch, harmony and tempo, song structure, and how different dynamics and effects can be used either in the performance, or as recording techniques and effects.

It’s not essential to have a degree or professional qualifications to become a freelance music producer. But training will help you develop your skills, and provide reassurance to potential clients.

Music, Sound Engineering, Music Production and Multimedia are the most relevant degree subjects, but each university and course may offer a different amount of academic and practical experience, so it’s important to research which specific option will be best for you.

There are also specialist academic providers, including the London College of Music, the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP), the British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM), the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, or the Royal Academy of Music.

While you should be able to find a specialist music school or college across the UK, one alternative is to take online courses and training from a growing number of providers. These range from general providers like Udemy, to the 12 week online music production course offered by the Berklee College of Music. The cost and value can vary wildly between the various options, so it’s important to do your research and consider what will be the most useful for your career. And what will be the most convincing to potential clients.

An alternative to qualifications is to build up your experience and contacts by volunteering to help at local studios, or going into more formal work experience or a music apprenticeship scheme. Just as many music producers have been performing musicians, a lot traditionally started out as assistants in recording studios.

Ultimately, the skills you’ll need to develop include:

  • Creativity
  • Networking skills
  • Strong communication and the ability to work and collaborate with others
  • A strong musical understanding, including industry knowledge
  • Technical skills
  • Organisation and planning
  • Patience, resilience and being able to cop under pressure
  • Adaptability and perseverance

Many of these non-musical elements are similar to those required for any creative freelance career, and you can find useful support and advice on developing these areas via IPSE, covering areas including insurance, finances, tax and maintaining your wellbeing when you’re self-employed.

 

What equipment do you need as a freelance music producer?

The tools needed to become a freelance music producer have radically changed with the development of digital audio workstations (DAWs) since the late 1980s. The cost of multi-track recording on analogue equipment could be expensive, but managing a complete recording process on your laptop, or even a smartphone, is now accessible to pretty much anyone.

Especially as tools including Audacity are available as free, open source software, and the release of GarageBand as a free option for Mac and iOS users had a big impact on a variety of musical genres. Other popular DAW options include Ableton Live, Steinberg Cubase, Pro Tools and many more.

Obviously if you’re investing in more complex software, you’ll potentially need a more powerful laptop or desktop computer to handle it. And for professional results, you’ll need to look at professional audio sound-cards and interfaces.

To capture sound, you’ll need microphones, and to consider the acoustics of the space where you’ll be recording, listening and mixing. Everyone will have their own preferences for particular mics, or for how they set up a home music studio, but you can achieve great results without spending a massive amount. Even moving your existing furniture around can make a difference, and don’t forget that some of the greatest musical recordings were achieved with a mono or two-track reel-to-reel tape recorder.

The final stage will be listening back to your work, for which you’ll need a pair of Pro Studio Monitors, and some high-quality headphones. Again, audiophiles will debate the merits of different brands until the end of time, but there’s a huge range available at every price point from sites including Amazon, or specialists like Gear4Music. And the important thing is to get started with what you can afford.

How to find clients as a freelance music producer?

Once you’ve built a solid reputation, there should be a constant flow of artists and musicians looking to work with you. But how do you find clients if you’re starting out as a freelance music producer?

As with any self-employed career, it’s about networking and reaching out to potential employers, and building up a portfolio which convinces them to hire you. You can start building up a content hub either on your own website, or by releasing work on sites including Bandcamp, SoundCloud and Mixcloud.

To find musicians, don’t overlook local bands and smaller artists who might appreciate your time and effort. It’s unlikely an email offering to produce Pearl Jam or Ed Sheeran will succeed if you’re just starting out. But if a relatively unknown musician works with you, and goes on to achieve fame and fortune, then your reputation will also grow. So it’s worth working on crafting your best elevator pitch to targets which might be interested in collaborating.

The big freelancing job boards will have opportunities to advertise your music production services, but you may find more success with the specialist listing sites. These include SoundBetter, Melody Nest, Kompoz and Airgigs.

Traditionally, musicians would congregate in the local music shops at all hours of the day to find bandmates and opportunities. But if you don’t fancy hearing someone attempt to play Stairway to Heaven endlessly as they try every guitar in the shop, there are a variety of alternative online options. And you can also connect with other freelancers who might be able to help your business with accountancy, marketing and more. One friendly place to start is our own Creative Freelancers UK group on Facebook, but there are lots on every social network. And with the growth of video conferencing, you can even join a jam session, whether it’s on Facebook, Slack, Discord or Zoom.

Ultimately, there are a huge range of sites and social networks offering the chance to collaborate, share your skills, and find people looking for help. And most allow you to try them for free and see if they’re a good fit before paying for any kind of premium membership.

 

More resources and support to become a freelance music producer

Researching other freelance careers? Why not check out our other guides:

And you can get support and help if you’re starting out with self-employment, or still in the early stages of building your career, with the IPSE Incubator. The 12-month programme is currently free with IPSE membership, and includes advice, events, webinars, networking and more, tailored to anyone just beginning their freelance business.