Chris Clayton is an independent record producer, recording artist and worship leader based in the Dallas area. I’ve known him by name and reputation for the better part of a decade. In my early days in the music business we worked with many of the same artists and when I moved back to Texas I happened to end up in the same church with him. Over the last seven years we’ve played together, hung out, and reminisced about the old days. He was kind enough to give me some of his time to talk about some of the changes that have taken place in the music business – specifically recording and producing records – over the last decade.
The Paradigm Shift in Production
Ryan: I’m coming into this with a bias of media overload. There’s just so much new stuff out there. And because it’s so easy to get into, I’m wondering what impact that’s making on everybody from the critic to the producer to the artist to the manager just wading through the wealth of stuff out there.
So, in terms of artists that you are meeting, what’s changing in terms of personality, expectations or people that are coming to you for your help or your employment?
Chris: Your question kind of stumped me because, well, it’s a great question and it needs to be addressed, it needs to be discussed. There’s definitely been a paradigm shift in the last, you could say ten years, but it’s probably been the last five. It seems like it’s just getting quicker and quicker the way things in the industry are shifting.
Ryan: Is technology the driving force in that?
Chris: Yeah, I was going to say technology is a driving force. I think social networking is a driving force behind it.
Ryan: That, and there’s no barrier to entry.
Johnny Cash, Elvis, Macklemore, and The Civil Wars
Chris: Right, so like fifty years ago the only way to get national recognition as an artist was to be signed to a label. You look at like Johnny Cash, Elvis, that genre and that group back then, it was a label that had to thrust that into the marketplace. There was no way to do it on your own. It was a much smaller niche. The artist pocket was much smaller. But now the world has become much smaller and especially in terms of the production side it’s become a lot easier just to do your own thing, set up as an independent, and there’s a lot of good in that in my opinion. I think labels do some great work but there’s a lot more freedom [as an independent].
I’ll speak about him, I don’t know a lot about him, but Macklemore, here’s a guy that’s selling millions of records already, doing incredible things and he’s an independent. I mean, he just played Billboard Music Awards as an independent. The Civil Wars, another great example, an independent artist winning a Grammy. And it’s becoming not as much of a shocker these days with people realizing they don’t need the big brother of a label behind them to put their music out.
Distribution in the Digital Age
Chris: iTunes is a great example: the mere fact that I can go to my digital distributor and upload all my music and in less than 48 hours be worldwide (?). That’s unheard of. That would be a pipe dream eight years ago, ten years ago.
Ryan: You just don’t even need physical.
Chris: Honestly, those are conversations that are being had, especially with artists that I produce. “Do we press? Do we only do digital?” And there are companies that sell the digital download cards and I utilized that for a live record we did. I would say that some artists’ audiences are there where you could do that and be all digital. There are some older folks who don’t really embrace that and still want the physical. And I’m like that, I like to have the artwork in my hand. I’m a “credit junky.” I love looking at who produced it, who played on it, etc.
Ryan: I had a friend who did an album cover for a guy and I thought, “Why?!?” The cost. You’re just losing so much, plus paying someone to design it. It’s crazy to me. I get the point of selling it live, if you’ve got the audience to buy it…
Chris: Right. And I encourage a lot of folks who are starting out who don’t have a lot of a following or shows lined up out the wazoo “there’s really no reason for you to print anything right now.” A lot of it, though, is just “I’m making the CD, I want to have the CD. Not just a bunch of ones and zeroes files.”
Ryan: Right, you want to have that “artifact” in your hands.
Chris: So, I duplicate because I want to capture people right there on the spot, but I’ll still have people come up to the table at the end of the night like, “hey are ya’ll on iTunes?” and I’ll say “yeah” and they’ll just keep walking. So then at that point, I’m praying as an artist going, “I hope you remember to buy it when you get home.” Because as soon as you walk out that door, the world is going to hit you and you’ve got a thousand things on your mind.
Ryan: So, I have this bias (fair or unfair) that there’s a growing sense of entitlement amongst would be recording artists. With the ease of home production, the rash of reality music competitions, YouTube, and plenty of people saying “you should make a record”, people who have no business making records are flooding the market. Of course, the flip side is true: the ease of entry is allowing artists who would never have been discovered to get out there. Are you seeing this entitlement mentality?
Chris: Yeah, I think there is an entitlement issue out there because of the ease of technology people can go buy ProTools or any other kind of digital audio workstation and be setup within 24 hours and record a record. And there are people who have done that and made incredible records through that, and there are some people who have done records that way and it’s backfired and taken them backwards.
Because it’s so easy to make a record, I think it takes the competition up so much higher because if anyone can do a record, then you’ve really got to stand out. If everybody is putting a record out, then you’ve got to kind of rise above the average.
The Plight of the Producer
Ryan: Is that making it easier or harder in terms of getting work as a producer these days?
Chris: It does make it a little bit harder, but I don’t think that people aren’t necessarily hiring me for the ability to push “record” and “stop”. They aren’t hiring me because of my studio or my gear choices that I have. That’s kind of a by-product of what you get when you hire me as a producer. They’re hiring me because of past work and I always tell people that a producer’s best calling card is his last record he’s produced.I would say that 9 times out of 10 – if not 10 times out of 10 – I’m hired because people heard something that I produced and they hear what I can do with songs or what I can do with production.
Ryan: So, what’s happening when perhaps the entitled artist sets foot into the studio. Is there some stand-offish, “don’t touch my songs” kind of attitude coming through?
Chris: As a producer, my job is to help an artist find his or her potential talent within the raw talent they bring me and helping to kind of smooth out the raw talent. I always tell people that if you don’t walk away challenged and changed as a songwriter and musician then I’ve kind of failed in my job of being a producer. My job is to push you to the next level.
And you have to approach each artist differently in that way. Some artists you can push real hard and they take it well and sometimes you push an artist hard and they don’t take it well. Every artist has to be handled differently. I always tell young producers that half of producing is psychology. You have to learn people’s temperaments and attitudes. No two artists can be produced exactly the same. Musically you may do some of the same things, but from an approach and a temperament and attitude and perspective you just have to feel the waters and go from there.
Ryan: With that in mind, then, how do you coach the artist into a place where they are able to be successful with the record that you help them create?
Chris: I’ve been very fortunate to get to work with some really great people. There have been some jobs that are harder than others, but due to the area that I tend to work in with worship artists, most people have a true sense of calling to what they are doing. I just always try to re-iterate to them that the key to longevity is to be humble and teachable. That’s a lot easier when your purpose is bigger than yourself or your music.
If you’re looking for a great producer in the Dallas area, check out Chris’ production site The Beddington House.