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Ghost producer, or studio collaborator?

The use of ghost producers is seen as cheating by many in dance music, but producers have been working with studio collaborators and engineers for decades. Matt Anniss explores the taboo topic

In an era when misdirection and mistruth is commonplace, its seems natural to question the authenticity and authorship of the music we love. If an album or single is advertised as the work of a named, credited artist, most would assume that they were the sole creator of the work. The small print might say otherwise, but who regularly checks these details?

The tandem issues of authenticity and authorship are periodically raised on social media, usually when a big-name producer gets accused of using a ‘ghost producer.’ For those unfamiliar with the term, a ghost producer is someone who is happy to make tracks to order, or sell unreleased productions, to artists. They agree that, for a fee, the artist can pass off the ghost producer’s work as their own. Quite how prevalent these practices are is difficult to define, though spend enough time digging on the Internet and you’ll find self-proclaimed ghost producers promising to deliver you a track that will climb to the top of the Beatport download charts.

We can’t think of a single artist who has owned up to using ghost producers, though Maceo Plex has previously said in interviews that he started his career ghost-writing tracks for other artists. There are few examples of DJs and producers taking to Twitter to accuse a colleague of making use of ghost producers, though a growing number are happy to allude to this on Twitter without naming anyone in particular.

Many agree that using ghost producers to get ahead in the music game is a sneaky tactic, but what about getting help from co-producers, more musically advanced friends, or paid studio engineers? There’s a subtle difference between buying a previously produced track that ticks all the right stylistic boxes, and utilising someone’s services to bring your ideas to reality. Yet some of those who work with low-key collaborators and studio engineers are reticent about advertising the fact that they do this: presumably worried that they will be accused of lacking authenticity or, even worse, be described as a fraud. Even if they programmed beats or played riffs and chords during a studio session, they could still be accused of using a ghost producer. The nuances of this kind of creative collaboration seem too much for some to understand. 

Alex Warren is a DJ and producer with a string of releases to his name. Under his Kiwi alias, he’s released club cuts on labels like 17 Steps, Disco Halal, Futureboogie Recordings, Optimo Music, and Cin Cin. Yet despite this, Warren says that he’s struggled to generate media coverage. He believes it’s not because of the quality of his tracks, but rather the fact that he’s open and honest about working with engineers and co-producers, such as Joseph Ashworth and Martin Dubka.

“It’s like Chinese whispers,” he sighs. “Some people struggle with it because they don’t like the idea of somebody taking credit for another person’s work. Buying a track from a ghost producer is a completely different thing to being in the studio with an engineer, but some people don’t think there’s a difference. I don’t think they really understand how I actually make music.”

Warren is not the only artist to be erroneously credited with utilising the services of ghost producers, or the only one who has been criticized for working with engineers, either. “It’s just horrible,” says Nina Las Vegas, who has long been open about her studio collaborations with engineers and co-producers. “Every time I hear rumours like that, I shut them down straight away. How the fuck would they know who did what? I’ve had conversations with other female producers where they’ve said how frustrated they are, that other people assume someone else does their production work.”

Las Vegas believes, with some justification, that female artists are more often the focus of damaging gossip questioning the validity of their productions. “I know that I can produce and if I get flak as a woman, which still happens unfortunately, I’m fine, because I know how much effort I put into each track,” she says. “Whatever people say, it doesn’t get me down.” 

It’s an admirable attitude, but she shouldn’t have to defend herself. Her music is just as valid as that made by a producer who works alone, because it is her ideas that are being translated to music by co-producer (and real life partner) Swick. She understands that some will still look down their noses at her for the production choices she’s made. “I don’t want to hide it — I’m proud that I work with him,” she says, enthusiastically. 

“On my last EP, I wrote a song called ‘Lucky Girl’. I did the top line, the chords, the bassline, everything. Then Swick mixed it, and added some sonic elements and drums. The track sounded so much like him that when I released it, I credited him as a featured artist. He deserved it. I think sharing that information is so important. Authenticity is a big part of the game.” 

