An individual who coordinates, in some way, the production of sound recordings, most typically, in a contemporary sense, pre-recorded compact discs.  The producer's role can range from merely overseeing a recording project on behalf of a record label; to actual executive duties, e.g., hiring personnel, hiring the recording engineer, obtaining clearance to record copyrighted songs, etc.  In rare cases a producer will actually invest his or her own funds toward the production of a recording.

Some names that come to mind when discussing this topic are: Phil Spector of the rock 'n roll genre; Ahmet Ertegun of the pop music genre; and David Geffen (rock, pop, R&B and rap).  Notorious as being the first "star-maker" because of his immense success making top-selling records was Mitch Miller, a controversial figure who was A&R director for Mercury and later Columbia records in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s.

Occasionally, an artist becomes a sufficiently significant contributor to a record label's success that the label then allows the artist to take complete creative control of a recording project, including the production of the recording.  Madonna, Queen Latifah and Barbra Streisand are examples of talented individuals who produce their own recordings.

The "Executive Producer" is the individual who brings all facets of the making of the recording together.  "Associate Producers" may be involved in the particulars of a portion of the production process.  Some recordings involve only one Associate Producer.  More significant efforts for better-known artists may assign an Associate Producer to individual tasks, such as engineering, back-up vocalists/instrumentalists, album cover design and content, promotion, and marketing.

With the advent of the home recording studio, and cheap CD reproduction services, many artists who've failed to sell their "sound" to a producer at a major label can now create, produce and market their recordings independently.  These are called in recording-industry jargon "indie" recordings or "indie" labels, as opposed to "mainstream" labels.

UPDATE: 05/21/07:  A very, very humorous and well-written alternative to this factual is How To Produce A Pop Album. It's written by someone who's not too keen on record producers. But remember, folks, the amount of "artistic freedom" one receives from one's producer is specifically expressed (or should be, in detail) in one's contract with one's producer.

Remember, in the eyes of all but the most realistic-thinking artists; if the record's a hit; it's 'cause they are fabulous. If the record tanks, it's the producer's fault.

UPDATE 09/24/07:  Serial Number mentioned that some artists prefer not to go mainstream and stick to the option of independent production for a variety of reasons. Some want to give their music away for free via the internet; some eschew the corporate culture of the huge labels. There are as many reasons for an artist to "go indie" as there are reasons for, let's say, becoming a vegetarian. Now, I respect the politics of the choice to circumvent conventional methods of music distribution. In my experienced opinion, the only way for an artist to succeed financially and therefore have the wherewithal to gain more creative control over their product is by going through the tremendous effort necessary to get noticed by a major label within their genre.

The music industry, however, is in a tremendous state of flux. The major labels, typically the usual culprit, Sony, are guilty of releasing product that has little or no artistic merit whatsoever. This has been the case for years, and says a lot about the taste (or lack thereof) of the music-buying public. More and more buyers of music are turning to alternative ways of sourcing music. True music lovers are in touch with how and where to find good music. Sadly, the radio, which impels a large portion of music purchases, is so dumbed down that good music is rarely exposed to those who aren't passionate about music, but just casual listeners. There's a place for independent music labels and that place will become more and more evident in the near future.

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