Why I Don’t Charge Artists to Produce Music

by | Jun 7, 2024

Artists ask me all the time:

“How much do you charge to produce music?”


I’ve produced 100+ projects. I’ve never charged an artist a production fee.

And I often lose money (and time!)

Here’s why.


Making music brings me joy

There’s nothing I’m more passionate about than making music.

I love thinking of melodies, harmonies, chord changes/inversions/substitutions.

Practicing the guitar, keys, bass, or whatever instrument is around.

Searching for the perfect hi-hat sounds to add to a drum line.

Optimizing the sidechaining of the 808s and kick drums.


How I got started

I started producing music while working as a J.P. Morgan banker. After work, I would lead recording sessions in various studios in New York City.

The first artist I produced was Arturo O’Farrill, whom I met during his residency with my college jazz band. We kept in touch over the years. And he reached out regarding a project he was starting.

I helped Arturo produce The Offense of the Drum by organizing the recording sessions, selecting the repertoire, hiring engineers, selecting takes, and raising funds.

It didn’t occur to me to even charge. I just wanted to help a friend.

And that’s the ethos I’ve carried into my production career.


Let’s talk about money

As a banker, I saw vast sums being transacted and traded daily. That was my frame of reference.

Moving into the jazz music world where $10k-$30k could make an album was eye-opening.

I mostly work with independent artists in jazz, classical, world, instrumental, and family music genres. They often have limited budgets, and I don’t have the heart to charge.

Plus, these tend to be non-commercial yet highly artistic projects that don’t sell much or garner lots of streams. Maybe I’d think about it differently if the projects were generating lots of money.

But they aren’t. And not charging money keeps things pure for me.

I respect those who charge. I’m not making any judgments.

I’m also not trying to be holier-than-thou. I’m just explaining what works for me.


Investing in the craft

I often lose invest money by buying gear (mics, stands, plugins) to enhance recording and producing capabilities. I’ve traveled the world to lead and participate in sessions without reimbursement.

I do it because I believe in the artists and their music.

And then there are the hours and hours and hours where I spend brainstorming, talking, discussing, arguing, and debating with artists—all in an effort to help them realize their artistry at the highest level that they’re able.


Artists as partners

Artists aren’t my clients. They’re my partners. I want the best for them and their projects. They’re creating beauty in the world.

Many of the artists I work with are virtuosos. And it’s an honor for me to collaborate with these geniuses and learn from them.

I try to see a project through from inception to completion and beyond.

For example, I produced Ted Nash’s Presidential Suite and Regina Carter’s Swing States. Every four years during election season, I share these projects with politicos and pundits who I hope will spread among their circles.

When there is a commercial or film opportunity, I may ping an artist with whom I’ve worked with to see if we can synch their music. I try to stay with my partners for the long term.


Jazz music isn’t (typically) heavily produced

Jazz projects are usually about capturing everything in the studio, choosing takes, and comping things together.

Yes, there’s more to it. As a jazz/instrumental producer, most of my time is spent on the phone (coordinating) and in the studio (recording).

Every project is different. And how I help differs. For one project, I’m at the mixing board and checking levels. For another project, I’m helping the artist compose/arrange. It varies.

Producing pop music can be more involved because of the intensive post-production work. You can work on one song for weeks and months at a time.

If I were doing more of these projects, maybe I might have charged. But maybe not.


Becoming more selective

I’ve become more selective about the projects I take on.

Sometimes I find myself on phone calls with an artist and I think to myself:

“Why am I doing this?”

Especially when the artist is being difficult. Or calling me incessantly on the weekends or holidays.

I enjoy working with artists who dream big and lean into the news cycle.

My favorite discussions are the tabula rasa ones.

An artist will ask, “What should my next project be about?”

I appreciate these conversations because they can lead to impactful projects like John Daversa’s American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom.


Avoid drama

Not charging helps me avoid drama.

In my experience, most of the drama in the music biz involves money & credits.

I know some artist-producer relationships that have broken down over production fees.

I realize that I’m in a privileged position. I invested in a way that wouldn’t put a strain on my creative career.


The downside of being the helper

It can be exhausting to be the helper. I don’t have the same energy or appetite to continue my approach. That means I have to say no to friends and artists I really admire.

What’s more, I’m also an artist. And creating art takes a lot of time.

I remember Chick Corea asking me, “Are you that big shot producer I keep hearing about?”

I was flattered, of course. But then we started talking about music.

“I didn’t realize you play an instrument,” he said. “My opinion of you just went up so much more.”

I have to make time to create my own art. And that’s hard for me because I’m wired to help others realize their goals.


On making money

My model has grown and  evolved in recent years.

I’m making more commercial music. I still decline fees – maybe to my detriment. Maybe I need to get over it and just charge.

Maybe my approach might change if the opportunities become larger.

In 2018, I saw an album I produced on an airline in-flight entertainment system. It occurred to me that someone was probably making money on the project (and it wasn’t the artist).

That’s when I put my business hat on. I started to explore how to make money in the music industry.

How could artists and I make money together?

But that’s a topic for another day.