But what counts as being “authentic” in this day and age? Should we think differently of those artists who spend years honing their production skills, and those who get a little help from paid studio hands? Red Rack’em, a DJ and producer who briefly tasted top tier success when his 2016 track ‘Wonky Disco Bassline Banger’ blew up, certainly thinks so. In a Twitter post earlier this year, he wrote: “What about making a distinction between artists who work for years to learn the skills to make their own music and those who have ‘help’ to fast track their way to the top, rendering more talented artists jobless and poor?”

When it comes to creative collaboration, little is black and white. At this point, it would be useful to consider how artists and studio engineers work together. There’s no set rule, but it can involve a mixture of playing musical elements, manning complex hardware or software, track arrangement, and programming electronic instruments. “It’s about freeing your hands up to be creative,” says Alex Warren, on working with engineers. “I’m still very hands on. Just because I work with an engineer doesn’t mean that I’m not doing anything. Sometimes it can be quicker for me to do it, rather than explain my idea to the engineer, but by working with someone else I have more fun and am far more productive. When I’m paying for a studio and someone’s time, I take it a lot more seriously and it becomes a proper work day.”

The kind of working relationship Warren has with his studio engineers is not uncommon. In fact, historically, it’s been the done thing. As legendary London DJ Terry Farley once put it: “The best living producer, Quincy Jones, didn’t fuck around himself on Ableton.” Farley began producing and remixing — mostly alongside Pete Heller, someone with a little more prior hands-on studio experience — at a time when most DJs and would-be producers didn’t buy their own kit and learn to make music, but rather hired out a studio and engineer to help them work. 

Paul Oakenfold made many of his most famous early remixes — including chart-bothering rubs of Happy Mondays’ ‘Step On’, U2’s ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’, and Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ — alongside producer Steve Osborne, while engineer Bob Blank has confirmed that he made almost all of the remixes credited to legendary NYC Larry Levan. “I worked on a lot of records with Larry where he never showed up and I did all the work,” he explained to Bill Brewster in ’06. “I’d love to tell you what a genius Larry was, but what he liked, I liked. We were very compatible with each other.” 

The use of hired help was once commonplace in popular music, with widely acclaimed artists making liberal use of backing musicians, songwriters, and producers. Motown boss Berry Gordy was particularly keen on this: much of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder’s early work was based on songs written and produced by others. In their 1988 book on hit-making, ‘The Manual (How To Have a Number One The Easy Way)’, Scottish duo The KLF devoted a number of pages to the important role played by programmers in the production of pop music, describing engineers as “the most important people in the production process.”

Famously, British drum & bass icon Goldie worked closely with Rob Playford, studio engineer and brain behind the Moving Shadow label, on albums like ‘Timeless’. Speaking to The Guardian in 2015, Goldie said that Playford “is a phenomenal engineer, but he doesn't have his own ideas, he doesn't make his own music. But what he does have is a fantastic width and berth to throw loads of creative ideas at him.” He continues that their studio relationship “has its own advantages — having a ridiculously creative engineer and producer is a great team. My thought was: can I create it like that? Can this computer do this?” 

Dance music is different to pop music, though. Perhaps the fact that it first grew at a phenomenally rate due to the work of enthusiastic, self-taught bedroom producers accounts for some of the hostility towards those we don’t believe are “authentic.” Fundamentally, some people are talented creatively while others are technically gifted, adept at the ‘nuts and bolts’ side of the production process. Collaborating with someone who can turn your ideas into finished music should not be considered “cheating”, and you do not lack authenticity for doing so. Just make sure you give your collaborators due credit, pay them properly and be open about their involvement in interviews.

Want to read more by Matt Anniss? He's written a book, on the history of bleep techno. Find out more here

Matt Anniss is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter here