The last time you went to an EDM festival you were robbed. You shelled out $300 for a ticket to watch a bunch of DJs perform songs that some poor, unknown soul secretly created for them. You were lied to. You should be outraged! You deserve answers!
It’s easy to get caught up in this firestorm. EDM’s ascendance has brought a greater level of celebrity, and a greater level of scrutiny, to it’s performers. The TMZ-style investigations have recently unearthed the deep, dark secret of ghost producers. A not-so-new concept – existing since the beginning of art itself – of uncredited musicians composing works for a higher profile artist.
This past summer, Martin Garrix felt pressured by questions of his authenticity to the extent that he conducted a 68-minute live stream demonstrating the creation of his top-40 radio anthem “Animals.” Even more recently, DJ Snake defended his flourishing, yet still newfound, fame against allegations that he downright pilfered a remix from a lesser-known producer.
A Google search for “EDM ghost producer” turns up accusations against electronic royalty like Skrillex, Steve Aoki, and David Guetta in the first few results. These types of claims aren’t exclusive to electronic music, however, as a similar search for “hip-hop ghost writer” reveals that lyrical luminaries like Ghostface Killah, Kanye West, and Big Boi have allegedly received assistance with their pen game as well.
Is this treatment fair or are critics overreacting? As Mad Decent‘s Derek Allen says, “These days people will write and produce a song together but then there are no credits to read ‘co-written by’ and everyone freaks out!”
To really understand the concept of ghost producing, we have to look deeper into the career of a modern DJ.
DJs and producers have been elevated out of nightclubs and recording studios and onto the main stages of music festivals. A new lifestyle that brings with it an entirely new set of responsibilities. The same demanding lifestyle that has caused nervous breakdowns in everyone from Oprah to Charlie Sheen. A 24/7 deluge of managers, publicists, fans, label reps, airports, photo shoots, interviews, social media, business meetings, performances, and oh yeah… making music.
Most people who work a “9 to 5″ job complain that they don’t have enough time to go to the gym, yet musicians are expected to produce a constant stream of quality music under these conditions. A common way to balance this workload is employing a ghost producer (sometimes referred to as an “engineer”).
The anger and accusations towards ghost producing leads one to imagine a dark sweatshop full of 12-year-old music prodigies chained to their laptops, rewarded with scraps of food when they produce a hit record. Try telling that to Dirtcaps – the Dutch trio of Max, Danny, and Tim – who work full-time in the studio producing music for themselves as well as other DJs. They have a new single out on Spinnin’ Records with The Partysquad and upcoming releases on Ultra and Viscious. They also play several festival stages throughout the year. Many of these opportunities stem from their work as ghost producers.
“I make a track for a big guy and the big guy says you get a fee plus a big stage on a festival” says Max. These sort of terms are worked into the contract when negotiating a ghost production agreement. “It’s a money question, it’s a promotional question.”
If it’s a fair split of the pie you’re concerned about, Max says “we always get half of the publishing, plus retaining the master rights… and the fee that comes with producing as well.”
Critics of ghost producing should also consider the camaraderie that develops in the DJ community. There is a deep bond formed among artists who all start their careers playing the same hole-in-the-wall clubs. It would be difficult for anyone to succeed if they didn’t turn around and support those who have supported them in the past.
“That’s why we ghost produce,” says Max “It’s not because we want to earn a lot of money. It’s like helping each other out.”
This sort of collaboration is arguably the most important force in art and many of history’s greatest works have been collaborations, both public and private. Almost any world renown fine artist – from Andy Warhol to Kaws – operates a studio employing several talented young artists to create masterpieces under their guidance.
Musically, even the most famous solo musicians have worked with teams of producers, writers, and engineers to compose their hits. Look at the credits on almost any Kanye West record and you will find co-writers and additional musicians who loaned their support. The Beatles had four members (plus producer Phil Specter) involved in the creative process. So how can we then vilify David Guetta for getting a little help producing music that appeals to millions worldwide?
Derek Allen aka DJA, well known for his Billboard-charting work with Diplo, is someone who knows a thing or two about collaborating. He recently spoke with DAD about his struggle to be properly credited, yet still stands by the collaboration process.
“I don’t know why, but people seem to have a weird obsession with the idea that the artist came up with every single thing on their own,” Derek says, “In the past, this didn’t matter – there were big budgets, records sold – there were massive lists of credits on the liner notes and lots of awards for everyone involved.”
Collaborating directly with the other artist is also common for Dirtcaps, who are often given computer files with the basic idea for a song already laid out. “It’s not like Max is producing a track and the party that we’re producing for is sitting next to us and doesn’t do a thing… They cooperate a lot” says Danny.
Of course there are those who will take advantage. Max is the first to admit, “We’ve been fucked” in the past. That’s a reality in the music world (or any competitive industry, really), but for artists like Dirtcaps and Derek Allen, the pros clearly outweigh the cons.
“I think it’s really important that people know how the whole thing works because it’s not that bad at all,” insists Max, “It works both ways. It’s also good for the people that listen to music because otherwise they wouldn’t have the music they have now… It brings quality to the table.”