In the last week, we've run not one, but two stories about the heartbreak that came come from producers leasing and shopping beats. Those stories have been told from the perspective of the rappers who had their dreams dashed against the rocks of music industry reality and I feel for them, I really do. But while both Phay and Masego were careful not to outright blame the producers for the loss of their songs, I thought it was important to show the other side of the coin as well.
If you think being a rapper is hard, try being a producer. It's all the same difficulties as being an artist, except your livelihood is often handcuffed to difficult artists with those same difficulties. Imagine if every single month you had to put in 40 hours a week (or more) at your job and then had to convince your boss you deserved a paycheck. Oh, and instead of one boss you had 20 bosses who changed constantly, and they all tried to tell you that working for free would be a "good look." Now put yourself through that month after month after month, with the same rent and car and food bills piling up that you have now—that's what it's like being a producer.
Even IF a producer manages to get a beat to an artist and they like it enough to record to it, and even IF that artist actually has some money budgeted to pay them (likely because they're signed to a major), a significant payday is still far from certain. A sample could not be cleared and then the opportunity evaporates. Some A&R at the label could not like the song and the opportunity evaporates. The artist themselves could get shelved, or get arrested or just never put out the album or one of the hundreds of other things that could go wrong goes wrong, none of which have anything to do with you and are completely out of your control, and the opportunity evaporates.
And then, let's say by some miracle of miracles, that you place a beat on an album that's actually released and becomes reasonably popular. Upfront fees (the flat fee a producer might get paid once the beat is exclusively purchased) are so small now that all the money's down the road in royalties and publishing, and those first checks might not come for a year until after the album's released. Considering how long it can take an artist to put out an album, it's common for a couple years to pass between the beat's original creation and that first royalty check, which means it's also common for a newer producer to have a big hit song on the radio and still be completely broke. The artist can go hit stages and cash in immediately on a viral song while the producer is back in the studio, in the dark, late at night, making more beats that maybe, just maybe, they can get paid for in another two years.
The only way for a producer to build a steady career is to have grabbed enough placements (either with artists or in commercials/TV etc.) over a long enough period of time that the royalty and publishing checks add up to a steady enough stream to rely on, and that just takes time. So it's no wonder that many producers rely heavily on leasing beats—there might not be much prestige or long-term money in it, but the landlord needs to get paid right now and if the choice is between leasing beats to at least keep your head above water and going back to working at Olive Garden, I say lease the shit out of those beats my friend.
By the same logic, producers just have to shop beats—give the same beat to multiple artists at the same time—if they hope to build a steady career. Rappers will always say, "Yo, let me hold that beat!" and so sure, you set that beat aside for them and don't give it to anyone else, even if that someone else loves it and is in a much better position to pay you. And then six months later, it becomes clear that the chances of that rapper actually putting the song out with some real money attached is shadier than standing under an umbrella in a rain forest, and that bigger artist you said no to the first time has moved on. Congrats, you're fucked.
Of course artists all want producers to sit down and spend days crafting 20 beats specifically for them, and then they'll then decide if they're going to pay for any of them or not, but that's a pragmatically impossible position to put most producers in. Artists, if you like it then you need to put a ring on it. And if you're not willing to pay the producer a flat fee to dedicate them to making music with you, then you need to expect the producer to show you the exact same amount of loyalty.
That doesn't mean producers can just go around lying, promising exclusivity when they know they're actually shopping a beat around. Ultimately this is a relationship business, and in the rare case that two artists are willing to pay for the same beat simultaneously, that's a good problem to have, and one that needs to be handled with care. But those kinds of problems are how a producer knows they just might have a career in music. This is a cutthroat business, and no one's got the knife pressed to their jugular more than producers (and songwriters). Careers in music aren't just about art, they're about survival, and if a producer wants to make it through the industry's jungle, it's going to require a lot more than some hot beats. They're going to have to pack a machete of their own.
By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.
Photo Credit: Instagram.